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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Day in France

What May Day really means to the French

For the French, May 1 is a special day where everyone gets a day off. Stores, banks, and government offices are all closed. People spend this day of leisure with their families or friends. 

Fête du Muguet (the Feast of the Lily of the Valley) all started with King Charles IX of France in 1561. He was given the flower as a lucky charm. He liked it so much that he decided to give it every year to the ladies of the court. Today, the flowers are sold in bouquets on the street, at churches, and in stores around France. People offer the flowers to friends or family members for good luck.

Of course, for the Catholic Church, May Day is St. Joseph the Worker Day. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Le Puy held a Mass in honor of St. Joseph this morning. 

Happy St. Joseph the Worker Day, especially to the Sisters of St. Joseph!!

Eluiza and I celebrated the day by going to Mass at the Cathedral, making homemade pizza, and taking a day off.

May Day is also Fête du Travail (Labor Day). Trade unions and other workers' organizations use this day for marches in the streets in favor of workers' rights. Called "International Workers Day," the tradition began in 1889 after following the lead of a Chicago workers' strike in 1886 when 35,000 workers walked off their jobs to demonstrate for the 8-hour work day. In 1941, French workers finally won the 8-hour work day, which included getting a paid day off.

This year is especially important one for transportation workers. They are in the midst of a national strike (la gréve) that began in April and is scheduled to continue until June. Fortunately, it takes place only 2-3 days a week, but it requires a lot of maneuvering for travelers.

If you are traveling in France this spring/summer, here is a schedule of rail and air strike days: 

Thursday, May 3 - Rail and Air France strike (Tuesday, May 1, is the Fête du Travail public holiday. Public transport will be very limited)
Friday, May 4 - Rail and Air France strike
Monday, May 7 - Air France strike
Tuesday, May 8 - Rail and Air France strike (also a public holiday)
Wednesday, May 9 - Rail strike (Thursday, May 10, is a public holiday)
No air strikes are yet scheduled beyond May 8, but could be called if negotiations fail. Meanwhile, further rail strikes are planned on the following days:
May 13-14
May 18-19 (May 21 is the Pentecôte public holiday)
May 23-24
May 28-29
June 2-3
June 7-8
June 12-13
June 17-18
June 22-23
June 27-28

A list of trains running will be displayed in each station. Any mainline ticket for a cancelled train will be valid on all trains running on that day along the same route. Customers who prefer to cancel their trip has the right to a full refund at the ticket office, regardless of purchase price.
Rail passengers heading towards the platforms at Gare Montparnasse, Paris

The Independent, an online UK site explains why the French railway workers are on strike in its April 13, 2018, edition.
"The country's railway workers are engaged in industrial action over proposed reforms to the SNCF, the national railway, which will be opened up to competition in 2020 in line with EU requirements. 
SNCF employees currently receive automatic annual pay rises, receive 28 days of paid annual leave, are allowed to retire at 50 and are entitled to free tickets for family members. 
These perks will be lost under the contractual reforms proposed, which will mean an end to jobs-for-life for new hires. 
The SNCF is presently £40 bn in debt and operating at a loss of £5,000 a minute. 
France's rail lines are looking at 36 days of strikes in total, two days out of every five from the period beginning on 3 April and scheduled to run until 28 June. 
All four of France's main rail unions are involved. In total, 77 per cent of drivers and 34 per cent of staff are downing tools. 
Air France pilots, cabin crew and ground staff are also on strike - demanding a 6 per cent pay rise given that their wages have been frozen since 2011. The company is currently only offering a one per cent increase with added benefits and have been duly snubbed."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Notre Dame de la Neige

It was a cold, rainy, windy day, but we took time off from the Centre to spend time at the Abbey of Notre Dame de la Neige, about 90 minutes from Le Puy. Snaking through the mountainous French countryside proved to be a great adventure despite the bad weather. The smooth two-lane highways; the gorgeous, green-clad farms sectioned off by stone fences, some with brown-spotted cows; and the white, blossoms of various fruit trees gave way to colorful rocky outcroppings in the mountains that were made more beautiful by the rain. 

As we neared the abbey, we suddenly found ourselves in a national forest thick with pine and cedar trees whose fallen needles reddened and yellowed the ground beneath. The encircling fog made the forest mystical, and it soon became clear why we were on holy ground.

entrance to the Abbey

Notre Dame de la Neige is a Trappist (Cistercian) abbey that was founded in 1850 and became a reality with the first of its three buildings in 1874. 

Our Day at the Abbey
We joined the monks at Mass in the simple but inspiring chapel where there was chanting, incense, and prolonged silent periods. The monks sat in the front of the chapel in traditional, wooden monastic stalls that faced the center aisle. The rest of us looked forward at the altar and sat in creaky wooden pews.

After the Mass we looked around for other life and discovered a building which housed the monks and the retreatants. A man on retreat let us into the building. Then, one of the monks, who was dressed in a long white robe with a black surplice, allowed us to use the small dining room for our lunch. 

Eluiza and I had brought a picnic lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and brownies since we didn't know if any restaurants would be open in the area. Typically, the French close their businesses on Sunday and spend the day with their families. We felt very privileged to be there! 

The monk also told us that the gift shop, museum, and 25-minute film about the abbey would open at 2 p.m. After lunch we decided to spend the next 90 minutes in a small town seven kilometers from the abbey, St. Laurent les Bains. The town had an old castle on its summit.

This beautiful little town was tucked away in a valley, which hosted a hot springs. I made a mental note to return here to  experience them; I love hot springs!

We also found a small, family restaurant that was open. It appeared that the husband and daughter cooked the French country-style food and the mother and another daughter served it. The steaming dishes heaped with stewed meats and vegetables looked very good as they were transported from the kitchen near where we sat to the diners' tables. This was yet another reason to return to this town.

I had planned to have just a coffee, but noticed the French fries (les frites) that other diners had ordered. They looked too good to resist. Eluiza had her favorite dessert, creme brulé. We both found satisfaction in our choices!

We returned to the Abbey only to be in another rainy downpour, but managed to find the bookstore. It had some wonderful books about the Abbey, the lives of the monks, and medieval life as well, which has lately been a great fascination for me. I purchased two books (in simple French): one on the medieval monks and the other on the medieval knights in armor. Also available were healing herbal medicines the monks had made as well as jams and beer. A volunteer layman served as the cashier at the store. 

We saw some hikers (randonneurs) and pilgrims at the abbey, which welcomes them with accommodations as part of the monks' ministry. The hikers were walking with a couple donkeys (reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.) that later grazed on the grass outside the abbey's museum. 

We explored the small, outdoor chapel and were captivated by its simplicity and welcoming ambience. 

We missed about half of the film, but saw enough of it to get a taste of the monks' life at the Abbey. What was really interesting was the museum that featured the life of Br. Charles Foucault, who had entered the Trappists through this Abbey. Prior to his entrance, he was a military officer in Algeria.

Here are some of his personal items.

Brother Charles and a couple others have passed through this abbey to make it a famous stopping point for pilgrims and tourists alike. Here are their brief bios.

200px.Brother Charles Foucault, entered the order here in 1890. The former French Army officer had developed strong feelings about the desert and solitude during his assignments in Algeria. He later returned there to live and minister to the Tuareg people. He was assassinated in 1916 and considered by the Catholic Church to be a martyr. His inspiration and writings led to the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus and he was beatified on November 13, 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI.  

Walking in France: Robert Louis StevensonRobert Louis Stevenson also passed through here with his donkey, Modestine, during the autumn of 1878. He wrote about his journey in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. (I'm reading it now.) The young Scottish writer who later became famous with Treasure Island and Kidnapped, chose this mountainous area because it was one of the few parts of France where Protestantism prevailed, according to Walking in France. His trek has now become a famous hiking route that starts in Le Puy and ends in Florac. 

He liked walking because "you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl." Walking helped him "surrender himself to that fine intoxication that comes from much motion in the open air, that begins in a sort of dazzle and sluggishness in the brain, and ends in a peace that passes comprehension."

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-19000-2453, Robert Schuman.jpgRobert Schuman, a French statesman and two-time prime minister, also has a connection with Notre Dame de la Neige: he hid from the Nazis here during World War II. Although he was a minister with the first Pétain government in charge of refugees, he refused to continue because he objected to Nazi methods. He was arrested for these acts and almost ended up in Dachau. Instead he became a personal prisoner of Nazi party leader Joseph Buerckel, from whom he escaped in 1942. He then joined the French Resistance and continued speaking about the need for European reconciliation that must take place after the war, as he had done before the war. Schuman later helped re-build post-war Europe and was one of the founders of NATO, the Council of Europe, and the European Union. 


On our way back to Le Puy, we saw this beautiful scene of a bridge over the Allier River (a tributary that flows into the Loire River) with the mountains in the background. It had been an awe-inspiring day!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Annual Pot-au-Feu Celebration in Le Puy

Pot au feu2.jpg

 The annual "Pot-au-Feu" celebration was held on Saturday, March 24. Citizens from the Le Puy area were all invited by the Super U grocery store to attend.

Pot-au-feu is a French country tradition that literally means "pot to the fire." The dish has been around at least since the 11th century where it was cooked in a big pot over a fire

According to Chef Raymond Blanc, pot-au-feu is "the quintessence of French family cuisine; it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike." 

The main ingredients of pot-au-feu are some kind of cartilaginous meat (oxtail or marrowbone), carrots, turnips, leeks, celery, and onions. The spices used are bouquet Garni, salt, black pepper and cloves. 

The pot-au-feu in Le Puy took place in some nippy weather with overcast skies, but the hundreds of people who attended the annual event were not dissuaded. The wait in line wasn't very long either.  

Servers from the Super U staff as well as members of the Le Puy community joyfully and efficiently dished out this fine repast. 

The pot-au-feu followed a regular French déjeuner format, which also included an entree of saucisson, a generous wedge of cheese, baguette, eclair, wine, water, and coffee. 

The pot-au-feu celebration was held courtesy of the Super U, which prepared and offered the meal for free (gratuit) as a community service project. It seemed that all of the people of Le Puy were there and Eluiza and I joined in on the fun!

Le Puy is basically rural mountain country, so local farmers brought their animals to proudly display them. The Super U contracts with these farmers to stock their meat counters. It also seemed that through the presence of these animals, farmers were trying to help people recognize the farm-to-table connection.

French cows are usually white or white with brown spots.

The butcher who processes beef is called a boucher and his shop is the boucherie

These huge cows (about 5 feet high) were lined up. There was a contest going on for people to guess the weight of 25 cows and win a prize. Below is their front side.

Pork is an important and widely-used meat in France. Regular cuts are popular as well as various prepared foods like bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, galatines, ballotins  pâtes, and confit. 

The butcher who processes pork meat is called a charcutereur and his shop is the charcuterie. 

These porkers seemed cozy with one another, but one didn't hesitate to  strut his stuff or let the others know who was tops in the pecking order.

Sheep producers brought their black sheep, which are unique to the Haut-Loire area. The males are used for meat while the females are used for wool and for milk that will be turned into a delicious cheese called fromage de brebis

The animals were pretty mellow, but one seemed willing to communicate with onlookers.

Farmers are greatly revered in France. News outlets frequently feature stories about them and French agriculture throughout the year to tout the quality of French food. A couple weeks ago there was a huge agriculture exhibition in Paris. President Macron was there to observe and support farmers. It is also important to note that the French local food movement is alive and well, although it continually struggles with industrial agriculture. 

Also on hand at the pot-au-feu event were dancers who demonstrated some pretty good line dancing accompanied by American country music. Although they seemed a bit out of place in France, it was yet another example of  how American culture is imitated around the world. After all, who wouldn't want to be a cow poke? Just hearing the music transported me back to the USA for a while.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring Has Sprung in Le Puy


It's only March and already the flowers are peeking up from the ground as buds on the trees and rose bushes are emerging. The grass is also getting greener at the International Centre. The days are getting longer, and it's getting a little warmer (except for this week). Soon we will plant our garden!

Neighborhood gardeners are readying themselves for spring by tilling the soil and planting cold crops.

The Borne River is gradually waking up from its slumber as the riverside trail prepares itself for the walkers, runners, hikers, pilgrims, and cyclists. 

Yes, indeed, spring in Le Puy has sprung at the International Centre!