24 September 2007

Castles and Horses and Vineyards…Oh my!

It’s true: I spent most of last week gallivanting around the Loire River Valley. Leslie (the other Manchester student here this semester, a great source of entertainment and good traveling companion) and I left on a TGV (high speed train) from Strasbourg at 6:25am last Wednesday, arriving in Angers at 11:00. For those of you who know the distance, that’s quite impressive time. We went to visit Bev Ott, a Manchester graduate who went on to earn a masters in social work and start up a micro-loan program called Echoppe for women in Togo and Benin, West Africa. Echoppe provides small sums of money (increasing gradually from level to level after repayment) to women to use in their small business enterprises. Education accompanies each borrowing: first, women learn how to write their name and recognize it on a list. Health classes follow. Then children’s immunizations are required. The process keeps evolving to move women from poverty and instability to independence and security. And it works. Started in the 1990s, Echoppe now assists 3000 women. Over 20 000 women have graduated from the program, and now have their own women’s mutual, which provides larger loans for personal needs like repairing a roof or getting better health care. The money comes from the women’s pooled savings. The women in the mutual are politically active, running for office within the mutual and also campaigning for better water and electric services where they live. The hope is that one day the mutual will provide the principal amount for Echoppe’s start-up loans: a complete, cyclical, independent process that works. If anyone is interested in learning more about this project or supporting it, please please feel free to email me (crhamilton@manchester.edu) and I’ll put you in touch with Bev.

So, Bev, a very dedicated and respectable woman living with her husband Olivier, daughter Anna, and son Stephan near Angers in the Loire Valley. Their property is amazing, but they’ve worked hard to salvage it. You know how we have ‘fixer-uppers,’ houses that are in poor shape but probably less than 50 years old? Imagine fixing up ‘La Gaucherie aux Dames’ and finding out that it is actually a several-hundred-year-old castle! No turrets or fortifications or impregnable walls, but at least a moat, the remains of a dungeon, two towering pillars at the porch (main entrance), and a crumbling bread oven! Bev and Olivier have turned some of the outbuildings into very nice bed-and-breakfast type accommodations—after tearing out branch/sand/mud ceilings and re-plastering worse-for-the-wear walls made of ‘touf,’ the sandstone common to the Loire Valley. Incredible.

Leslie and I stayed in a bedroom in the ‘git,’ which can house eight people and is rented to vacationers throughout the year through the ‘git rurale’ program. Our porch overlooked the valley, including the river Lys and many cows and sheep and a horse and three church steeples. Bev proved a well-trained guide for the area, explaining the history of buildings and towns and churches as we went along. We visited the high schools attended by her kids, boarding there during the week and coming home on weekends. We explored the Chateau Brissac, which to this day belongs to the same family.

They inhabit the top two floors while people tour the bottom three. It’s a strange castle, because the majority of it is Renaissance, except for the two towers up to which the castle is built, which are medieval. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but it reminded me of the Strasbourg train station, whose new façade is an overarching glass dome completely enclosing the original neoclassical architecture. Ancient and modern…they both just sort of coexist here. I keep thinking, ‘this building is older than my country…by a few hundred years!’ Some things change, but some things stay the same, like the typical French dinner. I never ate so well as when I was visiting Bev! Not only was the food delicious, but most of it came from local producers: they belong to an IMAP (equivalent to our Community Supported Agriculture; you buy a ‘share’ of the crop, 15 euros per week in this case, and then once a week you go pick up your vegetables; if the harvest is good, you get more than your money’s worth; if it’s poor, then everyone shares the burden, and the local small-time farmer can still keep his livelihood; check and see if there are any in your area! It’s a great way to each fresh, local produce, and chances are you’ll even get to know the person who grows your food); they buy milk and butter and cheese from a local producer; their meat comes from the farm next door; and, of course, bread is always fresh and wine is always local. What more can you ask for? Friday night, when the kids were home from school for the weekend, Olivier finally stopped working at the new fair-trade/local/organic store they opened last week, and the family had another guest (from Fort Wayne, Indiana, wouldn’t you know!—a friend of Bev’s mother’s), we sat at the outside table and enjoyed the aperitif, an often alcoholic but also non-alcoholic beverage accompanied by an appetizer to start the meal. Then we moved inside and had a tomato and cheese salad, then the main course of curried chicken, then the cheese, then the strawberry tart dessert, and wine and good conversation throughout. Now that’s a feast.

It felt good to be part of a family for a little while. Bev even gave us hugs! I realized about a week ago that I had not been touched since I’d arrived. The classic French ‘bisou’ (kiss on both cheeks) doesn’t count. It’s much less personal than a hug, or even an arm around the shoulder, or a hand on the back. Leslie and I discussed it and decided that we had permission to ask a hug of each other whenever we were feeling ‘untouched.’

Go give a hug.

The Vendange

It’s true: I spent an afternoon harvesting grapes in a vineyard in the Loire Valley of France. Bev arranged it, and Jean-Noel of Domaine du Petit Clocher in Clere-sur-Lyon was amiable to having two American college students working with his jovial crew of thirty-some people of all ages, backgrounds, and personalities. Mostly we worked with Chardonnay grapes, snipping each bunch off, putting it in our bucket, dumping our buckets into larger backpack-type buckets, which were then emptied into trucks, which took the grapes back to the property. It was amazing. I learned that in 1850, a blight destroyed almost all French vineyards, and so the vines we were working with were actually French vines grafted onto American roots. I learned that even the overripe and spoiled grapes are collected and put into wine, and sometimes, to make the sweetest wines, only these grapes are used. I learned that the vendange, or grape harvesting, lasts about three weeks this time of year.

And at the end, we returned to the property and Jean-Noel’s wife was kind enough to show us the process, let us taste the grape juice, pour us a glass of the sweetest white wine, and (I still can’t believe this) give us a box of THREE BOTTLES of wine from the vineyard, ‘a gift from Jean-Noel.’ Please imagine and admire the red, white, and rose wine bottles sitting on a shelf in my room.

It was definitely a series of good France days.

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