For years, I shied away from traveling in France: I don’t speak French, the people are reputed to be snooty….and even though I loved my time last year in Paris, I’ve been cautious about that country.
Then for a couple weeks recently, Beebe Bahrami’s Café Oc: A Nomad’s Tales of Magic, Mystery and Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France was my just-before-sleep book choice, and—I don’t know whether to say ‘regretfully’ or not—it kept me awake far more often than I anticipated. Some nights I couldn’t put it down.
It was enchanting to follow Beebe from her desperate hunt to find a place to fall-in-love-with by putting a string of favored descriptors into the Google search bar—to the location that fit that search list, Sarlat-la-Canéda in south-central France. It’s in old Occitan-land, and ‘Oc’ means ‘yes’ in that ancient language, which some people there still speak.
Beebe is the epitome of a sensitive, carefully observant, travel-writer-scholar; she’s a cultural anthropologist with plenty of archeological background, exploration experience, and adventure credentials. She loves Neandertals, caves, hiking, churches, prehistory, Medieval worlds, and people. Best of all, she does not shy from first-person, honest revelation and reflection, and in the process she never says a bad word about others, not even about gawking tourists. (As an inveterate tourist-nomad myself, I really appreciate when travelers and locals don’t allow disdainful superiority to make me feel crummy.) The book takes us, slowly and elegantly, through the sequence of seasons in Sarlat, in different years however, because Beebe couldn’t stay there for one uninterrupted year.
One of the things I like best about Beebe Bahrami’s writing is the descriptions of the local people who befriend her and the in-depth accounts of their personal conversations. How does she work? I wonder: does she tape-record conversations, or stop every five minutes to jot visual details, or have a photographic memory? Her words are precise; her explanations are comprehensive and clear; her style, informal and informative.
I would warn you, however, that Beebe is a foodie and a wine connoisseur; you’ve got to be ready for that when you read the book. I wasn’t; I’m not a foodie; I found myself skimming passages that I’m sure would have other readers drooling. One thing I would have liked in her book—more visuals, maps, pictures. You know, reading a real book in bed without a computer nearby…well, I’m not likely to hop out of bed to check where something is via Google Earth, or find an image of some cave art she sees, even though I really would like to know.
Finally, full disclosure: Beebe is a friend, a new one; I took a long walk with her and two mutual friend in May in Boulder, CO, and we talked a lot about the Camino de Santiago which all of us had walked. Thus it was when I got to reading Café Oc, I found that Beebe made Sarlat and environs so appealing that, guess what, I’m going there with a friend in a few months. Yes! Goodbye to France-fear.