Stop All the Clocks

Issaka, Anne-Claire, Ramatou and a sleeping Khadidja at the Niamey Airport, August 3, 2011

Insha’Allah. The phrase is often the last you’ll hear from as you say goodbye in a Muslim country. As we passed through the barriers at the Niamey airport to board our flight back to Morocco, we told Issaka and his wife Ramatou that we’d see them when we returned, some day.

“Insha’Allah,” they said. “If God wills it.” It didn’t occur to us that God wouldn’t will the reunion we all looked forward to in that moment.

I’m still working on my last post from our summer travels. But we got some sad news today that makes it difficult to share more of the joy we experienced this summer, especially when someone who played such a big role in bringing us that joy is no longer with us.

This past Monday night in Niamey, Ramatou—Issaka’s wife, not Anne-Claire’s best friend from her service—died after getting sick that day. I haven’t spoken with Issaka directly, but he mentioned in an e-mail that she’d had some heart trouble in the past. Nothing about her 30-something appearance suggested that she’d fall ill so quickly. Not the way she buzzed around the house making sure Anne-Claire and I had everything we needed to feel at home. Not the way she looked after the children, whether hers by birth (Khadidja) or by marriage. Not the way she prepared more than a dozen meals for us while we visited.

Like so many Nigeriens, her first instincts in any situation were to smile and to laugh. That never-met-a-stranger smile put us at ease right away.

Not just statistics: Khadidja and Mohammed each face a childhood with only one parent

I won’t make much hay here trying to reconcile why these things happen. I’ve certainly tried to rationalize the unfairness that seems to pervade places like Niger, to no avail. The conclusion I come to is that so much in this life, and the way in which it often ends, is dependent on where you’re born. Ramatou’s death is a jolting reminder that a life expectancy of around 52 years (compared to ours, nearly 80 in the States) and other statistics are grounded in the real devastation for many families. Unlike other countries, Niger is not beset with the scourge of high AIDS rates (at least that we know of) that drags down the age to which people can expect to live in otherwise up-and-coming African countries like Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.

Putting a face on these numbers is not a new topic for this blog, but it’s perhaps the most sobering lesson from our trip this summer. I’m left with few answers and only sadness for Issaka and for Khadidja, yet another toddler who found her way into our hearts and now will grow up with only the memory of one of her parents.

Medieval France

I’m convinced Anne-Claire is on a mission to become friends with all the best cooks in France. Last year, before starting graduate school, she came to Cahors in southwestern France to brush up on her French. While the school itself turned out to be a disappointment, she made lifelong friends in the family she lived with – a woman, Cécile, and her two daughters, Elora and Maylïn – cemented with their shared appreciation of top notch food and excellent “black wine” from the region.

We made the trek from Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic coast of France to Toulouse, and then turned north to Cahors. Cécile and her girls met us at the train station and welcomed us into their home.

They live on five floors built around a spiral staircase, tucked in the town’s old section, which dates back to the 14th century. Strolling the narrow, gorge-like streets, you catch glimpses of arching stone windows and the ancient timbers that still form the endoskeleton of these shotgun homes (only here, you’d better point the gun skyward if you want the bullet to clear the building’s walls and occupants, rather than horizontally as you might in an American home of this type).

After stashing our stuff on the second-floor room (ours for the three nights we stayed there), our hosts took us on a walk through Cahors, the highlight of which was seeing the spectacular Pont de Valentré, built in the 1300s. Legend has it that the bridge’s builder had to sell his soul to the devil to meet the construction deadlines. But to ensure that the bridge would never be completed, he gave the devil a sieve to collect the water needed for the last bit of mortar. The devil of course couldn’t carry any water with the sieve, leaving the bridge unfinished and thus saving the master builder’s soul. In retaliation for being tricked, the devil

removed a cornerstone from one of the bridge’s towers every night that had to then be replaced in the morning. To this day a devil sits high atop the bridge (thanks to the architect in charge of the bridge’s 19th century restoration) poised to yank a stone from one of the towers.

Our walked ended with a stroll along the Lot River, followed shortly thereafter by a delicious dinner.

The French pretty much have this whole food thing figured out. Every meal we had at Cécile’s had at least three courses. The first night we had rabbit in a mushroom sauce, and dessert was a caramel chocolate tart made by a pastry chef that Anne-Claire made friends with last summer. Other dishes included farsi – seasoned ground pork stuffed into tomatoes and zucchini – and fried duck, along with a smattering of foie gras (duck or goose liver) in various forms. I’m almost certain foie gras is Anne-Claire’s favorite thing on the planet, though I thought it was a little strange that she’d stop to thank the ducks we saw sitting along the roadside.

Cécile and the girls’ father split up a while ago, and it sounds like he’s shirked his responsibilities to them a bit. The upshot of those difficulties is that the three of them have become as close as I’ve ever seen a mother and two teenaged girls. Maylïn and Elora are truly best friends, even at 17 and 15, and it’s obvious that Maylïn’s coming departure for university won’t be easy on anyone. When we visited, they were enjoying each other’s

company and the month of August that Cécile gets off for vacation.

One afternoon, we all went to a charming hilltop village called Saint-Cirq-Lapopie with incredible views of the Lot, the region’s namesake river. Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe the stone-paved streets and the curving red-tiled roofs typical of towns here and in the adjacent Dordogne region. I’ve been fortunate to live in some beautiful places, so I don’t often seek out the most attractive locales for travel, but this part of France begs for a longer visit in the future.

Our stay in Cahors finished with an abbreviated meal of foie gras and a lasagna-like dish with thin layers of pasta and a light sauce. The real purpose of the evening was to sample the dozen or so desserts Cécile had bought from Anne-Claire’s friend’s pastry shop. Though we nearly made ourselves sick, we tasted an éclair stuffed so full of rich chocolate that the chef had sliced it lengthwise to accommodate it all, a lime tart with a basil ganache, a fraisier (strawberry cream and cake), a cake soaked in Cointreau, and a handful of equally inventive others. Even with a half-hour break midway through, I woke up the next morning still full.

Across the Pyrenees

We left Burgos, again without a clear plan, knowing only that we’d spend a night in Pamplona and make it to Cahors in France at some point in the coming days. A quick calculation as the city bus to the train station told us we weren’t going to make our train that day, so we grabbed a empty taxi (somewhat miraculously, as there weren’t a lot just trolling for passengers). Even the cab driver was a little surprised at how close we were cutting it, but he dropped us off in time to make it onto the train.

Pamplona is far too big and full of history and culture to begin to absorb in just a one-night stay. Still, we made the most, getting lost in the narrow, cavernous streets that look deliberately designed to form the racetrack for the annual Running of the Bulls that happens here each July. Tiny balconies seem to jut from every window – perfect for watching the run from a safe distance, or for scoping out the nightly rehearsal for the party that precedes the run, as the cobblestones are covered Bourbon Street-style with tipsy revelers.

Like so many cities on the Iberian Peninsula, Pamplona is steeped in Catholicism, and it shows in the beautiful churches that sit on every corner. The Running of the Bulls, after all, is the cornerstone of the San Fermin festival, which celebrates the town’s martyred patron. He was beheaded, hence the red scarves that folks like to wear. Not knowing much about the brutal sport/art that is bullfighting, Pamplona certainly feels like the center of that universe, from the impressive bullfighting stadium to this magnificent rendering of the run itself. It’s done so well that you almost swear the bulls and people move.

From Pamplona we headed deeper into Basque Country to the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just over the border in France. We ended up staying at the pleasant little Hotel de Paris. The town itself is charming – in fact almost overwhelming with its cuteness. The beach too was lovely, if a bit crowded, and the warmish water made for a nice swim on our second day there.

But we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, and we used our lucky find of a hotel room here (as this was a holiday weekend and the tourist office told us that all the other rooms in the area were booked) to stay a second night and explore some of the Basque region. We made the mistake of taking a train to the top of the Rhune. If we had to do it over, we would take most of the day and hike the 900-m peak, enjoy the tough little Basque ponies that dot the hillsides, and gawk at the views of the coastline and the French and Spanish Pyrenees.

Instead, we cheated, whisked up to the top and back again by the “little train of the Rhune.” That left us more time to explore the nearby town of Sare. While it was interesting to see the feisty independence of the Basque people up close – a friendly shopkeeper explained the graffiti we’d noticed around by stating unequivocally, We don’t want another high-speed rail line built here” – Sare was touristy, and everything seemed to be overpriced.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a lovely spot, and we enjoyed terrific meals, replete with creatively prepared fresh-caught seafood and meat galore, at Chez Pablo and Pil-Pil Enea. I wouldn’t hesitate to return here if I was looking for a beach vacation. But, spoiled as we’ve become, we missed not being with people we know who have welcomed us into their homes again and again as we’ve traveled. Thankfully, our next-to-last stop was Cahors, where Anne-Claire had come to study French last summer and met a family eager to welcome her back.

My most embarrassing post

So throughout our travels, Anne-Claire’s made a little hobby of taking pictures of me while I’m sleeping. Which apparently I do. A lot. Especially on buses and trains. So here are a few pictures, none of which is very flattering, of me – well, in my view, just taking advantage of the downtime to catch up on rest. None is worse than this video, however, of me on the bus from Burgos to Castrillo de Murcia. How many chins do I have?

Spanish Whirlwind

As so often seems to happen at the end of a long trip, the places we visited in our last weeks of traveling fell behind more quickly than we wanted. This wasn’t helped by the succession of quick stops we made as we headed toward Burgos in the Castile region of northern Spain, where we hoped to see Anne-Claire’s host family.

We traveled north from Porto with the vague goal of getting to Santiago. Two trains, a cross-border cab ride with a tri-lingual taxi driver later, and a short hike from the train station, we arrived in the bursting endpoint of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Our original intention had been to hike a few days on the Portuguese Camino, but backpacks laden with too much port and cured meat discouraged us from hitting the trail.

Santiago was pleasant enough, beautiful in fact, with its winding streets and sprawling cathedral. But not having done the hike, I felt more like a spectator as most of the folks in the town’s streets – many of them with 

Reflections of Molinaseca

bandaged knees and taped-up feet from 500 km or more of hiking – were basking in the catharsis of their journeys’ end. Still, it didn’t stop us from bellying up for some delicious food and beer.

The next day took us to Molinaseca, a charming little town on the Camino that Anne-Claire and her dad had both fell in love with on their hike a few years ago. We spent the afternoon napping at the river on the edge of town that greets pilgrims as they trek toward Santiago. If you know Sycamore Pool in Chico in Lower Bidwell Park, it’s sort of like a miniature version of that. At some point, the

The cathedral in Burgos

townspeople paved part of the bottom of the river and built walls along the banks to make a nice swimming area. Many pilgrims can barely keep their shoes on long enough to cross the stone bridge before they plunge into the icy water.

From Molinaseca, we took a bus to Burgos, now home to a Disneyland-like town center with another sprawling Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) begun in 1221. From there, we took another bus into the countryside, through streets in tiny villages that didn’t look big enough for a Smart Car, let alone a full-size motor coach.

Antonio and Michel in Castrillo de Murcia

Our destination was one of these small towns, a place called Castrillo de Murcia, where Anne-Claire’s host mother Amablé (who we’d seen in Aix-en-Provence in June) was born. Like many of the town’s residents, she moved away for work and to raise a family, but she returns every summer, when the population swells from a winter-low of 100 to about 500 in the summertime. Built around a hillside, with a skyward-reaching church at its axis, the village feels like a permanent block party. Folks mostly rest during the heat of the day in their houses built of chilly stone, but at night, kids fill the streets of the walled center, playing (as their parents do) well into the night.

Once again, we were treated to meal after meal of fantastic Spanish dishes. The first night, we sampled morcilla de Burgos, a local blood sausage made with rice, onions and salt. Lunch the next day repeated a favorite meal I’d had in quite a few countries on this trip – lamb and fried potatoes. This time, Amablé’s partner Michel cooked the steaks over a wood fire in the fireplace he built in their courtyard.

Michel has this insatiable curiosity that’s led him to pick up Spanish (he’s French by birth) and English in the last five years, and he loves to tinker (called ‘bricoler’ in French). Amablé’s mother’s house (where we stayed) is littered with small improvement projects he’s done over the years to the hundreds-of-years-old structure. Little would tip you off that he’s 70 years old, apart from the thick shock of white hair on his head that shows no signs of thinning. He and I took a 25-30-km bike ride through the countryside and through a handful of small towns that sit on the Camino de Santiago, which Michel has biked twice. He has plans to pedal along the route from Castrillo de Murcia to Molinaseca this September.

We rode up a short hill to a plateau that afforded us unimpeded views of the wheat and wind farms that stretch across the rolling hills in every direction. We each rode bikes Michel had salvaged from the trash and fixed to usable condition for just these types of rides.

After coming down the other side of the plateau, we happened on these spectacular church ruins in San Antón just outside Castrojeriz, which boasts its own specatular ruined fortress perched on a hill high above the town, a vestige of the protection once needed from Moorish invaders. The church in San Antón now houses a hostel for pilgrims on the Camino, but standing inside the roofless walls, you get the sense of what a grand cathedral this must have once been. Huge buttresses arc right over the roadway, supporting now-imagined walls that must have soared. Later that night, we drove out here with Amablé and Anne-Claire to see the church in even more splendid light.

Before dinner that night, Michel took me to the family’s cave, which Amablé’s father and his friend had carved out of the thick bedrock decades ago. True to his French roots, Michel brings a few dozen bottles of his favorite French wine with him every summer, and he stores it, along with vegetables in this chilly cellar with a green door and an almost-comically huge key.

It’s a big key

Given the hospitality they’d shown us not once but twice on our journey, it was tough to say goodbye the next morning. Amablé is pretty good with farewells, perhaps thanks to the practice that hosting 9 or 10 students over the years has given her. A few touches of cheek to cheek and we were off in Michel’s car as he drove us to the bus station in Burgos.

Still traveling guidebook-less, we wanted to head toward Pamplona and then up through the Pyrenees to see another of Anne-Claire’s host families back in France.