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A Feast of France

A Feast of France

    My knowledge of southern France, prior to our stay in Sarlat-la-Caneda, was principally informed by a naughty childhood ditty, sung to the tune of "The Snake Charmer," rhyming France with "pants" and "grass" with a nether region of the anatomy.  Oh, yes, somewhere in my memory bank I had saved a magazine report on caveman paintings.  And knowledgeable travelers (or those who represented themselves as such) warned me about French chauvinism and their contempt for those of us who couldn't speak their native tongue.

    But I quickly discovered that Sarlatian men wear pants, that waiters, vendors, and every ordinary Jacques and Marie were quite solicitous of my American ignorance of their land and their language.  Our week in an historic village and surrounding castles and caves was a French feast for the eyes, the palate, and the brain, with ample helpings of American congeniality.

Forty-three of us with a connection to Williams College gathered in Hotel de la Madeleine in Sarlat-la-Caneda one hundred forty kilometers south of Bordeaux.  Our flight from Boston to Paris on Friday took six hours; the layover in Paris, five hours; the flight to Bordeaux, one hour; and the bus drive from Bordeaux to Sarlat, three hours.  Ample experience with mature travelers has led the tour agency (Gohagen) to limit the first day of the trip to a welcome reception in the evening, the better to allow for weary travelers to shower and nap and adjust to the time change.

    Sunday we took a walking tour of Sarlat and its medieval streets.  The town of six thousand souls was designated an historic district by the Culture Minister in DeGaulle's cabinet, Andre Malraux, whose book, Man's Fate, was assigned reading in the modern European novel course I took in the spring of 1952.  The sign with his name on it was but the first echo of the past elicited during the week.

    Robin Mort was our travel director.  I affectionately referred to her as our Den Mother.  She was attentive to our needs and diligent in keeping us on schedule.  We have been on five other college-sponsored trips, but no one has done it better than Robin.  When she bade us farewell, she was headed for the Amazon, making a stop at her apartment in Chicago to pick up her jungle wardrobe.

Guide Angelique provided the expert running commentary, historical, geological, and sociological from her perch in the front seat of the tour bus and at many of the sites.  In the fortress-like Abbey Church at St. Amand-de-Coly with its rising nave she lifted her voice in a beautiful "Alleluia," hinting at her vocal training.  A German national, she returned to the land her Hugenot ancestors had fled generations earlier.  Angelique was informative, approachable, and adept in the idioms of American English.

Other local guides led us through: Sarlat's ancient streets; in the Chateau de Castlenaud with its museum of weapons from the Middle Ages; with the cave at Font-de-Gaume; the cave replica at Lascaux, with its polychrome drawings 17,000 years old; the Beynac Castle; the Rouffignac cave with a small railroad; an originally unscheduled visit to a French garden with Sophie; and a brandy distillery in Temniac, where the guide was dressed in royal purple from lipstick to pumps.  The guides' English competency was mixed: French metier often overruled the pronunciation. 

Our bus driver, Manuel, of Spanish origin (the Pyrenees are no further south than Bordeaux is north), negotiated turns on roads almost as narrow as those leading to our cabin in Vermont.  More than once we applauded his skill with narrow lanes and sharp turns.

    The reason we, the Howards, chose to enroll for this trip to France was the prospect of sitting again in lectures by Frank Oakley, former President of Williams College, a specialist in medieval European history, and a knowledgeable commentator on all things concerning the corner of the world in which we were immersed, where Henry II of England once ruled over the dowry from his marriage to Eleanor of Acquitaine.  We were not disappointed.  Dr. Oakley's first lecture focused on courtly love and the emergence there of romantic notions of the relationships of men and
women, notions which have dominated Western patterns of love and marriage ever since (if not with our posterity).  The second lecture took as its theme the love of God, but dwelt mostly on the troubled history of the Christian church in the region, the monastic reforms, and the Albigensian Crusade.  Ernst Troeltsch's typology of "church" and "sect" was borrowed to explain the seemingly unending back and forth in the church between accommodation to the world and reform of excessive accommodation.  We left the assembly room each time hoping for more. 

Phillipe Melot, the owner and chef of Hotel de la Madeleine in Sarlat, provided us with a wonderfully diverse succession of meals, each one distinct and delicious.  The presentation of the food was second only to its taste.  Each evening the waiters would emerge from the kitchen with the meat course to be served.  Large platters with the day's delight were shown to the diners, twice to applause, once for the salmon shown in an accompanying snapshot.  I haven't
eaten this well day in and out since the years at Williams College when Mr and Mrs Mike Walsh presided over the kitchen at the Sig House.  But I was the waiter then and certainly demonstrated none of the panache of Jean Jacques, head server in Monsieur Melot's dining room.


    I sometimes describe myself as a collector of people.  I am inordinately fond of listening to other's life stories.  Mealtime provided me with ample opportunity to delve into
the biographies of my traveling companions.  Six have been with us before.  We met Helen King, widow of classmate Bink (1953), in Ireland six years earlier, where she read the Sunday lection in an Anglican Church when a number of us insisted on worship.  Laird Barber, Class of 1952, accompanied us to Delft, Holland four years ago; he was my friend and frat brother in college; in his majority he was an English professor in Minnesota. Alberta and Gates Helms, Class of 1946, three times companions (Ireland, Portugal, and France), brought to our gathering savoir faire and a generous comradery.  Barbara and Dick Beatty, Class of
1955, he, like so many from Williams, a lawyer, now retired, were also Ireland visitors, under the guiding hand of Frank Oakley in 1997.  And Buz Brumbaugh, Class of 1950, Westport lawyer now Vermont retiree, explored with us the special pleasures of Italy "under the Tuscan sun" this past June.  


Prior to the trip we received a list of those who would be traveling with us.  One name jumped off the page, Eli Manchester, parent of a Williams graduate.  My Auntie Mil's voice echoed in my mind each time I said Eli's name.  When we assembled in Monsieur Melot's dining room for the first time, I made my way to Eli and said, "Tell me if these two words resonate with you: Camp Toquam."  His face lit up with a big smile and he answered to the effect that, yes, he remembered BSA Camp Toquam, had been there in 1947 and earlier, received his Eagle Badge at the parade grounds at that site in Goshen CT, and for a summer had run the infirmary.  It was the same summer I, a lad of 15, had responsibility for 30 younger Scouts.  For two years he lived next door to my Auntie Mil, Uncle Harold, and their two children.  Probably more to the point of memory, he had sung in the choir at St. John's Episcopal Church, the other Howards' church in Stamford, until age 18.  He then went to Cornell, graduated with an engineering degree, ran manufacturing companies, lived south of Boston, and served as a Trustee of the school "high above Cayuga's waters."  We had a grand time reminiscing.  And his dear wife Anne didn't seem to mind. 

    Three PK's could be counted in our group: Barbara Howard (of course!); Betty Butzer Brown, wife of John, Class of 1947, her Dad, a well-known Presbyterian pastor in upstate NY, contributed to the preacher's "everlasting crutch," The Interpreter's Bible, the commentary on Numbers; and Dudley Tyler, son of an Episcopal priest in various parishes in New England.  Dud has a splendid voice, sang in the Octet and in his home in Montana occasionally solos at weddings and funerals... not bad for a member of the Class of 1946.

The cliche, "six degrees of separation," could be amended to "two degrees," so regularly did we find connections with our fellow Frankophiles: the couple from Rye NY, who played tennis with a college classmate's wife near the John Jay House I frequented in another century in my role of United Methodist committeeperson; the photographer artiste from the Class of 1972 who shares Long Island ancestors with Barbara; the Hanover retirees whom we are sure we chatted with a couple of years ago during coffee hour at the UCC Church at Dartmouth; the retired Cornell professors of English Lit (he) and composition (she) who participated with my classmate in the publication of the writings of a Williams philosophy professor; and the couple celebrating their 22nd wedding anniversary, he growing up in West Hartford and still serving, though resident in Chicago, as a trustee of a Kingswood-Oxford prep in our hometown.

Of course, of course, I took advantage of the Internet capability of the computer in the lounge of the hotel.  Not only was I able to delete the accumulation of spam in my mailbox, I also kept in contact with our daughter and her twins in West Hartford (see below for their really big news), and, to the delight of several avid baseball fans, reported the day by day progress toward the dream World Series of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox playing for the ultimate in failure. 

    Miscellaneous events, some scheduled, others not, contributed to our French feast for the eyes, mind, and stomach:

* The goose that inspired frustration and guilt with its inability to extricate itself from a muddy drinking basin;

        * The foie gras served at our concluding dinner, so rich that I spent the hours I should have been sleeping trying to digest its fatness;

        * The two miles of hedges cut with hand shears and a plumb line;



* Hobbling down the slope from the cave at Font-de-Gaume, and the 200 stairs from the shrine to the Black Madonna at Rochamadour, convincing me, if ever I needed additional convincing, that I needed new knees... aided and abetted in that resolution by three fellow travelers who had already successfully undergone that replacement surgery;

* A French folk dance troupe putting us through our paces, and I clumsily fell down... just as I did in December 1952 at the square dance where I was trying to impress the daughter of a Williams grad of 1925;

       * The dead fly in Barbara's wine glass at the luncheon in Beynac, and the waiter, with nonchalance suggesting it happens all the time, replaced the glass... but not the bottle;

        * The riverboat excursion on the Dordogne, looking in vain for evidence of the past summer's heat and drought;

        * The panoramic view of the Dordogne valley from our perch atop Domme;

        * The oversized cups the French prefer for coffee and tea... and the oversized spoons for desserts;

        * The castle enshrouded in the morning mist;



 * At Domme, listening to Angelique speak of the Knights Templar, and realizing that I had belonged to an organization, DeMolay, that celebrated one of its martyrs;

        * The maypoles erected everywhere, left in place, the guide insisted, "until they fall down";

        * Gaggles of geese throughout the countryside, whose fattened and processed livers, are destined to keep un-gourmets like me awake through the night hours; and

        * The peach and blackberry aperitifs sampled at the distillery, tasting like more, please.










    Saturday morning at 6 AM as the bus pulled away from in front of Hotel de la Madeleine, Phillipe Melot on hand to say goodbye, we looked to the second floor of the hotel and saw an apparition.  No, it wasn't the fabled demon about whom Angelique warned us, the one who patrolled the streets of Sarlat at night waiting to jump on the back of an unsuspecting tourist; it was our own Gates Helms looking more Navaho than French, wrapped head to toe in a bed spread, waving farewell to us.

    Back home Sunday morning the twins who fill our house with enthusiasm, having campaigned for six months for a dog of their own, finally overwhelmed our resistance.  Together we went to the pet store and freed an apricot toy poodle, Tippy, from his cage for a life with us in suburban Connecticut.


Snapshots from Excursions (more or less in chronological order)






































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