Musings on Turning 50 in Sarlat la Caneda, France

My sister once said, “When turning 50, some people face it head on and celebrate, while others run away.”  When my sister turned 50, she threw a large party, invited co-workers, friends and family and celebrated into the night.  When I turned 50, I ran away.

On the morning of my 50th birthday, July 14, Murray and I wake up in Sarlat la Caneda in southwestern France. This is part of a 4 week trip to France to reacquaint ourselves with Paris, ride in the Dordognes, and follow the Tour de France.

Sarlat has existed since Gallo-Roman times and has changed hands numerous times throughout its history. The medieval buildings were slowly falling to ruin, when in 1962 the city received financial aid to restore its historic structures. The center of the city is now a vibrant pedestrian mall, with numerous outdoor cafes, restaurants, quaint hotels and fascinating shops.

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Place de la Liberte, Sarlat la Caneda

We stay in the Hotel de la Mairie, which is located in the medieval city centre on the Place de la Liberté next to the Town Hall. The hotel has only five rooms which are decorated in a quaint country style with lacy rose petal wallpaper on the walls and ceilings, stone fire places and antique wooden furniture. There is a bar and restaurant on the main floor, also decorated in a country motif, with stone showing through on the walls, wooden beams in the ceiling and a fireplace. In the summer, when it is scorching hot, the restaurant and bar extend outside in the hopes of catching a breeze.

Our room is actually what used to be a very small apartment.  The old kitchen is where we store our bikes, the smaller bedroom is used to lay out all our gear, and a large bedroom that looks down a short alley towards the Place is our chamber. We eat our breakfast of croissants, jambon, fromage and strawberry jam at a small table in the window and watch the Place come alive.

It seems I have been running away from birthdays all my life.  As a child with a birthday in July, I rarely had birthday parties and frequently was traveling on my birthday.  It got to be the family joke that if was Debbie’s birthday; it must be a travel day. I remember my 15th birthday was spent riding the train from Lisbon to Madrid.  My Dad had bought a beer before we boarded the train and I was allowed to have a couple of celebratory slurps while we nibbled lunch and watched Spain whiz by.

On the morning of my birthday, it is a planned day off after three days of riding.  We rise early, grab our cameras and head out.  It is Saturday and the local market is just being set up. Murray and I want to capture the awakening of the market before the crowds arrive.

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Bread Vendor, Sarlat la Caneda

A bread vendor is laying out round loaves of bread, long baguettes, ringed shaped loaves and short fat baguettes. His table is almost overflowing. Flour is dusted on their tops and as I walk by, the aroma is beckoning to me to buy one, but I resist. Fruit and vegetable vendors are laying out baskets of flaming red strawberries, dandelion yellow peppers, fire engine red tomatoes, pale white potatoes and forest green cucumbers.

Murray and I stop at a crepe vendor and buy our breakfast.  Warm crepes rolled with a liberal sprinkling of sugar. Our taste buds surrender as they dissolve in our mouths.

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Pottery, Sarlat la Caneda

There are pottery vendors with bowls, plates, mugs and platters in the same intense colours as the fresh peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.  There are over 200 stalls with vendors selling three legged stools, blown glass jewellery, baskets, flowers, hard candies, meats, fish, cheese, crafts and artwork.

There is another reason why I ran away from this birthday and it is because I do not like a fuss. I knew that if I was at work on my 50th birthday, I would get balloons heaped in my office, birthday cake at coffee time and an endless stream of “Happy 50th Birthday!”s. 

We meander through the quiet streets and back to our hotel to wait for the crowd to fatten out. When we venture out again, the crowd is thick. There are tourists pushing strollers with children in tow, elderly locals buying their weekly produce, young people, old people, French, English and German people.

We stop at a paella vendor for lunch.  The couple is cooking paella in one meter diameter woks and each wok looks like a work of art. Prawns, mussels, shrimp, clams, tomatoes, onions, peppers are all artistically arranged and surrounded by tomato sauce with parsley sprinkled on top and rice hidden on the bottom.

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Paella Vendor, Sarlat la Caneda

We roam the back streets of the city taking photographs of the medieval architecture, the vibrant gardens and the inhabitants of the city. We walk by a park with a sign outside that says there is an antique car show the next day.  As we walk away, an older gentleman comes up to us and in broken English asks if he could borrow Murray’s bikie cap.  He is entering his antique car in the show and his costume for the show is a World Championship shirt, with green, yellow, black, red and blue strips around the chest and white pants.  Murray’s bikie cap also has a World Championship motif with the same stripes. This fellow has a big smile on his face when Murray agrees to meet him before the show the next day to lend him his cap.

Turning 50 doesn’t feel that much different than any other birthday or any other day.  I am healthy, fit, traveling with my soul mate and in a gorgeous country. It is my 50th birthday today and I am content. 

Happy 50th Birthday!

My birthday dinner that night is on the steps of the Town Hall, where our hotel has set up extra tables and chairs.  As we sip our drinks we watch the crowds pass.  We order sushi for dinner, not quite French cuisine but it’s my birthday and my choice.  As we gobble our birthday ice cream we hear music playing.  It sounds like a marching band and it is getting closer.  A band emerges, marches into the Place and stops in front of where we are sitting.  The band members are dressed in white, with red berets, belts and epaulettes.  As they play, Murray and I look at one another and smile, Murray says, “How about that, a marching band just for your birthday!”

A line of dignitaries marches into the Place.  The elderly men wear military uniforms; the younger gentlemen wear business suits.  Most carry flags.  Solemn French words are spoken.

We stay to hear a rock band play their opening riffs and head back to our room.  We plan to ride the next day, so we need to get to bed.  As we get ready for bed, fireworks explode over the rooftops.  Imagine, all this fuss for my birthday!

The French know how to throw a grand celebration for my 50th birthday and for Bastille Day, their national holiday.


A note from Debbie….I am taking a course called “Introduction to the Process of Writing”. In the class we are required to write a piece for submission. I chose to write an blog post about the day I turned 50.  The article was peer reviewed in class and the work above is the finished piece.  I hope you enjoy it!

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