1990-03-18: La Traverse, Cenac

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18 Mar, 2100, La Traverse

Yes, Another hectic night. Although the clerk at H. Majestic arranged for us to meet the proprietor of the gite at 4pm Sat, he apparently thought we would be there Fri. After our drive & lunch from Bordeaux, we found Cenac easily, but could not find gite. Susan found someone at pharmacy who spoke E & gave directions, and we found it right at 4; but no owner. After waiting & phoning & waiting & phoning etc, our neighbor arrived home ~7pm. Even tho he spoke no E, he knew how to reach owner & knew where keys were to let us in, so we didn’t have to wait outside in cold & dark.

The gite is fabulous. Half-meter thick stone walls. Kitchen w/ French doors to terrace. Living rm w/ dining table & fireplace. Shower/lav & WC, washing machine. Upstairs 2 BR (double & 2 twin). ‘Rustique’ furnishings, but more than adequate. We were ecstatic.

When owner came S realized he had expected us Fri. We showed him our copy of contract with dates. He kept it, apparently hadn’t received one from booking service. After checking elec. meter he left us, to meet again Sat @ 10.

Sat dinner was rice crispies, very rich milk & oranges, from store in Merignac.

Today, breakfast same as last night dinner, then off to Les Eyzies to see caves & museum of prehistoric stuff. The caves were very worthwhile (Fond-de-Gaume & Conbarelles). The guides spoke F of course, but simply seeing the 3-d reality is much better than book pictures. The guide in the 1st was emphasizing the artistic character (I think), particularly the way the painter used the contour of the rock to give a realistic treatment of animals. They are taking great pains to preserve the cave art for future generations while showing to us now. The second cave was mostly engravings, little pigment. The guide was mainly a catalog. C much preferred the second, perhaps because the guide was easier to understand.

Coming back from the caves, I had my first run-in with a gendarme. I rolled through a stop sign at a 3-way intersection, as he looked on. He shouted to stop; I stopped & got out. He (I think) asked if I had stopped. I answered ‘not quite’ & he (I think) said that in France I had better stop at stop signs, & walked off. Naturally, I have resolved to stop at stop signs.

C’s tastes in food run to the plain, so it has been hard to get her to eat much of the F food at restaurants. She hasn’t eaten salads or foods with sauces. This p.m. we found a creperie & gave her crepe w/ sugar & strawberries. She was overjoyed & commented that we spoil her.

Tonight at the gite S prepared a can of Beef Bourguignon, noodles & applesauce. To our great surprise, C helped herself to meat & potatoes & spread sauce on noodles, then ate it all. She even commented later how good it was. When I mentioned getting onions in my second helping, she said: oh, that must be what I got. It was slippery (or slimy) going down.

I called Carl when we got back to Cenac, just after 6pm. He seemed relieved that we were getting on so well. I don’t think he thought we were going to make it!

S seems impressed that I can ask for tickets & order food, but it could be done in sign language in these constrained situations, particularly since most people we deal with make their living by dealing with tourists. Still it does feel good not to feel like a fool.

We have purchased domestic stuff & are doing laundry. It is so much more relaxing to be in a place of our own, instead of one room in a hotel. C can be exuberant & we don’t worry about noise, etc. This is definitely the way to go.


18 Mar, 2100, La Traverse

Our problem meeting the owner occurred because the hotel clerk was unfamiliar with gites, and their arrangements, as I suppose we should have expected (and also, of course, because we didn’t speak enough F to deal with proprietor directly). Although the owner must have been irritated, he was gracious. We later figured out from his phone number and the time it took him to get to the gite after our neighbor called him, that he lived about 45 km away; not a trivial distance on those roads.

This gite was not advertised with a washer, so we were very surprised to find one. It was very small, fitting in a broom closet, but we only had small loads to do. Wet wash was hung on line outside to dry, and brought in at night to finish. The kitchen had a gas stove and water heater, supplied from a bottle outside. It had a little refrigerator, the size used in hotel rooms. There was a kitchen table and two chairs, and a good sized trestle table with four or six chairs in the living room. The bathroom had a shower with a hand-held shower-head, as did nearly every shower we saw. The WC was a separate room from the bathroom, which was also typical. We wondered at the designation WC (short for the English phrase Water Closet), but encountered it quite a bit. Never got an explanation. The living room also had a soft stuffed chair and sofa. The upstairs bedrooms were separated by the space for the staircase, which was a square spiral in three sections. They were under the gables, with dormer windows on the front. There was a skylight over the stairs in the back. The master BR had an armoire; the other had a closet.

The electric service was in a small tumble-down building behind the house. There was a cement mixer and piles of sand and gravel. The gite had obviously been recently renovated. The other building must have been a small barn at one time. We went up stone steps to second floor where electric box was, and owner recorded the meter reading (which was digital, not like the analog ones we have). This would be used to compute our extra cost at end of week. We gave him a deposit (a hundred francs), from which he would deduct electricity, gas and cleaning if necessary.

The milk in France is commonly sold in cardboard packages at room temperature, and it is either whole milk or enriched in cream; since we were used to skim milk, this was a shock. We found later that by adding chocolate powder it was more palatable.

Les Eyzies is a tiny town. It had only one restaurant, and that was full by the time we went to see about lunch. A river runs by (the town is perched on the side of a gorge), so we took bread (Harry’s American bread!), peach jam and bottled water (Vittel, I think), and made sandwiches under a tree, watching ducks and people fishing. Delightful.

After lunch we climbed a road up to the prehistoric museum. The exhibits were interesting: bones (human and animal), stone tools, bone tools, etc.

We got to Fond-de-Gaume just before they re-opened after lunch, and waited with several other people. They limit the number of visitors each day, to help preserve the caves. We bought tickets and walked up hillside to cave entrance, among group of about twenty. After brief introductory remarks outside, entered the cave. They have put railings and plexiglas shields to keep hands off paintings, and lights. The guide skillfully controlled the lights so that each point she made in her lecture got the attention of the audience. Even without understanding the words (guessing at meaning of maybe 10 words) it was an interesting lecture, since the basic material was visual. The way that the painters used a bulge in the rock to underlie a shoulder or haunch was fascinating, and simply invisible in flat photos. At one point the group was shepherded into a narrow gallery, with our backs against one rail, in near-dark. When the anticipation reached the right level, the guide turned on the lights to the paintings, about 7-8 feet up the wall we were facing. As everyone recognized a procession of horses and cows, a great (and satisfying, I am sure) “Oooh” arose. Great fun, and well worth it.

Combarelles was less elaborate. The cave is less well protected. It has very little pigment, so exposure is not as damaging, I guess. As we arrived, we could see a group just entering, so we figured we would have to wait 30-45 minutes. But they waited for us; something they couldn’t do in normal season, I’m sure. This was one of the advantages of coming in the early spring; although some places weren’t yet open for the season, most were, and the crowds were small, and the people working at them weren’t fed up with tourists yet. The guide at Combarelles simply carried a flashlight, pointing at an engraving and naming it, then pointing at and naming each part, head, neck, horns, front legs, back legs. It got repetitious, although in some cases it was necessary in order to recognize the object. They have placed steel gridwork on the floor, and parts of the cave haven’t been opened to public; we came to the end and could just look through a steel grid door. She also pointed out the occasional modern engraving of initials in places.

Guides expect tips, and we were happy to oblige, a couple of francs to five francs, depending on how much we liked the tour. They have a way of letting you know they expect it without being obnoxious about it. It was an interesting contrast to the American way, where a similar tour guide would probably be astonished to get a tip, and show it.

My stupid (but inevitable) mistake in rolling through a stop sign shook me up. The gendarme was standing about twenty feet away, to my right. Susan saw him and immediately started to yell at me, when I heard him shout (Alors?). Even not knowing what word he used, it was obviously a command to stop. I don’t know if he believed that I didn’t speak French, but he didn’t seem angry, just stern. I was very grateful to be let off with a warning, which was very clear, at the same time that it was incomprehensible. He didn’t even ask for my license or papers.

The Beef Bourguignon was a great hit; we had it probably once a week after that. We went to a grocery store in Cenac and bought household goods (cleaning supplies, clothes hangers) as well as food. The stores are very similar to non-chain stores at home; the carts are the same, aisles the same, cold cases, etc.

We used pay phones outside the PTT to make phone calls to home, using MCI card to charge the calls. The French pay phones have a digital display of the amount of money you put in, which counts down as you talk. You get a chance to add money before it cuts you off. We used this system when trying to contact proprietors, etc within France; I never quite got used to it, mostly because I never knew how much money I was going to need, and also because some phones wouldn’t accept some types of coins (e.g., two franc coins, or one of the two types of ten franc coin). It was a relief to occasionally talk to someone who spoke perfect English. Also I think Carl had his doubts about this trip; I think he thought we didn’t know what we were getting into; he was right, but we knew that too!

As far as buying tickets and ordering food, it was largely accomplished without real speech. If you hold up three fingers (thumb and first two fingers) at a ticket counter, mumble and show money, you will get three tickets. In a patisserie, if you point and hold up one to three fingers, you will get what you want. It is a good idea to say “Bonjour, Madame” to the clerk. This alerts them to the fact that you don’t speak their language, and they tend to pay closer attention; they also count your money more carefully. In the restaurants a lot is accomplished by pointing at the menu items; the custom of prix fixe meals is very helpful for tourists, since it constrains the choices that must be communicated. (1991-06-11)


On our 4th day (jour) in France, we went to our 1st gite. The man wasn’t there so we waited and every hour or half hour we tried to call. Every time he wasn’t there. Finally the neighbor came home. He phoned, got the keys and let us in. This is what it looked like:

< get picture? >

We waited for the owner to come and check the meter and so on and so on. he came and looked over everything. We ate dinner and went to bed. We had walls 1 1/2 feet thick. The next morning we went to a super market. By the way, the owner thought we were supposed to be at the gite the day we called. We then went to see 2 caves with engravings & paintings. 1st paint, 2nd engravings. Before the caves we went on a picnic with sandwiches& cookies. Then we went to a prehistoric museum. Then we went home. But coming back from the caves we had a run-in with the cops. Dad went through a stop sign that a cop was sitting next to. Here is their conversation:

Cop: Did you stop? Dad: Not quite. Cop: Well, we stop in France!

Close call! We found a creperie. I got a crepe with strawberries & sugar; Dad got a sugar crepe; Mom got a crepe with chocolate syrup. We went home and had our 1st encounter with (Beef) Boeuf Bourguignon. I like it. Everyone was surprised. We went to a coin phone booth. We called Uncle Carl. There are mainly card phone booths. What do they expect a lost kid to do? Pull out a card? Talked to U. Carl and went home. We do our own laundry.

Previous: More Bordeaux ~~ France 1990 ~~ Next: Biarritz

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