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The Cahors Diaries

Cahors, France: 2005
A Travel Diary

 Under The Cahors Sun…Not!

 Actually, the sky as been cold gray more than half the time while Iv been here but that was to be expected this time of year. However, we had a brilliant morning last Tuesday. I threw open my shutters that day to find there was snow on the tops of the houses that had fallen the night before, the sun was out and the sky was deep blue without a cloud to be seen.


Sent: 2/28/2005 7:36 AM

Actually, the sky as been cold gray more than half the time while Iv been here but that was to be expected this time of year. However, we had a brilliant morning last Tuesday. I threw open my shutters that day to find there was snow on the tops of the houses that had fallen the night before, the sun was out and the sky was deep blue without a cloud to be seen.

But the first week hasn’t gone exactly as expected. I arrived to find out that there were some things missing in the house, notably the TV, and then later I realized my power tools were gone. The TV was a vice and because we didn’t have cable I could only get one good channel and two others that phased in and out. Needless to say, without the TV I am now reading a book I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time and also almost every single word of the International Herald Tribune…I’m even tempted to read the fashion articles. You see there’s just not much to do in a small French city after dark so without a TV there’s nothing else but to listen to the radio, which is cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eventually resort to reading the labels on items around the house like the Burgess Meredith character in that Twilight Zone episode.

Anyways, I feel much more well read already and am starting to understand why the French read so much more than Americans. So the TV wasn’t that great a loss, after all I bought it from a down-and-out American in Paris and considered it as much an act of charity as a desire to watch the Olympics. But the power tools pissed me off. Brand new and hardly used! But aside from this selective pilfering nothing else was touched. They didn’t go threw my drawers or rifle through our stuff like you’d think. Apparently, the robbers fashion themselves as courteous modern-day Robin Hoods, taking only what they needed and respecting the rest of my property. They seemed to feel entitled to only my TV and power tools. I wondered if they weren’t following some Far Left morals of wealth distribution. Whatever the reason, I was grateful they didn’t clean me out or trash the place. They could have been jerky little graffiti spraying rapper wannabes or worst, Dog People (I’ll explain later).

There were a few other things I noticed in my initial inspections of the house…a small interior wall had collapse and there was a small hole in the roof, which had been leaking. The interior wall, which was already weakened and needed to be replaced, was attached to the stairs that lead up to the attic. But because they make the interior walls in these old French house out of thin lightweight masonry block and mortar, it made a mess. The wall formed the stair well to the attic. The attic is covered by a Mediterranean-style tile roof and much more crudely “ventilated” than American houses. Basically, if a tile goes you can see the sky standing inside the attic. 

Because of that there was a draft in the house. Remembering my hurricane experience this past summer, I rustled up some plastic stored in the attic and pull an old plank of wood over the attic staircase opening to stop the draft. According to my neighbor, the owners of the apartment building besides me are responsible because one of their tiles blew off and landed on my roof breaking my tile. We should be having a show down this week about it. Me and my good neighbor and the owner of the apartment with possibly some city officials to back us up. Sounds like yet another international learning experience.

A few days after I arrived I got The Grip. “Le grippe”, pronounced grip in French means the flu. I think The Grip is a great word for it since that’s what it feels like. This coupled with the fact they are having a particularly long and cold winter made keeping warm the top priority. Upstairs was fine but the first floor where the living room and kitchen is located was freezing because we haven’t bothered to hook up the massive electric and brick radiant heater that came with the house yet.

Nevertheless, I’ve been getting things done even though I haven’t wanted to do much of anything…. shuffling around the house at night, sniffing and hacking, wearing double layered mountain climbing socks, purple thermal underwear and a authentic wool poncho from Colombia…the kind they use up in the Andes to keep warm…wishin’ Lord that spring would come.


 


 

 People Of Cahors: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Sent: 3/4/2005 7:42 AM
 
First off, their politics not withstanding, I want to say my neighbors have been extremely helpful and nice. They have offered advice and have even come over and tried to hook-up my heater downstairs for me when I had no idea how to do it. When that didn’t work they got a man who knows these things to come over and lend me another heater while taking a look at mine. They couldn’t figure it out either but it was the gesture that counted.
  
Apparently we found out that the heater the man who sold the house to me had is a office building-grade heater; He had told us we just needed to hook it up. He didn’t explain we needed to upgrade our electric circuitry, which needs an electrician. Aside from being expensive theses electricians have a waiting list of about three months.
  
But getting back to the point, when I arrived, this same neighbor greeted me with some soup in a plastic container and has helped me through this situation with the roof with the other neighbor. Not only is it an advantage stepping through this sensitive cultural minefield but also she knows a little about the French law regarding this matter. They are truly very nice people.
  
There is also an old man down the street who was one of the first ones to greet me back. Poking his head in my window and saying hello. He’s originally from Italy and is in his 90’s (he says), only about 5 feet tall, WWI vet, friendly as hell, loves his whisky, always has a red nose, makes his own wine in his cellar, his voice sounds a little like those audio boxes in the fast food drive thu and you always know its him when he’s ambling down the street and talking to someone. He’s a great guy but he’s so old I worry if he’ll be there every time I return. But as for now he is still a fixture on our little street.
  
The Turkish Kebob shop owner is another great guy who seems to know everybody in town. He has in the past introduced me to some people in the city government, took me around to sign me up for French lessons and invited me to go car shopping in Toulouse. He has a unique perspective that’s not French which I value but knows a lot about the country, not to mention has the best sandwiches in town. If you ever come through Cahors, his shop is on the main street of town, across from the high school and the movie theater. It’s called the Agora.
  
The rest of the people in Cahors are, for the most part, are friendly, give or take a France Telecom employee or two but I’m doing pretty well with them so far this time apart from a little testiness over my use of their internet station at their offices, even though customers of France telecom are allowed to use them. These occasional brush with bureaucrat-heads such as this happens and like the French police, these people are best left alone or avoided. They demonstrate a brain rot and disposition similar to the inbreed irrational anger found sometimes in backwater areas of the South. It’s like an errant electro-chemical bubble traveling around in their defected brains reaches the medulla and a sudden irrational negative personality change comes over them for no apparent reason. It’s either that or a lifetime spent in a stifling, meaningless but irresistibly stable and secure government job that requires enduring the constant+!@#$of an unsatisfied public.
  
The real test will come when its time to activate my internet line, which no one seems to want anything to do with. It’s like, “Your on your own, dude, so don’t come to me to complain if its no functioning…oh, by the way your bill is due next month even if its work or not”. It’s a total waste of time getting upset about it since they basically have you by the balls, being the only telecommunication company in town. It’s all a practice in acceptance and not having expectations…no matter what happens. So France telecom or some of their employees are in the category of The Bad, along with the occasional burnout bureaucrat-head elsewhere.
  
The Ugly people of Cahors would be the Dog People, hands down. The Dog People (not my name but what the people of Cahors call them) are bands of mostly young homeless vagrants that wander the Southwest part of France who always have a pack of dogs with them. The Dog People dress in kaki camouflage fatigues, camping boots and backpacks, often wear their hair in either dreadlocks or punk Mohawk spikes, and have a lot of chains a dangling, and metal a piercing. Their look is a strange mix of paramilitary, punk, goth and Rastafarian. Something you’d see in maybe a Road Worried or Terminator movie.
  
Apparently, they have found an advantage or loophole in regards to French law with owning these pets. There seems to be a problem in arresting and jailing people for minor offences such as vagrancy who have as many pets as they do. It’s something to do with humanely taking care of the dogs if the authorities want to round their owners up. Anyways the Dog People and their large packs of dogs (mostly German Shepard mixes) hang out in the historic part of town, which is where I live. They panhandle during the day so the can have enough to buy a bed at the local hostel at night.
  
The dogs are interesting to watch because they look like they have reverted to wolf pack mentality…with a pecking order beginning with the humans of the group. I’ve even seen the dogs stalk the pigeon in twos and threes. I have never seen these dogs catch a pigeon but its probably grisly when and if it happens. And I’m sure these packs of dogs, which are all are unleashed, are a menace to other domestic dogs and their owners. Think of the horror the prim little leashed white French poodle must go through on its daily walks past these totally unrestrained gangs of roustabouts that terrorize there neighborhoods. It must be a nightmare.
  
Last time I was here I understood that the Toulouse police would roust them out of the city during tourist season in the summer so they would migrate to cities like Cahors but this isn’t tourist season so I’m wondering what has changed because there seems to be much more of them now?

A Brief History Of the Area
Sent: 3/8/2005 7:07 AM
Just south of here used to be some ancient cultures that were fiercely independent and separate from the traditional French culture we think of today. They weren’t Spanish or French but a unique fix of the two regions with their own languages and heritage. Like Basque in Northern Spain and Catalonian along the Northern Spanish and French Mediterranean coastline, Occitanaia held court just north of this in the region between the Pyrenees and the Rhone Valley. They spoke “langueduc” for which the region is now named and the language can still be heard in the small villages and hamlets throughout the area.

 
Back in the 12th century they broke from the Catholic Church to form a “heretic” religious sect called Catharism. This led to a savage and brutal reactionary crusade to wipe them out by the Catholic Church and the French nobility, which they eventually accomplished in an Alamo-style last stand at a castle mount somewhere between Toulouse and the Spanish border. At the end of a long bloody siege, the last of the sect committed suicide rather than converting back to Catholicism.
 
However, there is a theory that during the night a few of them escaped with the Holy Grail, which had become a part of their religious relic treasure. As legend has it, and it’s probably just that, a legend, a Night appeared in the area around the 12th century claiming to be in possession of the Holy Grail, which then came to the Cathars. Just before they were wiped out they stashed it someplace south of here.
 
Then in the late thirties, the Nazis became fixated on finding it because it somehow became important to their twisted Aryan cult…. symbolizing the “pure” blood of Aryans…whatever. The search for the Holly Grail in this area still captures the imagination of some people, evidenced by this book I suppose. However, it’s probably just the fantasy of some old French poet who started the whole rumor back in the 12th century. But that wouldn’t stop me from keeping an eye out for it in the French flea markets I frequent around here. 
 

Sent: 3/14/2005 7:00 AM

One of the reasons I was attracted to this area in the first place was that I knew it must have an interesting mix of cultures. It’s logical that the area has been a major geographic crossroads of many a European culture for millennia. From the Islamic Moors, to the Spanish to the English to, of course, the northern french to the Romans and the Italians. In addition, I think Cahors is just about at the high water mark of European Mediterranean cultures that have washed inland in successive waves over the centuries and crested in the remote valleys, foothills and craggy white cliffs here along the River Lot. These old settlements and cultural enclaves have thus far been forgotten by the hordes of American and international tourist who stampede from one major European capital to the next every summer…usually overlooking the countryside, small cities and towns in between. Its understandable amongst the fog of the major culture shock that’s created by a 17-day whirlwind tour of 7 countries, that the cultural nuances of a region such as this would be missed altogether. Indeed, it wasn’t until I started to explore places like Albi, principle seat of power of the Cathar’s and hometown of Toulouse-Lautrec, did I start to learn about these ancient and unique cultures of this area. I’d like to visit the site of the oldest paintings in the world, Lascaux and the old catholic pilgrimage stop and cliffside town of Rocamadour next. 

 


 

Sent: 3/14/2005 7:00 AM

Demonstration Against The European Constitution Plus Etc.

On the first nice day we’ve had since I got back I happened to be going out just as a planned march was parading down main street. 

Even in a small city (pop. 20,000) such as Cahors the traditional 60’s era demonstration and protest are still popular and shows the general awareness and participation of the French people in politics. A stark contrast to the states when the regular marches and demonstrations are largely a thing of the past.

A friendly little round graying man with a Lenin-type hat who was with the march gave me a flyer and I asked him what was this all about. He first said it was about Bush, then said it was about the European Constitution and then summed it all up by saying the proposal for the new EU constitution was not for the “people” but for big business /government…”you know, the European governments, Chirac and Bush?” While incoherent as his explanation was it sounded strangely familiar to many of the arguments I’ve seen elsewhere. I thanked him and took his pamphlet in hopes I could decipher a better explanation.

Later, someone told me it was about the issue of abolishing the 35-hour workweek. I assumed from the beginning it had something to do with the major strike that’s going on now that’s affecting the transportation system. My neighbors say that the reasons for this strike is somewhat a mystery…the strikers say it’s because of higher wages but my neighbor doesn’t buy it. They say it might be directed at Chirac for cutting pre-school public programs.

Apparently, Chirac is disparately trying to find ways to cut back the massive French socialist system but is being fought tooth and nail every where he turns. These marches appear to be a grab bag, generic, alliance laden protest that covers many different issues. It’s like a protest with a platform…not single-issue demonstrations like we are use to in the states.

The Weather

The wintry weather has finally broken and we have had a few days that the frigid glacial blast from up north has subsided. The ground floor of my house has warmed up a bit but I still haven’t been able to get the main heater going yet. I bought a big ceramic space heater and the neighbors took pity on me and lent me an additional electric heater, which has begun finally to heat up the meter-thick walls that haven’t been warm in years. Apparently these old houses take time to absorb the heat because all of the walls (even the interior walls) are masonry, stone, or brick. What do I know about these things? I’m a Florida suburbanite. I’m told that spring gets sprung fast around here. I think it happening.

The Internet is still not connected and now there is doubt that it was ever actually ordered. Strange, but I thought I was crystal clear to the France Telecom employee about that when I reconnected my phone line. Anyways Ive ordered it again and if all goes smoothly  I’m getting connected next week. But until that time my post will be long weekly installments. The whole France telecom thing is like what Joe Pisci’s character siad in the movie JFK, “Its and enigma wrapped in a mystery“.

Just the thought that my cyber life depends on the twisted whims of a technocrat who’s Orwellian cubical might be buried somewhere in bowels of quasi-governmental monolithic Fahrenheit 400 building in La Defense, outside of Paris has got to be the very essence of the meaning of ‘powerlessness‘.

There’s a lesson in life here somewhere. If only I could find it.

 


 

Sent: 3/27/2005 4:15 AM

The Leak

I awoke this morning to the sound of what I thought was someone washing their car in their driveway but then I remembered I wasn’t in Kansas anymore or the suburbs of Central Florida…not even close. The sound I head was rainwater pouring out of the drainpipes in the street below. It was the first really hard rain we’ve had here since I got back and my opportunity to see where and how bad my leak really was in my roof.

Up until now drought conditions were becoming a problem for farmers in the area but I wasn’t complaining. I had even entertained the thought that somehow the problem was not that bad. It is. Water was dripping down the stairs from the attic, to the third floor eventually making it to the second floor. I shutter to think what the place would look like if there where long rainy spells…something I haven’t seen here yet but I’ve never been here year-round either so I’m not sure if they have them.

Nor have I ever in my life had to put pots and pans out where rain was dripping in the house. I was this morning.

No contact with the owner of the building next to me who’s responsibility is to fix the hole even though he told my neighbor he’d do it. I can understand that it’s difficult to fine people to do this work but I am uneasy that he hasn’t even come over here to inspect the problem or tried to contact me. Next step is to have my wife talk to him personaly (she’s fluent in French) and ratchet up the pressure just a little. I was hoping this could be done coming from another French person such as my neighbor to avoid any unnecessary friction but I guess not.

 


 

Sent: 5/21/2005 2:46 AM

Repairs and Renovation

Well, things are finally starting to come together as far as my goals for this stay were concerned. However, as in life, other things have cropped up.

In terms of my original projects though, I suspected that it would happen like this…long waits with nothing happening, difficulties in even getting people to respond, getting the right people who are both adequately skilled and reasonable in their price, figuring out what I could do myself and how to do it and how and where to get the materials and tools….

The roof was finally done a few weeks ago. The owner of the building next door appeared after I sent him a registered letter that stated I had witnesses. I didn’t want to get “legal” but he was just not responding. He climbed up on the roof and did it himself, having brought over some tiles apparently savaged from some other roof because they had moss on them. Hey, whatever works and it did. We had a downpour that night and there were blessedly no leaks. I waited three months for a job that took less than an hour to do.

It was the same for the main heater downstairs, the electrician finally came over, after the weather had turned warmer, and now I wouldn’t have to face being frozen to death next time I decide to come in a record breaking winter freeze.

While not being a priority we’ve always had a small leak in the plumbing but because it dripped on the outside it wasn’t much of a concern. Well, it got much worst a few weeks ago, ironically right after the roof leak was fix. Water started making its way into the house seeping in from under the floorboards and dripping from the first floor ceiling. It got so bad that I had to turn of the water at the main valve and put buckets under the drips when I turned it back on to take showers or go to the bathroom. It took a few weeks but I did get plumber/maintenanceman over. He told me what he liked to do but I thought his price was to high since what he proposed was something I might be able to do. He bought the parts for me and I did the job. It involved running a new line up from the first floor ceiling to the second floor bathroom directly above. A little tricky because of the ancient construction and the unusual transition of stone, meter thick walls of the first floor and the medieval wood overhang of the second floor. I thread a flexible pipe, usually used to attach to kitchen faucets, up through to the bathroom. It might be unorthodox but it works fine.

Last night I was working on the third floor bathroom floor having already made the shower 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Oct 29, 2009

     

    A solitary figure, sniffing, whizzing and coughing, is hunched over his computer, silhouetted by the blue-MSN glow of his monitor. He is feverishly pecking away in mittens, box of tissues at his side. He could be from another age if it wasn’t for his purple thermal underwear under his Colombian poncho. His long gray hair, beard and receding hairline might be mistaken for a modern day Fredric Law Olmstead on an artistic pilgrimage to France, either that or an old Allman Brothers refugee who took a wrong turn. 

    A single naked light bulb hangs from a wire in the center of the ceiling and barely illuminates a room, which seemingly hasn’t been renovated since World War II. The urge is to throw the bath water out into the street, as they did centuries ago, but passes quickly. They have indoor plumbing now…he can see it; the pipes are all exposed. 

    He imagines muffled ghost-sounds faintly echoing down the narrow passageway his house is on…nazis marching, the screams of Protestants and Cathars being persecuted, Norseman and Celts pillaging. Unimaginable horrors have swept over these streets such as the Black Plague that killed a third of the population and probably played out in some small, terrible way in this very house. 

    A few weeks before he arrived in Paris on the redeye and stepped into the icy cold winds of the brutal streetscape that was Gard de Nord. The pilgrimage of American artist to France, in particular Paris, has been a long and star studded one. In some small way he felt his personal quest to relocate to Europe was following in this same tradition. Now as he began his journey back to the country he had once lived, he couldn’t help thinking how much things had changed. The last time he was in France seemed to be the age of innocence in comparison to the current geopolitical atmosphere. 

    In those heady times at the end of the Clinton years, America could do no wrong. As the movie, Fight Club had echoed, it was a time of no great wars or Great Depression. It was a time investing was for dummies in that everything you invested in seemed to retun profits. He was able to follow a dream by day trading on the fly from his personal laptop while traveling Europe. When the market went south so did he and reinvested in his first home in Southeast France, a home he still owned. This was a country that he held residency status in, a country and region that had held his fascination for so long and that which he felt he could learn so much from. 

    After checking into a budget hotel complete with a bidet next to the sink, he made his way to the American Church. This is a hangout of English speaking 12-steppers, support groups and general Parisian riffraff. He met an amazing array of people from all over the globe there. It’s always been a crossroads for a fascinating international motley crew of characters. He looked forward to seeing some of them again. 

    As he walked across the bridge from Place de Concord and looked south towards Ill de la Cite. He could see Notre Dame and to his right the Eiffel Tower. Both spectacularly lit up. He took a right on the boulevard that followed the Seine and made his way to the church. The Indian receptionist that remembered him greeted him with a friendly smile and a handshake. 

    (To be continued

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