A Light Late Lunch in Laval

Magical Verticality: Laval’s Medieval Quarter

My love for alliteration knows no bounds. Hence, the title of this post.

Greetings from France once again. Apologies for the extended space between my posts lately. I plead mercy on two counts. Firstly, we have been rather preoccupied with our ongoing house renovations. We are so desperate to reach a point of relative normalcy with our house, that we haven’t really allowed ourselves any time to explore our surroundings.

And, second: Covid-19. Need I say more? We have seen a new surge of coronavirus in France. Accordingly, many restrictions have come into force. And rightly so, say we. Fortunately, our region of Bretagne has been, so far, less affected than other regions of France, so things are not quite as strict here as in, say, Paris or Marseille. Nevertheless, the pandemic has kept us close to home. Fougères has been our universe for the past several months.

Devastation on our Doorstep: the Old Toilet and Laundry Room

Better!

Shoveling My Mess in the Séjour

Better? Well … Getting There.

Speaking of being holed up in a half-finished house, the renovations are progressing. Some more walls have been demolished, a floor has been broken up, insulation has been blown in, lots and lots of wallboard and plaster has been put up, kilometers of electrical wire and radiator piping have been snaked, and mega-liters of paint have been splashed around – some of it even occasionally landing on a wall or ceiling. How convenient. We try to be disciplined and not rush things. But if you took a look around our séjour (living room) right now you would be able to tell that our discipline is in a precariously fragile state; we have hung paintings and placed furniture in the room, despite the fact that we still only have a subfloor down. Probably not the most pragmatic thing to do, but we desperately needed to feel at least a small sense of completion. Only one of the rooms in this house is currently not serving duty as a storage room: our master bathroom. And even that room still has work to be done on it. Oh well. I guess I can’t say we didn’t ask for it. All in all, we’re happy with the way the renovations have gone. Someday. Some day, we will have it finished and we can focus on travel a bit more.

A Rare Pickup Truck On the Streets of Belle Époque Laval

For now, our travels will have to be occasional and local. But, this being France, one never has to go far to see something extraordinary. Last weekend, we decided to visit a town in the nearby département of Mayenne (formerly the province of Maine). Laval, a mid-size town of about 49,000 people, is the capital of its département and straddles the Mayenne river running southward through its center. [see also, Mayenne in the Afternoon]. It’s just under an hour to drive from our house southeast to Laval, a picturesque jaunt through low, rolling hills with the smaller town of Ernée at midpoint in the journey. The city rises on either side of the river, a pleasing mix of townhomes, apartment buildings and businesses ranging from the 18th to late 20th century. The river itself is broad and calm as it runs under a tall rail viaduct, old bridges and a lock, lending a serene pace to the overcast Saturday afternoon of our visit.

The 13th c. Pont Vieux Spanning the Mayenne River

The Proud Tower – Château Laval

Perched halfway up the slope of the rive doite (right, western, bank) is the château. Begun in the 11th century, it was much modified over later periods, most notably in the 15th and 16th centuries. An impressive stone tower (constructed 1219-1220) stands at the southern end, its wooden hoardings on the top still in their original form. Renaissance window embrasures decorate its exterior, hinting at more to come in the courtyard.

Château Elegance

Passing through a well-restored gatehouse, one comes to an assemblage of buildings forming a courtyard of beautiful renaissance harmony. The restoration of this area is visibly a work in progress, but the decorative medieval and renaissance features are on full display. Much of the original carving has deteriorated considerably, but portions have been restored handsomely. Such a great example of french renaissance architecture elegantly integrated into its gothic predecessor. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing this one.

Just What We Like

Renaissance Goodness

Surrounding the castle is a pleasantly extensive old town, filled with medieval and renaissance houses. It’s a feast for the eyes – especially for historic architecture fanatics like us. We spent a mesmerizing couple of hours just wandering around the quaint, narrow medieval lanes basking in the magic of the atmosphere and soaking up the inspiration we always feel in such places. Photos never really do these scenes justice. At least not the ones we take. But we hope you can get a small sense of what it is like. Honestly, you just have to visit to fully appreciate how special these places are. So unique, so evocative. It’s time travel that can’t be beat.

The Château Square

A huge cobbled square lies just to the west of the château complex, framed by beautifully restored façades containing well turned out shops, bars and cafés. By now it was after lunchtime and we realized that we had not eaten for a few hours. Still, we were determined to march onward and see more of the town. So Cherie ducked into La Maison du Pain (boulangerie) and picked up some tasty bites to go while Saxon and I waited outside.

Waiting at the Maison du Pain
(Hoping for a Treat)

This is how our visits go when we bring Saxon with us. We view the sights from outside. Yes, you can often take your dog inside bars and restaurants (not boulangeries!), but our little guy still sometimes struggles to settle down when we try it. It’s not that he misbehaves. He just finds it difficult to sit or lay down at our feet. He’s far too curious for that. Also, he has a hard time finding a comfortable spot to sit or lay down in cramped areas. Those long legs come with a price. Poor guy. The situation doesn’t bother Cherie, but I confess that it makes me anxious and I myself can never get comfortable because of it. Thus, we get a lot of meals to go when we have the dog with us. To be fair, Saxon has gotten better about relaxing in restaurants as he’s matured. Maybe by the time he is 35 years old he will have perfected the art of chill. Of course, we know he won’t live that long, but we like to delude ourselves in to thinking he will. It’s the tragic curse of the dog owner, but totally worth it.

Angling for Heaven – Cathédrale de la Trinité

Fancy Font

The Chapel Down the Aisle

Food for later in hand, we continued westward to the Cathédrale de la Trinité. This church was begun in the 11th century, but it has been much altered throughout its history. In fact, they say it did not attain its current appearance until the beginning of the 20th century. I believe it. Although the cathedral is beautiful, it’s disparate elements never quite seem to blend harmoniously. Despite not being high on the list of churches we have visited, it’s still very interesting and well worth seeing. We both found the exterior to be a pleasing sight, its many gables and discordant rooflines offering an ever-interesting skyline to the viewer.

Porte Beucheresse

Just across from the cathedral are the remains of the town’s western gate, Porte Beucheresse. It’s a beautiful but lonely gate, having long ago lost its connection to the town walls. The two adjoined towers appear to be private residences. And they have been for quite a long time; a local artist of some repute (Rousseau – the 19th century post-impressionist naïve artist, not the philosopher) grew up in one of them. Impressive even now, they must have been very imposing when the town defenses were complete. At some point, some enterprising householder inserted a grand banque of renaissance windows in the left tower. Very posh.

Pleasant Shopping

More wandering around the center of Laval brought us to more narrow lanes and quirky buildings, then down the slope to broad boulevards tastefully lined with rows of pretty shops offering everything from luxury goods to a coiffure à la mode. The quaint and tranquille medieval lanes had rapidly given way to a bustling and energetic commercial center. This area had a good vibe, too, and we enjoyed some pleasant window shopping. In fact, we decided that, along with Rennes and Vitré, Laval will be a good place to come shop for things we can’t find in Fougères.

On Marche Ensemble!

Our stomachs started grumbling, reminding us that we had yet to fill them with something. Continuing onward, we stumbled upon a sunken plaza area with a coffee shop and lots of outdoor seating. Perfect! It was quite busy, but we managed to find an outlying table and settled in. It was not cold, exactly. But cool. Hot chocolate seemed just the thing. So we ordered a couple of cups and tucked in to the filled breads (salmon and crème fraîche) we picked up earlier. While we were waiting for the chocolate goodness to appear, a small manifestation (protest) marched into one end of the plaza and speakers with bullhorns began to lead chants and make speeches. The crowd was earnest but civil. It made me reminisce fondly about our former home of Seattle. But it is also quintessentially French. They are born agitators and will protest anything, anytime, with great verve. For some reason, it makes me happy to see. They exercise their right to disagree freely, en masse, as seriously as Americans take shopping. It’s right up there with the daily baguette and sneering at the English.

Über Chocolate

Our hot chocolate arrived in two small cups on saucers and, as always, with a small cookie on the side. Picking up my cup, I noticed that the luscious brown liquid inside didn’t move. Not a ripple. I put my small spoon in to stir and realized that the drink was thick, viscous. Cherie and I debated as to whether it was chocolate pudding or a chocolate bar, freshly melted from the microwave oven. Technically, it was liquid, although my spoon probably would have stood up in it if it had been plastic. To our surprise, the thick gloop in our cups was delicious. Velvety, smooth and creamy. But not overly rich and just the right touch of sweetness without being overpowering. In fact, it was really excellent. We settled in to happily sip our chocolate goo and munch away at our lunch while the pleasing sounds of other chatting tables and the protest filled the air. So French, and so soul-satisfying.

Oblivious to History – Shredding Before the Medieval Ramparts

We had satisfied our stomachs, so they were no longer complaining. [See? Protesting works!] A few meters away was a long stretch of medieval wall remaining from the town’s defenses so we took some time to check it out, trying to imagine how it must have looked in its heyday.

Cherie and Saxon, Masked Up and Ready to Explore

By the time we explored a bit further, the afternoon was waning and Saxon was ready for a rest. Laval has much more to offer. In particular, several romanesque churches and abbeys. But they would have to be for another day. It’s not far away from home, after all. We thoroughly enjoyed our few hours in this interesting historical town on the Mayenne. If you are ever in the area, we highly recommend a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, we enjoy reading your comments. Let us know what you think – good or bad. We can take it. Or, if you have any stories of France you would like to share, we would love to read them.

As always, take care and good health to you all.

Carousel in a Parking Lot

Waiting for La Poste

Waiting … Waiting …

Not much to report, really. But an update on our tower renovation is in order. And I thought I would end with an observation on a mundane aspect of daily life here in France that we found to be, well, a little different.

The Covid-19 solitude continues unabated although we ourselves have enjoyed the company of the two builders who have been working away in the upper level of the tower. Despite delays in obtaining materials, a situation completely beyond their control, Stuart and Kelson have managed to beat what was once an ill-conceived attic space from the 90’s into a much more functional and beautiful master suite. Gone is the raised stage-like platform that beat like a drum every time someone took a step on it. Our two british ex-pats have been able to lower the floor, transforming an awkward lean-to into much more useable floor space and head height around the perimeter. The “open concept” bathtub and washbasin in the orchestra pit has been, thankfully, wiped from memory too. Now, there is a definable bedroom, closet and bathroom – all on the same level.

The Blue Stage – Our Bedroom Before Renovation
Now More Lofty-er!

It’s Beginning to Look Like a Bedroom

As you can see, there is still much to do. Flooring, for a start. But Cherie and I plan to lay it down ourselves. We hope to have that done in a month or two. Our other british ex-pat, Mark, handles the plumbing and electrics. He will be coming in the next few days to complete all of the electrical and plumbing tasks that remain to be done. Still, we are excited to finally see so much progress. The once-tired and neglected top floor will soon be our most private inner-sanctum. A warm and inviting place where we can – and will – sleep in until the crack of noon. And when I say “we”, I really mean Cherie. She is truly a world-class sleeper. Our new master suite will be a perfect place for her to get lots of practice.

Progress on the Stone Wall!

Speaking of Covid, France will be slowly easing its lockdown measures on the 11th of May. We will now be able to travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from home and many more businesses will begin to resume trade. This is exciting for two reasons. First, and most importantly, the easing is confirmation that the death rate from this horrid disease has been steadily declining in France. So, too, have the rates of new infections and patients requiring intensive care treatment. At long last!

For us, the easing is also exciting because for the past couple of months, we have only been able to obtain building supplies by delivery. The irony of having all of this time on our hands but no way to get the things we need to work on the house has been a little frustrating.

Sightseeing Close to Home: A Beautiful Bank in our Neighborhood

Which brings me to the subject of deliveries in France. Having purchased an embarrassing number of items online from a comprehensive array of sources (from large online-only retailers all the way down to private individuals), we now feel that we have earned some authority on the subject.

At its core, there is an inherent contradiction at play in France when it comes to delivering packages. On the one hand, french delivery services display an almost fanatic concern to inform you about the status of your package. Ordered a pair of tweezers? Prepare to receive an almost daily onslaught of emails, voicemails and text messages (SMS) updating you on the progress (or not) of your precious purchase. On the face of it, this might sound like extraordinary customer service. And I suppose it would be if the were providing information that actually matters. But 90 percent of the time, they are just getting in touch to inform you that the thing they told you yesterday hasn’t changed. Great. Thanks for that. I mean, we’re not expecting a life-saving kidney in the mail. Relax, guys.

And, like the boy who cried wolf, this surfeit of useless correspondence lulls you into a state of complacency, bordering on apathy. After a while you no longer read or listen – straight to the delete button. But the annoying thing is that, occasionally, they will slip a crucial nugget of information into one of these messages that changes everything. “Thank you once again [for the sixth time] for your purchase of the tweezers. We are pleased you chose to shop with us. As a welcome gift, we are offering you 10% off your next purchase.” and then “Unfortunately our delivery service informs us that they are unable deliver packages to your area. We have canceled your purchase and will refund your money [which may take weeks].” Wait, what? Why didn’t you know this three weeks ago when we ordered the tweezers and provided you with our address? Did things like this happen before we had the Internet? I don’t remember. But it makes one question whether or not we are actually better off now than we were before the ubiquity of online services.

An Information Sign Across the Park from Our Tower (Tour Desnos)

As the expected time for delivery approaches, the second phase of concern kicks in. You begin to receive anxious messages from the couriers, requesting that you assure them you will be home on the day of delivery. This might be just once, but can be several times. You know, in case you’ve had any sudden change in plans that might inconvenience them and disrupt the entire chain of delivery across France. Couriers here become distraught at the mere possibility that there may be an unexpected hitch. And, if you’re not home to receive delivery, forget about it. They will almost never leave the package on your doorstep. It’s just not a thing here. The only time they will leave a package is if it is small enough to fit through your mail slot, or if you have a lockable package box (which, to be fair, many french people do). On the up-side, this practice eliminates the porch-pirate industry. But it makes receiving a package delivery another one of those all-day affairs – like having cable installed, or waiting for an electrician to show up.

Beautiful in Her Solitude – A View of Fougères from the West

Here’s where the contradiction comes in. In spite of all the confirmations and reconfirmations, during which you have nearly sworn on a stack of holy relics that you will be available to receive delivery of your package, they may, or may not actually show up. And this, ironically, does not seem to cause them any concern at all. All of the carefully scheduled, confirmed, reconfirmed, earnest affirmations and reassurances in the world will not (and often won’t) guarantee that your package will show up on the appointed day, let alone within the appointed delivery window. You may even receive a call from the driver on the day of the scheduled delivery, informing you that he or she will be there in an hour. But then, nothing. They might show up the next day or two, or later reschedule for delivery the next week (after which comes another series of emails, calls and texts).

This all holds true, whether it be private couriers or the national post system. So far, we cannot find any pattern in this delivery chaos. It’s a mystery to us. So much so that we now call it: French Roulette. You just never know if your package will show up when expected, or even at all. I acknowledge that this is definitely a first-world problem. In the scheme of things – especially in this time of pandemic – it’s a rather trivial annoyance. But it does tie up a surprisingly considerable amount of time and effort. And we are retired. I can’t imagine how people manage it when they have busy lives with work and children.

This is why many tend to make use of points relais. A point relais is often a retail business which maintains a side hustle in acting as a depot to receive package deliveries. We’ve chosen this option many times and it’s generally quite reliable. A point relais can be found anyplace from a large supermarket down to a mom and pop tabac shop. We have picked up packages from florist shops, tailors, home decor stores, and grocery stores. It’s not a huge deal, I suppose. Just different. And that’s one reason we moved to France: something different.

Take care. Be Safe. Peace, and good health to you all.

If you feel the need for a moment of zen, I recommend tapping on the video below:

Snacking en plein air

A Sudden Solitude

Relaxing in the Kitchen

The house is quiet these days. No builders. No jackhammers. No appointments. Just Cherie, me and our dog Saxon. Waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic in our tower of solitude. Like many, if not most of you, the steady rumble of activity which once marked the passing of each day has come to a rather abrupt halt.

An Empty Place Pierre Symon in Front of the Château

France has been in lockdown since the 17th of March. And it’s been a considerable change. Fougères is not normally a town that’s frantic with activity, but the streets are now nearly deserted throughout the day. We’re allowed to go out to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy, take one hour of exercise per day (providing it’s solitary and no further than one kilometer from home), or to take our dog for a walk to use one of his many favorite toilette spots around town. Spoiled for choice, really. We’re fortunate in that we have a small grocery store and two boulangeries within a couple of blocks walk from our house, along with a boucherie (butcher) and a poissonnerie (fishmonger). They are allowed to remain open so that everyone can still obtain food, wine, cheese, toilet paper, medicine, and – of paramount importance – their daily baguette. Even in the face of a national crisis, the French keep their priorities straight.

Chillin’ Below the Tower – Casual Indifference from the Town Goats

The deadly seriousness of current events has ironically been belied by the absolutely glorious weather we’ve been having during this period. It just goes to show that Nature couldn’t give a damn about whatever ills humans are suffering. And rightly so. Since when have we, as a species, ever really given a damn about Nature? At least Nature isn’t intentionally hostile to us. I wish I could say the same about humanity. From our windows in the tower, we can watch the park’s resident team of goats, bees and chickens go about their business. I haven’t actually asked them, but I get the feeling that they are quite enjoying the respite from human activity. Like most of the other parks, the Parc du Nançon below us has been closed as part of the lockdown. As a consequence, the park’s domestic animals and wildlife have had the space to themselves. It’s probably just the intensified quiet, but we swear that the birds are singing more spiritedly and more often. And the squirrels are much more visible. No humans. No dogs. Air pollution levels have dropped considerably since the lockdown too. What a blissful vacation the park’s flora and fauna are having!

Pandemic Emptiness in the Medieval Quarter of Fougères

If all you watch is YouTube, you get the feeling that everyone who has been under lockdown is already beginning to go a little stir crazy. People are bored and resorting to watching a steadily degrading selection of Netflix series or performing increasingly stupid human tricks. But we still have a huge amount of work to do on our new house. So boredom hasn’t yet taken hold. Except, perhaps, for Saxon. He is pining for the parks and greenways and he doesn’t understand why we can’t take him for long walks. So, yeah, the dog’s a little bored.

The Guest Bedroom Approaches Completion

Construction work on our house has ground to a complete halt. Technically, the lockdown rules allow builders to continue to work if they are able to maintain social distancing. However, they can’t really obtain the materials they need to keep busy. Most of their suppliers have shut down operations. So, in effect, the lockdown has halted nearly all building activity. But the list of small projects which Cherie and I can accomplish is long and we’ve continued to steadily tick them off. Our guest bedroom is now 95% complete after we posed the last wallpaper panel and finished the trim and paint for the en suite bathroom door. The radiator is still a hideous green banana color and there is a small section of baseboard which I need to make; but other than that, we have our first nearly-complete room.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Our beautiful new door handles have been fitted to our bathroom doors. I know it doesn’t sound like much. How hard can that be? Bloody difficult, I can tell you. But only because I very unwisely chose to purchase british door handles and locks. You see, the hostility which the British and French have felt for each other for hundreds of years has been at a low ebb over the last century. But it still exists. And this cultural antipathy manifests itself in thousands of little ways. Frustratingly, one of these ways it makes itself felt is in door hardware. To my dismay, I discovered that british handles and locks do not match up with french doors and frames. Which is to say, the english male bits don’t fit in to the french female bits. While this metaphor has been overcome thousands of times in cross-Channel conjugal relations (as the many resulting french/english children attest), it remains an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to door hardware. As a result, I spent a ridiculous amount of time reconfiguring our french doors and doorframes so that they would accept our new british door handles. What a pain! But they are now both in place and looking rather spiffy. Brass on the outside and polished nickel on the inside. Now we can enter the closed borders of our guest bathroom without hindrance and Brexit when we’re done.

A Life of Luxury in France

Mind you, the house is still a disaster area. Boxes, furniture, construction materials and dust everywhere. But our kitchen is in a working state. Even though there is still a considerable amount of decorative finishing which needs doing. Our evenings are spent in this room watching Netflix or YourTube, with dinner plates in our laps and tea served on our little terrace table-to-be. We’ve managed to cobble together two dining chairs into a sort of loveseat with a sheet over it to protect from all of the dust. Reasonably comfortable, but a pale comparison to a proper couch. A few months ago we bought a big, beautiful new television. It’s still in the box. Sigh! But, PERSPECTIVE, as I always say. Tragically, there are millions of human beings living in terrible, horrible conditions around the globe. And this pandemic has thrown many millions into economic distress, not to mention the thousands of deaths resulting from Covid-19. How’s that for a little perspective? Our petty complaints are nothing in comparison. Cherie is quite good at remembering that. Thankfully, she is also persistent in reminding her all-too-fallible husband that we are very fortunate indeed.

Facing Down a Stone Wall – A Staring Contest I Cannot Win

Currently, we’re engaged in a standoff with a stone wall. We’re determined to reveal the stone wall in the place which we have dubbed the Rampart Passage, an area which will serve as a laundry room/way out to our terrace on top of the old town rampart to the east of the tower. To our advantage, there is two of us and only one – stone wall. And we have tools. Apart from being, well, stone, the wall also has the advantage of being covered with multiple layers of concrete and paint. Lots of paint. Hmnn … I can see what you’re thinking: the odds don’t look good for a happy outcome in this scenario. At least not one in the immediate future. And you’d be correct if it weren’t for two secret weapons at our disposal. The first weapon is an over-sized vat of paint stripper. While we’re generally loathe to use chemicals when we can avoid it, this is war. And we intend to win it. The Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in this case. So chemicals it is. The second weapon at our disposal is our stubbornness. Yes, forget your cleverness, your intelligence, your ingenuity, your hordes of skilled workers with years of specialized training. There’s nothing that sheer, ignorant obstinacy can’t accomplish. And we have plenty of that. So, look out, stone wall! An idiot armed with an oversized brush, a bucket of hazardous chemicals, and the utter inability to comprehend when he’s beaten is coming your way. Let the games begin!

The Sun Setting on a Tranquil Day – View Westward from La Tour Desnos

As always, we’ll keep you updated on developments. We hope that when the the worst of this crisis is over and things begin to return to some kind of normalcy, the builders will return and we’ll have more dramatic changes to report. And we’re also hoping to get out to do more sightseeing. We really enjoy it and we’re happy to share our travels with you. To all of you reading this – hang in there, stay safe and healthy, and stay occupied in whatever way makes you happy. Cherie and I wish good health to you and your loved ones. We’ll all get through this Covid-19 crisis together. As always, stay in touch and please share your comments. We really enjoy reading them. See you soon!