27 September 2014

21 September 2014

Sunflowers, fog and castles

After two weeks of sunshine punctuated by the odd dramatic night-time thunder storm, Poitiers surprised us with a (very welcome!) respite. I woke up to this view from my window today:

It felt a little eery, and a little magical, and perhaps the sort of day that invites hunkering down in some book-drenched coffee shop with a hot drink and a warm cozy view of the rain outside. But I had woken up with a plan, and nothing short of monsoon-level rain was going to change this. A little drizzle? No prob.

The plan: get out on that battered, second-hand bike-of-mine, and see some France. The bike, which I acquired in my second week here through a handy Craigslist-style site called Le Bon Coin, is clearly a salvage of some sort: but it rides well, and has that sexy dropped handle-bar shape of a racing bike. With a little fine-tuning (including restoring the functionality of the 18 out of 21 gears that don't work...), it will serve. 

The destination: Chauvigny, a medieval town tucked into the countryside about 13 mi (21 km) east of Poitiers; the perfect distance, and beautiful:

Heck. Yes. The ride was damp and exhilarating, and apart from the frustrations of having only three functioning gears, not so hilly as to make me give up and walk home. I locked up in the city center of Chauvigny, and struck out on foot to discover its winding alleys and its hilltop castle. Each street and alley was beautiful - so intrinsically French in their beautiful stone and stucco architecture, with wisps of television and conversation floating out of open windows as I walked past.

The heavy fog made buildings materialize out of nowhere as I climbed up along steep alleyways that wended circuitously toward the medieval quarter. I hadn't been expecting a castle, but I turned a corner and there one was: grandiose, regal even in its disrepair, suspended over the city like some sharp-eyed eagle on its perch.

Chauvigny's medieval quarter extends for what seems like ages, and the roads are (if possible) even more tangled than those of the "modern" Chauvigny down below. But beautiful buildings and cobbled streets and red tiled roofs wait at every twist and turn - the exploration (and the getting lost) was worth it.

When at last I tore myself away to return to Poitiers, I took a detour route and saw something incredible I had missed on my way to Chauvigny: miles upon miles of fields filled with the empty husks of sunflowers, sprawling out unendingly in each direction. It was eery and empty, and when I stopped to walk a short way into one of the fields, I felt like I was walking through some Miyazaki film next to spirits that I couldn't quite hear or touch or feel, but which I could just see all around me through the damp mist. Beautiful and strangely poignant with the fog all around us.

And so my bike has passed its first big test (I'll still be getting those gears fixed, however...), and I have meandered a bit further afield in my explorations of Poitiers and its surroundings. This first week of classes has been exhausting and challenging and exciting, and I suspect that it will just get more intense from here - these adventures out into the veins of the French paysage will become a lifeline.

13 September 2014

Les marchés

A bag of plums, a sprig of juicy warm grapes; some carrots; an onion; a head of lettuce. The fruit and veg that I am finding at the tranquil downtown markets is fresh and rich in flavor. I am in heaven.

The weekday and Saturday markets take place in the cobbled central square of Notre Dame, a quick 15-minute bike ride across the river from my dorm. The old (c. 11th-12th century) stone church that dominates the courtyard peers over a ream of colorful stalls that squeeze up against one another in a precarious assemblage of delicious everything.

It's hard to emphasize the beauty in Notre Dame square, compounded by the fresh excitement of all this beautiful fresh produce; I believe that I shall get used to doing my weekend shopping here mighty quick.

05 September 2014

Six hours of language class a day leaves the brain jumbled and worn, to say the least. Constructing neural pathways is hard work, after all! But I can feel forgotten French words pouring back in, and new ones accruing slowly in the language aisle of those mental storage vaults.

As the enormity of this huge new change begins to settle into a regularity of sorts, I can start to take the time to re-incorporate the little elements that filled out my life before now.

One of those elements: drawing. So today I made my way to Poitiers centre-ville by bus, where I got a brand spanking new blank sketchbook, planted myself down in front of one of many, many, MANY picturesque buildings, and got to work.

Drawing is something that I can lose myself completely inside of. I just put on an audio book or a podcast (or RFI's Journal en français facile, if I'm being a good student), and I'm in another world.

A few people tonight stopped to watch and to talk to me, and after a while I took my headphones out completely so that I could be social for french-learning purposes (invaluable: a small boy, with his father's encouragement, stopped to tell me qu'il était artiste aussi, and show me a drawing he had done at school earlier). But normally it's a time when I'm in my own world completely. With pen and paintbrush in hand again, I feel one step closer to normal here in Poitiers.


As a note, I am one of those hipster Instagram users, and that is where I post my ink & watercolor drawings. My username is holljmck; come visit!