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Lobbying, as a career, has gotten a bum rap.  But lobbying for non-profit humanitarian organizations is a different can of worms entirely from big business, tobacco, oil, pharma.  And citizen lobbying is another step above that – on Capitol Hill, in the never-ending struggle between votes and money, they know that professional lobbyists are in it for and because of the money, but constituents mean votes, and votes mean keeping your job.  So, Congressional staffers and Members give a sometimes surprising level of respect to constituent lobbyists.

Then again, lobbying on Capitol Hill, no matter your issue or inspiration, is a somewhat surreal experience.  You stand in line, waiting to get into the Rayburn House Office Building, between a group from the Real Estate Agents of America (“We’re here to tell them not to vote for a mortgage reform bill.  They’re going to take your money…again.”) and red-shirted National “I’m a Patient Advocate” Nurses United members.  In the cafeteria you see Congressman Ed Markey getting himself a cup of coffee.  Later, after walking past a hearing room in which Senators Lieberman and Kerry are announcing their climate change act, and almost bumping into Elizabeth Warren leaving a meeting of the TARP Bailout Oversight Committee, you might see Senator David “My Name Was on the DC Prostitute Ring’s Client List” Vitter walking down another hallway.  And, once in a while, you might step out of an elevator straight into a fast-moving group of camera men, staffers, and one tiny, blue-suited Supreme Court nominee.

But the political geek version of Spot-the-Celebrity clearly isn’t the point of being on the Hill.  Our Western Massachusetts group had meetings scheduled with three Congressmen who represent our districts, Reps. Olver, Neal and McGovern, and then we were to meet up with the other two MA groups to storm (or, squeeze into) the offices of Senators Brown and Kerry.  Our first two meetings, with staffers from Neal’s and Olver’s offices, were fine, but nothing much to write home about.  We met in the hallway, which is pretty common with a bigger group showing up at a House member’s office.  Those rooms are not spacious.  Ritchie Neal isn’t known for being a big foreign aid guy, so we tried to push the poverty solutions that CARE designs as cost effective and economy-boosting.  We got a polite but somewhat distant response from his staff.  At Olver’s office our presentations on Maternal Mortality, Food Security and Child Marriage were received more positively, and we were assured that the related bills that Representative Olver hadn’t signed on to yet would be reviewed in the coming days and weeks.

By far our best meeting of the day, though, was with Rep. Jim McGovern, who represents Worcester and the rest of the 3rd District (Central and a weird bit of Southeastern MA).  It was our only meeting with an actual member of Congress, and it was a winner.  McGovern is a long time supporter of humanitarian aid and international human rights issues, so going in we knew we were preaching to the converted.  Care’s CEO, Helene Gayle, joined us for the meeting as a way to emphasize our appreciation for Rep. McGovern’s help and leadership on the issues.  But, even though she’s the CEO of the organization, she mostly left it to us, the constituents, to do the talking.  And talk we did.  McGovern seemed excited about the meeting, and kept chatting about food security and child marriage through not one, not two, but three visits from one of his senior staffers, desperately trying to get him to a meeting of the House Rules Committee.  Shockingly, humanitarian aid seemed to be more compelling at that moment than arcane Congressional rules debates.  (But, honestly, one of the reasons why I love McGovern is because he’s interested in both foreign aid and House rules.  Geek.)

The meetings with our Senators were as different as one would imagine Senator “Foreign Relations Committee” Kerry and Senator “Male Model” Brown are.  Brown’s staffer was polite but not particularly engaged, while Kerry’s clearly knew more about these issues than most of us, but was excited by our visit, impressed by our level of knowledge, and insisted that we taught him things he didn’t know before.  (Side note – the Foreign Relations Committee staff offices are full of really fun reading material.  Stacks of books on genocide, for example.  Yet they all seemed like genuinely happy people…the effect of having a job you love, I’m guessing.)

At the end of the day we were tired but energized, which is the best way to feel after a long day.  A few weeks later we heard that Rep. Olver has co-sponsored the Global MOMS Act, the Maternal Health bill we were promoting, and we’re hoping that others will sign on soon.  Rep. McGovern promised to hold hearings on child marriage in the next few months.  Senator Kerry’s staff is looking for ways to work many of Care’s issues into appropriations and foreign relations bills.  We’re still waiting for Rep. Neal and Sen. Brown to step up on humanitarian aid…but not waiting with bated breath.

So, what to do now?  Long range planning – next year’s conference will be March 7-8. You know you want to go.  DC in March! (It’s like spring then!)  Learning interesting things, and hearing inspiring stories!  And, perhaps best of all (if you’re a nerd), lobbying for women’s issues on International Women’s Day!  Awesome.

In the meantime, there’s something everyone can do, and according to Jim McGovern, it’s one of the most important ways to help promote the cause of poor people around the world.  And it’s easy, and it’s free.

Write.  Call.  Talk.

Let your elected officials know that you care about helping people, and tell your friends to do the same.  Politicians support issues that their constituents support – that’s the way representative democracy (ideally) works.  So if your representatives already support these causes, tell them you’re behind them.  And if they don’t, tell them you do.

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Care

Earlier this month I attended the Care National Conference in Washington DC.  Care is an international humanitarian organization that works to alleviate poverty around the world, primarily (but not solely) by aiding and empowering women.  It’s an awesome organization, and the conference, which involves one day of lectures and panel discussions and one day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, is a fun and inspiring way to feel like you are actually making a difference in the lives of people you will likely never get to meet.  And the word seems to be getting out.  When I was there two years ago there were over 400 participants.  This year there were twice that many.  We were an army of bleeding heart foreign aid promoters descending on Congress.  We even may have convinced a few of the guys from the Real Estate Agents’ group, on the Hill to talk up their opposition to some mortgage tax reform bill, and often next to us in the security lines to get into the congressional office buildings, that investing in the world’s poor is a good idea.

Day One of the conference was devoted to education and prepping for our Hill visits.  We were focusing on three issues for the lobby day – global hunger and food security, maternal mortality, and child marriage.  These are three of Care’s biggest issues, both in terms of their advocacy and for their on-the-ground projects.  Many of the day’s sessions touched on one or more of the key issues, but they also ranged over topics as diverse as microcredit “village savings and loan” groups, the 2010 midterm elections, and education and empowerment programs at textile factories in the developing world (that one, as you might imagine, got a little heated in the Q&A section).  In between the inspiring and informative sessions we also met with our lobbying groups in order to plan our operations for Day Two.  Because Massachusetts, and especially Western Mass, rocks, we had enough participants to field an entire lobby team of eight from just the three western congressional districts.  For an added bonus, Katie, the Care staffer assigned to our group, was both the daughter of one of our team and the lead Care lobbyist working on maternal health.  Needless to say, Team 38 was pretty kickass.

One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote address on Day One.  To a room full of mostly women, many of whom I would bet were in  the 30-60 demographic, who had enough of an interest in international development and women’s rights to take two days off of work to go to Washington DC to chat up their Representatives, Hillary Clinton is something of a rockstar.  And so, you can imagine the reception she received when she came out on stage to give the keynote.  Never have I seen a roomful of people so enraptured by 20 minutes of talk on the widespread beneficial effects of nutrition programs in the developing world.  And rightfully so.  If you want to judge the stability of a country, she said, “don’t count the number of advanced weapons.  Count the number of malnourished children.”  We want “results measured not by dollars, but by long-lasting change.”  Our Secretary of State knows this stuff, is passionate about it, and is actually making a difference.  I found myself thinking, who would have imagined that the woman who wrote It Takes a Village all those years ago, who gave that amazing “women’s rights are human rights” speech in Beijing in 1995, would, now, be the one actually creating and executing US policies that follow through on the ideas she has been advocating for decades?  Sometimes it’s awesome how history works out.

More to come in Part Two: Lobby Day, which includes nerdy celebrity sightings, throwing a congressman off his schedule, and a visit to possibly the most depressing office for a liberal on Capitol Hill.

Julia’s Paris

Back in February I mentioned that I had just finished reading Julia Childs’ memoir My Life In France to my friend Nina (also one of the best cooks I know, and a big Julia fan), and I had recently wandered past the building where Julia and her husband Paul lived in the 1950’s.   I promised her I would go back and take a picture, so she could see it too.  But, not one to stop at the exploration of just one semi-historic site mentioned in a book, I decided to take a little tour of places Julia liked.  Of course, despite appearances, Paris has changed quite a bit in the last 60 years, so many of the exact places she mentions are gone now.  But, after wandering around for most of a rather rainy day searching them out, I figured I should share what I did find…

Our tour starts at 81 Rue de l’Universite, in the 7th Arrondisement, where Julia and Paul lived for most of their years in Paris in the 1950s.  They affectionately nicknamed it “Roo de Loo,” which is possibly the most adorable nickname for a house, ever.  Julia mentions that it was not far from the Assemblée Nationale – what she doesn’t specify is that, from where I was standing to take this picture, I would have to go about 20 feet to the right and across one small road in order to walk smack into the side of the building.  It’s also two blocks from the Seine, and about a ten minute walk to the Musée d’Orsay (then just the somewhat out-of-comission Gare d’Orsay – but, still).  Nice digs.

From Roo de Loo we head right, around the back of the Assemblée Nationale, to Rue de Bourgogne, where Julia did most of her daily shopping.

Today it’s no longer a market street, and is full mostly of shi-shi furniture stores – the kinds that only sell, say, mid-century style chairs in blue upholstery.  But, back in the day I imagine it looked much like this –

That’s actually Rue Cler, on the other side of Les Invalides, but a market street is a market street, really.

Julia talked a lot about discovering the joys of shopping at the small shops in Paris – the boulanger for your bread, the fromagerie for cheese, and the epicerie for produce and other staples.  She frequented one particular fruit and vegetable shop run by the formidable Madame Les Quatre Saisons.

“Four Seasons” is a fairly common name for greengrocer’s shops in France, so there is probably no relation, but whatever, go with it, ok?

Julia believed, like any cook, that good ingredients were the basis of good cooking.  But an artist can’t paint with out a brush, and a chef can’t cook without tools.  So Ms. Child developed quite a habit of visiting Dehillerin’s shop near Les Halles, which, thankfully, is still there in all of its hodge-podgey glory.

As soon as you walk though the doors you enter this dimly lit, slightly dusty cavern of unfinished wooden shelves loaded with mounds of cooking equipment.  Stacks of muffin tins.  Heaps of cookie cutters.  Piles of casserole dishes.  Not a safe place to go if you have money to spare and space in your suitcases.  Thankfully, I had neither, but those mini springform pans were still awfully tempting.

You can understand how Julia ended up with so many pots and pans, whose outlines Paul drew on the peg board where they hung in every kitchen they ever owned.

The problem with trying to tour Paris (or anywhere, really) from a historical source is that nothing ever stays the same.  Case in point:  I walked for an entire afternoon trying to find the location of the school where Julia first started learning french cooking.  Le Cordon Bleu still exists.  I knew this for a fact, and I had the directions that were spelled out in the book – Julia would take their car, The Flash, across the bridge to Place de la Concorde, turn left up Rue Faubourg St. Honore, park and walk up to the school near the backside of the American Embassy.  All of these places still exist, but could I find Le Cordon Bleu?  Mais, non.  And here’s why – it’s now on Rue de Leon Delhomme, across the river in the 15th Arrondisement.  Oh well, she never liked their kitchens anyway.

To make up for my Cordon Bleu fail I hopped on the Metro and went over to the Palais Royale (which I knew I could find, reaffirming my confidence in my Parisian geography).  Julia and Paul had several favorite restaurants in Paris, but this one, on one corner of one of the most famous courtyards in Paris, was also the first grand public restaurant ever opened in Paris, in 1784.

The prices, me thinks, have gone up a bit since the Childs spotted Colette eating there at a corner table by herself.  Either that or Paul’s government salary as a mid-level diplomat was nothing to sneeze at.  It also, to much shock and dismay, lost one of its Michelin stars in the mid-’80s.  Quel horreur!  Still, its probably worth a visit if you have a 100-euro/lunch budget.  And who doesn’t?

The wonderful thing about Paris is how it’s managed to retain its historical flavor without turning into a museum of itself.  So, Julia Child’s Paris was a lot like mine in many ways.   Her’s had more mom-and-pop stores, a lot fewer grocery chains, cooler cars and more post-war decrepitude, but you can still walk to Montmartre for dinner, if you feel inclined, and the bakers will still yell at you if you get to the counter and don’t know which kind of baguette you want.

“Lipstick on my belly button, and music in the air – thaat’s Paris, son.  What a lovely city!  What grenouilles a la Provencale!  What Chateauneuf-du-Pape, what white poodles and white chimneys, what charming waiters, and poules de luxe, and maitres d’hotel, what gardens and bridges and streets!  How fascinating the crowds before one’s cafe table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues.  Those garlic-filled belches!  Those silk-stockinged legs!  Those mascara’d eyelashes!  Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work!  Hola!  Dites donc!  Bouillabaisse!  Au revoir!”

-Paul Child, in a letter to his brother Charlie, as quoted in My Life In France

A Moveable Life

I’ve been thinking about how to sum up my time in France.  I’ve been back for two weeks, and people keep, unsurprisingly, asking me “What was it like?”  No one actually expects you to sum up seven months in a foreign country in a sentence or two, and I’m still working on my Life in France elevator pitch, so I mostly just enthuse at them – “It was great!  It was France!”

The Garonne River in Toulouse

I don’t tend to be a person who spends a lot of time processing new phases of my life.  I try to take new things in stride, which makes it easier to adapt  (and means, No, I’m not experiencing much reverse culture shock), but also makes it hard to reflect on something as a finite, definitive period of time.  I’m working on that, though.  I think it will be one of those things that settles into my consciousness gradually, until one day I realize, “Oh, that’s the defining thing about my time in France!”  For now it’s all nice memories of walks taken, food eaten, classes, horses, exploring, investigating,  new experiences, new friends (and old!), and the feeling that Paris, in some small way, belongs to me now, which is really very cool.

What, you thought I meant spiritually, or something? The window has my name on it!

I’ve been back for two weeks, one of which was primarily spent curled on my parents’ couch fighting off strep throat.  So, that was awesome.  Before (well, mostly before) my body was attacked by streptococcus, and two days after getting back from France, I went to the lovely wedding of two friends from college (a first!), which took place in Ohio, and was also a great excuse to have a mini reunion of Vassar friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation.  I would post pictures, but most of the ones of me are terrible.  It’s a hazard of having friends who are shorter than you – group photos make me look like the representative of the sub-species Homo Sapiens Gigantus.  Not flattering.  But, the wedding was lovely, the party fun, and the company excellent.  All the better because three days earlier I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it.  I came *this* close to being Eyjafjallajokulled.  If not for the miraculous last-minute availability of a high-speed train ticket from Paris to Frankfurt, which got me to Germany just in time to catch my Frankfurt-to-Boston flight home, I might still be in France.  But, no giant ash cloud was going to stop me, no siree.

Paris under the...seriously, there was a giant ash cloud up there?

So, now I’m home and looking for a job and thinking about my future.  Wait, am I 22 again?  No, but I have the perspective to know that this probably also won’t be the last time in my life that there are many roads open before me, and I just need to decide which one to go down next.  For the moment that freedom is exciting, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to wait, at least for a while, until the right thing comes along.  In the meantime I’ll be bouncing around the northeast a bit, from Deerfield to Boston to DC (for the CARE National Conference and Lobby Day, next week – stay tuned, it’ll be exciting), back to Deerfield, then to Ithaca for my cousin’s graduation, and after that who knows! I’m going to keep the blog going, and try, as always, to be better about updating. It’s going to be a very peripatetic May.

However, Ernest Hemingway had it right…

Farm Life/In the Merde

Living on a horse farm in the south of France sounds romantic.  Idyllic, even – I know.  And yet, I had worked at enough horse farms for long enough before coming here that I knew it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and sweet hay and hacking out from your country estate on your perfectly groomed hunter for an afternoon gallop through the meadow.  In reality farming life is farming life, and while horses are generally a bit more immediately rewarding than potatoes or soybeans, it’s dirty and tiring and often involves hours of tedium in exchange for the moments of fun and excitement.

Days here start at the highly civilized hour of 8 or 8:30 AM.  We get up, and usually divide into two groups – Tom (the other working student) and I head down to the stable to bring the horses in from the fields while Camille and Gaby start making the feeds.  The horses live in two groups – the main group of 11, who spend the night out in the system of fields and tracks they have set up to try to imitate the way herds of horses naturally move from one grazing area to another  in the wild, and a smaller group of five, nicknamed “The Family” and ruled by the pseudo-stallion Raffi (yes, I said pseudo-stallion.  If you want more information, and aren’t turned off by the words “undescended testicles”, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridgling).  The main group can come straight into the stable area from their fields, through a makeshift alleyway we set up with some strings across the driveway, and while they all know exactly which stall they live in, we invariably have to spend five or ten minutes yelling things like “Hope, get in your box.  Hope!  I’m talking to you.  Stop eating Mojo and Tali’s hay and GO HOME.  And Xas, that means you too.  Hey, Ca Va, who said you could go around the back and pig out on alfalfa?  Get back here you great big whale…”  Once they’re all sorted into their assigned stalls, happily munching away on hay, we head up the hill to collect Raffi, Amy and Deshie from The Family (the other two, Tati and Uno, are still too young to be worked regularly, and so usually stay out in the field during the day while the others are being ridden).  Once they’re also nose-deep in their nets full of hay we head up the hill (again) to help with the cooking – the preparation of the equine breakfasts, that is.  Their homemade feed involves a somewhat elaborate process of soaking and grinding grains, and portioning out amounts of each into un-labled buckets destined for each of the 16 horses.  Eventually I might learn the secret method to this madness, but so far my involvement in it is limited to helping to mix up each mash once its combination of alfalfa meal, ground oats, coconut meal, bee pollen and/or ground corn and barley has been achieved.  I’m the sous chef, essentially.

After the feeds have been distributed and the horses have had their blankets taken off, if necessary, the human contingent goes up to the house for breakfast.  While we’re eating (the usual offerings of cereals, yoghurt and toast – I’m becoming slightly obsessed with a combination of Wheetabix and this killer Carrefour-brand museli they have) Camille and Gaby write out the riding schedule for the day, and then we head back down to the stables to start the horses’ work day.

It’s almost an assembly line-style process, where while they are riding Tom and I are grooming and tacking up the next pair of horses to be worked.  We usually do four sets in the morning, with me and Tom each getting a lesson during one session.  I love grooming horses, I find it satisfying and fun, but it’s also hard work when done properly, and especially hard when they’ve been rolling in the mud, which here is about 90% pure clay, and sticks to their fur like glue.    This leads to some arguments with the more sensitive and/or ornery among the bunch, who don’t take very kindly to being scraped and picked at to the degree necessary to actually get them looking respectable.  Odette and I have had several conversations about how she’s really not allowed to fling her foot in the air just because she’s decided I’m not allowed to brush that particular bit of her leg anymore.  I understand her point, but really, there are manners to be upheld here, and flinging one’s hoof in a person’s general direction is not exactly following them.

We go in for lunch around 3:30 or 4:00, after the last set has been put away and everyone checked to make sure they have water and enough hay to last them into the rest of the afternoon.  Lunch is usually soup or some kind of pasta, after which, if the weather cooperates and it’s not too late, we’ll go back to the stables to each tack up our own horse for a quick hack out into the countryside.  These are usually pleasant and low key, but depending on the cast of characters can occasionally be a bit hairy – like the day last week when Hope had a panic attack at seeing a dog pop out of nowhere – like a wolf!, which made Mojo (with me on board) have a corresponding who, what, where, ohmygod what are we freaking out about???  moment, ending in two flaked-out horses, three hoof boots scattered across the road (the one downside to that particular piece of equipment is that they’re liable to wardrobe malfunctions when a horse has a numbskull moment and feet go flying in every direction), and two annoyed riders.  But, eventually everyone regained their brains, if not entirely their sanity, and the rest of the ride went off without incident.

After the last ride of the day there is dinner to be fed, the horses to be turned back out into the fields (dressed appropriately for the weather, of course), stalls to be cleaned, feed buckets to be rinsed, grooming areas to be swept clean, water buckets to be filled, and hay nets to stuff and hang in the stalls for the next day.   These days, by the time we’re cleaning the stables it’s usually dark, and let me tell you, maneuvering a wheelbarrow full of horse poo up a narrow wooden plank laid on top of a somewhat sodden compost pile, in the dark, can have it’s hairy moments.  But, the reward is that on clear nights, of which there have been many, you can see what seems like every star in the sky twinkling over head, dimmed only ever so slightly by the lights from farms and the handful of tiny villages that dot the landscape.  It’s views like that, and the satisfaction of making even some small breakthrough during my lessons, that makes it all worth it.  Farming life isn’t glamorous, but if you can find pleasure or peace at the top of a muck heap, it’s not all that bad.

Jeremy and Esmée (as seen from the afore-mentioned muck heap)

Sunnier Days

In some kind of cosmic “hah hah, you thought you were so smart, didn’t you?” moment, it’s snowing again today in Gascony, while it’s sunny and warmer both in Paris and back home in Massachusetts.  But, I’m keeping in mind the two weeks of lovely weather we just had, and in that spirit, posting a few pictures.

Kaffa and Phoenix waiting to come in for their breakfast on a misty morning.

Tali, demonstrating his finest attempt to make every bit of his body not covered by his blanket a lovely shade of Gascony Clay brown.  Why do greys always love to roll so much?

Tali and Mojo discussing how much they dislike being clean?  Tali is displeased, at least…

Xas (left) and Ca Va, half-sisters known affectionately as “The Whales” (they’re not the most delicate of girls), finishing up the last of the breakfast hay on a lazy weekend morning.

Back in the Saddle

The weather has finally turned more seasonable, and there’s talk and the smell of spring in the air.  It’s bizarre to realize that I’m agreeing with statements like, “finally, it’s starting to feel like spring!” in the middle of February.  February is not spring, I don’t care what anyone tells me.  Yet, there is that sudden softness in the air that makes me think winter might be over.  Maybe I’ll just pretend it’s April already, and things will seem less strange.

I’ve had a couple of really good rides last week.  Wednesday I had a lesson on Odette, who is a French thoroughbred who raced up until a few years ago.  She’s sensitive and tends to run when she gets out of balance, so a lot of the rider’s job is to keep your own body well balanced and in synch with her, so that she feeds off of that security and steadies herself.  I rode her on the lunge line, so all of the control of her speed was up to me and subtle shifts in my weight on her back and how much I went with her movement or held myself stiller than it.  (Sorry, for the non-dressage folks this is probably as exciting and understandable as watching cross-country skiing in the Winter Olympics.  Hang in there.  Or, feel free to skip this bit).  Anyway, she reminded me a lot of an ex-polo pony I used to ride, Gali, who was extremely sensitive to every slight movement the rider made.  Odette is slightly less rigid and tense, which means that when I did something right she responded, gratifyingly, by relaxing and coming through (Laymans’ Cliff Notes: in dressage, when a horse is “through” or “on the bit” it means that they are using their bodies in a way that the energy from their hind legs comes up over their backs and through their necks, creating a flow of energy that allows them to carry more of their weight on their back legs, lifting their front ends and making them move more balanced and athletically.).  However, getting her there took a lot of mental and physical concentration on my part, and since I’ve always been a pretty timid rider, it also took a lot of control to not get nervous when she did start to speed up and get unbalanced – because, not having any connection to the horse’s mouth (on the lunge line the instructor holds the rope attached tot he horse’s face, so the rider doesn’t have to worry about steering) makes you feel pretty out of control, even if the point of the exercise is to learn to control the horse without the reins.  It was hard, but satisfying, because I could feel myself making progress even within the space of the lesson.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several evenings per week we all go out for a hack before feeding time.  On Thursday I rode Tali, who’s a big, gangly, kind of funny-looking grey gelding.  He’s a sweetie, and one of the best trail horses I’ve ever ridden outside in the big scary world.  I was told that he used to be quite tense on trail rides, but he was relaxed and happy yesterday, seeming to have decided at some point that this whole exploring thing wasn’t so scary, and that racing the other horses home really is a waste of his energy.  He seemed to be genuinely having fun, which makes riding infinitely more fun for me.  We went down the road that leads to the farm (and by “road” I mean the one-lane track that splits off of the main, very narrow, two-lane road about a 3/4 of a mile away, and leads to this and one other farm at the bottom of the hill), and across to some fields and a dirt road on the other side of the main road.  It was beautiful, just nearing sunset, the horses were good – nobody even thought about spooking at the deer we saw leaping through the field, or the pheasant wandering down the track ahead of us – and as we were heading back up the hill to the farm I could see the Pyrenees in the distance, with a bank of reddish clouds hanging over them.  It was more than a little bit surreal.