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Friday, January 24, 2014

French Travel Tales: Marche Dimanche. Part One.

Inspired by a beautiful trip in the Fall of 2011 to Poudenas, a beloved and petit village in the rustique Southwest of France. Won't you come along, this summer and fall, for Twelve Days in Paris and Gascony. 

Part Two.
Part Three.

Part One. Aperitif. Day of the Bells 



The gorgeous duck fat light coming through the shutter had to be the sun.
I listened again. At Nineteen I threw the covers back.
Heavens, what in the world was going on out in greater Poudenas?
Poudenas being a small village in the Lot-et-Garonne Department in Southwestern France.

Greater Poudenas is actually quite small. The population of Poudenas was 252 in 1999, 251 in 2006 and 246 in 2007. The population density of Poudenas is 14.27 inhabitants per km². The number of housing of Poudenas was 168 in 2007. These homes of Poudenas consist of 116 main residences, 39 second or occasional homes and 13 vacant homes.

But not mentioned even once was one Chateau de Poudenas or one Moulin de la Belle Gasconne. And one Café Galerie.

I counted the next bell’s chime as number 24. But certainly, even taking into account jet-lag, I was pretty sure there were only 24 hours in a day. Even in Poudenas, where time seemed eternal.

The bells rang 25 times.
Make that 26.  
And then a 27th time.

I waited on the side of the bed. Well, that’s a bit strange. Isn’t it? I blew out night’s candle. Had the church bells just rung 27 times in Poudenas? Or was it one long ring that had reverberated incessantly in my ear?

The bells weren’t the only sound. The Gelise River rushed outside my window. I looked outside to confirm. It wasn’t really the river, it was the pond, released and rushing to meet back up with the river and flow out of town towards Mezin.

But what did I know? Anything was possible. After all, I hadn’t been here since 2006. That was 5 years ago. Things can change, right, even in a place so old? Perhaps this belling was a newly installed French system of emergency warning using the resources at hand; church bells? Warning the 200 inhabitants of something dire but kept from the visitors who hadn’t attended the village meeting. Yes, agreed, there were more inhabitants, than visitors, in Poudenas. One of the four visitors who was staying in the Moulin, was reflected in the window and staring back at me. This visitor needed coffee.

But again, what did I know? There were vacant rooms just down the hall and maybe other visitors had arrived after we climbed to bed at midnight. Maybe that’s when all visitors arrived who know a thing or two about the proper time to arrive at the infamous le Moulin along the Gelise River. Sheesh. Couldn’t I even arrive at the right time?

But at the same time I was a bit suspicious, and pleasantly frightened, I was intrigued that there might indeed be very strange strangers in our midst and mist. Sleeping just down the hall.  

Now come on. Get a grip.
I opened my door and looked down the hall.

Did I have to start all over again in Poudenas? Had I forgotten everything I once knew about Poudenas? And what I did know, perhaps I didn’t understand. But I reminded my coffee-less self, I was not new to Poudenas. I began my pilgrimage here late in 1995. I had arrived on a post IACP conference trip from Paris.

Then, the following summer I was lucky enough to be accepted to do a stage, a weeklong apprenticeship with Chef Marie-Claude Gracia in La Moulin's kitchen, the summer of 1996. I remember hearing the bells at Midi, and taking a rest from studying foie gras, confit, and chocolate mousse. What did I know then? If it’s possible to know less than I do now, pretty basically, nothing. But confit and confound! Even in 2011 I still don't know where the church was that emitted these warning bells. Of course I didn’t. I was always more interested in things like Fromage, Floc, Foie Gras, Confit, Pigeon, Becasse, Confiture, and Armagnac.

Good lord.

Thinking is what got me in this jam, er, confiture, and the situation was far more dire than I thought. Even without coffee I deduced, as the sky grew pink, that the bells had likely rung more than 27 times, as they were already ringing when I woke up.  

My fingers traced the wall as I walked the length of the upstairs hallway, past the sleeping rooms of Alice, Jennifer, and Erick. Why weren’t they up? Hadn't they heard?

I wanted to open their doors to confirm that their presence still existed, but maybe this door opened to the sleeping new visitors to le Moulin, and my friends had all left me there? The stone steps led down to the kitchen. I fumbled for and turned on the light, half expecting to find an ancienne Grandmere of the Moulin waiting to tell me everything.

I filled a pot with cool water, lit the stove. Wrapping my shawl tight, I walked to the other end of the dining room with the huge picture window overlooking the millpond. And with my cheek pressed against the cold pane of glass, I cranked the door open. A duck paddled across the pond. I walked out on the point where the water spills over from the pond. I waved to a truck that careened by, and barely made the turn over the old stone bridge, and headed up the hill to another little village, Fources, which was about 6 km away.

A few minutes later the water boiled and I pressed a pot a coffee.
I perched a thick slice of yesterday's Parisian baguette over the stove flames, keeping one ear pressed towards the ceiling. But there were no doors opening and closing. And no more bells.  

I sipped the dark rich brew. Light was growing across the pond. Things were looking up.

The church had sounded very close, but as I took a mental stroll around foggy Poudenas, and came up with nothing except the Chateau at the top of the very top of the hill.

Finally there was a shuffling on the steps, someone was coming down to the kitchen. Would I know them?

“Hey Erick. Bonjour, there.” My son still looked a little sleepy.
“All ready.”
“Did you hear the bells?”
“I heard exactly nothing.”
“Do you think other people are staying here?”
“Other people? Like who?”
“Did you hear anyone come in after we went to bed?”
“No, Mom, I didn’t.”
 “I can’t help it. This place always gets my imagination going.”
“Just so long as the coffee is going..”

Well, that was kind of an answer. Right?

Who knows, maybe we'll hear the bells at Marche Dimanche in the square by the church in Mezin, the next petite village, about 3 km to the east, and the growing pink light.  

La Moulin de la Belle Gasconne (photo courtesy of Jennifer Santos Madriaga

Collection of Confit Pots, Inside the Moulin
The Stone Bridge, the Pond, and a Duck
Chef Marie-Claude Gracia with Tony Blair

Mezin, Marche Dimanche
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