Cro-Magnon Man

22nd June, 2012

 I went to see the pre-historic cro-magnon caves today. And what I realized was that the cro-magnon man was wiser than me. Because the cro-magnon crawled inside caves that were 10 kms deep to paint. She drew art that I am convinced she knew would last for eternity. So the man or woman who took the trouble to do this had a perspective on life; namely that it was transient but if you wanted to glean some meaning out of it you had to create something lasting. I should know that because I am a writer. I too am trying to create something lasting, namely the written word which will hopefully outlive me. But I tend to forget this so very easily.

Last night, I forgot what I was all about; what this trip was all about. I forgot that just days before, I had been ecstatic about traveling alone. That I was glad that I had no one to distract me. Why did I feel so lonely last night? I don’t know.

Yet, the day had started out well. I got up at the crack of dawn. Made myself tea in the kitchen of my lovely bed and breakfast run by a couple named Yveline and Patrick. I washed my hair, packed up, and had my breakfast before all the other guests were up. Yeveline said Patrick would give me a ride to the train station so I took him up on it. I should have taken a picture of the place; it was so very heavenly. But I did not. I just did not feel that well.

I discovered that the Amboise railway station  is so small that it does not even have a live screen on Platform 2. I took my bag down the stairs of Platform 1 and up to Platform 2 where two young men were sitting on a bench, chatting. I asked them “Sarlat?” They said yes, the train was going to Sarlat. So I sat on the bench talking to one of them who said he was a teacher at a lycee and taught engineering and science to pupils who were two years out of school. It sounded like he was teaching polytechnic or trade school. He said our train was delayed by 5 minutes, which I already knew because I had seen the screen at the entrance to the station.

After a few minutes, he listened to an announcement and said we needed to go to the other platform because the train was coming right away. He said I needed to take that train. I think he wanted me to take the early train because my own train was way delayed. He said he would carry my bag. We rushed down the stairs thus and up the other stairs to Platform 1 where the train was about to leave. He made sure I was in, carried his bike with him and asked me to sit down. When I got to Saint Pierre des Corps fifteen minutes later, he told me to get off and ask the guard about my next train. I was talking to the guard as the nice young man – named Gerome – waved goodbye to me from the window. I wished I had taken his email. All I know is he teaches in Tours and probably lives in Amboise. What a guardian angel! My second one on this trip. This experience confirmed my belief that European young men are much different, much humanized and nice compared to American young men (with the exception of my sons who have been trained by me of course). I noticed that with the German and Italian young men I met in Guatemala too and I notice it here. I was moved to tears by Gerome’s kindness.

At St. Pierre Des Corps, I figured out the platform eventually as it appeared on the screen. I managed to transfer from that train to the high speed TGV at Libourne. I asked the guard or the conductor at Libourne how I would find seat number 63 and whether it was written on the car. I asked this because on the high speed TGV train, all seats are reserved. He said “No.” What he didn’t tell me was that my ticket had a car number ton it too (it said “Voire”). So I needed to find the car number before finding the seat number. I didn’t know what “Voire” meant so I got in the wrong car- number 18- and then had to backtrack to number 15 while the train ran. Luckily, it had not picked up speed yet.

The French trains are a marvel. I love them. And the countryside is spectacular. It is all so green and pretty, covered with miles and miles of vineyards and orchards. There are stone cottages and Chateaus dotting the farmland. It is so peaceful, so easy on the eyes. No outlet stores line the outskirts of railway stations; no billboards mar the beauty of the countryside; no Golden Arches and car dealerships reside outside every town. The French Revolution’s aim was to create egalite, and egalite they did create. They did not let capitalism corrupt their sense of esthetics or morality. I love the French. So far I have not met a single mean person.

I got to Sarlat finally. But the first impression of the town was not positive. The hotel room was not bad, but it was not lovely like the B&B; in Amboise. Suddenly, I wished I had stayed in the Loire for another day. Suddenly, I felt all alone.

I walked around trying to find the cathedral, not realizing that it was not on the main drag but tucked away behind some alleyways. By the time I found it, I was so hungry I sat down at any old restaurant. I actually ordered foie gras – I know California readers are going to hate me for this but this is the local specialty so I wanted to know what the fuss was all about. After all, I have eaten a lot of pate when I lived in New Zealand and the foie gras tasted just like it. I ate duck with white beans too. It was a three-course meal for 13.50 euros so I ate dessert as well. I was so hungry I needed it.

When I went back to the hotel room I felt so down I wanted to call United, change my booking, and go home. I felt like an utter loser traveling alone.

I went to bed early, thinking “Tomorrow is another day.”

And it was.

This morning, when I woke up the first thought I had was that I needed to go on a tour to the famous Lascaux caves, the ones that Werner Herzog made a movie about recently. The first time I read about those caves was in my son Sebastian’s middle school history book. Two kids go on a walk with the dog and discover prehistoric artworks. It sounded so fascinating I could never forget it. I did not know at the time what part of France they were in but it turns out they are right outside of Sarlat.

I had written half-heartedly to some French tourism website when I was in Amboise asking them about a tour to the most famous of the caves, at Lascaux, and they had written me an email saying that at such a late date I would have to contact the local tour company. I had the number they had given me. I pulled out my email (It has been so wonderful to have my little Gateway computer with me. I could not have survived without it.) So at 8:30 I called, asking if there was a tour that day. He said yes, at 9 AM. Luckily, the tour leaves right at the bus stop outside the hotel room.

I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs to get their overpriced buffet breakfast. I desperately needed tea too. I ate and drank quickly, sneaked some boiled eggs into my bag and was about to run when the hotel manager ran after me. She wanted to know when I would be back. I did not know why she was asking me this. Then she said I had to pay because I was leaving today. I said, no, I was staying for 3 days. Then I realized that I had not sent an email to this hotel but called in person and I had made a booking just for one day thinking I would extend it later. Her husband came and said that other people needed the room so I would have to leave it. I asked if there was another one and he said yes but I would have to move now. I said I couldn’t move now because I had to go on the tour and it was 9 already. I was afraid the tour would leave without me. He said then they would have to move my things for me. I said, fine, just be careful with my computer, the charger and the adapter. He said not to worry. So off I went and met the most fabulous tour guide and a marvelous group of people.

 I realize that throughout this trip, I have had this experience. It sounds like a cliche when people say that when one door closes another opens. But that has happened to me all along this trip.

 We went to the famous museum of Les Enzies-de-Tayac first and saw all the archaeological evidence of cro-magnon people. Cro-Magnon simply means hole in the yard of some guy named Magnon apparently. That was where they found the first bones of early humans. The museum is by the side of a cave.  

 After the museum we went to the famed Lascaux which is a replica of the original which has been badly damaged by human visits. Looking at the paintings of horses and bison and bulls, tears sprung to my eyes.  I felt I was in the presence of humans that walked the earth 17,000 years ago.  It made me realize how miniscule my own preoccupations, my loneliness, and my worries were. These humans lived through the ice age, yet they left their mark on the world.  And people ridicule me for traveling alone in France?  What is wrong with me?  What is wrong with them?

Lascaux was such a moving experience.  When I read its story in Sebastian’s book, I had no idea that one day I would actually go there.  But I did.  It all worked out.

Afterwards, we ate lunch by the river Vezere, sitting outside at picnic tables.  It was French country food, a quiche-like pie called the tourte, which I did not realize was made with cheese.  To make sure I had enough protein, I ordered the one with meat and potatoes – I am eating everything I am not supposed to eat on this trip.  Oh, well, I decided that since I am alone I want to please myself and indulge in culinary delight.  The country food was so hearty and good.  The woman asked me if I wanted bread and when I said yes because I wanted to taste their home made bread, she began to chop a whole round loaf.  I wondered what she was up to until she put about half of the slices in a basket and handed the whole production to me on a bamboo tray.  Salad, tourte, and bread.  It was marvelous.  I wished I could drink wine but I can’t because I only get a headache. 

 In the afternoon we went to some real caves (not replicas) called Rouffignac.  Here, the drawings were made out of black manganese and featured mammoths as well as horses and bulls.  The people who created this art are called Magdalenians because their remains were first discovered in the nearby town of Magdalene. 

We rode a little train to view the carvings and drawings and at the end got off to view the ceiling and the walls. 

The day was so beautiful I wondered why just the night before I had longed to be home.  That is what travel is like.  Just when you feel beaten down, something exciting happens.  I loved the company; was reassured to find a single American woman named Lynn on the tour, and met a very interesting couple from Australia.  The kind of arrogant, obnoxious Americans I saw in the Loire were absent from Sarlat.  I suppose it takes the diehards to come to a town like this. 

I think everyone who feels sorry for himself or herself should see Cro-Magnon art.  It will cure anyone of the deepest blues.  It is awe-inspiring, magical, spell-binding.  No one knows what the purpose of the art was, whether it was spiritual or artistic.  Neither does anyone know why they painted and drew only certain creatures, ignoring other widespread species like reindeer.  The art is quite sophisticated, using natural materials and techniques of perspective and imagery. 

I will never forget the Magdalenians as long as I live.   I went back to the hotel feeling so re-energized that nothing could have rattled me. In my new room, all my belongings including the computer, the flash drive and the charger, were laid out neatly. I had been so worried about losing the flash drive. I had even called the owner from the cave museum to warn him to be careful not to misplace it.  But all my stuff was there. 

 Human beings are essentially good, I think, you just have to give them a chance.  I am surviving here purely on the kindness of strangers just as Blanche DuBois did in A Streetcar Named Desire.  We are all pathetic in that way, or heroic, depending on how you look at it.  We are all trying to survive the ice age, one way or another. 

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