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O Fim duma Viagem

Train, bus, caves, and geese

FRANCE | Tuesday, 29 September 2015 | Views [417]

Friday we had to show up at the train station at 7:30 with clothes for the weekend and food for lunch packed. In addition to everyone in the Paris program, we were joined by the four Brown students studying in Lyon. We got on the train a little before 8 and got off four hours later. Between the length and the hour of the morning (not to mention the hour they went to sleep the night before) most of my classmates spent the train ride asleep. I read, wrote, and enjoyed the scenery. Train rides are so much prettier in daylight.

We got off the train and boarded a bus for another hour. And, in a place that said "picnic forbidden," we ate our lunches. It made me really regret not eating two hours earlier when we were still on the train and I was hungry. (My lunch was a repeat of the Versailles picnic with a brie sandwich, an apple, and a brownie. Plus a container of salt and vinegar chips that I shared with other people.

The first sight of the day was Lascaux Caves II. The Lascaux Caves are the caves that contain rather extensive prehistoric cave drawings. Lascaux Caves II are a reproduction of the originals constructed 200 meters away, since it turns out that allowing a lot of visitors in disturbs the previously abandoned and preserved environment. And when I say “reproduccion” I don’t mean “reproduction of all the paintings.” I mean they rebuilt the entire cave and decorated it the exact same way. (I kind of have to wonder if that will throw archeologists in the distant future. “They appeared to follow an extreme form of ancestor worship…”)

Although it’s a kind of neat concept, and I’m sure it would be incredibly interesting if you’re interested in prehistoric art, or even art history as a whole, a part of me felt like it was pointless. If you’re going to go through the effort of reproducing entire caves, why make them so inaccessible? Lascaux is close to the middle of nowhere, hence the hour drive from the train station there, followed by another hour-ish drive to leave. It’s very explicitly not wheelchair-accessible, and it was triggering some people’s dislike of the dark or claustrophobia. Even in the first two rooms, which contained informational panels and not drawings, the lighting was terrible, and the tour guide kept shining a light into our eyes. She was also talking really, really slowly, and occasionally translating herself into even more halting English, because she knew we were American students. It was not exactly appreciated.

Also, prehistoric cave drawings aren’t actually that interesting. The complexity of technique (movement, perspective, etc.) and color were kind of impressive, but not for 40 minutes. Nobody knows what the cave paintings mean. We can make conjectures, but that’s all they are. So most of what the tour guide was talking about was the artistic technique used for the paintings. Not exactly thrilling subject matter.

Regardless, the next place we stopped made me wish we were still at the caves. Because the next stop was a Foie Gras farm.

Geese

 

We started by seeing happy geese that had no idea what was coming to them. And then things went downhill. We went to a different part of the farm, and I started wondering if geese could scream, because that’s what it sounded like. And then we got to see an old machine that they used to forcefeed the geese (they can feed 4 geese a minute, I believe around 50g, with one machine) Then our guide forcefed a goose, clamping its beak shut so it couldn’t pull away, though you could tell it wanted to. All this accompanied by the smell that hundreds of geese make when they live in a confined area.

We went on to a different room, which had the smell of slaughtered animal, and she described the process Jean-Jacques, the proprietor of the farm, used to select geese with good livers and slaughter them. The exceptionally good livers became Foie entier, while the others were combined (and combined with duck liver) to become Foie bloc. Their feathers were used for down, and presumably the rest of the geese were used for other dishes.

And then, because nothing works up the appetite quite like learning about the process through which living geese become overfed liver-carriers, and eventually Foie Gras, we went back into entry area and were fed two kinds of foie gras and one kind of wine. The entry area also contained pictures and statues of geese in various stages of their lives, which, as most people agreed later, was kind of twisted.

The wine was a sweet white. Some people found it too sweet, but I found it considerably better than the wine I’d drunk during my weekend en solo, so I wasn’t complaining. And, if you could get past the process we’d just witnessed and the ethical implications of the production, fine. It didn’t taste bad, but I wouldn’t say it tasted good either. In my opinion, it tasted kind of like a cheap cheese, and I had no intention of trying it again. (That intention lasted me a grand total of four hours.)

We got back in the bus, drove for a while, and finally got to the hotel, where we were free until dinner. I was roommates with Ruby (again) and Nari, one of the Lyon students. We were in the room for about 10 minutes when her program-mates Andrew and Katia came to knock on the door to see if she wanted to go exploring. Ruby and I were welcomed to come as well, and I accepted. So off we went.

I think the first comment that Andrew made was “It’s neat that everyone who’s around is a Brown student. I’m so used to meeting with Americans from (university) or (university). But everyone here goes to Brown.”

“Actually…”

“There are people on the program who aren’t?”

“I’m not.”

Despite being the only non-Lyon student on the walk, and the only non-Brown student that weekend, they were all really friendly and accepting. They all tried to find Carthage or Midwest connections, and succeeded pretty well. (Best connection: “I’m pretty sure I heard a Carthage professor talk at Brown last semester.” Worst connection: “I pronounce lawyer like a midwesterner.”) We looked around the town a bit, admired the real estate listings, (for a shockingly reasonable price, you could get a house that was basically a castle in the countryside) and stopped for a coffee. A bit later, Ruby and Sam joined us, and, when it was time to go to dinner, we headed to the restaurant.

Katia was studying education, (the professor she’d heard speak had been talking about elementary education in Milwaukee, which definitely sounded like something a Carthage student would do) Andrew was majoring in Russian (he’d already studied abroad in Russia several times, for both a summer and a year, with critical language scholarships) and Nari was a bio major (so at least I wasn’t the only STEM student.) They all really liked Lyon, (especially the food. After talking with them, I felt like Paris had only decentish food) the program, and their coordinator. Remembering how small my programs the last two summers have been, with around 6-8 people. I can’t imagine an entire semester with only three other people who are participating in the same program as you. It feels so small…

Dinner was in three courses and two alcohols. The first alcohol was something very strong and very sweet. I missed the exact name, but the general consensus of the table was that it tasted a bit like a shot, but was too big to take as one. The second alcohol was a red wine.

We’d had to fill out a Google doc with food preferences two to three weeks before. The first choice had been between salad with ham and foie gras. Neither of those options had been terribly appealing, but I’d gone with the salad. Megan had gone with the foie gras and was really regretting it, so I offered to switch with her. And, for the second time that day, I was eating foie gras. It wasn’t as good as it had been earlier in the day.

The second course was duck or salmon. There was a clear winner there. The duck was a bit tough (really tough, actually, especially when you’re expecting it to be tender) but otherwise fine. The sauce was delicious and, since the waiter kept restocking our bread, I was able to use it to soak up some of the sauce.

Then, in a surprise move, they brought out cheese. There were three kinds, and still plenty of bread. None of them were so good that I was demanding what they were and where I could get more, but all of them were pretty good, in my opinion. My tablemates disagreed, but were not in a clear consensus about which one was the best. What one person considered barely palatable was another’s favorite, and her favorite the first person deemed “decent, but kind of boring.”

The last course was chocolate or non-chocolate. I went with the chocolate (I always go with the chocolate) and ended up with a nutty chocolate cake and a creme anglais sauce. It was very good.

And then dinner was over and it was time to go on a walking tour of the town. At 21:00. I will never understand the people who plan short trips for students while they’re studying abroad and why they don’t seem to factor sleep or tiredness into the schedule.

The tour was nice enough. The tour guide was certainly one of the best I’ve had this trip, speaking clearly, but not too slowly, and even making some jokes. It was night, and consequently dark, (though you could see the stars! If I leave my apartment at night, stare up, and don’t move, I can see some stars, but not many.) which added to the ambiance. Sarlat (the town that we were staying) is the only town in France that has entire quartiers lit with gas lamps, so it really does feel like you’re walking through the past to walk through narrow streets and soft lighting.

Sarlat

At the end of the tour, the guide took a moment to dwell on why Sarlat was such a well-preserved town. Because it is. Odds are, you’ve probably seen Sarlat at some point when you were watching a film, though you might not have realized it. It’s changed, and modernised, but the historical, 18th century roots are still there.

The answer is that, since the French revolution, Sarlat could not catch a break. It was neglected from trading and politics, and most of the people moved away. It didn’t modernise, because it had neither the resources nor the inclination. And so it stayed a practical ghost town. Until, in the last fifty years, they took the efforts to restore it and make it a living piece of history. And the bad luck had haunted it for centuries turned out to be one of the best things that has happened in Sarlat. (It’s only other claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Étienne de la Boétie, a semi-famous French philosopher.) History can be strange like that.

Tags: bus, cave painting, food, sarlat, tour, train, transportation

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