The Nimes Report-Part 3

In which we say Hola to Spain…..

Nimes is barely an hour and a half from the Spanish border, so we decided to head to Spain for a short week. First we drove along the Costa Brava, with its arid mid-section leading down through granite cliffs to little coves lapped by gentle waves from a cerulean sea. We lunched on tapas in the white-washed fishing village of Cadaques and slept next to the El Far lighthouse in the white-washed fishing village of Llafranc.

It looks pretty idyllic, but looks, as we all know, can be deceiving. We get fresher fish at Les Halles in Nimes. You may find it surprising to learn that intrepid Brunhilde did not make the trip with us. Instead we drove an Avis car. It turns out that European parking garages are for tiny (read “fuel efficient”) cars only. Brunhilde’s stature simply doesn’t suit, as attested by the dent in her roof as Bernard was backing her up in a particularly tight spot in one garage. Did I just say that Bernard dented the car? Yes, I did!! Of course, Bernard didn’t make the dent; the section of concrete bulging from that garage’s absurdly low ceiling did. Still, the number of bonus points ka-chinging into my “Mistakes” account is hard to believe!!

It took me all of half a day to fall in love with Barcelona. And half of that was spent with my jaw open, in and around Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral. You’ve probably seen images of this unfinished masterpiece. So have I.

Those photos don’t convey in the slightest what it feels like to be inside the building. I was spellbound by how Gaudi was able to take the basics of gothic architecture and create a space of such tremendous warmth and light. The man was a genius and we spent our several days in Barcelona enthusing about the houses, buildings and parks that were designed by him.

Barcelona also is famed for its version of Les Halles, called Boqueria. I don’t know what it is about markets, but I never tire of wandering around them. And if fruits are just too healthy for you, stick your hand in some of the candy bins which do a good job of mimicking the bright colors of real life.


Boqueria is the place to go if you want truly young animal parts for your meal: suckling pigs that were barely a foot and a half long, infant lambs. And there was the usual complement of body parts that aren’t usually mentioned in polite U.S. society, but that are the grist of many a succulent meal in Europe.





Even though it was only ten in the morning, we had to stop at one of the lunch counters and eat immediately, garlic be damned. Miniscule squids for Bernard, mammoth prawns for me. We’ve done this a couple of times in Nimes as well, where I get to indulge in rabbit hearts and duck giblets, while Bernard eats a more traditional white sausage with some excellent potatoes.

I have been out and about with my camera, collecting the images you would expect when living in an old French town: church steeples, cobbled lanes, quaint balconies, Christmas decorations.

Still, when one walks narrow stone-paved streets every day it all starts to seem so, well, ordinary. Instead of more cobblestones, Roman arches and stately trees with leaves in the middle of winter, I thought you’d like to see something the French do really well: cute dogs. My subjects were beside themselves with delight to be in such demand. The young ones couldn’t hold still, the old ones just wanted to get back to bed, while their owners cordially regaled me with the particulars about their pet. In order of appearance, I give you: Hungry 6 mos: crepe stand dog; Viva 8 yrs; Pelouche, 2 yrs; Baccio 3 yrs: tea room dog; Canelle 13 yrs; Monsieur Fenetre: doing his job.








Every evening the shops in the pedestrian old town of Nimes and Barcelona pull grills and metal shades over their front windows for the night, irresistible canvases for street art. Seeing them throughout the town, one after another, I was struck by how much brashness and color they added to the cold beige stones of buildings and alleys. I think when you see them all together, you’ll get some of the same impression I did.

Here’s the next amazing fact about Nimes which I promised you. In 1530, a certain Jean Nicot was born in Nimes. As ambassador to Portugal he spent two years there organizing the marriage of a French toddler to the 5-year-old King of Portugal. The little princess refused to stop growing long enough to fit in her wedding dress. The king was more interested in his toy carriages. On his return to France he brought with him certain plants that enabled him to introduce snuff to the French court, quickly hooking Catherine de Medici. In thanks for his assistance, the plant was named after him and we remember him to this day with the word for that perniciously addictive chemical in cigarettes: nicotine!!! Which is why I find it so amusing that there’s this shop in the center of town:

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The Nimes Report-Part 2

Here’s me at the end of our flight from Denver to London in mid-November.  Honestly, I felt more cheery than I looked.  After all, I was arriving in the EU, of which I am now a member.

Brunhilde fairly leapt for joy when we drove out of the LandRover-crammed storage lot where she’d been cooling her wheels for the past year.   Ahh, the delight of being back on the road again, finger on the map, uhh, I mean ear cocked to the British voice  on our new Tomtom GPS who (which?) politely but firmly told us every move to make and then repeated it three times.  I am trying to take heart and learn from her example, but it’s discouraging.  My British accent just doesn’t cut it.  And then there was the thrill of crossing the English Channel (why does no one call it the French Chanel?) in only half an hour, on a dry (that IS the point) and efficient car-train.

That was followed by the damn nuisance of the French toll roads whose pay machines could not understand our American credit cards, continually rejecting them in favor of cold, hard curos.  Not to mention the utter unfairness of the dense fog that obscured the undoubtedly lovely countryside we  drove through for two and half days.  The new GPS proved her worth by guiding us to a garage when Bernard mistakenly filled Brunhilde’s empty tank with high octane gas instead of diesel. Wait!  Did I just say that? Yes, I did.  I have so many bonus points in my “Someone else made a mistake,” account that I don’t know what to do with them!!!

We did stop for certain marvels, like the steel Pont Canal which spans the Loire in Breare; a certain Mr. Eiffel of Tower fame was part of the design team.   This aqueduct carries a side canal OVER the Loire and is entirely navigable even though it goes above the river.  We saw a good several feet of it……

In what has turned into quite an aquaduct-related trip, we also saw, and drove over, this marvel, which spans the river Tarn near Millau:

But all that is a tale from far-away times, as since then we have been enjoying a peaceful existence a mere stone’s throw away from southwestern France’s best bakery as well as a most lavish indoor market.

Our routine is firmly established.  Early morning one of us walks the 100 yards for a fresh baguette for breakfast.  Some time later, I take two satchels and head to the market for fresh fruit, salad, radishes, olives and whatever else strikes my fancy. We eat all day long….and I don’t have to prepare any of it!  Thank goodness for the three flights of stairs to our garret apartment; I call it my free, personal Stairmaster as well as proof that, despite my French passport I remain sadly calorie-conscious.

We’ve had visitors, too, with whom to share our local pleasures.  Bernard’s sisters Odile and Laurence have both spent some days here.  We’re eternally grateful that both of them brought sunny and warm weather with them, so we could eat lunches outside on our rooftop terrace.

To be honest, believing in a snowy winter here is kind of a stretch.  Even the stringing of sparkly lights cannot disguise that palm trees in the small squares of old town, where we live, have fronds, not needles.

The evergreens that the city has splurged on to winterize each plaza have been sprayed with a white gunk more reminiscent of melted marshmallow than snow.  Despite the dearth of snow, it’s definitely been chilly enough on many days for me to happily patronize the street stand where a large paper cone of roasted chestnuts warms my fingers before becoming a satisfying afternoon snack.   And there’s a kiosk serving hot mulled wine in the plaza below, which I have my eye on. The rivers of lights overhead on the pedestrian streets are a dreamy vision on a warm evening when Bernard and I go out for an aperitif at a nearby bar (yes, I realize everything is nearby here), or in search of a new restaurant to try for dinner. We saw them being put up, which is kind of like seeing your Dad put on a Santa beard the night before Christmas.

We’ve accomplished a lot of regional inspecting, visiting quaint cobble-stoned villages like Uzes, the bustling university city of Montpellier, along with the well-known towns of Arles and Avignon.  In Arles we caught the acrobat act of a small traveling circus; human and goat alike performed daring feats of balance before our very eyes!!











We’ve perused the countryside in between, where treasures such as the Pont du Gard still capture the imagination.Part of a 50 km aqueduct built in the first century AD, the bridge stands 160 feet high and carried 44,000,000 (not a typo!) imperial gallons of water to Nimes every day, which back then was one of the Roman Empire’s great outposts.  We feel especially fortunate to be here in the winter, when the lovely old buildings and squares are quiet and empty, rather than the summer when even seeing the cobblestones underfoot would be an accomplishment, so crowded is the region at that time.  Even our few days in Paris, accessed by superfast train in 3 hours (!!!), were a pleasure of normalcy.

As Christmas approaches, Nimes is lighting up all its monuments, including not only the arena…

…but also a ferris wheel which is the crowning feature of a children’s amusement area just outside old town.

I have been indulging in two photographic studies, which I will share with you in Part 3 of this newsletter, along with some amazing bits of information which I am certain will impress you as they did me.

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The Nimes Report-Part 1

It’s been a year since we’ve seen Brunhilde, during which time she has patiently waited for us to reappear with some driving in mind. Well, we’re on our way, though not to the far-flung, exotic locales of usual. No, we are going to be civilized for awhile, renting a small apartment in the center of the old town of Nimes and spending some weeks doing a few of our favorite things: exploring small roads and out-of-the-way villages, sampling local foods, drinking agreeable wines.

One big difference between this trip and, say, Burma, is that we will handily speak the local language. Even if we cross the Pyrenees to dip our toes in the water along Spain’s Costa Brava, we will not be tongue-tied (or, at least, one of us won’t be). And, BIG NEWS, we will both be EU citizens, as I have recently received my French passport! It only took four years……

Why Nimes, some have asked? A quick look at this weather chart will give you one easy answer, especially as compared to the 25mph wind (constant) and -7 temps (yesterday morning) of recent days here at the ranch, where snow is already covering the fields.

But here’s another, less well-known reason to go there. Nimes is linked to every one of our lives. Intimately so. If you’d like to have your “Aha!” moment of the day, read on: As early as the 18th century, there’s been a sturdy fabric called serge, originally made in Nîmes, France, by the André family. Originally called Serge de Nîmes, the name was soon shortened to denim. Denim was traditionally colored blue with indigo dye to make blue “jeans”, though “jean” then denoted a different, lighter cotton textile; the contemporary use of jean comes from the French word for Genoa, Italy (Gênes), where the first denim trousers were made.

Wow, you’ve gotta love those French!!!! And here I thought blue jeans were invented for me and my hippy friends in the 1960s …..

Jeans, wine and weather aren’t Nimes’ only attractions. Our apartment is literally two minutes walk from Les Halles, Nimes’ enormous indoor food market, with everything from meats and olives to abundant fruits and vegetables, from baked goods and daily fresh baguettes to prepared foods galore, cheeses and charcuterie!

Our apartment has a little balcony overlooking this plaza in the old town, a spot that undoubtedly is packed with visitors during the summer, but at this time of year should be pleasantly occupied by locals. And us, of course.

Here’s other news, this time related to publishing. My book is making its way through the publication process with amazing (alarming) speed. It’s already finished with the first pass of typesetting. This means that what used to be a long, double-spaced Word document now looks like something you’d pick up from a bookstore or library shelf. In other words, it looks like a real book. This is extremely exciting, as you can imagine. Though the publication date is 6 months away, here’s a sneak peek at what the cover will look like once the book is out. Let me know what you think!

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Hay Lady–Part Two

My reverie of disaster is necessarily short lived. Jim’s already hooking, swinging and stacking. And I’m up here to show I’m one of the boys. There’s nothing for it. Pulling my leather gloves tight, I grab my two hay hooks and slam them into the sides of the bale at my feet.

Let me pause here for one word about hay hooks: lethal. Like all proper tools, hay hooks have been refined to suit precisely the work for which they’re designed. Although mostly used as a pair, each unit has a slightly different hook geared to its use not as part of a team, but solo. It’s a divine example of function defining form. In my left hand, I have a hook whose arm is short with a hook acutely angled, ideal for stabbing and lifting. In the other hand is one with a longer shaft and a more open hook angle, making it useful for dragging. When I slam the hooks into each end of the three-foot long bale, it’s like hugging a prickly object with sharp prongs. I can lift and place it just so next to the ones Jim’s already laid end to end, string sides up, on the trailer deck.

At least, that’s the theory. By the time I have moved one bale to its final resting place, Jim’s moved five. Before we’ve jointly repositioned and stacked the first fifteen, Bernard’s tractor is back with the next fifteen. We back our way down the 53-foot trailer, placing one bale parallel to the edge and the next two perpendicular to it. By the time we reach the end, we’ve jointly heaved, swung and shoved about eighty bales into place. That’s barely three tons, with seventeen more to go. Already I’m wiped out.

I set my hands on my hips and blow hard. Even though this isn’t a race, I’ve been keeping score. I know this is sad and distorted, and yet, I can’t help it. Even sadder is that it bothers me that I’m losing badly to Jim, who’s sweating like someone in a Turkish bath. That’s from exertion, since he’s set 75% of the bales so far.

A week ago I railed about how women’s work on a ranch seemed so strictly codified. Now I’m thinking the job of offering sweet rolls and a mug of hot coffee to the trucker sounds pretty good.

Before I have a chance to reconsider, let alone massage my quivering arms, fifteen more bales plummet to the deck. We bend to the task, slinging bales to form the next level of a stack that ultimately will teeter seven bales high. That’ll place me over five yard off the ground. If I do manage to stick with the task till the last level is complete, how the hell am I going to get down? It’ll be like standing on my second floor balcony, not a place from which I’d normally have to clamber with hooks in my hands.

Jim and I complete the second level. By now my shoulders are burning and my wrists are so tired I can barely grip my hay hooks. Every part of my back protests each time I grab a bale and I don’t know which direction I could twist that wouldn’t induce an echoing ache. My mouth and lungs are parched from the dust released from nearly seven tons of dried grass thudding onto the deck. Turning around to preserve some misplaced sense of feminine modesty, I hawk and spit, but come up dry. Whatever saliva I started out has evaporated.

I sit on a bale while Jim continues to stack. He’s got a delivery to make and he can’t do the polite thing and wait around for me to get with the program. I’m long past regretting my decision to help load his truck. Now I’m focused on how to secure myself a graceful exit. The notion of food and drink glimmers in the dusty recesses of my brain. Not being the morning baking type, all I can offer would be toast slices with jam. But I’m sure even that would be welcome, since Jim had to drive three hours to get here by 7:00a.m. And even a hardened hay hauler would welcome some cold juice to wash that down. Plus some strong sweet coffee to perk him up for the long drive down the canyon.

“Hey Jim,” I shout, waving to catch his attention. He places his bale, turning to me with a patient smile. “How about I stop interfering with your progress and go get some cold breakfast for you from the house? I can make you a sack lunch for the road, too.” Truck stop food varies from awful to poisonous, so anything I care to send with him will be appreciated.
Jim is all kindness and support. “Well, girl,” he says. “I don’t know if I can manage this without you.” We look at each other, while I smear dust and dirt around my cheeks with my dirty glove. Hay residue is ground into a fine pale green stain on the front of my jeans. And because I stupidly wore sneakers instead of high boots that would be covered by my jeans, my socks are full of prickly stems. My feet feel like they’re clad in hedgehogs. My hair is in scraggles, having lost contact with my original neat braid long ago.

I want to give Jim a hug, first for putting up with me and second for going along with my hastily conceived exit strategy. But there’s a jumble of bales between us. Bernard, who can’t hear what we’re saying since he’s in the tractor, is already on his way back with more. And I have a suspicion that Jim and I are not yet quite on hugging terms. Ever the gentleman, Jim extends his hand to help me over the bale mountain to where I can carefully climb down from the truck.
It’s official. I’m not a hay stacker. Doubtless I never will be. But I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. Because I showed that I’m game to try. And I make a mean jam sandwich.

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Hay Lady–Part One

Hay has taken over my life. I dream about it, measure it, price it, evaluate it, spit its tobacco-y dust out of my mouth and pick errant shreds of it out of my hair. I’ve rattled and bounced through our hay meadows on a tractor pulling a rake or a baler, watched hawks eyeing the freshly revealed crop of meadow mice from under those bales, seen the late-day sun turn newly baled fields to gold. I can name the grasses that make up our mountain meadow bales and persuade strangers to pay more for it, because it’s better than anyone else’s.

I’m thrilled to pieces to be able to explain what I know about hay to others. Backyard horse proprietors, who previously only knew that they wanted their hay to be green, now are walking, talking fountains of hay wisdom, thanks to me. It’s gratifying.

To work with hay haulers, I’ve memorized hay hauling lingo, so I can converse with the drivers in a manner that’ll put them at ease. I figure if we’re using the same terms, they’ll be more inclined to work for me. This is important, because there’s high demand for their services. All the hay in our county is harvested within the same six-week period. And every rancher wants to get their hay away to customers before the snow comes. The haulers can pick and choose for whom they’ll drive. The best ones have unspoken contracts to haul for certain ranches and if I want them to haul for me it’s like the line at the deli counter: take a number and wait your turn.

In my mission to jump the cue, I’m a fountain of arcane data, able to chat about the total length of a typical hay hauling tractor trailer rig, highway height and weight limits, how wide an entry they need in order to turn into someone’s barn yard, and how much I should pay for our hay to be hauled just about anywhere in the lower forty-eight. I know a “tractor” is the engine and cab part of the big rig, and a “cab-over” is a tractor without a snout. There’s no place to sleep in a cab-over, so anyone who drives one figures his drive will be short enough that he can get home to his own, stationary, bed.

A hay hauling trailer has a “head rack” against which the bales of hay are squeezed to pack them into a secure, safely transportable load. A driver whose trailer doesn’t have one is a driver unaccustomed to the work of loading six hundred hay bales by hand and then delivering it all in one piece to someone 150 miles away. And that could mean trouble. I look for trailers with a conveyor belt built into the bed, which mechanically transfers the entire stack of hay down ramps onto the ground on delivery. Clients love them. And anything my clients love makes me happy.

The time comes in every hay lady’s life, when if you’re gonna talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. It’s one thing to know without a shadow of a doubt that our bales average seventy pounds. It’s quite another to fling all that dry grass around personally. One day I set myself the task of doing the hay equivalent of summiting Everest. I’m going to help load a hay truck.
For weeks I’ve watched drivers with a gut big enough to obscure their belt buckle, strap on stiff leather hay chaps, grab hay grapples that would make Captain Hook green with envy, and load their trucks from our hay stacks. “How hard can this be?” I ask myself. “These guys spend their whole day sitting and driving, and they can do it.” Yes, I come from a life where I’ve been adept not just at accomplishing whatever I set out to do, but doing it better than most. And yes, I’ve now spent months outdoors and active. Still, one side of me tentatively raises its hand, wishing to point out that fitness is relative. It respectfully wishes to remind me that every time I heft a bale and bump it up to my pickup bed with my knee, I heave a secret sigh of relief that I only have to lift one. Now I’m offering to lift three hundred, a disconnect between wishful thinking and reality that is startling in its optimism, disturbing in its naivete.

Jim, today’s hauler, is waiting in the stack yard when we arrive to start loading. As I toss my hay hooks onto the bed and clamber up he looks at me with surprise. “What you know, girl?” he offers, to cover what I imagine is both his pleasure at having some loading assistance and his dismay that the helper for today is me. Having sent the doubt-monger to sit in the corner, I am impressed with what I’m about to do, giddy that I’m going to join the fraternity of true hay acolytes.

Bernard plunges the tractor grapple down, and hooks fifteen bales at once, which he swings over and carefully sets down on the bare trailer bed. As work arenas go, the bed of a trailer is a far cry from my former office. Although long, it’s only eight feet wide, which means I’m doing a hay cha-cha-cha on the equivalent of an executive’s desk. Instead of files, this particular desktop now is littered with a jumble of hay bales, which we have to straighten and place in a precise pattern if we’re to fit the maximum number of bales into this load.

Stems of dried grass litter the surface, making it as slippery as soap film on a shower floor. I am so aware of all the tragedies that could befall me in this small space that I hardly dare move. Before even arriving on the trailer bed, any of the bales could loosen from the tractor grapple and hit me, changing the connection between my head and my neck forever. A chance misstep as I maneuver over the cluttered bales, and my newly repaired ACL is history. Bumping into Jim could send me flailing off the trailer for a long unhappy fall to the ground, breath gone, back cracked. One hay hook losing its purchase on a bale would mean an instant rotater cuff tear as that bale’s full weight wrenches my shoulder out of its socket. And the damage inflicted if a hay hook finds a purchase in my thigh instead of a bale doesn’t bear dwelling on.

Click here for Part Two…..

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