Resuming where I (Mark) left off last Thursday, February 17 -
(note, if you don't want to read a story about getting from A to B, then maybe wait until the next update from me (Mark) - this is all about getting there and the people along the way - thanks!)
I took the train from the village of Haselmere into the city of London with one change along the way. The verdant rolling countryside along the way speaks little to the utter density of development in England. With a population of 51,446,000 in 2001 settled on a landmass 51,346 square miles, the math is fairly simple - about 1,002 people per square mile. Compare that to the state of Massachusetts with 6,547,629 people according to the 2010 census spread across 10,555 square miles - about 620 people per square mile. (Note - strangely wikipedia states that MA’s population density is 809.8/sq mi - the third most densely populated state in the US (after New Jersey and Rhode Island) - I double checked my math using the same figures I got from their site and came up with 620 yet again. Who knows?) The point is - there’s a lot of people in the British Isles. But despite the density you still get a feeling of open, working agricultural landscapes while traversing the countryside. (Of course, this density comes at the expense of ‘wilderness’ - or otherwise undeveloped land.)
And really all that just to say that it was a lovely train ride to the city of London. Once there, I hopped on the tube to cross town where I was to catch my Limoges, France-bound train at the London St. Pancras station. While this is kind of an aside, I feel it bears worth mentioning. Right now, I’m in Madrid (Spain) and popped out to pick up a bottle of wine to help inspire the reflective process. Apparently they stop selling alcohol at 10 and I arrived at the first shop at 10:05. The man behind the counter proceeded to nervously take me towards the back of the shop where he proceeded to remove a display rack holding some type of shrink wrapped pastries probably ‘baked’ 3 months ago, behind which stood a set of cupboard doors. He opened the doors and hurriedly told me to pick out what I wanted from the extensive selection of wines hidden within the storage space. I picked out something (didn’t really feel like I had time to be choosy) and he then proceeded to quickly bag it for me, take my money and usher me out. How’s that for some adventure? Wow, does life ever seem exciting these days.
Ok, so that’s just a bit of context. Now back to the recount.
I had some time to kill before the train departed and spent it in a pretty schmancy (that’s definitely not a word - at least the way I spelled it) little cafe, catching up with some e-mails and making sure my last minute plans to meet with Michael Ashby in Limoges were all set. With 15 minutes before departure, I rushed towards the platform where I learned that I was actually subject to an international airport-like screening process complete with x-rays (thankfully they didn’t take my trusty Opinel knife - I can’t believe they didn’t actually), metal detector, passport check… I was getting nervous I was going to miss it - or get deported, but I made it and boarded a sleek, new European train bound for Paris.
Struggling to keep awake from days of full-on living and a comfortable window seat, I found myself retreating in and out of dreamland which meant I completely missed our passage through the channel tunnel. I regained some consciousness wondering if we were still in the UK and found the nearest commercial development sign that clearly indicated we had entered French territory. The landscape was about as flat as flat can be (though I don’t actually believe that any landscape can actually be ‘flat’, as it all - well almost all of it - has to drain somewhere). Peppered with a smattering of industrial buildings interspersed between sprawling farmland (most of it in some type of cover crop or hayfields), the landscape was relatively benign until we started to see some changes in topography and a bit of forested land. Within another hour we began to enter the Paris metropolitan area, and open space gave way to urban development.
We arrived at the Paris Nord train station where it was time to change trains. Like many major European railway stations, the facility boasted remarkably high glassed rooftop, feeling about as open air as an airplane hangar-sized structure possibly could. Switching currencies, languages (one for which I’ve got about a 30 word vocabulary) public transport systems, and stations all in one go over a 1 hour layover was a bit much. Fortunately, the Paris Metro is very self-explanatory and I had Euros leftover from my last trip to Europe nearly a year ago. I had to head across town to the Paris Austerlitz station. It all was pretty straightforward, the only downside being that I was in Paris but had zero time to actually say hi to the cityscape.
The Austerlitz station wasn’t nearly as bustling as that of Paris Nord but I guess it really didn’t matter as we were off within 45 minutes. I grabbed a ‘pan au chocolat’ before boarding and enjoyed a pretty low key journey south. We started to see more woodland emerge as we escaped the bustle of the city with the tracks frequently lined by healthy, but unmanaged hazel stools and oak-dominated forests. It was pretty dark by the time we reached the station at La Souterraine - about 30 minutes north of Limoges - where my English-born, French-residing host Michael had agreed to pick me up.
Just as I left the station, I made eye contact with a tall, full-bodied, kind-looking man rapidly approaching. It seemed that we both ‘recognized’ one another at the same time, and despite the fact that both of us were ‘late’, our timing was impeccable. We said hello and headed for the sweet 4wd 90s?, driver on the right side, Toyota minivan that was to be our ‘tour’ bus for the next couple of days.
I scarcely had a chance to absorb my new surroundings before we were headed back towards Michael’s family’s home about thirty minutes away. What I can say though was that the buildings appeared as one might expect in a traditional French town - well proportioned, solid, and oh-so-aesthetically pleasing configurations of local stone and tile rooftops. The moon must’ve been full as we passed through the rolling countryside for we could make out much of the detail on either side of us as we got to know one another a bit beyond the limited e-mail exchanges we’d had during the lead up to my visit.
I discovered Michael via a google search for something like ‘coppice France’. Michael is an avid woodsman - an absolute lover of trees and all of their products and potential. He nurtures a fantastic blog as a mechanism to share his insights and musings with whomever in the world cares to read it - http://myfrenchforest.blogspot.com/
As a start up nursery man in his early professional years, his life has taken several turns along the way, the most recent of which (13 years ago) led him and his family to relocate to the countryside north of the French city of Limoges in what I was soon to learn is located in the exquisitely beautiful Limosin region. Looking for a place where they could afford a house and some land, they stumbled upon a property that suited them perfectly with a mortgage that would cost them less than what they’d been paying for rent in the UK. And that was it - they relocated and the rest is history.
So as you might guess, I’m glazing over a whole bunch of details, but that more or less brings us to the present which is likely why you’re taking time to read this in the first place. After extracting some cash from an ATM and a half hour on the road, we arrived at the Ashby chateau, where I was greeted by three of his four children (Andrew, Oliver, Tom - Tim would return the following day) and his wife Angela. On the way back, I learned it was Andrew 17th birthday and so Michael got to preparing Andrew’s requested birthday meal - fish cakes and chips. Their home is a cute, sprawling, old stone French building (or series of add-ons) with hand-hewn chestnut roof timbers, low ceilings and a lot of character. I sat around the table with Andrew and Oliver, who I believe had not yet met an American so we set to task, getting clear on what the Land o’ the Free is really all about.
It was a kinda like a fun interrogation by some eager interviewers - but I was ever so aware of the fact that I was to date, the sole real American diplomat to shape their views and do my best to undo the stereotypes of American life. It really is amazing to learn what people think we’re like in real life, people (I guess ‘people’ here means the American readers.) Well, fortunately for those of us that tend not to follow the status quo, I’m not you’re ‘typical’ American so I probably shattered some typical assumptions, namely - I’m fairly slender, I don’t watch television, I don’t have an SUV and I don’t eat McDonald’s.
After Michael ‘grilled’ our dinner and the kids (lovingly) ‘grilled’ me, we ate Andrew’s birthday dinner, followed up by a decadent chocolate cake. I definitely picked the right night to arrive. We continued to converse until about 11 or so, when Michael, his 3/4ish year old son Tom, and I headed to Michael’s friend Brandon’s house in a nearby village where I was to stay for the night.
We passed by some chestnut coppice along the way - the first active signs I’d seen since my arrival in France 8 or so hours earlier - and climbed up to the village of Bossabut (I think was the name). Brandon’s lovely home was located at the top of the village where I was assured I’d enjoy incredible views come morning.
The three of us met Brandon on his landing and made our way into his restored stone maison where he offered us beers and I gladly obliged. We sat around conversing for a bit and sharing stories until Michael and Tom set off for home. Brandon showed me around the house - I was astonished with his kindness and willingness to share his place with a stranger. Originally from northern England, he’d travelled quite a bit in life and had spent time as a DJ working in New York and LA. Somewhere along the way he’d found this village in France and knew it was the place for him. He’s since become a builder and handyman for folks in the area, growing familiar with most all of the tasks necessary to renovate and retrofit these centuries-old buildings. He has a keen appreciation for the quality of life that the people in the villages enjoy and the way they’ve preserved so many of their traditions. It was humbling to hear how open they were to newcomers who demonstrated a commitment to the village and how much he admired their spirit.
We stepped outside for a bit to enjoy the cool night air and the magnificent moon. Up above the house, we sat out on a bench he’d built overlooking the fields below. It was amazing to imagine the possibility of picking up shop and moving to such an idyllic location. It seems well within reach both economically and socially for anyone interested in doing it - well, except for the economic part - meaning that it’s economical to buy there but earning a living may prove to be a bit more of a challenge. Either way, it was wonderful to have met several folks already who had chosen to do just that.
Feeling a bit worn from a full day (is it really still the same day?), I checked in for the night, eager to see what the rest of my time in this magical land would bring. For those of you looking for details on coppice, read the next installment (sorry to tell you this at the very end). This was all just to set the scene and develop the characters a bit. Good night!