LETTER FROM EUROPE
By Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie
Here we are again in Europe, Germany at the moment, rolling along past fields of ripe grain, wheat, rye and oats. Yes, the rapeseed is ready for harvest—the rank smell of the yellow flowers now only a memory in the heavy seed heads, ready to be turned into canola oil. There are laws here about when a field can be harvested according to when nesting birds have flown out on their own. So there must yet be some birds sheltering in the fields.
We are once again driving a leased Renault Kangoo, a wonderful little car—part truck, part sedan. It's easy to load our instruments (the tailgate lifts up high, making a rain shelter) and to get in and out of (plenty of tall hat room—and you step down to the sidewalk instead of oozing out upon the street). Gas is more expensive than last year. We buy diesel for about 1.07 Euros a liter. The Euro is now around $1.21 but since we earn Euros here, it is OK. We try not to do much conversion. We can go about 100 kilometers on five liters. We'll let you do the math, but it still comes out high. Fortunately we don't have to buy plus grade at 1.32 Euros.
The first weekend we played music at the Altenstadtfest, northeast of Frankfurt. This is a delightful bi-annual festival (our seventh one) that celebrates the town's origins. For two days the town is decked out in full regalia. Many of the private courtyards are turned into beer gardens, with charcoal grills for cooking wurst and pork steaks, and stages for live music. The children set up tables selling their cast-off treasures. It is not unusual to see a brigade of a hundred plastic dinosaurs, all sorts of stuffed animals and board games next to a rack of handmade smocked dresses and handknit baby sweaters and socks. We played a set of "Chilegumbo" music on the stage next to our friend Fritz Salzer's house. Accompanied by Fritz and Ingo, Philippe from France and Simon, who came up from New Zealand, we were truly cross-cultural. We also played in the street with the same musicians, and on Saturday evening at the Beauchamp wine and cheese courtyard.
We spent three days in southern Germany tracking down some of Ken's family history and visiting a distant cousin. It was fun to see houses that his relatives lived in during the last two centuries. There is a book called the "Haus Buch" at the County Archive where one can find out stuff like this.
Southern German food is especially good. Spaetzle is pasta dough run through a kind of grater rather than being rolled out, served with meat in a sauce or gravy. Wunderbar! The salads are very nice: a large plate of lovely tender Bibb lettuce in the middle surrounded by little piles of very finely grated carrot in a vinaigrette; fresh sauerkraut with lots of caraway seeds; very, very tiny rectangular pieces of radish; and of course some potato salad dressed with hot broth, a bit of vinegar and finely chopped onions. It makes a fine meal.
Then we traveled to northern France in the Champagne district, visiting old friends, Philippe and Francine Pierson, in the lovely village of Droyes, where we are honorary citizens. The EU has subsidized sunflowers this summer in this region, and so we were treated to glorious squares of yellow patchwork between the ripe brown wheat and green corn as we drove down the little roads to small villages. It is amazing how in a whole field, the flowers face all the same direction, except for a few mavericks who choose their own way.
We have played a lot of music this week—a lakeside restaurant in Giffaumont, two impromptu concerts for children in schools, and two Bastille Day events. The lake by the restaurant, Le Lac du Der, is a manmade lake (1973) that takes the pressure off the Seine when it is in flood stage. Next week we will be planting a tree for a dear friend and fiddler who has gone on to the Paradis des Musiciens. Then we will perform at a festival called Loustock, organized by some American filmmakers, situated in the mountains southeast of Vichy. We finish off July with a few concerts out in beautiful Bretagne—Roscanvel and Morgat just south of Brest along the Atlantic coast. On Aug. 1, as you read this, we will cross the Channel to England and Wales for a full month's schedule of concerts, festivals and dances before returning home in early September.
Each village competes for the number of flowers on their sign that says "Village fleurie." From one to as many as five is possible, we think. This village of Droyes has two fleurs (flowers) this year, up from one last year. It seems that the towns with three or more have flowers absolutely everywhere. Each house sports window boxes on every windowsill, sometimes making the houses look like very overdressed, ruffly old ladies, but none the less it is effective. And the median strips, the inner circle of the rond-points, and the areas between the sidewalks and the streets are often heavily planted. Of course, there is usually enough rain to water all this. We are always pleased by the absence of litter along the side of the roads, too.
Here in Droyes, the bread is delivered to your house every morning, except Monday. The nearest boulangerie is in Montier-en-Der, seven kilometers away. La boulangère, Bernadette, drives a Kangoo and it is full of baguettes, batards, croissants, patisseries and brioches. Her husband is the baker in the village of Arzillièures, and she goes to some 15 villages on her route every day, which takes four and a half hours. She stops at the households who usually want to purchase bread, and if a person is not home, a sack is left outside the house with an order. They pay up at the end of the month. There are two other drivers as well. You can hear her coming by the sound of her klaxon (horn). She blows it in front of the houses on her route. It is a cheerful beginning to the day. We have stayed in towns that have all kinds of delivery trucks, kind of a rolling supermarket, that visit once or twice a week. Charcuterie, fresh fish, vegetables and the all-important cheese are thus made available to those without a car
The church here has three bells. On the hour we hear the larger and lower-pitched one first, and the higher one two minutes later. The lower bell has a lovely rich tone with beautiful aftertones, and the higher one a thinner and smaller sound. On the quarter-, half- and three-quarter-hour we hear one, two and three strokes of the larger bell. At 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. the big bell rings medium speed for several minutes for Angelus (prayer time). Sometimes all three bells ring for a long time, denoting a call to mass—mi-do-re, or perhaps a death—more slowly, do-mi-do-re (quelq'un est mort) or a for wedding or baptism—the same as mass. In the old days the bells were used as a warning for fire or battle, as well as to toll victory, and they were rung by hand. Today they are rung electronically.
On the 14th, we played all afternoon in the very small village of Outines for about 65 people of all ages seated at one long table. The meal began at 1 p.m. with a few minutes of silence for the recent tragedy in London. Then there was the apero, followed by the entrée—salmon in a mayonnaise sauce, shrimp and a bit of rice salad with mussels. The main dish was a slice of braised ham and mushrooms with baby vegetables, then the lettuce salad and cheese course (bleu, chèvre, Emmenthal and brie) served at the same time, and finally a fresh fruit cup with a ladyfinger. It took two and a half hours and we played music between each course. The children loved trying out the instruments and, later on, they danced the broom dance and the handkerchief dances, New Mexico style. After dinner, more people drifted in, including a chromatic accordion player. We played mazurkas, rondeaux, and French schottisches for a few dancers. It was reminiscent of le temps passé, steeped in tradition.
Tomorrow we move on to the next phase of the trip, old and new friends, and new adventures. With music as the common denominator, we are connected to the past and the future all at once, and are privileged to ride this colorful rolling postcard. We know we are fortunate, ambassadors bringing good musical cheer from our country. We send hellos to everyone, and hope that the rains have begun.