Wow. I’m here and it’s amazing! Despite getting to the airport a little later than I should have (note to self: add an extra HOUR on to travel time to airport – it’s better to be early!), I made the flight and a big TWO THUMBS UP to KLM Airlines. Professional and attentive staff, excellent food, and comfortable seats. I even had plenty of legroom on my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Bordeaux. Why can’t American airlines (in general, not the company with that name) live up to these standards? They are clearly attainable. I won’t waste blog-space with a rant on airlines, but c’mon people, can’t we try a little harder? While in flight I read a novella about Neandertals and early Homo sapiens called Raven’s Choice by Harper Swan (@harperswan1). Thoroughly enjoyable read with interesting characters, and, I’m happy to report, scientifically plausible. I recommend it. It’s quite short, so I’m glad a sequel will be out soon. In fact it’s so short that I also had time to watch Birdman (two thumbs up), and then could not resist watching The Big Lebowski again. The Dude abides.
From Bordeaux airport I had to take a bus and a train to Saintes. I have lots of experience traveling, but it’s been a long time since I’ve travelled in a place where I basically don’t speak the language (although I’ve of course studied it this past year), but international communication techniques came back to me. It’s all about body language, eye contact, good humor, and lots of patience and humility. I eventually made it to where we are staying, a cluster of comfy little cabins in the completely adorable and so-picturesque-you’d-think-you-were-in-one-of-those-quirky-French-rom-com-movies tiny village of Saint-Cesaire. Besides the nearby 13th century Abby and the 17th and 18th century farmhouses, the first thing that struck me was how incredibly green and lush it is here. Wildflowers, vines covering every tree, thousands of birds and insects in nonstop chorus. Wow, I thought, France is so full of nature. Then later I realized it’s not really a French thing, it’s that I’m coming from southern California, where we are deep into a long drought with no end in sight. It really brought home how completely dead and brown and empty everything is these days, and how birds and insects have probably died, moved away, or retreated underground. Please send rain.
I arrived Thursday evening and work didn’t start until Friday. So after meeting most of the team, we went to dinner. The person organizing this excavation, Isabelle Crevecoeur, has arranged with a nearby restaurant, Auberge des Bujoliers, to feed us a family-style dinner every night. For lunch, the Paleosite museum feeds us a FOUR-COURSE meal every day. Holy crap!!! The dinner restaurant, besides being completely romantic (how many times can I use the word “picturesque”?), serves excellent food. We are waited on by a woman, who I can only assume is the owner or one of them. Her 4-year-old son rides his bike with training wheels around us, or just stares and laughs, then runs away. We have had burgers, couscous with chicken and sausage, and pizza. It is basic fare, but it is high quality, fresh and made by hand. As much as I adore the atmosphere of the dinner restaurant, I have to say I think lunch at the museum restaurant (pictured here) is even better. Appetizer, main course, cheese and fruit plate, and finishing off with dessert and espresso. We have had things like fish and pork pate, duck, a cold tomatoe-y dish called Greek mushrooms, and seafood paella. I am now known in the team for going a bit crazy over the French cheese. J’aime le fromage! I love mild and creamy cheese, strong stinky cheese, tangy goat cheese, and everything I haven’t tried yet. Every meal here is served with several long baguettes slapped right onto the table with no plate. Everyone just breaks off pieces and uses it to mop up sauces or spread for spreading pates and cheese. My French colleagues insist that the four-course lunch is absolutely NOT the norm, and that these kinds of feasts are reserved for Christmastime. The Canadians and I will just have to take their word for it. Meanwhile, how can I resist teasing my American archeology colleagues who likely roast weenies and open cans of baked beans, or choke down soggy sandwiches from a cooler. Haha suckers!!
My first evening sitting there with the excavation team at our outdoor dinner table (see below), listening to the birds and sharing good food and wine, well it almost makes up for feeling left out of pretty much all the conversation. Everyone, of course, speaks French. Their English capabilities vary (my professor of course being the most fluent), plus there are two English-speaking Canadians, one of whom speaks fluent French and the other knows about as much as me (which is some words and phrases, but not enough for any kind of conversation, even a simple one). So obviously because we are outnumbered, pretty much all conversation is in French. I listen and often can understand the subject of a conversation, but that’s about it. I want to learn more, and of course I’m sure I will just by being here, but meanwhile I hate feeling like a passive observer of animated conversation and laughter. It’s like there’s a party going on and I’m not invited. And worse, I’m stuck in the middle of it. I’m a pretty social person too, adding to my frustration. I know I will pick up more and more French, in fact I’ve noticed I already have. But meanwhile I can sometimes feel alone in a large group of friendly people with whom, ironically, I would otherwise have plenty to talk about.