After nearly two months of restrictions on any and all movement, we finally got out to explore the region where we have been living since just before our second lockdown of 2020. I have a long personal history of movement. I have been geographically relocating every two months to two years since leaving for university at the age of 18. I also find it challenging to physically sit still. I am designed for movement, and my psychological health suffers greatly when I have to stay in one place.
My husband and I spent the past four years on the tight budget of an unfunded doctoral student. My husband was content to wallow in his research and writing, and so I did my exploring around the city of Brussels on weekend when he could stay home with our very needy husky. Unlike the husky my husband adopted years ago, who he described as being independent and rather like a cat in a dog’s body, the huskies we have since adopted since have been far more of the Velcro than lone wolf variety. My husband claims this is because I am a magnet for needy animals. Of course, he also claims he does not “need” me; rather, he “wants” me. This is an actual debate we engage in fairly frequently and also have come to joke about. I want to be needed, especially by my fur babies. My husband prefers to think of partnership as a choice (one I wonder if he questions after the lockdowns of 2020, but sometimes it perhaps wiser not to ask too many questions…).
Through two lockdowns, I have managed to spend precious little time staying still. I clean a lot, trying to keep our tiny half of a farmhouse from feeling too overwhelmingly crowded. It can tend to feel like a storage container with all of the furniture that was here when we moved in and the many corners where we have piled up our boxes, suitcases, typewriters, etc. In the one room upstairs that has the potential for spaciousness, my husband stacked rows of mattresses and bed frames behind two standing wardrobes, effectively cutting the room n half. The cats love it, as it has become their personal cat cave extravaganza, but it does not help the feeling for me that the walls are closing in around me.
It was this feeling of being suffocated that reached and surpassed a dangerous threshold yesterday afternoon. We had spent two days, washing all of the bedding. Without a dryer, this means hanging sheets from a rope my husband has slung from a nail on one side of the only ground floor room across to the staircase. We also spread them over the folding dry rack. Pillow cases dry on the rack I bought to put in front of the pellet stove.
On the one hand, my inner child should revel in the fantastic truth that as an adult I can create forts in my living space any time I want. Even my inner child has been exhausted by 2020, however, and instead I found myself on the verge of stopping everything to scream as loud and long as possible when, while trying to pull a bedspread that it turned out was not actually entirely dry back over the rope, I pulled a bit too hard and the rope broke. This caused both the bedspread and the other sheet and multiple towels to fall to the ground.
That was it.
I was done.
I climbed the stairs and went to hide under the comforter and was soon joined by one of our four needy four-leggeds. I spent a few minutes feeling quite dismal and desperately sorry for myself for having to live in such cramped environs with dreary, depressing wallpaper and low ceilings. Cue several tiny metric violins to begin playing just for me…
Then I went downstairs and suggested we get away from the farmhouse and go explore a town to the north for a few hours. And we did. We even left the dog in his crate for some quality time away from the kids!
Our destination was the medieval town of Bergues, known as the Brugges of France and for being the filming location of a movie called “Welcome to the sticks” (“Bienvue chez les Ch’tis”).
After finding it very easy to park and wander around the town, we decided it felt much more accessible and “do-able” than Brugges. Without the influx of expensive shops and restaurants, we were free to wander and enjoy the view. Old beautiful architecture, ancient churches, a moat surrounding the town were all within walking distance. Given that the confinement is ongoing, there were no restaurants open for a hot cup of tea or coffee and a snack, but we did find a patisserie called “Le Gros” (Fat one) with the best croissant I have yet eaten since moving to France mid-September. The title of the bakery did not fit the local fare, however. I have yet to see any truly obese people. There must be some element of control, which I seem to be missing, with all of these incredible pastries within our grasp at all times. Literally, there is a bakery near our house with a pastry and bread vending machine outside so that baked goods are available 24 hours a day/7 seven days a week.
For our second confinement, we have been on a strict diet of pastries and fresh bread. Maybe, the “Le Gros” was named for the fat expats who try for lost time by eating ungodly quantities of baked goods. Certainly, we seem to be doing a fair job of making up for years living away from one of the only countries in the world that seems to have figured out how to make exceptional bread and pastries. Even in the small farming community where we live, there are at least five boulangeries to choose from, and we have a few favorites. We have been testing which makes the best bread and pastries during this lockdown. We prefer the bread, pistolets (rolls), and torsades (twisted pastry with little chocolate chips) from Boulangerie Louise. Maison Bril has (in our foreigner opinion) better croissant and, my favorite, brioche of all kinds! Their pastry chef also makes a variety of “crunchies,” which consist of a little brick delight consisting of a layer of caramel or marzipan atop a layer of shortbread and then dipped into dark or milk chocolate. Some also have nuts in the chocolate dip surround. Delicious, buttery evil, at its best. So basically, we have been subsisting on butter and sugar for the past two months, with intermittent wanderings around farm fields through sunshine, rain, wind, and fog.
At “Le Gros,” we picked out an almond croissant, a traditional croissant, a baguette ancienne, and two little bags of homemade milk chocolate covered caramel for gifts. We also brought home a little crumble type dessert. When we asked the shopkeeper what was inside and she mentioned frangipane, I exclaimed that we must have it. I have become a bit of a frangipane nut since the Galette des Rois have come out at Boulangerie Louise. I believe frangipane is also the main filling inside almond croissants, which must explain why I love those as well.
From my very surface level research, I have now discovered that frangipane is a kind of cousin to marzipan. Marzipan has also been a bit of a mystery, but now I understand that they both have almond as a fundamental ingredient. Marzipan is more of a candy, however, while frangipane is a pastry filling. To learn more (and if you enjoying drooling), Google “frangipane vs. marzipan.”
I am not generally much of a sweet tooth, but pastries in France are in a class of their own. I also love trying new things while traveling, so I decided that we should probably try to find the tastiest croissant and bread in the region where we live. I also have a long history with fear of losing control over my body weight, so this is yet another experiment in what the yogis might refer to as “surrender” or “non-attachment” and the French refer to as “lâcher prise.”
Essentially, I love pastries designed around almond extract. The other day, experiencing a serious frangipane deficiency when we tried a Galette des Rois with apple filling (not the same and more like a chausson aux pommes disguised in the round), I went out in search of a Galette des Rois at Maison Bril. I was quite disappointed to discover they did not have any, but I soon bounced back with the purchase of a pain au chocolat for my husband and a coquilles de Noel sucré (chunks of sugar atop shell-shaped brioche). These we ate for breakfast the next morning. SO. GOOD.
The Bergues croissant was the best croissant we have yet found in our northeast corner of France. The town itself was dreamy in a medieval way. We drove in through the Port de Cassel, parked, and walked toward the bell tower with its shining beacon of a lion on top. I was floored to discover a public toilettes, which literally does not exist in or around Brussels.
After four years living in a city where you have to pay to pee at any “public” toilets, I decided that Europeans must have far stronger bladders than my weak US American one. I spent a lot of time worrying overly about where I might be able to pee if and when I decided to venture into Brussels. There are definitely green spaces, but they are not quite forested enough for easy pop and squat. I wrenched a hole in my favorite winter coat attempting to pee behind a tree one time and getting stuck in blackberry thorns. Another time, I thought I had found the perfect spot, only to discover (thankfully before squatting) a very well hidden police station amidst the trees. That was my final attempt. Since then, I have been practicing strengthening my mula bandha.
Back in Bergues, we sauntered into a bookstore, which felt like a complete luxury. For one, just being able to walk into a shop was brilliant. Having left the dog at home, we were free from the added stress of the bull in a china shop experience of attempting to go into little European stores with a not so graceful and very enthusiastic husky. One time in a shop in Ypres, where they are very dog-friendly, I had to try to very quietly remove him from the sheep fur area rug where he decided to have a little rest without lurching him toward me and the shelves of pottery behind me. Yes, leaving the husky at home has its perks.
I took photos of beautiful book covers. No other country seems quite able to create such gorgeous designs as the French. I also took a photo of astrology mugs on a shelf in a side room to send a friend who has been studying astrology as a way to transcend fear during this very tumultuous year.
We then wandered around one of the rings of the city and out toward the moat that surrounds the town. Across the water was a large flock of geese, which proceeded to block traffic in a way that would make the Mallards of Boston’s “Make way for ducklings” proud for several minutes. A bus waited more patiently than the several honking cars attempting to drive in the opposite direction. The honking did seem to speed things up. Perhaps, the geese recognized the sound as a familiar code language? Either way, I stood watching and laughing the entire time. My gods, but it felt good to be outside in a new place. And man, it felt so good to laugh.
We made our way along the ramparts along a muddy, slog of a trail. While waiting for a woman with three tiny dogs to do their business (to be fair, only two of the three dogs appeared to be doing their business), we walked over to a lookout. The tennis court on the far side of the river and the trailer park a little ways to the right seemed very out of place. Or to use one of my favorite words, anachronistic, out of place in space and time. Of course, I often feel like an anachronism myself. I am out of place nearly everywhere, and according to my husband’s daughter I am already taking on a fair liking to the character of Frankie in the series “Grace and Frankie,” starring Martin Sheen, Sam Waterstone, Jane Fonda, and my doppleganger, Lily Tomlin. Every time I look longingly at yet another hippie sweater or flowy hippie shirt, I try my best to abstain in the hopes that I can make it even a few more years without dressing like I am already in 60s-70s.
There must be something about us since my supervisor at Lowell National Historical Park also spoke of our likeness from all of the time I spent wearing a headset while working. My supervisor was referring to a Saturday Night Live sketch where Lily Tomlin played Ernestine the Telephone Operator.
We carefully descended a slippery slope while the final gifts were being bestowed upon the ground and walked equally careful around said gifts as we made our way back into town. We walked past an ancient building and a memorial to the first and second world wars and toward an even more ancient rampart wall. This is one element of life in Europe that never ceases to amaze me. You can be walking down a busy city street and run pell-mell into a random castle. Granted, we were already walking around a medieval town so it should not come as a surprise that we should come across a medieval rampart wall, but still. Amazing.
The church bells above the church on our left began tolling the song, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and my husband began singing the line “we want some figgy pudding.” I have never really understood figgy pudding, being of Jewish ancestry. If our US American cell phones were able to connect faster to the 3G network in France, I would have Googled it, which would likely have issued a better explanation that I received from my husband. When asked what exactly comprised figgy pudding, he ever so helpfully responded that it was pudding with figs in it.
Clear as mud, as one of my environmental educator friends used to say.
We meandered our way along past charming homes, restaurants, and shops and across a little waterway running through the town. Soon we were back in the town center. My husband wanted to put the cards he bought at a bookstore in the card since it had started raining, so we made our way back to the car. By the time we arrived, it was raining in earnest, and we stood in a doorway to escape the full brunt of the deluge. My husband unlocked the car from our hiding spot and made a run for it to put the cards inside. We considered heading home but decided to continue our foray in the hopes that the rain would stop.
We walked past a statue of a cow by a parking area in the Marche aux bestiaries. Each general area of the town seemed to be named for the specific market that must have been present there in the past. Volailles for poultry. Or perhaps where different animals were housed? I will have to do some digging to find out a bit more than speculation from reading street signs.
From every corner of the city, the central belltower appeared like a beacon with the haunting light that seems to only be present between bouts of pouring rain. Like a rare, warming gift after the soggy cold, which we relished. We walked along the rampart wall and around a neighborhood that seemed decidedly not at all medieval in its architectural design. We could see the pointed top of a building that looked a bit like it was wearing a gnome cap, and we were following a circuitous route to find it. Just as we were wondering if we should have taken a left instead of walking straight, we rounded a corner and saw two ancient structures beyond two ancient coniferous trees.
I took a photo of my husband bending over to take a photo of the first tower, and we walked up the stairs, oohing and aahing as we went. Moments like these make me question why we would ever willingly return to Arizona when so many amazing places to visit a stone’s throw from our home. After four years on a tight budget that allowed for very little exploration, it seems like we have only just entered a period of light after the dark dissertation age.
We wandered around one ancient tower and toward the second, taking photos and commenting on the many layers of brick and stone. The light came in waves between bouts of cloud covering the sun. eventually, we walked down a path toward an archway, turning back to take still more photos in an attempt to capture this auspicious coming together of dark and light on stonework that could tell many stories if we had the ability to listen and understand.
Wending our way down yet another charming road, we once again found ourselves back at the center. One more tour around another ring road, and we were back at the car and heading home. The sky seemed enormous with billowing clouds with light playing and dancing above sodden fields and houses. We drove along the highway, past distant towns with a central chapel and clocktower.
We passed beneath bursts of rain and sunshine, making our way home, our spirits lighter and hearts open to possibility.