A Close Call for Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral
Like most of the world’s citizens who witnessed the sharp, detailed pictures of the Notre Dame fire, I too felt a deep dread that this iconic church would be lost to the world forever. As the flames raged, the gallant firefighters seemed to have the same possibility of success as Don Quixote had fighting the windmill –none.
I had first visited this huge edifice with fellow educators on a France/Louisiana exchange program at the University of Angers, France, to learn French language and culture in 1980. What a first impression it was! Though I had seen many pictures of the great European cathedrals in history books while teaching, I had never seen one in person. When I first faced that iconic facade of twin towers, I began to comprehend the enormity of Our Lady and why millions of tourists created permanent images that they would take home and savor for a lifetime. My friends and I entered the huge church and the first thing we felt was the coolness that contrasted to the warm outdoors. As our eyes adjusted to the subdued light, we began to realize that the enormity of this church exceeded our expectations. Copious art in all mediums—stone, marble, wood, fabric, paintings and glass amazed us. The stained glass rose-shaped windows projected kaleidoscopic colors through the dim, vast spaces. The organ was imposing and powerful enough to fill the church with soul-moving sounds. We then walked up the bell tower (many steps) and came face to face with the huge bells and gargoyles staring menacingly at us.
After our interior visit, we walked around the church while carefully observing the sculptured entrances that displayed the saints, Jesus, apostles and biblical stories. These huge cathedrals were actually teaching aids the church used to acquaint the illiterate masses with Christianity. As we continued our walk to the rear of the church, we marveled at the flying buttresses that made all huge, Gothic cathedrals possible. The view from the rear was spectacular as we could see all the flying buttresses and the steeple piercing the sky near the middle of the church. Behind us was the Seine River that made us aware that the Cathedral and we were on an island. The approach from the front gave no evidence that.
I would visit Notre Dame again in 1981, 1987 and 2012. Each of those visits provided more details to add to my collection of memories. One such visit was in 1987 with longtime friends Sam and JoAnn Dauzat (who incidentally, just before the fire, celebrated a mass there with a showing of the Crown of Thorns) and my wife Freddie. We visited the underground of the Cathedral and viewed foundations of older churches Parisians built there as well Greek and Roman remains-very interesting. We also climbed up to the bell tower (387steps) as Freddie, Sam and JoAnn had never done so. As usual, the views of the bells and Paris were breathtaking, but our legs were painfully sore for the rest of our vacation.
In 2012, I had another encounter with Notre Dame, but that was not in Paris. That year, Freddie and I spent a weekend in Normandy with a French couple we met during our stay in Picardie. They had a second home in Normandy and invited us for the weekend there. We had a wonderful visit of the Normandy Beaches and D-Day museums with our friends who were excellent guides.
When we left them to return to Picardie, we stopped in nearby Villedieu (town of God) to explore some before we left. This little foundry town was famous for its copper pots and pans and church bells. We found the bell foundry and at its entry, a casting of metal images of church bells in production greeted us.
We entered the foundry, and a guide led us on a tour. We learned this foundry was one of the very few remaining in France. Next, and most important, workers were in the process of casting bells for the Notre Dame of Paris Cathedral during our visit. How wonderful and fascinating it was to witness this historic event!
Revolutionists, during the French Revolution in 1791 and 1792, took down the original bells of Notre Dame, installed around year 1330, to make cannon balls. Additionally, they stripped the lead from the roof to make bullets. Mobs destroyed or defaced Sculptures. Notre Dame was renamed the “Temple of Reason.” Paris practically abandoned the great church and used her as a cattle pen. Her future was not bright –less bright than after the fire that was to come in 2019.
In 1856, Notre Dame received four new bells, but the foundry made these bells from cheap metal. The result was that the bells had a horrible sound. Good bells are not made only of iron, but also of several different alloys for certain tones. Artisans tuned every bell to a certain key. Many Parisians hated these four bells as they made a discordant, out of tune sound. Musicians were especially aware of this discordance.
Finally, in 2012, the Villedieu Foundry cast eight new bells for Notre Dame. Traditionally, cathedral bells have names, and these names are after saints, bishops, or biblical figures. These bells are Maurice, Stephen, Benedict Joseph, Denis, Genevieve, Anne, Gabriel, and Marcel. A foundry in Holland cast another bell, Marie, at the same time. These bells weigh a total of 23 tons. The largest (13 tons) and oldest (cast in 1681) bell of all, is Emmanuel. The diocese rings this giant bell only on important occasions due to its old age. There is no bell ringer as electronics do the job now.
In 2013, Paris celebrated the installation of the new bells with great ceremony and celebration. Skilled artisans refurbished the 18th century organ and cleaned individually its 8,000 pipes. The tone of the new bells, accorded perfectly with each other and with ancient Emmanuel, made glorious sounds that delighted the Parisian population. The new bells equaled the original bells destroyed by the Revolution. Even the musicians were in accord.
After firefighters extinguished the fire, it was determined that Paris would rebuild its iconic church. That was good news for millions of people from throughout the world, and me. Why were so many concerned about the fate of this particular cathedral? Others are larger, taller, or more beautiful. Perhaps it’s because Notre Dame is located in a huge city and visited by fifteen million people per year. Its history is also unique –great historical figures such as Napoleon, Kings, Queens, and Victor Hugo with his Hunchback of Notre Dame helped to make it popular. There are so many reasons, but perhaps Ernest Hemingway said it best when he said that Paris was a moveable feast that you could take with you wherever you went. Notre Dame is a considerable part of that feast.
By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France:Journeys to Assimilations
Understanding Our Ancestors’ Lives
Most genealogists do a great job with finding ancestors’ birthdays, deaths, marriages, relationships and legal information. With computer assistance, they can produce a detailed statistical genealogy beginning from their children and ending in the middle ages. Certainly, this is a great accomplishment that satisfies most genealogists and does give them information to know a lot about their ancestors. For those who would like to know more about the nationalities, occupations, lifestyles, diet, political and religious challenges, education, clothing, and migration of their ancestors, there are many sources and techniques available. The following are some suggestions that could help put a sharper focus on our predecessor’s lives.
Researching the historical period your ancestors lived in could produce a great deal of information. For example, if one has an ancestor who lived in Germany during the 18th century, that ancestor could have faced some very uncertain times. Germany was not a unified country at that time, but a collection of principalities that were constantly at war with each other. The religious wars of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were especially devastating. The majority of Germans were most likely farmers tied to the land, uneducated, and robbed of their produce by the warring soldiers of the principalities. It is no wonder that massive migrations of Germans helped to populate the new world well into the 19th century. Citizens of Italy, a country also unified in the19th century, had a similar fate as the Germans. Ironically, Napoleon’s organization of the Italian states during his rule of Italy left liberal ideas that encouraged the drive for Italian unification as a country. The many wars of that period created migrations to different countries, including the United States. Of course, many also migrated to seek a better life.
Ancestors from unified countries such as France, England, Spain and Portugal also had challenges. Again, most were farmers and tied to the land. The Kings often levied onerous taxes on the citizens to finance their wars. The monarchies often conscripted citizens for military duty. Private companies of these unified countries often organized and financed the population of the mother countries’ colonies. Additionally, these countries sent their military forces to the colonies, many of whom settled there.
Studying geography of the areas our ancestors lived can provide many details about them. Most of our early European ancestors tilled the nobles’ lands or their own small farms. Where these lands were located heavily influenced the farmers’ tasks. Colder climates added to the farmers’ risks. Rocky soils added more challenges to producing bountiful harvests. Too little or too much rainfall could mean starvation or dying from malnutrition and disease. High and low altitude areas also influenced lifestyle as elevated soils were usually rocky and difficult to cultivate, and low lands often were more likely to harbor diseases. Rivers were a blessing and a threat as they provided transportation, water, and ideal sites for towns and cities, but could inundate dwellings and farmers’ crops.
Knowing your ancestors’ educational levels can also reveal much about them. Life was much easier for those who were literate. Those who were not literate were mostly farmers or did agriculture related crafts. It’s important to know that until well into the 19th century, the vast majority of Europeans and Americans were not literate. In Europe during the 15th to 18th century, only two percent of the peasant population was literate. Members of the nobility and clergy were usually literate. Citizens of large cities had high literacy rates. Indeed, the Age of Enlightenment did not enlighten everyone –only some of those who were literate. Not all nobles were literate, but certainly, the vast majority of the clergy were. Historians and genealogist are grateful for the copious records the clergy and government officials recorded and preserved.
It is important to add that a few peasants did achieved literacy. Sometimes, a priest would note that a certain peasant’s child possessed unusual intelligence. The priest might start teaching that child reading and writing and then recommend him to a seminary. Certainly, there were a few other peasants who had the good fortune to become literate, but that was not likely.
In modern societies, climate and weather are not as impactful as they were in the past. Modern technology has made it comfortable to live in all but the most severe climates. Weather forecasting has made it possible to prepare for bad weather events. On the other hand, our ancestors were victims of climate and weather on almost a daily basis. One storm could wipe out a crop of vegetables, wheat or any other produce necessary for survival in that era and location. What were the results? Starvation and/or malnutrition were common. Malnutrition decreased ability to work and increased the susceptibility to various diseases. In Europe of the 15th to 18th century, the average lifespan was around 50 years and 50% of the children born did not reach adulthood. Then there could be successive years of climate change that produced colder weather than usual for several years. The result would be reduced crop yields and the subsequent effects as mentioned above, but of longer duration, and therefore, more devastating.
Religion can reveal a great deal about our forbearers. If an ancestor was Catholic or Protestant, or any other religion, then it is possible to learn a great deal about a certain descendant’s ways of thinking, practices, attitudes etc. Protestants peasants were far more likely to be literate than Catholics due to the Protestant requirement of reading the bible. Ancestors from the era of religious wars in Europe endured many hardships and consequently were often motivated to migrate to other regions or countries.
Genealogists and historians generally strive to gather documentable proof of ancestor’s lives and history. However, we can learn things about what our ancestors most likely experienced. For example, if one has a Catholic ancestor who lived in Paris, France during the 18th century, one could assume that that ancestor probably would have seen and/or visited the Notre Dame Cathedral. Of course, that is not a certainty.
This author’s ancestor, Antoine Bellard II, wife Marie Trahan and son, Simon, lived in Baltimore, Maryland in 1769. Marie was one of the many Acadians dispersed from Nova Scotia by the British beginning since 1755. In 1769, this family sailed on a British ship with British crew to Louisiana. Later, during the American Revolution, Antoine fought with Bernado de Galvez, Spanish Governor of Louisiana, against the British in Louisiana. Probably, Antoine II was very happy to fight the British, but there is also the possibility the Governor forced him to enlist. Certainly, many DAR and SAR members qualified due to this relative.
My Personal Experiences
I would like to share with you some of my experiences in understanding my ancestors. First, it would be impossible to do this with all of my ancestors. I chose to work on my most direct ones from my father’s family tree. These are Pierre Bellard (b.1680), his son Antoine Bellard I (b. 1721) and his grandson, Antoine Bellard II, (born 1736). Antoine Bellard I, migrated to Quebec, Canada from France around 1730’s. Antoine II, born 1736 in Quebec, came to Louisiana in 1769. I was unable to find anything else on him about his life in Quebec.
In 2012, my wife Freddie and I had the pleasure of visiting Picardie, France where my ancestors originated. With the help of my French friend, Michel, a native of the area, I learned that my Bellard ancestors had been in Picardie at least since 1677 working as farm laborers on a large land holding. They occupied the villages of Tourly, Fleury and Neuvelette that are still villages today. We drove around the countryside that was still sparsely populated rolling farmlands as far as the eye could see. I felt very good being on the site of my family’s origin. This experience moved me to learn more about my Bellard ancestors. I had the birthdays, marriages, death notices, but I really wanted to get to know them – how they lived, the work they did, how they dressed, their experiences and their world they lived in.
My ancestors were peasants who worked for the same landowners for several generations. The men were farm laborers who plowed the land, cultivated and harvested crops, and any other labor that was necessary for the landowner. Women also lived a challenging life as they also did farm labor, bore many children, lost half of them, and often breastfed the newborn of the nobles for additional income or privileges. Like most peasants of that era, they were illiterate, and consequently, they signed every one of the numerous marriage certificates I have with an “X.” Additionally, all the witnesses also signed with an “X.” Their world was very small as they usually lived within sight of their church. Their “world” consisted of only the neighboring communities as they seldom traveled great distances. In the 18th century, more peasants traveled and some would migrate as far as the Americas. Antoine Bellard I was one of these.
Life in Picardie was very hard for my ancestors. They had the misfortune of living in a very difficult climate that was much colder in their era than today. As a result, crops often failed or didn’t reach full maturity. Illnesses were rampant due to the cold and malnutrition. The death rate of children was 50% and average longevity was 50 years of age. Their diet consisted of black bread, soups of vegetables, and sometimes, small amounts of meat from poultry, pork, and offal (organ meats).
Above: Entry to landowners chateau in Tourly, France The chateau
The above description of my ancestors’ conditions was typical for peasants from all of eastern and western Europe, England, and Scandinavian countries.
Now, I will get into the realm of probabilities. These are experiences my ancestors in Picardy are likely to have had but can’t be documented. I know they were Catholics as evidenced by the copious amount of birth, marriage and death certificates I’ve collected thanks to Michel. Also, I know that my ancestors lived near two great cathedrals, one in Beauvais, about 20 miles away, and one in Amiens, about 60 miles away. Cathedrals were actually teaching facilities as the peasants could not read, but understood the stained glass images and paintings of the Saints. I also know that many Catholics of that era made pilgrimages to these great Cathedrals. Obviously, my relatives would be more likely to visit Beauvais, as it is easier to travel 20 miles rather than 60 miles. A 20-mile journey would have taken less than a day of travel by horse and wagon. A 60-mile journey would have taken 2 days or more.
I can visualize one of my ancestral families making a summer pilgrimage to Beauvais. Pierre Bellard I, (b.1680, m. 1717) father of Antoine I, and wife Marie Archer (no birthday available) hitch the landowner’s horse or ox to a small wagon. They are anxious to start their journey to the miraculous cathedral that friends and relatives exuberantly described to them. It did not take long to select what they would wear. Like most peasants, each has only two changes of clothing and no underwear (underwear was not invented yet). They wear the same outfit of coarse woven wool for over a week at a time before switching to the other one. Their shoes are wooden, hand-made and durable. They bring enough food for the journey– perhaps dried meat, coarse-black bread containing little nutrition, and cheese. The ride is a slow and rough one as the trails and roads are usually awash with ruts and mud holes.
Around mid afternoon, they see the tall steeple of the Beauvais Cathedral in the distance, the tallest steeple of any cathedral in France. As they got closer to Beauvais, the steeple slowly appeared larger and larger. They arrive in the town of Beauvais and stand next to the giant edifice. They can’t believe it is so huge, especially when compared to their little church. They walk in and the beauty of what they see astounds them. There are dazzling stained glass windows every color of the rainbow projecting their kaleidoscopic colors to every corner of the cathedral. There is art in all mediums–glass, stone, paintings, fabrics, sculptures, plaster, wood and tapestries. It is like heaven on earth to them. They study the paintings of Jesus Christ and the apostles and biblical scenes — images they would never forget and perhaps never see again.
They were not alone in observing these wonders as crowds of other pilgrims from every direction begin to fill the church. Then the priest comes out in his white regalia to do a Benediction –the exposition of the Eucharistic host in a dazzling gold monstrance to bless the crowd. In that era, the pilgrims often revered the Benediction more than the mass. Most in the crowd crane their necks and stand on their toes to get a better view of the host and thus cause others behind them to crane their necks and stand on their toes. Soon, all the pilgrims are standing on their toes and craning their necks, except the lucky ones on the first row.
It is getting late and they need a place to sleep and rest for the next day’s journey home. Certainly, there are inns available to accommodate the pilgrims. If they cannot afford an inn, perhaps they sleep in the wagon under the stars.
Did this story happen? It’s a good possibility. All of the above happened to countless peasants throughout France and Europe. Is it documentable for my particular ancestors? No, I could not find anything indicating Pierre Bellard and his wife Marie specifically made that pilgrimage –I didn’t expect to.
I have often wondered if my above relatives in Picardie (Pierre and Marie) ever met the King of France. They certainly knew who the king was as they thought of him often when they had to pay the king’s taxes. I have often read that some of the French kings traveled throughout the kingdom to meet his subjects–even the peasants. France’s king in this period was the great Sun King himself – Louis XIV. I did some research and found that the Sun King did not visit his subjects. I stopped wondering.
One may question why I focused so much on the peasants of Picardie – the unseen, unrecorded, unheard and unremembered. Besides Jean-François Millet, few artists painted the peasants. The reason was logical – the peasants could not afford to pay the artist. Much of what was written was derogatory. It was necessary to study their environment, history and church records to get some clues to understand them. I felt driven to do so due to my visit to Picardie and to my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, descendants of Antoine II, being sharecropper farmers in Louisiana until well into the 20th century. Only my father could write his name, but he could not read or write. They plowed the soil with plow and mule or horse to extract a meager existence from the landowner’s soil–they never owned a tractor. There were many others like them in the South. Except for more productive land and better climate, they were not much better off than their ancestors in France were.
By Sidney P. Bellard
A Cajun in France: Journeys to Assimilations
A Brush with Death
In the mid eighties, at the age of 42, I entered the world of cycling. I bought a used Italian bike from a friend for $100.00. Being a novice, I didn’t know the bike was much heavier than desired for serious cycling. However, I started riding on a regular basis in my neighborhood and later did my cycling with friends on country roads. After riding hundreds of miles, I achieved a high level of aerobic fitness. The majority of my fellow riders were in their twenties, so I had to develop a high level of conditioning to keep up with them. I did.
My fellow cyclists and I cycled the hills of Washington and Tammany parishes, the streets, Lake Front and levees of New Orleans and the hills of Mississippi. We did several Tours for Cure rides, which consisted of riding from Covington, La. to McComb, Ms. and back –a total of 150 miles. Cycling had become an important part of my lifestyle as my friends and I were cycling 200 miles per week. I now had a much better bike – a French-made aluminum Peugeot. What an improvement over the old Italian bike I started with. I felt like I could fly.
Ten years later in 1995, at age 53, I was still riding at a very high level. Some of my fellow cyclists had gone to Tennessee where they cycled the 30 miles between Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina, a ride that included serious mountain climbing and high-speed descents. I wanted to do that.
Being a flatlander, I had to find some hills to get in climbing shape. I rode the high hills in Mississippi and the small mountains in Alabama to compensate for the lack of altitude at home. At home, I rode hundreds of miles for conditioning and rode the bike for miles while standing up on it to improve my climbing ability.
After I had reached the desired conditioning, Freddie and I went to Gatlinburg, Tn. for a vacation and my planned bike ride in the Smokies. We arrived Saturday and rented a cabin in the center of town. The next day, my plan was to leave very early in the morning to achieve my dream.
Sunday morning did not crack up to be a promising day. The sky was heavily overcast and threatening rain. Never the less, I decided to start my ride with the hope that the weather would improve. It did not. By the time I reached the middle of downtown Gatlinburg, it started to drizzle. I had a decision to make – do I continue or abort my ride. It was a tough decision as I had trained hard for several months for this ride. This could be my last opportunity to do such a ride. Then, I thought about the slick roads I would have to navigate. Coming down mountains at 40+ miles per hour on slick asphalt did not appeal to me.
I turned around and peddled back towards our cabin. It was still very early and there was practically no traffic. I turned off the main street to get to our cabin. About two blocks from my destination, I felt and heard a bump. In a millisecond, I was looking up at the sky and hearing an engine running beneath me. I was riding the hood of a car! Then, the car threw me off its hood and I started rolling, sliding and bouncing on the pavement as I saw the car continuing nonstop with my bike hanging from its grill. As the driver rounded a curve, my bike fell off the car. The driver never stopped. All of this happened in no more than a few seconds.
The next thing I knew, I was lying down on the street and trying to move as a crowd began to accumulate around me. I heard an ambulance getting louder as it approached in my direction. I stood up to assess my condition–my legs and arms functioned, and I felt OK considering everything that happened. I was still alive, but my scraping and bouncing on the street left me badly bruised and skinned anywhere there was bone near the skin – like elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, knuckles, hips and ear.
The ambulance arrived and the medics put me on a stretcher and examined me for broken bones, cuts, skull fracture, etc. I told them my cabin was two blocks away and I wanted to contact Freddie. The ambulance, with its light flashing, stopped at the cabin and the medics knocked on the door. After a few minutes, Freddie, obviously just out of bed, appeared. She was quite startled with this rude awakening. The medics informed her about my injuries and that I would need medical attention. She quickly got dressed, and we all headed for the hospital.
The medics took me to the emergency room where a doctor examined, x-rayed and bandaged my wounds. Most painful was the groin injury that probably happened when the impact wrenched my feet from the lock-on bike pedals. Had the impact not wrenched me from my pedals, the car would have run over the bike and me. That would have ended my bike riding career and probably, my life.
We left the hospital with me looking like a mummy from all the gauze around me. The worst pain was from the groin injury, and I knew it would feel worse the next day.
What do we do now? I spent the next day, Monday, mostly in bed resting. Freddie wanted to go home as soon as possible. We had had no opportunity yet do some vacationing. I wanted to salvage something out of this trip. Tuesday, I felt a little better and proposed that we try to do a few visits in the area. We did for a couple of days – even went to Cherokee (in the car of course), but the groin pain would not go away and took the fun out of things. The next day we drove the ten- hour drive back home.
My French aluminum bike was like spaghetti –beyond repair. The sliding and bouncing on the road shredded my jersey, socks and riding shorts. Even my shoes were ruined. The impact cracked my helmet–probably saved me from becoming an organ donor. Over all, I was fortunate, and in two weeks, I was on my bike again. The thought of quitting cycling never occurred to me.
I contacted a lawyer-friend of mine about trying to recoup my lost bike and equipment. He made inquires and learned that the two passengers had been found and arrested. They were uninsured, unemployed, intoxicated and in jail. They had apparently been out all Saturday night drinking. It was obvious that the law could not extract anything from them to cover their responsibilities. Additionally, I would have had to hire a lawyer from Louisiana and Tennessee to represent me. Therefore, I replaced my bike and equipment myself and counted my blessings.
Today, I am still an avid cyclist and do the majority of my riding on the St. Tammany Trace. It’s much safer there. And oh, I still regrette not getting to make that Gatlinburg to Cherokee ride.
By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France
Vacation 2018, Agony and Ecstasy
This vacation would turn out to be our most unusual vacation –unusually bad and unusually good.
To mention and explain fully the negative events that stalked us would require several chapters of text. I will simply list them.
An hour before our departure, my ankle, for no apparent reason, got very painful and swollen- painful to walk on.
- Our flight was delayed in New Orleans.
- Delayed flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Toulouse, France.
- We lost time with car rental process at Toulouse airport.
- Our rental car, a new Renault, showed signs of problems early on.
- Car stalled and quit 200 yards after we left our friends home.
- Called Hertz, but car ran well when truck came – they could carry off a car that still ran.
- While on autoroute near Bordeaux, car stalled five times in heavy traffic—very dangerous.
- Our host helped us resolve the car problem, but we lost a day getting the car replaced.
- Bought a painting, left it at hotel checkout, had to drive back one hour to retrieve it.
- Almost missed our excursion to prehistoric caves. They were leaving when we got there.
- My right knee began to hurt due to overusing it while left foot/ankle was still hurting.
- Heavy traffic caused us to get to hotel at 2:30 in the morning. We were exhausted/ frazzled.
- Driving to Toulouse to catch a plane home next day, a three-hour drive turned into a six- hour drive due to traffic on autoroute and problems navigating Toulouse.
- Finally, the worst –lost my camera and all pictures near end of vacation. MERDE!!!
Fortunately, many good things also happened to us. Again, to cover the many positives events would take more time than most would like to read. Here are a few high points.
Reunion with My Former Exchange Student
We spent our first three days with Béatrice and her husband, Didier. She was an exchange student in my home in 1981. This was our fourth visit with them, and they are always so gracious. Didier is a wonderful cook – almost chef level, and he never fails to prepare excellent meals for us. His chicken barbecue with many side dishes, excellent wines, cheeses and a great dessert were unforgettable. I took advantage of my opportunity to get my French up to speed. The only time I get to speak French is on my vacations in France. Freddie says that I never shut up.
Béatrice took us to a beautiful hilltop village called Bruniquel where she guided us to the most important attractions that included a sizable church and a chateau that was undergoing restoration. It was very interesting to see how skilled artisans can bring the past back to life. Part of the chateau was a museum of the prehistoric population who lived in this area 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. We listened to area archeologists who were discussing the latest techniques in archeology -very interesting.The next day, Didier and Béatrice took us to a unique village called Collonge-la-Rouge. The inhabitants built every building with red sandstone — very neat and historical. The cobblestones and steep streets did not do my sore ankle any good; however, I soldiered on. There were some nice shops, and we bought a few items. We could have used more time in this wonderful village. We were grateful to our hosts for leading us here.
Meeting Our Friends
We first met a French couple (Alain & Marie-Thérése) in a restaurant in Rome seven years ago. We had a lively conversation that led to an invitation to their home near Cognac, France. We finally spent two weeks with them this summer. They were most gracious in taking us on many visits to local attractions in Alain’s special edition BMW convertible, which he drove like an adolescent. Alain, an excellent cook, prepared many wonderful breakfasts, lunches and dinners for us. His stuffed tomatoes and rabbit lyonaise were excellent as well as his charcoal grilled steaks.
Additionally, our hosts took us to an excellent, but reasonably priced restaurant in Cognac – great dining experience. One of the items Alain and I had was beef marrow – something I had not had in years. The chef roasted the foot-long split beef bone and marrow in an oven. The roasted marrow on French bread was wonderful. As we enjoyed our meal, we had a great deal of conversation. Luckily, Marie-Thérése spoke English – a good thing for Freddie.
Prehistoric Cave Art
From Alain’s and Marie’s home, we drove to the Dordogne region, about a two-hour drive. We stayed overnight and visited the caves where prehistoric people painted graphic pictures of animals such as bulls, horses, tigers, elephants and many others 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. From viewing these exquisite paintings, we learned that these prehistoric people were much more intelligent than popularly thought. Their paintings, showing details and perspective, indicated that these people were far more intelligent than once believed. They had also learned how to make their paintings in more than one dimension and how to show motion of the animals in their paintings. The guides were very knowledgeable and shared many details about the paintings and their artists. Unfortunately, I lost all my pictures of the caves when I lost my camera late in the vacation.
Le Puy du Fou
Our most important objective of this vacation was to visit the Puy du Fou in the Vendee region. This sound and light historical performance is one of the most spectacular in the world. (visit Puy du Fou.com) I had visited this spectacle in 1987 when I was studying French in Angers, France. The Puy completely blew me away. I wanted Freddie to experience it also. Since 1987, it had grown tremendously in every way, so I wanted to see it again.
We drove to the Puy, a three-hour drive north of our host’s home. Since I had been there, the Puy had added a huge theme park on the same grounds. The park was fantastic as it depicted historical events from French history as well as amusement rides. That night, the spectacular sound and light show did not fail to amaze us. New electronics projected images into the sky. Thousands of costumed performers authentically depicted the turbulent years following the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. The fireworks rivaled or surpassed any Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve celebration I’ve ever seen. I have no words adequately describe this spectacle. (note: above pics are of the park as it is not permissible to take photos of the Puy)
After discussing our vacation with friends, they often asked if it was worth it with all the bad experiences we had. My response was, “Certainly.” In three weeks, we did so much—perhaps too much, but what wonderful memories of all we have seen and done and all the wonderful people we have lived with and met. Certainly, we had some unpleasant experiences, but these memories will fade, and all the good memories will stay with us as long as we have memory.
by Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun IN France
Market Day in France
While Pierre, Freddie, and the denizens of Selles, France were still in deep slumber, strange vehicles, alone and in caravans, were illuminating the roadways while en route to Selles and hundreds of other towns and cities throughout France. They crept into town practically unseen and unheard and arrived in the town center just as they had always done last week, last year, and decades ago. Their forebearers had been doing this since the Middle Ages.
Once on location, a flurry of silent activity began. The strange vehicles became even more bizarre as they transformed into shelters, display counters, and tents. Almost like magic, a town within a town popped up on the cobblestone streets and empty parking lots like mushrooms after a summer rain in Louisiana. From the vehicles, figures extracted practically anything anyone could want and placed it on display for the arrival of the still sleeping inhabitants of the town.
By 8:00 a.m., the awakened shoppers with bags and carts appeared by the hundreds or thousands to visit this overnight wonder. Huge selections of fish, breads of every size and shapes, cheeses, vegetables, wines, olives, fruits, rotisserie chicken, fresh paella, and practically anything edible greeted them. Choices were not limited to food, with clothing, shoes, hardware, house wares, mattresses, tools, plants and flowers, and much more in evidence.It was market day once more, just like any market day since the Middle Ages. Despite the onslaught of the huge chain supermarkets and fast foods, market day is alive and thriving in France. The market merchants offer, often at a better price, the freshest seafood, meats, cheeses, poultry, and produce available. As the same merchants come to town week after week, they and the shoppers have a personal relationship.
Shopping is not the only activity going on at market day as it is also a time for socialization. Friends and relatives often meet and exchange greetings and family news. Many have their usually unneutered dogs along for a walk. Invariably, there are tourists mixed in among the shoppers taking pictures and enjoying the ambiance of the market. Nearby restaurants and businesses, also profit from the hordes of people the markets brings out.
The market lasts until around noon. The crowds go home with their purchases or linger with friends. Some tourists have lunch or go on to their next destinations. The merchants, with great efficiency, take down the tents, load up unsold merchandise and drive out of town. The street and parking lots now hold only a memory of what was a reality for a few hours, and, like an apparition, it just disappeared—until next week. Pierre and
Freddie loved their first market visit, and this love continues to this day. He, because he loved to cook and imagined what he would do with the wonderful selection of meats, fish and produce, and she because of other unusual shopping opportunities. Pierre was excited when he saw the fresh seafood, farm grown chickens, ducks, rabbits, thinking how much he would enjoy cooking in France. He imagined buying something, running home, and cooking it right away. Unfortunately, that was not possible this time because the logistics were not right—they had already planned an outing for the afternoon. They did buy some paella, three types of cheeses, and olives to take back to the gite. The olive merchant had dozens of types of olives from France and the Mediterranean world.
They saw black and green olives flavored with garlic, rosemary, onions, herbs and spices. The cheese merchant had an infinite variety of cheeses, some of which were in the form of huge, tire-like round disks weighing 40 or 50 pounds. Charles De Gaulle, often frustrated with the populace during his presidency, had asked, “How can you rule a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” It seemed to Pierre that De Gaulle’s estimate was far too conservative as he felt there were more cheeses than that. He tasted many varieties before buying some. Non-pasteurized milk and proper aging were the secrets of these great tasting cheeses’ distinctive flavors. The vendor usually provides a period in which to consume these unpasteurized cheeses—usually one to three days.
He especially regretted not being able to buy one of the chickens that were farm-grown and mature. It reminded him of the chickens his father bought from farmers and then corn fed for a couple of weeks before slaughter. These chickens were so flavorful. His father disliked supermarket fryers, calling them “little, embalmed chickens” because of their pale, white skin. However, perhaps the surviving fryers, as they paid their final respects to their departed loved ones, said, “They sure look good.”
By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France
Saturday Night Dance at the Courtableau Inn 1948
Among Pierre’s most vivid memories were the occasions when his parents took his sisters, Verna and Bertha, to “the dance.” In Cajun culture, the dance had always been important no matter how poverty-stricken they were. It was often the only opportunity young people had to socialize with the opposite sex. There were few marriages where the couple did not meet at a dance. Even his father, who did very few frivolous things, brought his daughters to the dance—that was just the proper thing to do. Besides, the girls did not have to pay to dance—only the boys did.
The dance hall was a large building located next to the bayou about a mile from home. Of course, his sisters waited with great anticipation to dance and meet the boys. Bertha and her black girlfriend often practiced dancing together. The dance was one of their few pleasures, and they loved it. The family, all six of them, got in the old Ford and drove the mile to the dance hall. The first thing one saw upon entering the hall was an unpainted, four-foot tall wooden fence corralling the dance floor. The manager sprinkled the floor with a sawdust-like material to facilitate dancing. The parents and non-dancers stood behind the fence to watch the activities. At the left end of the floor was the bandstand where the musicians were tuning their instruments. The discordant cacophony of the fiddle, steel guitar, accordion, bass guitar, and lead guitar sounded like a music room filled with musically challenged students taking their first lessons.
The dancers, parents, and anybody who just wanted to be there filled the old wooden building. There were some tables next to the floor for dancers to sit and have refreshments, such as alcohol if they were old enough and their parents would allow it, or Cokes or Seven-Ups if not. Of course, not all the dancers were adolescents as there were people of all ages participating. Even old men and women were in there dancing up a storm. Even some of the elderly who normally had a hard time walking become quite mobile and energetic once they got on the dance floor. They then walked back to their seats limping as soon as the dance was over.
Pierre, about four or five years old at the time, noted that most of the men were holding cans of some sort—to him anyone over 15 was a man. The cans were metal with a conical top from which the men and boys drank can after can of the mysterious liquid inside. He learned much later that they were drinking beer. Other men had various sorts of mixed drinks. Then the Cajun musicians cranked up their instruments and began to make sounds completely unlike those they made when tuning their instruments. The music was loud due the amplifiers driving the instruments, and the people had to shout to be heard. Together, the music and people created a raucous, deafening sound. The dance floor began to fill with dancers, mostly girls who danced with each other until a few brave boys worked up enough courage or drank enough beer to ask them to dance. When the young men stepped on the dance floor, the floorwalker would approach them to collect 50 cents and staple a ticket on their shirt collar. Fifty cents was a sizable fee at that time, so some young men would try to steer their partner away from the floorwalker while turning his shoulder to hide his ticket-less shirt collar. Eventually, every young man had to pay the piper.
The musicians performed very differently from modern Cajun musicians. The musicians who played the accordion, steel guitar, drums, and fiddle usually performed sitting down. Only the guitar player usually played standing up. One thing all players had in common was that they played with stoic expressions and practically no body movement—quite different from what one would see 35 years later. Most of the musicians had other jobs, some of them farmers, most were under educated, and only the love of music drove them to perform. Of course, the extra money they received was a very important supplement to their meager incomes. Some of the musicians who played at the dance hall on the bayou were some of the best known in Cajun music, notably Ira LeJeune, perhaps the best-known Cajun musician at that time.
Pierre stood with his mom and dad behind the fence. His mother probably thought how fortunate the dancers were to have such a nice, large dance floor complete with electric lights to dance on. She probably recalled how she had to go to house dances where the dance floor was in a small, dim room. Peering through the fence boards, Pierre could see the activities going on. He saw his grandmother standing across the dance floor behind the fence looking at the dancers. She was watching her youngest daughter, who was just a little older than his sisters were, dance. Of course, he didn’t know why she was watching, just that she was. Later, he would find out she was watching who she was dancing with, and how close they were dancing—after all, the boy a girl danced with could become a son-in-law. One could not be too careful.
Later in the night, the action continued at an even more frenetic pace. The noise increased in proportion to the liquor consumed. People were moving about everywhere. There were bourée games going on at the end of the dance floor opposite the bandstand. His father often played cards there to pass the time while waiting for the girls. There were waiters scurrying around frantically to meet the copious alcohol needs of the dancers and watchers. Even outside, there were clusters of people visiting with friends, getting fresh air (cigarette smoke was always thick in these dance halls) and perhaps just escaping the noise for a while. To Pierre, everything was beginning to be uninteresting. It was way past his bedtime, and he was getting sleepy, restless and grumpy. His mother took him to the car and put him in the back seat to sleep. He still remembers, before drifting off, the sound of dozens of feet crunching in the graveled parking area as people constantly walked back and forth.
Excerpt from the book, A Cajun in France, by Sidney P. Bellard
Of Nostalgia and Muscadines
At the age of 12, Pierre had no clue what the word “Nostalgia” meant, and would not for a long time. He did, however, know the Cajun/French word “ennuyer” which meant to miss or long for someone, times past or a place. In standard French “ennuyer” also means to be bored. He also knew he was subject to thinking of things past, especially good memories during the winter months. He didn’t know why he felt this way – he never thought about why. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) had not been invented yet. His sisters and parents were very much the same.
The winter months robbed him of his few pleasures and past-times like fishing and swimming as well as the sunshine, the color green and muscadines. His nostalgic thoughts on a cold, January day focused on muscadines and the fun he and his friends had picking and eating them. Just to recall those fun moments made him feel a little better. That’s when the thought occurred to him that if he visited the site of his past happy moments, he might feel better.
He left his little house on the bayou and walked down the bayou road about one-half mile before crossing the barbed-wire fence and walking one hundred yards to reach the slough where he and his friends had so much fun last summer. It was so silent, so different. The colors of grey and brown had conspired and succeeded in assassinating his favorite color of nature —green. The cattails of summer had exploded and dispersed their millions of seeds to the winds. Their once slender green leaves had collapsed to the ground in piles of yellow and brown. The short pants he had worn for swimming last summer were still hanging from a barren bush. Images of him and his friends laughing, splashing and shouting squashed his nostalgia for a moment.
He then walked on towards his destination—the muscadine vines that were found wrapped around oak or sweet gum trees. He believed vines in sweet gum trees tended to produce larger and sweeter fruit than an oak tree. The green corn patch he remembered nearby was now reduced to dead, yellow-brown sticks splayed among the rows. A couple of wary black crows searching for the few remaining kernels of corn took flight as they broke the silence with a series of caws.
He continued towards his favorite muscadine vine that was huge and had twisted its way up a huge sweet gum tree. He recalled how he had climbed the huge tree and shaken down a hail of black quarter-sized fruit as his friends scooped them up. He was soaked with sweat when he had climbed down and helped to finish the harvest. They divided the fruit and took them home to share with friends and family. There really was not much to a muscadine as it had a thick, uneatable skin and seedy pulp. Mostly, they squeezed them and sucked the bit of flavorful juice. Never-the-less, he savored these memories.
He reached the site he had just revisited in his mind, and it was like a tribe of angry four-fingered trolls had toiled overnight to erase his pleasant memories. His gum tree resembled a gray skeleton grotesquely groping up into the air, and the large, star-shaped leaves were brown, strewn on the ground– and dead. He searched for signs of last summer, perhaps a dried muscadine—there were none. He did find a spent shotgun shell ejected from a hunter’s shotgun. He picked it up and could smell the gun powder; it had been recently fired. His search was interrupted by an approaching hunter with his single-shot shotgun on his shoulder. The black man, whom he knew, asked him if his beagle had run by. He had not seen the dog. As the hunter walked on, he saw two dead rabbits hanging from his belt. There would be rabbit stew tonight for hunter and family.
He had daydreamed enough; it was time to go home. He was not any happier or any sadder, but he didn’t regret his little trip. He realized everything he longed for was out of season, and all he could do now was count the days to March when warm and green would collaborate to defeat the gray and brown to be crowned king again—a virtual renaissance for him.
By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France