Picking Grapes: No Stomping Allowed

Bucket of Grapes Oct

Hello friends! This is the goal, just so you know. Fill your bucket with grapes, again, and again, and again, until the boss says it’s time to go home.

Once again, telling people you’re doing research for a novel you’re writing opens a plethora of doors. When we met Pierre Thomann last spring, and he gave us the private tour of his chapel, I was elated. Then, I discovered a Pinot Gris Grand Cru among his cadre of wines that tasted like the nectar of the gods. He began explaining about growing grapes and the whole wine making process once I told him I needed to know for my story. I decided to be brave and ask if it would be possible, when we returned in the fall, to pick grapes in his vineyards. HE SAID YES!

Me & Girls Oct

(My grape-harvesting buddies.)

So here we are picking grapes the last week of harvest. This was the day to pick Gewurztraminier Grand Cru grapes. (Say that 5 times really fast.) Jim and I met Pierre and his wife, Titia, at their home/shop in Kaysersberg and drove up into the vineyards. We were paired up with someone to pick along side. I scored and got Titia. Maybe she thought I would need more help. After a very quick lesson in what was good enough to pick and what was not, we began.

Me picking grapes Oct

(Me in my new French headband.)

This is not a job for the faint of back. It was a beautiful sunny day. There we were in a vineyard, with a French vineyard owner, and his family, and his workers picking grapes. And they were all speaking French and laughing, and it was like we were in a movie. A very lovely movie. Someone came along fairly often checking our bucket and replacing it when it was full.  The buckets were then taken to a large bin on a trailer. The owner and his son would take each grape one by one, inspect them, and drop only the perfect ones into the bin. This, among many other things, makes a grape good enough to be a Grand Cru.

Me & Jim Oct

Jim and I picked enough grapes between us in one afternoon to make 200+ bottles of wine. Not bad for a couple of newbies. We did all take a break mid-pick. At which point all the smart phones came out of pockets and lots of photos were taken with the crazy American writer and her husband, who volunteered to pick grapes for free for the purpose of research. So what I thought was romantic and such an adventure, was for them life as they know it. And this is why I write fiction. Taking people who believe they are living ordinary lives and making them appear fantastic, romantic, legendary.

Me & Pierre at his shop

(Me and Pierre in his wine shop.)

After picking grapes, we went to visit Pierre again and bought some of my favorite wine. He then took us on a tour of the inner courtyard, where the chapel sits. He explained that his family has been in the wine business since 1525. They started as wine barrel makers and obtained vineyards by 1600. This business has passed from father to son since 1525! His great grandparents married and joined vineyards. His great grandmother was a Saltzman (good French name), thus the business name Saltzman-Thomann. Pierre’s grandmother was niece of the Abbess of the Abbey of Alspach, here in Alsace. (How about that for a lovely alliteration.)  Because of said grandmother, their family inherited this property in the 1700s, with the chapel and the building that was the original Abbey, built in the 1300s.

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(The staff of the Abbess of Alspach from 1700s. It is displayed on the wall in the chapel.)

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(The former Abbey, later it was a hospital, now a residence.)

The Abbey had an extensive wine cellar and vineyards. It was built around 1440. Across from the Abbey in the courtyard is a doorway that used to lead to the bakery for the Abbey. There is a date of 1580 and the symbol for bakery above the door. Attached to the chapel is the butcher. The sign above its doorway has a date of 1739. As you can see, the Abbey was self-contained. Of course, many people in the valley worked the Abbey lands and paid with their harvests. Tithes were high.

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(Door to ancient bakery. 1580)

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(Door to butcher. 1739)

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(Date and symbol above doorway of butcher shop.)

Finally, Pierre took us into the cellar of the ancient abbey. The original wooden wine barrels are still there. They no longer use these as of several years ago when they changed to stainless steel tanks. When it was time to clean the interior of these barrels. Someone, (Pierre was the one to do this most often.) had to climb inside through an opening 10″ high by 15-18″ wide. He told us he had to raise his hands over his head and put them together like he was diving and go into the barrel, twisting his body as he went. WHAT? I was claustrophobic just listening to him tell about it! Anyway, now they are taking apart the barrels and labeling them piece by piece so they can put them back together somewhere outside the cellar. Pierre also said that during WWII many of the neighbors would come into this cellar along with his family to hide during air raids. We stood in the cellar for a few moments quietly, and I tried to imagine the fear they must have felt. The parents trying to console their children as the sound of war raged outside. Thankfully, only a few houses where destroyed in this small village during the war. The village down the road was not so fortunate. It was leveled. Not a house left standing. Tragic.

Me & Pierre in wine cellar

 

(Pierre and me in front of a wine barrel.)

So there you have it. Just a few snippets from our wine picking adventure last fall. I hope you enjoyed your time with us and will take a moment to feel the stickiness of the grape juice on your fingers. Now breathe in deeply as you raise your hands to your face. Ahh. The sweet smell of the nectar of the gods.

I will end our day’s journey with a few pictures of the vineyards once the harvest has ended. It’s late October and soon the leaves will fall from the vines, and they will sleep through the long winter ahead. Until next time. Bonjour.

Chateau late Oct

Oct

Late Oct

 

The Village: There and Back Again

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(Kaysersberg, Alsace, France. Oct. 2013)

Let me begin by apologizing for the long silence. The Spring has been full of other work. But, I am back in France, and it is time to write! It’s been eight months since we were here last. Not much has changed. Although the weather is nothing the same. We arrived five days ago. Five very long, very hot days. I’ve not gotten much done beyond sitting in front of the fan with a damp cloth draped over my neck in our third floor un-airconditioned apartment. So when I say it was 97º F for a high yesterday, believe it . . . it was HOT.

But last night the clever north wind began to blow, and today is a new day. The sun is shining brightly, but the air has a hint of coolness. And I am thankful. The brain fog has cleared, and once again I hear my characters conversing. Once again, I wander the streets and the castle ruins following their lead.

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(Beatrix. Oct. 2013)

The day we arrived, I was greeted by our friends and neighbors. Beatrix from the shop across the street, Maurice, our red-headed friend, whose family owns the castle property, the lovely woman who runs the antique book store whose name I cannot recall, and our delightful landlords, Jean Jacques and Gabrielle.

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(Maurice. Oct. 2013)

I do love this village and the delightful people who live and/or work here. My biggest regret is my lack of ability to communicate in French. This limits any deep, meaningful conversation. And though I am determined to learn this beautiful language, I fear it will be some time before these conversations can be had. So for now, we talk about everyday life and family, and legends and love. That should be sufficient for the moment.

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(Top: Jean Jacques and Gabrielle in their restaurant. Bottom: The antique book shop. Oct. 2013)

The church bells are tolling as I’m writing, and they remind me of a simpler time when people knew the hour of the day by the clanging of bells. No clocks, no phones, no computers. And people didn’t count by minutes or hours, but by blocks of time, as needed. I could do with some simplification, less micro-management of my time and life. More reflecting, more deep breathing, more observing.

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(Bell tower of Église Set Croix. Oct. 2013)

I intend to post regularly while staying in Kaysersberg. Some writing will resemble mini-village tours, some will be from our time now and some from last October, and some will be about the novel that is currently in process. So sit back, and join me won’t you for our all too brief time in Alsace.

 

 

A Night at the Museum: Kaysersberg, France

103 Musee Entrance

Enter at your own risk!

May 18 from 7:00 pm to midnight across France was “A Night at the Museum.” All museums were open and I assume free. At least the historical museum in Kaysersberg was. This museum is normally only open for one month during part of July and August. I was determined to see it hoping to find more information for my novel. When I asked if I would be able to get a private tour, the girl at the tourist office told me about Museum Night in France. I must say I had visions of the movie by the same name. I imagined Medieval knights and cloaked monks coming to life at midnight. I’m sad to say this did not happen, but it was still wonderful.

104 Musee Stairwell

Candlelit stone stairwell to the museum.

We had to climb a candlelit stone stairwell to get to the museum. It was only three rooms, mostly housing replicas of icons from the local church. There were some medieval weapons, a collection of neolithic stone tools, and random apothecary items. I would like to tell you more about what we saw, but our elderly tour guide spoke no English…French or German. We chose German. I must say I missed a lot, but he tried very hard to speak slowly and explain as best he could. He seemed very excited about the subjects he was talking about so I tried to do the same.

105 Me at Musee

View from the museum level into the courtyard below.

It was worth the tour  just to see inside this very old building. Actually, I would have paid money just to walk up the spooky stairs. There was a very large illustration of the town from the 1700s inside the museum. It was really fascinating, with specific houses and buildings marked with their construction dates. This will be useful when setting up the village in my novel.

106 Musee Courtyard

Ancient tower ruins.

Attached to the museum building was the remains of an ancient tower. We wondered around in the dimly lit courtyard taking in the medieval atmosphere. I replaced the plastic tables and chairs with wood and stone, threw in a few large scruffy dogs and…voila! Tonight the museum, tomorrow the chapel built in 1391. So much history. Meet me at the chapel!

On Writing A Novel: A Vacation of Research

96 Me at Amelie's House

Sometimes you just have to pack your bags and go there…

My husband and I have taken a week of vacation and driven to Kaysersberg, Alsace, France. As I’ve said so many times before, it is my favorite Alsatian village. The people are enchanting! It’s the perfect place to set a novel in the Middle Ages, which is just what I’ve decided to do.

97 Our 3rd Floor Apt98 Window view of Chateau Ruins

1. Restaurant LE CAPUCIN, 60, Rue du Général de Gaulle. 2. View from our window.

We found this fantastic apartment online. The ground level is the restaurant. The next three floors are apartments to rent. Our apartment is on the top floor. The views are amazing, enchanting, transporting. I look out the windows and am taken back to a much earlier time. When there were no cars, no telephones, no internet. At first this can seem fantastic until I take a deep breath and remember there was no sewer system, and I see the woman below me dumping the waste from her bed chamber pot onto the street below. The horses have left their deposits in the streets, as well. Hmm. Snap out of it. Back to the enchanting view.

99 Window with Church Tower View

View from my writing spot.

As I sit and write this post, the church bells are chiming. They’re beautiful. A few days ago, it was Pentecost Sunday, and the bells rang long and loud. It’s was a beautiful call to prayer. This is sweet music to write by. When we first arrived in Kaysersberg, our landlady met us at the bridge to show us the way to the apartment. We parked on the street, which was filled with tourists (It being Saturday.) and quickly unloaded our things. After finding a parking spot nearby, we returned to the restaurant and met the owners in their private garden in the back for a glass of wine. This was the only warm sunny day we’ve had. It was perfect. Gabrielle speaks English quite well. She’s delightful. Her husband, Jean-Jacques, grew up in Kaysersberg in this very building! It was his home, and he has inherited it. They turned the garage into a restaurant. And his father’s dentist offices into apartments. Their family living quarters are also now apartments.

When I told them I’m a writer, and I’ve come to research and write, they got very excited. Gabrielle said, “Oh, my husband will be so happy. He started a book about this area, but his computer died, and he lost it all. You must talk to him and help him.” And, talk we did. Over several glasses of wine and as many hours. Jean-Jacques’ English is not as good as Gabrielle’s. But that didn’t stop him. He did drink quite a bit of wine. He said he also speaks Chinese, but only after the 7th glass of wine can anyone understand him. So as our conversation went along, he would pour himself another glass of wine, saying, “Oh, I need another glass to lo0sen my tongue so my English will improve.” It was such a fantastic afternoon. He told me that Arthurian legends really began here. Lancelot in particular was from here. I gasped when he said this and told him I had already written this into my novel. They both looked at me and said, “We have been waiting for you to come!” Magical!

102 Wee Delivery Truck

Local delivery truck.

So you’re asking yourself, Is everything in this village cute? The answer is a resounding YES! Even the delivery trucks are cute. I wish I would have stood next to this one so you can see how tiny it really is. And it has a stork hanging from the rearview mirror, a symbol of good luck in this region.

When I wrote my first novel, The Stone Manor (which will be published at a date soon to be announced), I had been to Scotland before, but not to the Isle of Skye, which is the location of the novel. I did all my research from books, libraries, online, and memory from my first trip. Then, when I had finished writing we took a trip to Skye, and I retraced the steps of my novel to make sure it was all accurate. Or as accurate as a work of fiction should be. It was wonderful walking through my novel so to speak.

This is a similar feeling but in reverse. I’ve come here many times. But I’ve written very little so far. This week is a “jump start” for my novel. It ‘s incredible to sit here in this village and write my story. To hear the characters speak to me as I walk through the narrow cobblestone streets. I love living in the middle of my story. I’d love to bring you along as I write and explore. Stay tuned for A Night at the Museum.

Faerie Glen: Dragons Not Allowed

14 Me at Wee Loch Fairy Glen Skye

(Faerie Glen with wee loch, portal to the Otherworld, and Castle on Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo by Jim Hale)

While writing my novel, I searched the internet for photos of the Isle of Skye. I’d never been there, and since it was the main setting for “The Stone Manor” I needed to find out all I could about the island. I came across a couple of pictures of the Faerie Glen and a short travel post. I was hooked! I googled it and began reading all I could about it, which at the time wasn’t much. It became the focal point for my back story that takes place in the 1700s.

I’ll never forget the feelings I had when we first drove into the wee glen with our personal tour guide, Peter Macdonald. It was 2008, and my husband Jim and I were spending a week on Skye so I could research my ancestors and check out all the places I’d written about in my novel. Like the actual time it took to drive from the Glasgow airport to Skye. Did I guess correctly? And did it really look like I said? That kind of thing. I’ll elaborate on this more in a later post. Lots of craziness happened. Anyway, back to the Faerie Glen. Peter didn’t normally take people there. In fact, I had to tell him how to get there…and that wasn’t easy. It was tucked away down a one-track road just outside Uig. He humored me and we found the road. As we rounded the corner there it was!!!!! I gasped and yelled, “Stop the car. Stop the car.” He did. I jumped out  and stood next to the miniature loch, crying and laughing at the same time. It was MAGICAL. It was BEAUTIFUL. It was ENCHANTED. And I was there!

15 Me in Fairy Glen Skye

(Me walking along the sheep trails in the Faerie Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo by Jim Hale)

As I wandered off up the hillside toward the Portal to the Otherworld and the Faerie Castle, Jim tried to explain to Peter (a former police officer/faithful Presbyterian Skyelander) that I was off in search of the faeires. After a short visit in the glen I made my way back to the car, and Jim promised we’d return and stay as long as I’d like. When we did return several days later I wandered and searched and dreamed to my hearts content. It was glorious. Really! As we were leaving I picked up a tiny stone from the loch, as I am in the habit of doing. (I have a collection of memory stones from around the world. Doesn’t everyone?) But as I climbed into the front seat of our rental car I remembered what I’d read. It had to do with taking things from this faerie land. I even wrote about it in my novel. How could I have forgotten?! If you take anything…anything at all from the Faerie Glen you’ll bring very, very bad luck on yourself. The faeries will not take kindly to it. Not at all. So I got back out of the car and returned the stone to the loch, placing it exactly where I’d found it. I apologized and walked back to the car. (I’m serious people.) I was really sad not to take a part of this amazing place back home with me, but I just couldn’t. As I reopened the car door I looked down and on the ground by the car was a coin. I smiled. I picked it up. I thanked the glen…and the faeries for the gift. This did not belong in the glen, so it was a compromise of sorts. I still have the coin. It sits in the coconut-hull bowl filled with all my tiny treasures from the many places that are special to me.

So, there it is. Just as you’ve always suspected. I’m a bit of a nut. Actually, I’m a romantic…a romantic with a universe size imagination and a love for all things enchanted. Which is why I wrote my very own fairy tale. And someday, I hope you’ll be able to read it. Till then, I’ll keep blogging.