Category Archives: travel

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

China Memoir–Launched and Languishing

China Memoir, Launched and Languishing   —by Jinny Batterson

Memoir front cover

In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.

After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.    

As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative. 

If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan.  Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.   

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

                                            —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough couple of months here in North Carolina: two hurricanes (Florence, then Michael), a polarized government, widespread agricultural losses, increasing poverty, damaged schools and infrastructure. 

Yet there’s been heartening news as well. Many established charities such as the American Red Cross have sent disaster recovery teams to the worst impacted areas. Local citizens in areas less damaged by the storms have created both short-term and long-term relief efforts. A neighbor who specializes in local fundraising set up a Sunday-afternoon event at a nearby shopping center and raised over $10,000 in cash plus thousands of dollars worth of non-perishable food and household goods for hurricane relief. Because of the extent of the damage, both in the Carolinas and elsewhere, it will take continued efforts by private donors, non-profits, government agencies, and financial institutions to help promote recovery.  The natural environment will never be the same; repairs, rebuilding, and/or relocation of homes and businesses will take months if not years. 

After hurricane Florence decimated the coastal Carolinas, major roads and interstates were flooded and impassable for over a week, making cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina effectively islands.  Residents who’d evacuated were asked not even to try to return home as soon as the first few roads were reopened—what limited road travel was possible needed to be reserved for emergency and supply crews.  Now that the immediate crises are over, people are starting to grapple with longer-term problems: should rebuilding be limited in areas that seem more and more prone to drastic weather?  Should building codes be changed? How do we adapt our infrastructure to be more resilient? Do we need to pursue alternatives to a predominately road-based transportation network?

Simple solutions seem elusive and likely counterproductive. Perhaps we need to rethink some of the implicit assumptions we’ve made about how the world works.  Rather than considering ourselves outside nature, it may be time to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that we humans are just one piece in a complex, evolving whole.  Among the groups that have challenged some of my existing perceptions are:

Transition networks (https://transitionnetwork.org/), a set of local-global initiatives to work toward more resilient local economies in the face of escalating global challenges

Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/), harnessing scientific knowledge toward solving human problems

Biomimicry 3.8 (https://biomimicry.net/), which looks at other life forms (some with over 3.8 billion years of experience on earth) for innovative ways to re-engineer human-made systems

What partial solutions have you discovered?  What “small/local” actions are you taking to make our future more livable?  Please share some of your thoughts. 

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs. 

Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.

After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky.  So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive,  I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.

Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing. 

Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it. 

One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.

Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.

Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues. 

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited   —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:

In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.

After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.

During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.

“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.”  For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.

Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty. 

The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas.  Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.

Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help?  Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing? 

As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.

Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse?  Happy fall, y’all!             

Happy Interdependence Day!

Happy Interdependence Day!    —by Jinny Batterson

For a good many years now, I’ve bracketed an insertion into my July 4 Independence Day greetings to friends in the American expatriate community:

“Happy In(ter)dependence Day!” I extol them.  It has seemed to me increasingly evident that in an era of global communication and commerce, celebrating “independence” needs a counterweight. We have become more and more dependent on one another across all sorts of boundaries. So I was pleased to find that others more widely known than I am have come up with similar themes. Perhaps the most widely publicized is a September 12 holiday proposed in the years just following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  In 2003, a group met to create a day to celebrate our global interconnectedness, and settled on September 12, the day after the terrorist assault, as a day for an annual celebration. According to Parag Khanna, one of its founders:

     “For the event’s organizers (the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland), Interdependence Day is intended to be crucially different from 4 July. Where Americans alone celebrate the latter, the idea of interdependence unites all peoples across national boundaries in a common human destiny. At the same time, there is an element of deep continuity: for Americans in particular will have to struggle as hard to realize the promise of interdependence as they did for independence.”  (For a fuller explanation, please check out the following link: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/americas-interdependence-day.) 

     I’ve just returned from a cross-country U.S. trip, benefiting from collaborative practices among airline personnel, colleagues, other passengers, and airport employees to adjust schedules and seating to get as many of us as practical back to our homes on the U.S. Atlantic coast in advance of a strong hurricane. My guess is that our skills at interdependence will soon get a good bit of practice, courtesy of Florence and/or other storms later in the season. My best wishes to all for adequate shelter from the storm—Happy Interdependence Day!     

Dog Days Dreaming

Dog Days Dreaming     —by Jinny Batterson

It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.

Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing. 

The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak.  From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”

In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:

“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”

The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers: 

“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.” 

Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:  

“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.” 

In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.

Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again. 

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley   —by Jinny Batterson

Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe.  Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.

While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France. 

According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.

Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted. 

Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age.  The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time. 

The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.

As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy.  May we use all these tools well.     

A modern roadside ad in a town full of prehistory

Aubrac’s Fields of Wild Jonquils

Aubrac’s Flelds of Wild Jonquils    —by Jinny Batterson

In late May, as I was walking across a sparsely settled upland French plateau along a stretch of one pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a delicious fragrance—delicate and sweet and lingering. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Despite, or perhaps because of, a fair amount of rainy weather, the meadows and woodlands abounded in spring blooms, many of them unfamiliar to me.  That evening at the small guest house where we had booked a room, I noticed a vase of flowers with the same delicate fragrance. I asked the proprietress what these small white blooms were called. “Jonquils des poètes,” she told me in French.

I’m not sure what the English equivalent is. The internet pictures I’ve found of “Poet’s jonquils” look similar, but not identical to the flowers I remember from my trip. A few days further into my journey, I arrived midmorning at the tiny town of Aubrac, after spending a couple of hours crossing several miles of minimally fenced upland pastures dotted with jonquils des poètes, some being contentedly munched by local cattle. The weather was cool and misty.

At the near edge of town was a forbidding-looking Romanesque structure. A guide was explaining to a group of tourists in a language I could not understand the wonders and historic significance of this church. According to the French signpost I could partly understand, this former Benedictine monastery was at least a thousand years old and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier structure.

Most of the other buildings along the road and edging the upland pastures were hotels, hostels, or small inns. I noticed one small cafe/guest house that seemed to be open. Several of us stopped and picked out an outdoor table under a protective awning. A warm drink seemed a good idea. It took a while for anyone to come to take our orders—after a bit, an elegant young woman showed up, apologizing somewhat for the delay, explaining that she and the other town residents were all still stressed out from the previous weekend’s “transhumance” festival that annually draws thousands to the area. I’d seen pictures and postcards of this celebration of the opening of common upland pastures for the area’s prized cattle. A nearby town square was still littered with floral garlands and signs from the festival. (Find a set of commercial pictures of the 2018 festival here: http://hotel-lion-or.com/aveyron/fete-transhumance-aubrac/

When our hostess finally brought our coffees and hot chocolates, she stopped to take a smoke break and we began to ask her questions. All of us were curious about the town, whose year-round population has dwindled markedly from a peak over a century ago. Until the late 19th century, our hostess told us, Aubrac had been a traditional farming village, but the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of earning an adequate living caused many farm families to leave the area and seek better lives in French cities. Lots of the adults became small shopkeepers or restaurateurs in and around Paris. However, they retained cottages in Aubrac and continued to bring their families for summer vacations in their former hometown. At about the same time, some area doctors discovered that the clean, cool air in the Aubrac highlands helped tubercular patients. Several tuberculosis sanatoria were opened over the next decades—some have since become hotels or hostels. Most of the local economy now revolves around tourism, compressed into the three or four months of warmer weather. The local cattle, a special hardy breed, supply photo opportunities as well as milk or meat. 

Our hostess explained between puffs that she was even busier than she’d expected post-festival: her five rooms were all rented for the week—a group of businessmen from New York City had come to explore the option of buying quantities of jonquils des poètes to use in a new upscale perfume fragrance. She said that this particular type of jonquil only grew in the wild and had not yet been successfully cultivated.  Some of each year’s blooms already were collected by locals to supply French perfumeries in the southern city of Grasse, a noted perfume center.

I never got to meet the businessmen, who most probably were jet-lagged and perhaps also technology-deprived in this isolated small town. My current exposure to a former-NYC-businessman-turned-politician has temporarily soured me on the ethics and business practices of some.  My hope is that if a deal is struck, the good people of Aubrac will be fairly compensated for their labor and their wild-growing fragrant white blossoms.  I also hope that enough flowers will be left in the fields so that cattle, pilgrims, and residents can continue to enjoy their essence in their native habitat.    

A Lot About Aligot

A Lot About Aligot   —by Jinny Batterson

In late spring, I went with my husband Jim to central France for an extended trip. The first part consisted of a scaled-back pilgrimage walk along part of the “Camino Saint Jacques de Compostela.” Jim had contracted with an outfitter to haul our luggage and to reserve private rooms at fairly evenly spaced B&B’s or small inns, about ten miles apart, while we hiked one branch of a pilgrimage route for two weeks.

The particular section we chose to walk went from the small city of Le Puy en Velay, site of a well-known shrine to a black Madonna, to Conques, a tiny village nestled in a steep valley, home to a set of relics of an early French Christian martyr, Sainte Foy. Though much more comfortable than a longer pilgrimage walk Jim had done earlier with young friends, this trek had enough variables and unknowns in trail conditions and weather so it was still something of an adventure. We were lucky with both trail and weather, getting lost only briefly, and thoroughly drenched just once.

Much of our walk was through an upland plateau region generally known as the Massif Central, including the most sparsely populated French department, Lozere, with more cows than people. After we left Le Puy, we were mainly in countryside, dotted here and there with small villages, ruins of old castles, historic churches and shrines, crosses at many trail junctions, plus lots and lots of cows. Early in the trip, several communal suppers with other pilgrims gave us exposure to a local dairy specialty dish, aligot, one with an ancient pedigree.

Variations of a local legend say that in the sixth century, three area bishops were convened by the local ruler to help settle a dispute. As negotiations dragged on, the bishops got hungry. Each took out some special ingredients he’d brought with him and gave them to a local cook to turn into a meal. The bishop of St. Flour had brought lots of potatoes (or, in an earlier version of the story, bread). The bishop of Rodez had brought cheese and milk and butter, while the bishop of Mende had brought salt and garlic.

The cook decided to keep things simple. He first cooked the potatoes, then added the other ingredients to the mix, stirring briskly to blend everything together. The bishops enjoyed the dish so much that they all vied to take any leftovers home, but the remains of the mix were so thoroughly stuck to the bottom of the pot that the dish remained local to the upland plateau where they’d met.

The several iterations of aligot we experienced came with a great deal of ceremony—the cook in charge would appear with a large cauldron which was placed on an equally imposing trivet near the common dining area. The cook would then proceed to lift a big wooden spoon out of the pot to show how smooth and flexible the mixture was, then transfer huge glops of the stuff into serving bowls for us hungry pilgrims. To me, aligot seemed a sort of cross between garlic mashed potatoes and cheese fondue. It congealed quickly as it cooled. Though quite nourishing and warming on chill, rainy evenings, it could sit heavy on the stomach. It digested better if washed down with local wine or beer (or maybe even something stronger).

Once we completed our walk, descending from the plateau into milder weather in other regions, we sometimes had the option of choosing aligot as an accompaniment to our meal, but we usually passed. Aligot, as the bishops surmised, needs a wild, chill setting to reach its full potential.