Category Archives: France

Hitting the Woad

Around the city of Toulouse in France, there are a lot of (now faded) blue shutters and architectural details. That’s because during the Middle Ages, Toulouse was a famous European woad dying center.

I’d never heard of it before I became interested in eco dying, but woad (isatis tinctoria) is a flowering plant that was used to dye textiles a radiant blue color in Europe long before indigo was introduced there. In France it’s called “bleu pastel” because the flowers that rose to the surface of the dye vats were once used to make pastel sticks. Though it was also farmed in Asia and some parts of Europe, woad grew especially well in the abundant sunshine of southwestern France.

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Woad blue was the color of the French monarchy (“King’s Blue”/Royal Blue), and also the Catholic Church. In fact, at one time there were thirteen official shades of woad sanctioned by the French government. Because of their value, French woad producers were protected by both Church and King.

They needed it. The alchemical nature of woad dying was so mysterious, that some people considered the woad dyers witches. It didn’t help that the woad dyers stood over large, cauldron-like vats with long sticks that they used to submerge and retrieve fabrics. Or that, in order to achieve just the right PH balance for the dye in the vats, men would sometimes have to urinate in them.

After being replaced by indigo and later chemical blues in the late 1800s, woad was no longer farmed and the complicated process for extracting its pigment –  which had never been formally documented but rather passed on through word of mouth – was virtually forgotten.

That is, until French/American couple Henri and Denise Lambert took it upon themselves to bring woad back. I mean, they literally brought woad back because when they set out to rekindle the practice of woad dying, no one could tell them how it was done and there weren’t any seeds available to grow it. The Lamberts eventually purchased some from a museum and it took them five years to learn how to farm it, extract its pigment, and ferment it. Eventually they refined and modernized the process and began dying fabric commercially under the Bleu de Lectoure label. Denise came to Chateau Dumas during the week I was there to talk about woad and give us the opportunity to dye with it.

Denise

Denise Lambert

It turns out that even the process of dying with woad is complicated. After you have grown several tons of woad, reaped it at just the right moment, made woad balls from the leaves, waited a year, extracted its pigment and fermented it to just the right PH level in your vat, you can’t just dunk a piece of cloth in that vat and swish it around. In fact, if Denise Lambert saw you doing that you would be in big trouble and I won’t tell you how I know that.

No. You have to lower the fabric gently into the dye vat, then pull it down and toward you with your giant stick to make sure it hasn’t trapped any bubbles. And as soon as you pull it (GENTLY) out of the vat, it begins to oxidize and change from yellow to green to blue so if you accidentally pull a corner of somebody else’s fabric out of the vat, you better pull it all the way out and hang it on the line or you could also get seriously busted and I won’t tell you how I know that, either. Plus, you have to repeat this process at least two, often three times, in order to get a good blue.

Melanie

Melanie

But when you do it’s almost magical, and very addictive. That’s  because depending on the thickness, weave, and type of fabric you are trying to dye, varying shades of blue can be achieved. Also, you can make a lot of bad puns with it.

Particularly if you are a novice woad dyer, you never know what you’re going to get. You approach woad dying thinking that you’re only going to dye a scarf or two, and before you know it, all of your clothing is in the dye vat and you are running around the south of France in just your knickers.

woad-line

I have to say, the woad blue is just gorgeous. It doesn’t come across nearly as well in pictures, but it’s almost luminescent. I ended up dying a blouse, a scarf, a vintage linen nightdress (that I bought at the vide grenier), a few antique linens, and some lace. But I also saw a dress, a jacket, several pairs of pants, part of a quilt, a couple of wooden spoons, book pages, and one doll go into the dye vat.

Some people think that woad has antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and may also fight cancer. I wouldn’t doubt it.

You can follow woad whisperer Denise Lambert on Facebook.

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I Used To Be French

Legend has it in my famiglia that a great-great-great grandmother on my father’s side married a deserter of Napoleon’s army when it marched across the fatherland. I have always blamed this soldier personally for my short stature and the fact that I don’t possess your typical Lithuanian blond-haired, blue-eyed looks.

But the French ancestor has also served me well, especially as a conversation starter at parties.

“Hello, are you enjoying the party?”

“Yes. I am directly descended from Napoleon.”

I always chalked up the ease with which I picked up French to this particular family member, and felt pretty confident that with my beret, baguette, and striped boatneck shirt, I easily passed for a native during the time I spent living in France.

Whenever someone would comment on my impeccable accent, I would say,

“Thank you. It’s because I’m part French.”

But all of that changed last weekend.

I’d been hounding my father to write down his childhood memories of Lithuania for years, and every time I asked him how it was going, the conversation would go like this:

Hey, T?veli! Kaip tau sekasi prisiminimus rašyti?” (Hey, Dad! How’s it going with your memoirs?”)

And my dad would always tell me that he’s making good progress.

Kiek tu jau puslapi? parasiai?” (How many pages are you up to?”), I’d press him.

And he would say:

“Two paragraphs.”

But last week my Dad presented me with three single-spaced pages of his completed memoirs. He packed a lot in those pages – everything from how his family was separated while fleeing, to how he used to amuse himself in the refugee camps by picking apart detonated bombs.  I’m thrilled with it (and very grateful – a?i? T?veli!).

As a bonus, he included a family tree, which begins with the infamous French ancestor.

Whose last name was, “Felice.” Or maybe, “Feliz.”

I did a little bit of research about this surname and about the history around Napoleon’s path through Lithuania.

It turns out the name is Italian or Spanish. What’s more, Wikipedia told me that thousands of Spaniard and Portuguese conscripts deserted Napoleon’s army in Lithuania during the summer of 1812 and went on to loot, pillage, and terrorize the locals.

I took it pretty hard. It’s not that I’m not thrilled to be one-thirty-second Spanish or  Portuguese or Italian, only that for these past thirty-nine-years, I have believed myself to be one-thirty-second French. Also, my great-great-great grandfather might have been a marauder.

There would be no easy way to break it to my dad, so I went over there this afternoon and told it to him straight:

“I hate to tell you this, but we are Spanish, not French.”

He was clearly devastated.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said.

“It’s just as I always suspected,” added Mama.

“That explains the moustache*,” my friend V said when I broke it to her.

And indeed, now that I’ve had a few days to take it in, I am very excited about my Spanish or Portuguese or Eye-talian blood. Of course, there are many things I will have to adjust accordingly (note: buy some pirate shirts and leather pants), but it does explain my fondness for paella and Spanish wine.

The only drawback so far is that the P-Dawg has started calling me, “Gomez.”

That’s the jealousy talking, right there.

The New Me

* I don’t really have a moustache.

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I Went to France and All I Kissed Was an Englishman

Party at the London Pub

As far as I could tell, my French host family owned one phone, a rotary, and it held court on a small console table in their lace-curtained parlor. The table stood all alone next to the doorway, so we had to take our phone calls like fugitives, standing up.

When my parents rang, I’d speak to my mother first and strive to provide the kind of details she might expect to hear about a daughter’s life in France. One day I might tell her about the majesty of the chestnut trees I’d seen during a stroll through the Parc Honoré de Balzac, (where is the Parc Honoré de Balzac?), another day about the pain au chocolat I’d purchased still warm from the local patisserie.

My father used the telephone first to confirm that I was still alive, and second that his tuition dollars were being well spent.

“Are you fluent yet?” he’d ask two minutes into our conversation, and I’d shift my weight from one foot to the other on the tattered 18th century rug. “I’m getting there,” is what I’d say.

And I was getting there, but slowly.  That’s because instead of hanging out with French people, I was spending my evenings slinging back Guinness with a lot of drunken Englishmen at a place called “The London Pub.”  Finding French students seeking American friendships was proving hard to do at the international language school where I was taking classes.

There were no French people enrolled there who wanted to learn French.

But the Institute was packed to the gills with Englishmen, who, with their Monty Python accents and scruffy Doc Martens, were very enticing, indeed. The Brits had a sense of humor foreign to their French counterparts and a penchant for American girls. More importantly, they spoke English, and you’d have been hard pressed to find one walking down the street with a poodle sticking out of his bag. Cleaving to the Brits in France was like opting for a comfortable, yet stylish pair of jeans instead of attempting to mold oneself into a sleek pair of glamorous leather pants. It was the natural thing to do.

The London Pub was a little bar in Place Plumereau owned by a man we called “Phildo.” People with names like “Simon,” “Nigel” and “David” convened there, Bass and Guinness flowed on tap, and the Smiths were always playing in the background. Here I met Ian, a student from the University of Bristol. And I quickly discovered that a crisp English accent was more compelling than a shallow complement from a serpentine Frenchman. The few that I’d met so far were physiquement attractive, I’ll give them that, but there was something about them that didn’t sit quite right with me. Their language and mannerisms were too dramatic, too cliché to be sincere.

Ian didn’t just find the French mildly annoying, he despised them. They were “wankers, the whole fucking lot,” and he wished he’d never set foot inside their pisspot of a country. If Ian stepped in a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk, it was because the French were filthy buggers. When he left his wallet sitting out on the bar after a few pints, it was stolen through no fault of his own, but because the country was morally bankrupt. And when Ian scraped the side of his rental car while pulling through a narrow parking lot gate, it was only because France didn’t know its head from its arsehole.

One thing led to another, and soon I found myself kissing him in a cobblestone alley behind the London Pub. My study abroad year was starting to look up. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d been envisioning since I’d set my sights on France, except that my Frenchman turned out to be a bookish Brit who kept a bottle of blue label Johnny Walker in his own personal locker at the London Pub.

If I couldn’t join the impenetrable French, I would team up with their archenemy and mock them gently over whiskey and Coke.

 

To be continued . . . maybe . . . one of these days.

 

This is Part Trois of my uber compelling series about the totally unique and in no way whatsoever cliche junior year I spent studying in France. You can read the first two parts here:

Part Un

Part Deux

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Age of Ignorance: The Enviable Heathens

This post is the second installment of my half-baked series about the year my best friend and I spent living in Tours, France. In case you missed it, you can read the first part here.

Becky and Assorted Exchange Students with Water, Coke, and Wine

Good Catholic girls that we were, Becky and I had been warned that France was morally bankrupt, but it wasn’t until we moved in with our host family on Rue Victor Hugo that we were able to witness it firsthand.

The first thing we discovered was that you could drink wine every night with your dinner and nobody batted an eye. The family we boarded with hosted a motley crew of exchange students year round and each night when we gathered at the large dining room table for our main meal, we were offered water, wine, or Coke.  After a brief period of false virtue, I picked wine every time. It would have been a crime not to, and I didn’t want to offend.

Le vin worked like a charm to loosen up my tongue so I could yammer on with greater facility about how embarrassing my countrymen were. Though I wasn’t 100% sold on the French yet, I felt it necessary to differentiate myself from the loud, obnoxious, sweatpants wearing breed of American at any cost. Of course, I learned more French sipping Rhone red at that dinner table than I ever did from any book, and it remains in my mind’s eye the lasting image of my junior year abroad.

One evening shortly after our arrival, a striking blonde joined the family for dinner and was introduced to us as Sophie, our host “brother’s” girlfriend.  Arnold (“Arghhh-No“) was only our host “brother” in name.  He was our age – about twenty – but had been a disappointment from the very start with his awkward appearance and pointed indifference toward us. He didn’t like Americans – that much was clear – and probably wasn’t crazy about sharing his home with a gaggle of over eager exchange students who butchered his mother tongue and imposed their cheap neophyte culture on his ancient Gallic roots. Becky and I had crossed him off of our potential boyfriend list as soon as we’d arrived.

Me, trying desperately to look all frenchy-french-french. Too bad I never got the memo about NOT TUCKING YOUR SWEATER INTO YOUR PANTS.

Arghhh-No largely ignored us and, when directly addressed, would purposely answer in slurred street language to ensure we didn’t understand a word he’d said. Sophie, on the other hand, spoke to us in a friendly, lark-like tone of voice. She wasn’t interested in us as individuals, per se, but at least she treated us as diversions instead of lepers, like Arghh-No. That night after the evening meal, Sophie horrified and profoundly impressed us by pulling a pack of peach Gauloise cigarettes out of her pocket and while Becky and I stared with mouths agape, proceeded to light one up in plain sight.

Scandale!

It was clear that Sophie had a death wish, because everyone knew cigarettes were something you smoked secretly, behind your boyfriend’s parents’ backs. And yet here here she was, sipping wine and blowing smoke rings right under our noses like a young Catherine Deneuve.  I waited in gleeful anticipation for la merde to hit the fan, but the only thing that happened was Monsiour Host Father got up and brought her an ashtray.

Sophie was a total badass and I decided I’d do anything to become her friend.

The next morning while Becky and I we were eating our meager French breakfast of black coffee and a single slice of toast with jam, the enigmatic and unabashedly bed-headed Sophie descended from Arghhh-No’s bedroom in pajamas and sat down at the table like a person without mortal sin upon her head. It was inconceivable! Had she actually spent the night? And if she had, didn’t she have the good sense to make a run for it before the rest of the family woke up?

France was clearly a country full of sex-crazed heathens and therefore glamorous beyond compare.

My Adorable Host Parents, and Hadid, our Kuwaiti Housemate

Not only did Sophie continue to sleep in Arghhh-No’s socialist lair for the next three nights, she also wore the same outfit for the remainder of the week and, by my hawk-like calculations, only showered once during that entire time.  Becky and I, who made it a point to rotate our limited wardrobe of quintessentially French blazers, jeans, and scarves daily and who would have rather died than worn the same shirt twice in one week, were totally aghast. Not only were the French godless alcoholics, they really didn’t bathe.

Naturally, we began to alternate between homesickness and an intense desire to become one of them.

(To be continued . . . )

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