Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
On Monday morning, after Isabelle and Pedro had already started their work weeks, Marianne and I packed up and headed west, mostly west anyway. On advice, we had waited until after the morning rush hour to leave Lyon, but it was still ... exciting. It was Marianne's day for driving and besides, she is our designated city driver, so she operated the controls while I gave instructions. My instructions were not impeccable, but we made it.
Once we left the Lyon area, the countryside opened up and the toll roads were uncrowded, smooth, and scenic. The terrain in this part of France is more than hills, but not really mountains. The road passes up and down, and through tunnels and over bridges, the latter more imaginative than in other countries.
The five-hour drive took seven by the time we stopped for filling up the battery three times and the passengers once. The three Tesla Superchargers were all in the back parking lots of hotels and sometimes tricky to find. On the mid-day stop, we tried out lunch in an Ibis Hotel, an establishment dealing more with traveling business people than vacationers. This being France, the meal was quite good, better than usual road food sandwiches and candy bars.
After our last charging session, where we filled up enough to last for a few days, the car navigator sent us off the toll roads onto small farm roads. Some were really small, but we encountered no other cars in those patches, just a tractor in a just-wide-enough section. Then the road grew a bit, and passed uber-quaint homes and villages, adding castles on neighboring hills. This would justify a roadside sign claiming that the Dordogne was a valley of 1,000 chateaus and castles. That seems enough for our one week stay.
We had booked a suite at the Vue du Chateau d'Excideuil which, like its name suggest, looks out on one of those châteaux. We had received an email with detailed instructions on how to find the hotel, and a phone number for when we might have difficulties. We used them both, but eventually found the gate and driveway back to a grand old home. We went up to the entrance and needed more guidance from an intercom voice with instructions on how to input the code for opening the front door and, eventually, our room. Inside, there were no people, neither staff nor guests.
We moved our bags from the car up to the lobby floor and then up several more stairs to our top-floor room. Throughout all this, we were struck with how strange it was that we were completely alone. At 77-years old, we can still manage challenges, but the Vue du Chateau d'Excideuil is definitely not ADA compliant.
Our room, or rooms actually, were great, with a separate living room and a tiny kitchen. Everything was perfectly clean and well-equipped. Given that we had the whole building to ourselves, we also had rooms and a large veranda down on the entrance level for our exclusive use. Our own chateau.
A couple minutes drive away was the "U Shop" grocery store where we went to get a few things for morning coffee and ended up getting bread, cheese, ham, and treats for a whole dinner. More than one in fact. I think Marianne had forgotten yesterday's encounter with cheese.
Maybe tomorrow we would try restaurants.
We would also start our search for Melissa Wolf, a friend who had drawn us to the Dordogne a decade ago (2012, 2013) . Melissa and Marianne had gone to Santa Catalina School, a half-century ago, but they had lost contact about 18 months ago. Emails and the French phone stopped being answered. We needed to understand what happened. We braced our ourselves for the worst, but hoped for the best.
Found her. Here's the story.
After a self-prepared bread, butter, cheese, ham, and fruit breakfast at our chateau, we went off to Excideuil to discover what had happened to friend Melissa. We had little to go on other than decade-old memories of places she had taken us to in the ancient village. Our first stop was the "Salon du The", a tea cafe run by a friend of hers. Unfortunately, it was closed for the quiet season between summer and Christmas holidays.
Around the corner, we went into the oldest part of town, The Saint George Quarter, to see which centuries-old house we might recognize as being that of Richard, Melissa's friend and one-time handyman. No luck. The places all looked equally ancient and none had names on mailboxes.
Back out on the "main street", we dropped into the only open shop we could find, a fresh organic fruit and vegetables market. One look at us and the pair inside greeted us with "Good Morning". We asked if they knew Richard. "Of course, he was just here yesterday." Then we asked if they knew Melissa. Proprietor Bob replied: "Of course, although she was last here only about a year ago, when her nephew brought her to town in a wheelchair."
He then proceeded to fill us in with the sad story of how Melissa had fallen, broken a leg and hip, been operated on, and then sent to a care facility 20 minutes away, in Payzac. Friends and relatives had occasionally visited and reported that she was largely bed-ridden, but otherwise well. Josje, Bob's assistant, volunteered to call the place to see if Melissa could have guests. She could, and that became our goal.
As for Richard, Bob volunteered to walk over to his house and, it turns out, wake him up. There we got a little more detail about Melissa's recent history, but nothing significantly different.
To let all this settle in, we needed a drink, so we went to the other Salon du The, "Gaillard Gourmond". We ordered coffee, decaf for Marianne, and croissants because we are in France. Both were excellent. And the coffee barista also knew Melissa, but added no new information.
We had wondered how to find traces of our American friend in French-speaking Dordogne, but as it turns out, Excideuil is just a small town, with it's own sub-culture of English-speaking ex-pats. Tracing Melissa was the easy part.
We left for Payzac to arrive after the care home's lunchtime. The road there was small, but traffic was pretty limited, so we reached the facility gate in under a half-hour. In one piece. There, we found a locked gate with no intercom and wondered if our quest would be foiled in the last hundred yards. Marianne called the facility number Josje had given us, and did her best to communicate where we were and that we wanted to visit Melissa. Only Marianne spoke English on this exchange, but eventually we were given the four-number code to the gate. When that didn't work, she called back and got a different number that did work. (I have to say, each of these stumbles are tiring.)
Inside, we donned Covid-masks, and were shown to Melissa's room. At first, she did not recognize our masked faces, but then she registered shock, good shock at seeing friends last seen 11 years ago. Over the next four or five hours, Marianne and her school chum caught up. The loss of communication of the last 18 months seems to have been caused by the whole shift from independent living in her own home to this new situation. That and technical difficulties with her mobile and land-line telephones. (We needed to get those fixed!)
Her medical situation is difficult and we were surprised at the lack of effective physical therapy treatment, something that we would have assumed was standard with hip and leg repairs. (We felt an obligation to get that addressed too.) Personally, she was positive and cheerful, despite the fact that she was the only English-speaker among both patients and staff, and that was "a challenge".
The hours-long back-and-forth revealed the same old Melissa, out-spoken and critical, but still smiling. She missed her dog, her train-station home, and the ability to be on her own. She was not hopeful of ever getting out of the situation she finds herself in and that was the most ... challenging.
When it was time for her to go off to dinner with the other patients, we promised to come back Thursday and take her to lunch somewhere. (Later, after seeing her limited mobility, we had second thoughts. That would be addressed another day.)
On the drive home, on narrow roads with country folks rushing to get home for dinner, we ruminated. It was not really a good time to be distracted, but we survivied. We had succeeded in finding Melissa, but now felt a need to improve her life in some meaningful way. In a few days. In a French-speaking world.
A challenge indeed.
We started mid-week with another fancy breakfast: bread, cheese, cereal. Good enough, but a far cry from those fancy German breakfasts back in that part of the trip.
Next, we walked five or ten minutes into town to check in with Bob the greengrocer and report our progress on finding Melissa and sharing our impressions. The message was both positive and not-so, as we expressed our concern about lack of physical therapy and, generally, interested visitors. Josje stepped in again and volunteered to help, as an official translator and explainer of French officialdom. (She even has a business card with a gmail address: frenchadvice@..., in case you are in need.)
Then we walked some more in the narrow streets of Excideuil. It is an ancient village, a bit tattered over the centuries, but quaint. Even a trip to the post office was a worthwhile exploration.
Mostly, we were looking for a morning coffee and croissant. However, we failed, because it was Wednesday. French school kids do not have full days on Wednesday, and working moms often take the day off. If that mom is the sole proprietor of a small business, that business also closes for Wednesday. In this instance, both our coffee cafe and the bakery were closed.
We changed eating plans to move straight to lunch, but only after walking around the accessible parts of the Chateau at Excideuil, the almost 1,000-year-old fortified chateau that dominates the town. All we had access to were the old fortified entrance and parts of old ramparts, complete with arrow slits and guard pigeons enjoying the view. Worth some pictures, in any event. (In the evening, I took more, and added them below.)
We had lunch outside at the small hotel just under the chateau walls. This seems to be about the only good restaurant in town right now, at least that was the sense we got when we asked Bob and Josje. Summer season has a more active dining scene. It was duck for Marianne and lamb for me and both were quite good. A recommendation.
Our next duty in the Melissa saga was to check out her train station, "gare" in French. Gare St. Germain des Pres was her home for most of the last 17 years, ever since leaving California. She had hosted us here in 2012 and 2013 and it was sad to see how overgrown the place had become in the year or since Melissa had lost her mobility. Another something that needed to be addressed.
In a melancholy mood, we returned to our chateau, thinking about what all must happen. Near sunset, I went for a walk to take pictures of our old village. Something to occupy my thoughts.
OnThursday, the middle of our week in Excideuil, and we started with an early morning walk into town. It was market day and stalls were set up on the street with Bob the greengrocer and a nearby square, the one with a church. I expect Bob's business is reduced by filling his street with competing vendors, but he was as friendly as ever when we bid him "Bon Jour", as one must in France. Shopkeepers have been known to ignore strangers not accustomed to polite greeting. Not Bob, of course.
Street markets are great for wandering and taking pictures. After surveying all the stalls, we bought material for a picnic: cheese, bread and sweets, pate, tomatoes, and berries. It was all we could do to not buy something from everyone.
Stocked up with picnic goodies, it was time for the drive out to Melissa's care facility, two or three villages over from Excideuil, maybe a half-hour drive. The day before, we had driven a GPS-provided route that included farm roads that almost killed us when I tried to pass a hay-laden tractor. This time, I was smarter and specified a route via a different intermediate village. Bad move. The GPS directed us on to smaller and smaller roads until we were on a gravel path with steep banks on either side that would have not allowed a stray dog to pass by, much less the tractors and trucks that show up out here. Fortunately, our luck held and the path remained clear.
The visit with Melissa went well. Josje helped us a bit to understand both the French that was being spoken and some of the practices that were not. Meanwhile, Marianne and I dug in to understand what we could do for Melissa and we concluded that there was very little. However, we also heard her say often enough that she was happy, despite the complication of immobility and the need to communicate in a language she does not understand all that well. We will do what we can and ask her friends to pay a bit more attention, but more than that is neither possible or, apparently, requested by Madame Wolf.
Back at our own chateau, we spread out our picnic (pique nique in French) on the dining room table and sampled the cheese, bread, pate, fruit, and sweets. And water. Our alcohol-free life is a reminder to me of our own aging and the inevitable approach of frailty. Not yet, of course.
We walked off the dinner calories with a trip to the store to pick up a phone cable for Melissa, a small thing we can do, and then an excursion to look up at the Excideuil Chateau. The side facing out, away from town, is steep and would have been a daunting assault challenge when it was built and occupied centuries ago.
On Friday the 13th, we hoped to get in some tourism; a castle perhaps, and a church, and a square. You know, those European things. And a good French meal. That's exactly what happened.
Our castle was the Chateau de Hautefort, a short drive from home on decent roads. That's important to us nowadays. The chateau and surrounding gardens are picture-perfect, so much so that they have apparently served as sets for several French movies. During our visit, it was tempting to take a zillion photos, but when we finished, we felt we had seen a Disney chateau, not a real one. Oh well, we checked off our "castle" check-box.
Courtyards were manicured gravel.
Chapel, light and airy.
It all seemed to be a movie set. Nice, but artificial.
All this touring made us hungry, so we needed to find a place for our "French food" goal. In the stage-set village, just below the chateau, we found Auberge du Parc and settled in for the 31.5 euro prix fixe meal. As touristy as the village seemed, the meal did not disappoint, from garlic soup, to a pork terrine, and ice cream and strawberries for dessert. Two goals down, and two to go.
Our next stop, not really touristy, was a Tesla Supercharger. The drive over was pleasant and recharging was as efficient as ever. So far, most of the Superchargers in France have been at hotels, and this was no exception. Shopping is limited, but clean bathrooms are available. Travel necessities.
Then we headed to Perigeaux, the largest city in the Perigord district. We had not scouted out what to see, beyond a free parking lot along the river, so we had no idea what to expect.
St-Front church towering over our parking lot was an easy-to-spot goal. The climb up was worth it, I think.
The church itself was among the most interesting we have seen on this trip. Parts of the building are almost 1,000 years old and the site was occupied by churches even before that. Parts were added over the centuries, creating a huge interior space, bridged by a half-dozen domes and dominated by an immense bell tower.
From the church, we explored the city center. The central square completed our travel hat trick.
On the way out of town, we were reminded that Perigeaux is a big city, a big city with small main roads. The result was creepy-crawly traffic, the first we'd seen since leaving Lyon. At least it gave us a chance to see more of the city.
On Saturday, we would visit again with Melissa and hoped to help her sort out some things.
Before we headed out to see Melissa, we stopped by "downtown" to say goodbye to Bob and the other shopkeepers we have met. On Sunday, everyone will be closed and we will leave directly on Monday morning so this was our last chance to thank folks for their help in finding our "lost" friend. While out, we also looked for a cafe breakfast but discovered that the only places we knew simply did not open at all on weekends. This difficulty in buying a meal out would continue all day. See below.
Over breakfast at home, we executed some planning. We had not decided how to finish our French exploration, so now it was time. On Monday, we will drive up to Beaune for a three day stay at a very standard Mercure hotel. I selected this one because it has a Tesla Supercharger in the back lot, removing any driving around for charging. Besides, I think we are ready for a "regular" hotel, one with breakfast service and humans at the front desk for questions.
After Beaune, we will spend a week in Strasbourg in an Alsatian transition from French to German environments. This time, we opted for a Best Western, confirming our return to normal travel. The BW chain is our default travel hotel and, here in Europe, some are quite nice while still being "as expected". No ghosts.
After her lunch, we visited Melissa at her maison de retraite, "La Juvenie". (a retirement home called, somewhat ironically, "the youth"). It's a pleasant enough place, in a quiet countryside location. The bones of the building are ancient, but it is modern and clean inside. Places like this, in any country I suppose, are not where we envision landing, but often do.
In our time with Melissa, she remained animated and upbeat, despite a leg and hip that keeps her largely immobile. We chatted about world events, discouraged by the situations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Watching news on the television is one of Melissa's daily activities, not a terribly positive distraction, but a distraction nonetheless. The two women exchanged stories of Catalina classmates, from school days and today. We made sure to have phone and email information for Melissa's friends and relatives here in Europe and she wrote down our numbers in her paper address book. Melissa reassured us she was happy.
Of course, our moods were tempered by the reality that we would not likely see each other in person again. More European travel is not envisioned for us and Melissa remains adamant in here abandonment of America and her Fresno home town. Hopefully, we can reestablish email, phone, and even video conversations. That is our hope.
Objectively speaking, our quest to "find" Melissa was a great success. She was alive, happy, and in a safe place. She could use more contact with (English-speaking) friends, and a bit of help with regular affairs such as getting some maintenance done on her old train-station/house. We hope we helped with that.
Emotionally, it's sad and, perhaps, a threatening reminder of the perils of getting old and infirm on a schedule and in conditions one does not control. Melissa is younger than either Marianne or me, and has been staunch in her independence. By all means, we wish her well.
Back at our current reality we left La Juvenie in search of dinner. "La P'tite Cocotte" had been recommended. It was on the narrow main street of nearby Coulaures and Google said they were open on Saturday for dinner. They were not. Our fall back was a pizza and hamburger joint not far from our haunted house, again with Google assurance that they would be open on Saturday. Again, they were not.
The ultimate fall back was "U Supermarket" and more picnic material to prepare in our old-house suite. This was good enough, although I do look forward to more normal eating, once we return to bigger towns.
Sunday started early for me, even before the sun came up. The locals had organized a bike-ride and walk and I figured a few pictures would be fun. At the sign-in desk, one of the shopkeepers recognized me and asked if I would be willing to share my pictures, so I became staff photographer. There were five separate courses: walks of 5 and 7 kilometers and rides of 15, 20 and 30 km. I limited myself to covering just the first few hundred meters, but that was enough exercise for me. Below are a couple shots, but this is a link to the two-dozen pictures I sent to ride organizers.
Along my short photo walk, I saw that Sunday services were starting at St. Thomas church, so I peeked in. This is yet another wonderful village church, parts dating from over a thousand years ago. I trust the current church-goers realize how special it is to worship surrounded by such history.
Back at our own old chateau, we had another at-home breakfast: croissants, cheese, and enough fruit to feel healthy. After an hour or two of chores (bookkeeping for Marianne and photo review for me), it was time for another meal. That's how we mark our days I think.
At random, we selected Le Corgnacois, a few villages over. Marianne called to make reservations, started in rough French, and was relieved when the response was in friendly English. Sixty-years later, high school French just doesn't cut it. Speaking of cutting, Marianne ordered a steak that was tasty, but almost beyond knife-capability. The meal was rescued by the deserts and small coffees.
We left that small village and dropped by another, Coulaures, for no other reason than to confirm that our first restaurant choice was indeed closed. That confirmed, we went into the small village church, Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Pont. Again, parts of the building were a thousand years old and some foundation stones were from Roman times, centuries before that. Light from medieval stained glass lighted the pews.
The square the church faced also seemed ancient,
with a once-grand chateau on one edge and villager housing on another.
After our meal excursion, we headed home. We had our Sunday family Zoom session, always fun, and some Facetime calls to friends and grandkids back in America. After that, we organized packing, because on Monday we leave for another part of our Great European Road Trip.
John and Marianne