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Aug 3, 2019

Leaving France

Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.

Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:

Paris Restaurants (and one from Angouleme)
Sers
Château de La Rochefoucauld
Angoulême

Here are links to the posts I wrote about Arles and Paris. The posts from our first couple of days in Europe are available here and here.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags France Paris Sers Angoulême Château de La Rochefoucauld Gatwick London Mass Transit

Aug 1, 2019

Angoulême

Angoulême is the largest city in the region where we’ve been staying. Over the last few days Gilles and Nicole have been showing us around. We’ve explored the Château de La Rochefoucauld and Sers. We’ve also visited a bunch of other places. Here are a few of the most interesting:

Musée de la Bande Dessinée

Also known as the International Comic Strip Museum, the Musée de la Bande Dessinée is located near the SNCF (high speed rail) train station. We saw a temporary exhibition on the relation between fashion and comic strips. I learned that Yves Saint Laurent made a graphic novel prior to ascending to the height of the fashion world.

The museum’s permanent collection is pretty neat too. It portrays a history of comic books (with a French focus) from the mid-19th century through the present day. As someone who was raised on Tintin comics, I appreciated the large selection of Herge’s work, much of which highlighted his early efforts at using the beloved boy reporter as a propagandist for reactionary politics and brutal colonialism.

Musée d'Angoulême

The other big museum in town features three floors of art and artifacts that stretch from the Neolithic to the present day. The collection highlights local artists and history. The historical materials are the most intriguing part. They stretch back to perhaps two hundred thousand years before recorded history and include everything from Neanderthal and early homo sapiens skulls to surprisingly complex tools from the Iron Age.

Looking at the menhirs and (virtual) dolmen on display was something of a spiritual experience. There’s a kind of emotional resonance, maybe I should call it awe, that I feel when I think about the ancient human urge to create systems of meaning. These giant stones were used for ritual purposes. I suspect that these rituals served much the same purpose that rituals in a contemporary Unitarian Universalist (or any other faith tradition) congregation serve—to enable people to feel part of something larger than themselves.

The middle floor of the museum is basically a tribute to French colonialism. It has a selection of beautiful pieces from North Africa, Central Africa, and Oceania that I can only assume were acquired under dubious circumstances. The top floor is dedicated to local artists from the fifteenth-century to the present. The work is almost entirely banal.

Far more impressive is the view of the roof of the Angoulême Cathedral that the upper floors afford. Standing on the inner stairwell, looking through the clear glass windows, I got an excellent view of the various gargoyles that line the roof. They were exquisite and almost certainly worth a trip to the museum on their own. 

Les Modillons

This space for art and ecology is run by Gilles and Nicole’s friend Catherine Mallet. Les Modillons is located in a beautifully renovated early nineteenth-century farm about 20 minutes outside of town and regularly features exhibitions by both local and national artists. Gilles exhibited there a few years ago. The gallery space is hands down one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I’ve ever been in. It’s in a converted barn, built in 1818. The rafters and original stone have been preserved throughout. For those looking for an excuse to visit to France, Les Modillons offers residencies for artists and environmental activists.

Les Freres Moine and Le Maine Castay

These are two local cognac distillers. We visited Les Freres Moine our first full day in Sers. We visited Le Maine Castay on our last. Le Maine Castay is managed by a close friend of Gilles and Nicole’s. They get much of their produce from his garden and most of their meat from his farm as well. He gave us a tour of the cognac facilities. It was on a different scale than Les Freres Moine and principally provides cognac to the big cognac brands that they blend, bottle, and sell. I saw massive wooden cognac barrels and learned that a single one contains about $360,000 worth of liquor. I also learned that making cognac is dangerous work. Every year a couple of people succumb to the alchol fumes and fall into a big vat or barrel and drown. We learned that this happened to one of Gilles and Nicole’s friend’s neighbors last year.

After our tour we were invited back to his house for dinner. It was a beautiful stone building. My son played with his cats and I got to drink his homemade pineau alongside some of Le Maine Castay’s champagne. We were introduced, in French, to some of his friends and family as “the Americans who don’t speak French.” I can understand enough French that I was able to more-or-less follow the French conversation. Everyone was incredibly friendly. It was a great last evening in France after a wonderful three weeks. Tomorrow we’re off to London. I plan to write at least one more post on France as we travel from Sers to Angoulême (by car) to Bordeaux (by train) to London (by plane).

CommentsTags Angoulême France Sers Musée de la Bande Dessinée Yves Saint Laurent Herge Musée d'Angoulême Angoulême Cathedral Les Modillons Catherine Mallet Nicole Ewenczyk Gilles Perrin Les Freres Moine Le Maine Castay Cognac Pineau des Charentes

Jul 30, 2019

Château de La Rochefoucauld

We spent an afternoon at  about 20 minutes outside of the center of Angoulême. It has a long history. The family who built it first occupied the site in the late 10th century and have resided in it continuously since then. They claim to be one of the oldest families in France and the family archives certainly suggest that.

The château is privately owned and operated. We arrived late in the afternoon. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the property. A sole employee, the cashier, was to be seen. Classical music was blaring in the courtyard. The cashier informed us that the mother of the current Duke lived in half of the château, that she liked classical music to be played at all times, and that a large portion of the building was off limits.

We wandered out into the courtyard which overlooks the town below—hundreds of red clay roofs and lichen covered stone walls lining a river bank and dominated by an ancient Catholic church. We then made our way into the family chapel, which features a prominent display of the family tree and the crypt of a male heir who had died at the age of five. The chapel is two stories and includes a choir loft on the second floor. It could be described as modest in reference to Versailles.

Overall, the contrast between Versailles and Château de La Rochefoucauld was informative. Versailles is no longer occupied by the Bourbon family. The Rochefoucaulds wanted visitors to know that they are still around, still wealthy, and still important. Each room we went into after the chapel featured some series of portraits of influential family members or recently deceased ones (the recently deceased ones seemed much less impressive than their ancestors) and information about the family’s history. I learned that some of its members had been executed during the French Revolution despite their, in the family’s account, liberal sympathies. I also learned that the Duke La Rochefoucauld had been Louis XVI’s Master of Wardrobe. The, probably apocryphal, story is that when Louis XVI learned of the storming of the Bastille, he said to the Duke La Rochefoucauld, “It’s a revolt.” The Duke is alleged to have responded, “No, sire, it’s a revolution.”

The continuing ownership of the château by the Rochefoucaulds made me question how much of revolution it actually was. I mean, the mere fact that at least this branch of the French nobility has maintained control of a castle for over a thousand years suggests a certain continuity over time. I don’t know how the Rochefoucaulds are faring financially, but I suspect that they’re not poor. It’s true that they’ve had to monetize the family estate but the mere fact that such an asset has remained in the family is significant. As is the fact that they’ve recently been thinking of adding to it. In one of the rooms we saw an architectural model that included a proposed new wing designed by I. M. Pei (it looked to me like it would have been an aesthetic disaster).

The proposed Pei wing, however, was in keeping with the château’s most interesting feature. It has been consistently added to over the centuries. The original keep was built in the 11th century. The most recent additions are from the 18th. The real gem is the château’s grand staircase. It was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci and traversed the height of the building as a continuous piece. It is beautiful white stone and when the light hits it glows. At the very top of the staircase is a drawing of the castle attributed to da Vinci (it was unsigned).

Near the close of our visit the cashier let us into the family library and archives. They are incredible. The library contains around 18,000 volumes, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on law and theology. We were able to find other things, including a beautifully illustrated edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost that we were allowed to page through. One of the real treasurers was an original edition of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the work that invented the genre. I’d never seen an original copy before. It was a little awe inspiring to stand in front of the first European attempt to systematize human knowledge and realize that when it was written it was the project of only a handful of polymaths.

Undoubtedly, the family archives are of greatest interest to historians. I imagine all of the volumes in the library exist elsewhere. The archives, however, stretch back to the 13th century and contain records of all the kinds of wealth and power the French nobility attained for itself—mostly, I imagine, through theft and violence—over the years. The cashier had closed the front gate so she could accompany us into the library and archives. She showed us a couple of thirteenth-century documents. And then she showed us what must be one of the family’s prized possessions, the Duke La Rochefoucauld’s inventory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s jewelry. It was in an archival box. The cashier showed us the handwritten original and according to her the total value of the jewelry was 3 million pounds. At the time, she said, the Rochefoucaulds could have sold their château for 60,000 pounds.

The inventory and the cashier’s statement were, like Versailles, a good summary of reasons why the French Revolution ultimately happened—vast income inequality. Prior to the Revolution France was ruled by a hereditary elite who cared little for the vast majority of people in the country. Their wealth insulated them from everyone else’s reality. It meant that a few people had extravagant and sumptuous lives while most people eked out an existence. As year-by-year countries like the United States become more economically unequal and the dire threat of climate change increases I can’t help but think that such a situation is returning (or less romantically has returned). The world can only be different if we organize mass movements to make it so.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Contemporary Politics News Tags Château de La Rochefoucauld Angoulême France Versailles French Revolution Louis XVI I. M. Pei François-René de Chateaubriand John Milton Denis Diderot Encyclopédie Paradise Lost Archives Inequality Marie Antoinette

Jul 29, 2019

Sers

This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.

We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.

About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags France Sers Cognac John Rawls James Baldwin Angoulême Les Frères Moine Pineau des Charentes

Jul 27, 2019

Leaving Paris

We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.

Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:

It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
Versailles
Walking Paris
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
Canicule (Heatwave)

I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Climate Change Food News Tags Paris Sers Angoulême France Gilles Perrin Nicole Ewenczyk Anarchism Organizing Climate Change Rue de Turenne Fashion Socialism Conservatism Versailles Pascale Tournier

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