Monday, September 21, 2009

The Harvest Festival

Montmirail, the village where we live, is generally very calm and quiet. At night, when the sky is clear, the stars are as visible as in the middle of the countryside. There is no light pollution or noise. Even in the middle of the village square, nothing stirs. Every so often, however, Montmirail comes alive. On a normal Sunday morning the Place de l'Eglise is full of cars. There are two Catholic services every week; one in French at 9:30, and Latin mass at 11. When there is a special event or holiday, the normally busy activity becomes exciting indeed. Last Sunday we celebrated the Fall Harvest Festival and no ceremony was spared. A band dressed in the traditional red hunting coats and playing their French horns appeared in front of the church just as we were serving breakfast to our clients. They played a short concert and then hopped into their carrage and were whisked away to the Hippodrome, where the main Harvest Festival events took place. Quite a lot of preparation went into the festival. It's a time-honored tradition to celebrate the bringing in of the summer's bounty and the end of another growing season. For the farmers in our region it also is a time to show off their animals. The fattest and most attractive animals are awarded prizes. Percheron horses are named for our region of France, le Perche. The breed was developed here in the middle ages. These large and strong animals were breed to carry knights dressed in heavy metal armor. Before farming was mechanized, the Percheron was indispensable for carrying out heavy lifting and pulling tasks. Every farm had their horses. There are still many horse farms in the region and the Percheron is much admired all over the world. Percheron horses generally have docile and sweet natures, so despite their tremendous size and strength, they make great companions. Farmers now, of course, have replaced their horses with horse-power. On display were some bright and shinny tractors. Not many mules were in attendance, but this little guy made his presence known. He was not a small mule, but next to his Percheron neighbor, he seemed diminutive. Little pigges are awful cute, even if they grow up to be much less attractive. John Berger, the British author who won the Booker Prize in 1972 with his novel, G, also wrote a trilogy of French country-life. The first book is entitled Pig Earth and traces the importance of pork in traditional French peasant life. Not one morsel of the animal is wasted when it is time to slaughter it. In our area the cow is undoubtedly the most important animal. There were some large and handsome examples at the festival. The calves are raised by the farmer's children, and they were on display as well. Both the priest and mayor talked to us at some length about the crisis for milk producers in France. It has made international news as French and Belgian farmers are protesting the low EU price of milk. The price of production for French and Belgian dairy farmers, who pay higher taxes than the rest of Europe, is no longer being met by the EU price structure. Dairy farmers are dumping their milk and refusing to bring it to market. Belgian farmers created a milk lake in front of the EU headquarters in Brussels last week and in Paris, farmers handed out thousands of liters of free milk to the public.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Métiers d'Art

Last weekend we had a stand at an art festival in La Perrière, a lovely village not far from our home. It is the first time we have participated in something like this. Art markets are quite common in France, and not just at Christmas time. People enjoy seeing handmade items and these events can be quite well attended. They expected 1500 people to visit the one we were part of. In June there is a Marché d'Art where painters, sculptors and fine artists of every persuasion bring their work. This entire little village is crowded with stands and parking is held in large fields. It's almost like a rock concert or a ball game. When we attended last summer we found it phenomenal that so many artists and spectators came to this litte out-of-the-way village to participate. When we went to the tourist office to gather more information for possible participation in next year's event, they told us that in September, they hold another marché, but this time for crafts people, rather than fine artists. We felt that we probably fall somewhere in the middle of those two categories, but decided to give it a go for the September event. Certainly the crafts market was not so well attended as the June event, but it was lots of fun nonetheless and we met some interesting other crafts people. The woman on one side of us made painted porcelain jewelry. On the other side the woman made theatrical costumes. There were several wood workers, furniture makers,people doing trompe l'oeil, potters, clever toy makers, jewelers of every description and some embroidery artists. It was a very diverse group of people. We received some publicity as two newspapers featured our photo and wrote up a bit about us for their local circulation. We weren't the only English-speakers featured at the market, but we were the only Americans. I guess we're a novelty and so make a good focus for an article. Rick had a lot of people interested in our photogravure process. The idea at the festival was to give demonstrations of our crafts. We brought our little letterpress and ran off some cards which we gave away to children. We did sell some prints, but our books and cards were the biggest hit. La Perrière itself is a really charming village, well worth a visit if you're ever in the neighborhood. We have enjoyed lunch or tea at the chic Maison d'Horbe many times. It is a magical place, overgrown with vines, alive with bubbling fountains and birds, richly decorated with statuary and potted plants. Tea is served in mismatched antique tea cups with antique silver spoons. They have a boutique with a gourmet food section, selling their cakes, creams and jams and an antique section where they sell all manner of little knick knacks. We have several photos of La Perrière up on our website. La Perrière is perched on a hill and the view of the Perche countryside all around is unspoilt. The view from most of the residences is spectacular. Since the Perche is close to Paris, lots of Parisians have second homes in this area. La Perrière is a particular favorite, because of its charm and location. It makes the village prosperous and well-tended. As we left town after our weekend as artist/merchants, we took a new road and discovered this pretty château just outside town. It's a pleasure to discover something new around an unexplored bend in the road.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Visit to Paris

We spent most of last week in Paris. I've heard it said that the best time to visit Paris is in August, because most of the Parisians have gone on vacation. I don't agree, of course, since I'm rather fond of Parisians and would rather have Parisians on the street when I visit, than the swarms of tourists who descend on the city in August. I think September is one of the best times to visit France and especially Paris. When Parisians come back from their month-long summer break and take up their work again and when children begin the new school year, there is a real feeling of excitement in the air. New movies are out, museums and theaters launch new seasons. The weather has cooled down, the crowds have thinned out and there's a definite change in the light. The French have a word for this time, it's called la rentrée, the reentry. Not just back to school, since almost the whole country takes the month of August off, it's back to work for everyone and it is a special time of the year. If you're planning to visit Paris this fall, and you've already seen the Eiffel Tower, and waited in the endless line to catch the view, if you've visited the Louvre and paid respects to the Mona Lisa, seen Seurat, Degas and Van Gogh at the Musée D'Orsay, enjoyed Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, why not visit a few much less well-known but stunningly beautiful places? There are two I'd like to recommend. You probably won't find these in the Paris guide books. One doesn't usually think of a library or a bank as a "must-see" site in Paris. The fact that these two buildings are open to the public and used by the population for mundane daily-life activities makes them all the more special. One of my favorite places in Paris is the middle of the pedestrian bridge, le Pont des Arts. You have a wonderful view of l'Ile de la Cité. At the right bank of the river you have the Louvre, and on the left bank, the Académie Française. It's in this beautiful building that you will find the Bibliothèque Mazarine. This is not a museum, but the oldest public library in Paris. Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) was the guardian of Louis XIV before he reached his majority. Mazarin was a scholar and amassed an enormous number of volumes. He left his library to the State and it has been open to the public ever since. It is an absolutely spectacular space and provides a wonderful place to read and study. Diane Johnson, who has a house a few steps away from Bibliothèque Mazarine, writes in her delightful memoir Into a Paris Quartier that she went there almost everyday to work on her novel L'Affaire. To visit the library, one enters a door on the left front of the Institute building. A small sign points the way. It is well worth the effort to seek out this exquisite interior space. You'll be among a very few tourists to have found it. Another "ordinary" building is the headquarters of the bank, Société Générale, located between the Paris Opera and the Galleries Lafayette. from the outside there is no indication that within is one of the finest examples of art nouveau interior design in the city. Opened in 1912, this space is richly decorated with art nouveau motifs. The floors are exquisite The enormous glass dome filters light into the space. A round desk for the tellers is placed in the middle of the space. One is surrounded by glass and richly decorated surfaces. The bank is also opened to the public, one needs only open the door and enter. You will be very glad you did.