Monday, June 28, 2010

Week 5: Some Pleasures of Summer

Perche Landscape

Summer arrives in France with music in the streets. In 2000, before we moved to France, I spent a summer living with Emily in a rented apartment in the heart of St-Germain-des-Prés and it was there that I first experienced the Fête de la Musique. Begun in 1982 in Paris, it has spread throughout Europe. It is essentially an all night party to celebrate the summer solstice. On almost every street corner musicians of many styles and ethnicities play and sing. Huge crowds gather, mingle, and then move on to the next free venue. No one sleeps! The musicians, most professional, are all unpaid. It is a lively and exciting affair and happens throughout France in the bigger cities.

In our village last year Alain organized a mini version. He is the neighbor who can be seen around town walking on a rhinestone leash either his Chevalier King Charles dog named Barnaby or his pygmy goat named Bernaby. Alain dragged his recorded music collection, huge speakers and disco ball outside Annette's and blasted the village with oompa and accordion music. I don't think he had too many takers. This year, since the 21st was on a Monday, we didn't have the pleasure of his deejay skills. It was silent in Montmirail.


A few weeks ago I received a call from a professional photographer named Georges, who lives in Paris and works all over the world for various NGOs. He owns a weekend home outside the village and one day discovered our atelier by chance. He was quite amazed, apparently, to discover that there were photogravure (photo-etching) facilities right here in this tiny hamlet. He was also overjoyed, since photogravure is his hobby and his printer in Paris had just retired. He rang to ask if he could occasionally rent our studio to print his own plates, which are made by Fanny Boucher the only active héliograveur in France. This is a technique ancient and very precise. A photographic image is developed on a copper plate using a photosensitive emulsion. Fanny works with some of the most famous photographers in the world. Her incredible atelier, which we visited a few years ago, is filled with photographic equipment from the early part of the last century, huge sinks, drying racks and dust free rooms, kept clean as a whistle. She works like a scientist.

 This was the week that Georges came with his plates to make some prints. We had a lot of fun working with him as he experimented with different papers, inks and border designs, that he had drawn  onto the paper before printing. He also works a lot with chine collé, gluing decorative papers on the basic printing paper to either create a border around the image, or a decorative surface to print upon. He made print after print and viewed each result with the eyes of a perfectionist, making minute corrections. He had only two images, one of a beautiful young African woman and the other of a  Indian girl. He entertained us with stories of tramping through the jungles of Africa and coming upon tribes of natives who had not been exposed to white men before. He brings his old Polaroid camera with him and takes instant photos which he gives to his  subjects. (His refrigerator is filled with boxes of polaroid film that he bought from New York when it was announced several years ago that this venerable old technology was going to disappear.) The photographic images are, obviously, quite magical to most of the people he photographs, as they have never experienced it before. He typically gives the photo to his subject and keeps the negative, which is what he uses to create his own images. 

Of course I find it inspiring to watch other artists at work. We exchanged techniques, shared supplies and in general had a wonderful time. Tomorrow Georges comes back again, this time with his 11 year old daughter Leyla, who will be taking an etching course from me while her father continues his experimentation. Out of the scores of images he will make in the end, he tells me that he will save only five and throw the rest away.



One of the big events in town this week was that the house across from us, owned by Jean-François and Marc had its final coat of enduit put on. There is no English translation for this word, since it means simply "coating" but is a much more specific technique which is not often employed in the United States. Basically lime and sand and water are mixed together and slathered on the outside of a stone building to give a wonderfully rich and colored facing. It's like frosting. The resultant color is entirely dependent upon the kind of sand used and an endless variation of cake-like tones is possible depending upon the source of the sand. Jean-François and Marc have come from their home in Belême (an hour and a quarter round trip) no less than ten times to verify the final color of the house (which is empty but soon to go on the market). They have never been satisfied until this week. The workmen have been trying every sand pit in the locale and were finally able to create the color which approximated what "the boys" (as we call them) had in their minds. This has delayed the project by several weeks, but to excellent effect. The scaffolding has finally been removed and the view out our window now, (once upon a bland dirty tan building with faux cinder blocks painted on the bottom half, as if the real ones aren't ugly enough!) has become apricot. Mme Geudet, the baker's wife and arbiter of all things in the village declared that she was pleased, but did note that it was regrettable that the nurse didn't use the opportunity to resurface her exterior as well. That would have, after all, improved Mme Geudet's view as well. 

The village is going through a certain amount of publically funded improvements. The stone stairs have all been rebuilt, and Celine, the hairdresser, had her building resurfaced a few months ago. The color there turned out a much darker ochre yellow; less pleasing to the local population. In my opinion, however, all these natural colors are beautiful and they weather and mellow with age. I love the variation. The boulangerie, visible from our window just behind the new apricot is a light lemon yellow. They look very good together.


Mid-week, we found ourselves with a two-day hole in our calendar, so we took a trip to Paris to see the grandson and stock up on a few specialty art supplies and exotic food items. I also had a sudden desire (it comes over me so seldom) to do some creative cooking. It's particularly enjoyable to do that with Emily. She and I were both long-time Gourmet Magazine loyalists and thus devastated when they suddenly halted publication earlier in the year. Our remaining subscriptions were finished out with issues of Bon Appetite, which frankly both of us consider a much inferior substitute. The "Last Word" in Gourmet gave recipes for various sauces, butters, condiments or vinegars. A keeper every month! In Bon Appetite you get a recipe from a movie star on the last page. Can I care what some famous person rustles up when it's the cook's night off? I do have to admit, however, that the section where readers write in for recipes from their favorite restaurants has resulted in a few extraordinary discoveries. For our guests I routinely follow one recipe I got in my first replacement issue – mushroom cakes served on a bed of avocado gaspacho with a red pepper coulis on top. Makes me hungry just writing about it! This month I found a recipe for chili rellenos stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms, not to mention one for a cocktail with gin, lemon and grapefruit juices, jasmine tea and limoncello. I imagined a cooking party with Emily, who is quite an excellent and dedicated chef. To make these kinds of recipes one does have to be in the big city, as they contain ingredients impossible to locate at our local markets. In Emily's neighborhood one can find some fabulous ethnic food stores, especially Japanese, Turkish, Israeli and Indian. Regrettably there isn't much in the way of Mexican food or supplies available in France, even in Paris, so we were reduced to visiting Istanbul Market down the road from Emily's to find some anaheim chili substitutes. They worked very well indeed. We had an extended cooking extravaganza and a late but very satisfying dinner together. The second night we ordered take-out.

  The results of Bobo making the mistake of leaving his toast unguarded

We spent a day in Paris center going to my favorite art supply stores. Relma, very close to the Place St. Michel is located in an old Parisian store front. It sells specialty items for book binders. There you find several hundred choices of marbleized papers, leather in every grade and color, wooden book presses in various sizes and beautiful tools for hand binding and stamping. I bought a scalpel there several years ago, it cuts so much more precisely than an xacto knife, and I was finally able to restock my blades. It's not possible to buy them at a pharmacy. I now have a lifetime supply. We walked from there up the quai to Sennelier where they sell more ordinary art supplies, but which offers the art tool addict just as sensual an experience. One enters the old shop by way of a glass door which faces the Tuileries Gardens across the Seine. Inks, pastels, tubes of paints and brushes of every size and shape line the walls from floor to ceiling. Negotiating your way through narrow aisles, jostling with other customers trying to make their own way is a delightful experience. The choices are boggling. After my modest shopping spree was over Rick noted that I seem to find art stores particularly nurturing. It's true. It was a great day. We rounded it off with tapas at a Spanish restaurant near the Jardin de Luxembourg and a visit to a gallery in Montparnasse where they currently have a Chas Laborde exhibition. We walked the whole route. One of my favorite things to do in Paris, is just walk.

Jos and Emily's cherry tree is laden with fruit this year. They cover the ground under the tree and all the neighbors come help themselves. If Quinn is hungry he simply patters outside and picks one up from the ground. He takes a bite and then hands it to you. You remove the pit while he patiently waits, and then you give it back to him to finish.

 a good year for cherries

Monique invited us for a Sunday barbecue as the weather has been really heavenly this week and it was a perfect day to sit outside in her secret little terrace garden. Monique lives in a charming house a few steps away. She mans the front desk at the local sawmill, which is owned by her son. She also has two children living on Reunion, so she travels quite frequently. It is extremely pleasant in her lush walled garden. Jonathan and Renata were in town as well as Christine, so the six of us sat at Monique's beautifully-laid table and feasted on five sorts of entrées, a huge platter of four kinds of barbecued meat, potatoes and beets from Jonathan's garden and finally two desserts. Such a meal is a three to four hour affair with lots of lively conversation all around and several bottles of wine. It was a delicious note to end the week on.


This week brought people from Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, Spain, France and exotically, Ukraine. Who would have guessed that all the world would pass right through the center of Montmirail?

from the garden

Monday, June 21, 2010

Week 4: The World and the World Cup

Ordering Lunch

France, England, Belgium and Germany were represented at the Maison Conti this week. I love the smallness of the European continent. One has the opportunity to be exposed to plenty of different languages and cultural points of view. The distance between San Francisco and Kansas City, to put it in perspective, is about the same as between Paris and Moscow. In the United States we're surrounded by ourselves while in Europe one rubs elbows with all the neighbors. Belgians and Germans often speak multiple languages, and enjoy vacationing in France. Our location is ideal for tourists on their way to Brittany, a favored destination, so we often get stop-overs. This week a Belgian couple, on their way home from the coast, just happened upon our village, parked in front of the house and decided to stay. We often get the opportunity to have long and interesting conversations with our clients, and so we get a picture of the lives of so many different people. The Belgian man is a surgeon and his wife an artist. Their children live far and wide. They enjoyed the studio and imagined coming back for a course. They encouraged us to stop by if we are ever in the Ardennes. If we were to visit all the places we have been invited by former clients, we could have a very extended vacation ourselves! It's really lovely how many of our guests seem more like friends by the time they depart.


I can't say that I've noticed much World Cup fever in the village, although Patrice did mention he'd watched the tie between the U.S. and English teams. The French team isn't doing as well as hoped, but it is making some waves! Today the team went on strike in protest of the decision to dismiss one of their teammates for insubordination towards the coach. That's almost unheard of! The French are expert protesters and readily take to the streets when they have grievances. I guess the footballers feel they have the same rights, even in the middle of a tournament! Apparently the French public isn't so interested in the games this year. Of course, if their team were winning it would be a different story. But why waste the emotional energy if the performance is mediocre? I happened to be in Paris ten years ago on the night the French won the European Cup, and I can assure you they are quite capable of unbridled enthusiasm when there's good cause for celebration. I'm not sure if the public is on the players' side in this disagreement or not, but "shocking" was the word used to describe the events on CNN and the BBC.

The British team isn't performing to expectation either. I heard on the radio that the British are considered to be both the best fans in the world and also the most unrealistic about their team's chances. Speaking of British sporting events, I have always loved the comment made by John Cleese when comparing the U.S. to England: "When we hold a World Championship for a particular sport, we generally invite teams from other countries." He was, of course, making fun of our World Series in baseball. World? We've spent several evenings watching the French coverage of the World Cup. I've been enjoying it quite a lot. I'm not usually much of a sports fan, but I've been swept up and it is thrilling to see so many countries playing the same sport in the same location.


Our area is particularly well-known for its small organic farms and producers of gourmet products. Within walking distance of our house in one direction we have a farm where they make artisanal goat cheeses in many beautiful shapes and delicious flavors. In the other there is a foie gras producer who makes duck and pork products and gives cooking courses. Sophie, with her husband owns the Enterprise Meulemans. Her mother is quite a talented artist. As a gift, she gave her mother, Sylvie, a course at Atelier Conti. Sylvie spent two afternoons with me and took to etching like a duck to water. She dove right in and started carving away on her zinc plates without a second thought. She was quite brave about dry point, in which no acid or varnishes are used and no preliminary drawing; one just marks on a plate directly with tools as if the surface were a piece of blank paper. Sophie created several nice landscapes.

During the final hours of the second day, I gave her a quick introduction to aquatint and she was able to create this charming little seascape in a very short time.

I inked her plate à la poupée so that she could imagine it in color as well. She was very pleased with her results and so was I.

While she was working I did a bit of experimentation myself. I so rarely work in dry point but I very much enjoyed how direct it can be. I've always loved working with sandpaper, which can be posed on top of the plate and then run through the press to gouge the texture onto the surface. The plate is then inked and voila! I created both the cat and the nude simply by cutting out shapes with sandpaper and impressing them into the zinc.


Once a year the Monsmirabilis (marvelous mountain) Association hosts Chevalets dans la Cité (easels in the city). Artists from far and wide come to town to spend a day painting or drawing a scene of our picturesque village. In the late afternoon there is a gathering at the Salle des Fêtes and a panel of judges chooses winners in various categories. The first year we arrived, I was asked to be a judge because I am one of a few other artists who are actual residents. This last Sunday marked my third year on the panel. The day was quite cold, glacial, as Mme Guedet the bouglanger put it, so not very conducive to painting in plein air. Despite that, the quality of the art was higher than usual. I really enjoyed myself. For one thing I talked Rick into accompanying me and that always makes everything more fun. While we were waiting for all the art works to be mounted, Pierre and Odile showed us a book of photographs of the village from the early part of the last century and gave us a commentary about what has changed. Odile pointed out her grandfather and father on one of the pages. Her grandfather was the blacksmith, a tall, burly man. There was a photo of him in front of the old forge from 1917. Pierre and Odile and their son Michel are the backbone of the association. The heart and engine is Samuel, but he wasn't there. It's the first time I haven't seen him at a Monsmirabilis event. Of course, he and his wife no longer even live in town, so I am sure he is trying to encourage others to step into his very large shoes.

Samuel was one of the first people we met when we moved to town. At that time, he ran the local epicerie and, with his wife Celine and three young cherub-faced children, lived next door to the shop. He is French Canadian and so bilingual. He talks to me in French but often writes me emails in English, and is the person I go to with any questions I have. He is extremely patient and generous. Samuel is a very bright and energetic guy and so he sold the grocery business and took a job as a computer programmer in Le Mans. He moved with his family to a town a bit closer to his new employer. This was a huge loss to our village, since he is the main organizer of all the events Monsmirabilis sponsors, but most especially the Medieval Fair in early August. Even though he's been gone from town for almost two years now, he's still the president of the association and the motivating force behind the numerous local activities. Pierre, Odile and Michel with the help of a very few others, do most of the work. I was asked this year, much to my great surprise, to be on the board. I don't often feel as if I have much to contribute, but I'm warming up to it. It's a friendly, lively town and it makes it feel more like home to participate in some of the activities!

Postcard advertisement for the etching class in August, made by Samuel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Week 3: On the river, in the woods, around the track and of the past

A path through the forest of Montmirail

After a light rain last night, the climbing yellow rose on the front of the house has left its petals strewn across the terrace, as if the bride and groom's recessional had just passed. Instead it was Dena and Bud Allen, who left Maison Conti this morning on their way back to Paris.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The week began under clearer skies and with a visit from grandson Quinn and his family. We pulled down the kayaks, dusted them off after a long winter of disuse, mounted the roof rack and off we went to the nearest lake at Le Plessis Dorin, about five miles away from our home, to give Quinn his first nautical adventure.

We had never seen a boat on the lake before, but there was no sign posted against it. After asking at the cafe across the road if it would be alright to put in, and being told there was no problem, we were just about to launch our kayaks when a fisherman, who with his partners on the far shore had been observing our activities, approached us in a bit of a lather.

"Est-ce-que le maire au courrant?" (Does the mayor know what you're doing?)

"Well, no, not really."

After giving us some grave warnings about the mayor's temper, the private nature of the lake and the necessity of staying away from the fishing zones and wild life preserve, the gentleman suggested that he had not really meant to discourage our adventure. After all:

"Il faut permettre le bon homme d'avoir son expérience de la navigation." (The little boy should be allowed to have his boating experience!)

So we launched, if with just a little less confidence. First Jos, Quinn and Emily and then Rick and I took to the water. It was an entirely pleasant time puttering among the carp, ducks, coots, herons and mating dragon flies. Something about the quality of sound from water level, qualitatively different than street level, has always been particularly enchanting to me.

After our paddle we had a drink at the cafe and there we were officially introduced to the Mayor who happened past. Word of our doings had preceded us, and he approached our table as we sipped cider and Perrier with mint. He seemed much more accommodating and mild-mannered than our fisherman friend had indicated. In fact Emily was able to engage him in a long and productive conversation. He happily gave us his blessing for future discrete paddling on the lake and even suggested he might stop by our studio to see about ordering some business cards from us. 

We took a pleasant family walk in a stretch of the woods that I had never explored before, down our hill in a direction I don't generally walk. Quinn met his first horse, who excited and tickled his fancy. He raced up to him without trepidation, and when we showed him how to offer the horse a few morsels of choice grass, laughed as the horse took the bits from his little hand. Jos placed him on the horse's back and Quinn was delighted. 

Quinn encountered a very nice big snail on the road as well, along with a grouse mother and her two babies.We called our walk "Quinn discovers nature." Since he lives in Paris, the countryside is a very big adventure for him.

When it comes to revisiting relationships from the distant past, one can never be sure that they will translate comfortably into current life. In the case of Bud Allen, Rick's roommate from boarding school, there was no problem in making the leap. Bud and his wife Dena spent three most enjoyable days with us. Rick's memory of his youth is a bit sketchy, perhaps due to attending just one too many Grateful Dead concerts, so it was quite delightful to find that Bud has retained much from those days in great detail... he could actually recall the very first words Rick said to him:

"Do you dig the Stones? I crave their furry little bods."

Apparently this made a strong impression on Bud and really, no wonder. (Had that been the first thing Rick said to me when I met him, our relationship might have turned out differently.) But of course this must be put in context. 1965, age 15. Bud described the conversation of some of the other students as being a bit like an east coast version of happy days, so Rick's vocabulary was exotic. For Rick, apparently, things were "cool as a moose". Bud reminded Rick that they had discovered the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion together, as well as Lightnin' Hopkins, the Doors and Howlin' Wolf. What a phenomenal memory bank this man has! And as one of my children once said "Your generation thinks you were the best ever." Well, weren't we? We really enjoyed having Dena and Bud even when we weren't reminiscing about the music and madness of our youth. The days passed quickly.

This past weekend was the 24 hour Le Mans car race, a time when we're always busy. There is that famous movie with Steve McQueen that I slept through. It involves a lot of cars vroooooooming around and around. I never felt that I missed anything, since every time I woke up the scene would be the same, Steve in the driver's seat negotiating a turn at incredible speed. This is basically the thrust of the thing. The Le Mans race is the oldest endurance sports car race in the world and still the most prestigious. The idea is to build a reliable and fuel efficient car that can take the incredible punishment of 24 continuous hours of driving at maximum speeds. The vehicles can reach up to 250 mph and circle the track over 300 times during the course of the race. Last year Peugeot won, which was a boost to the motherland. This year it was all Audi.

I've had several calls for etching courses. Next week the mother of the local fois gras producer is coming to learn a few techniques from me. The following week we have another day student. I was also amazed and somewhat horrified to open up a brochure on summer events in the area and read that I will be giving a lecture on etching in August. I really had no idea I'd signed up for it. This is the danger with having a limited grasp of the language. You sometimes find that you've agreed to things you had no idea about!

View of Montmirail from Melleray

Monday, June 7, 2010

Week 2: Of Golfing, Gardening and the Hundred Years War

 On the way to the club house, an aquatint

Golf is one of those things my parents did enthusiastically and thus something I scrupulously avoided. One of the disadvantages of coming of age in the sixties was that you felt you must rebel, just in principle, even if what you were taking a stand against could actually have been fun. Certainly golf is a wonderfully civilized sport, requiring a minimum of strength and endurance, neither of which I’m long on.

The drive to the golf course was through some emerald green countryside where I counted 10 castles along the way. The day was a bit glowering, but Anne and Christine were in great form and as usual kept us laughing and chattering away. The course itself, one of three in our immediate vicinity, is immaculately maintained, even if it is right in the middle of pastureland. Virginie, our teacher, roared up in a golf cart and Christine and I piled in, leaving Anne and Rick to walk the rather long path to the driving range. As we careened off the road, lurching over uneven terrain, I held on for dear life. Once at the range, and after having some basic instruction, we stood on little squares of plastic turf and whacked away at bright yellow balls delivered to our buckets from a large slot machine. This went on for an hour.

My DNA must include some driving iron command. The club seemed to perform fairly well in my hands and Virginie asked if I had played much before. The group named me the “champion.” Not being terribly “sportif" as they say over here, that was an unusual experience for me. It was fun getting that satisfying thunk as the club hit the ball just right.


Early June is the best time of the whole year for gardening and this week the weather has mostly cooperated. Our patch is a few minutes walk from the house. We pass the church and turn up the hill just past the bar/tabac named La Salamandre. At the top, as the road evens out, the private gardens begin. They are called “jardins ouvriers” which I heard at first as “jardins ouverts - open gardens” since they are lined up one after the other like community gardens, exposed to the pathway and thus conductive to conversation as people stroll past. They are quite open. But the phrase really means “working gardens” the idea being that they are meant for growing your vegetables and not for lounging around or having a barbecue. The first one along the road belongs to an octogenarian friend whose name we do not know. We just call him “garden man." He is there almost every time we come past and he always stops what he’s doing, leans on his hoe and engages us in pleasant conversation, which often runs something like this:

“On your way to your garden then?”

“Yes, got to do a little mowing and weeding. Your potatoes are looking very nice.”

“I've been weeding all morning.”

“That rain we had recently was nice for the garden.”

“It was good, yes, but not nearly enough, not nearly!”

It’s nice to know that someone can appreciate rain in June. I certainly don’t.

Our garden breaks the mold. We grow flowers, which are quite practical for our bed and breakfast business. We need them all season to decorate the house, and they’re expensive to purchase. But to the locals using a garden for something other than vegetables is an extravagant waste of precious terrain! Of course people here aren’t actually critical of our use of space and they give us a lot of slack, since we’re etrangers (foreigners), and thus clearly don't know better. Secretly I think they enjoy our aberrant garden design. Many people who walk by stop to admire our patch and sometimes they simply stand at the fence and watch us working for minutes at a time before moving on. Last year we created a rather formal geometric design for our flowerbeds, bounded by grass pathways, which have now grown lush and verdant. We created a big square space, bisected with paths running from corner to corner creating a small brick bordered herb bed in the middle and two trapezoidal beds on each of the four sides. We defined each with a color family: red, orange and yellow in the north, blue on the west, rose and purple in the south quadrant and white on the east. We’ve had people tell us our garden is “nickel," “trop beau," “modele,” and “top”. Extravagant compliments for these reputedly restrained northern folk.

Garden man once asked us if the form was meant to represent the British Union Jack, assuming as most French people who don’t know us do, that we are English. We assured him that it was not. There is only one other garden along the road that isn’t planted in straight rows of potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, cabbage, onions and leeks. That belongs to the librarian, but hers is hidden behind a large hedge.

Speaking of the English, we had tea at John and Lesley’s house this week. We hadn’t been there in months. They live just a few kilometers down the hill from us and run a gite (self-catering cottage) and fishing enterprise. Their project is on an heroic scale, as they have a huge piece of land, several buildings, an enormous lake, acres of lawn which is kept meticulously mowed, and a forest. They are possibly the hardest working people I know. Being not much younger than us, it’s impressive to see that between them they can spread 11 tons of gravel (for a driveway) in a day, for instance. Last year they had hundreds of poplar trees cut down and hauled away, but what they hadn’t realized was that the lumberjacks would cut the trees several feet from the ground, leaving ragged stumps, strip off all the branches and leave a pile of debris about 6 feet deep over one entire side of their lake. They worked 10 hours a day for most of 6 months cutting, splitting and stacking wood, gathering twigs, burning scraps and clearing out their field and it has hardly made a dent in the pile. They will have several lifetimes supply of firewood and years of work to keep them busy.

Their flower garden is magnificent and if they are not painting patio furniture, building new decks, canning fruit, pruning fruit trees, or dredging their lake, they are tending to their clients. They are solidly booked from early spring to late fall. All their clients are British and come to either camp or stay in the gite for a week at a time. They fish for carp, which are stocked in the lake. The whole operation is catch and release, so it’s not about a fish dinner. Not to mention that carp are not terribly delicious. I’m ignorant about these things, but apparently carp are fun to catch and grow to be 40 lbs and more. Having your photo taken with the biggest, ugliest brute in the lake seems to be the main point of the week-long adventure.

The English and French have a centuries long love/hate relationship. There are lots of Brits in northern France. They come for the quality of life but object to a lot of the Frenchness of France, particularly the language. Many Brits live here for years and socialize only with other English speakers. Of course Normandy was part of England only a few hundred years ago, along with a huge part of what is now western France. The hundred years war, fought, not surprisingly, for about a hundred years, was a tug of war that revolved basically around a simple disagreement:


“No, mine!”

That famous meeting held in the castle of Montmirail between Henry II Plantagenet and Thomas Beckett, hosted by Louis VII, the king of France, took place a decade or so after the younger Henry first met Louis. At the beginning of his reign in England, Henry popped by Paris to pay his regards to Louis, the more experienced monarch. After a brief stay the English king left the court and took Louis’ wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with him. She was married during her lifetime to both the king of France and England and with her went a huge chunk of land that is now western France (the Dordogne, the Lot Valley and Bordeaux). So this morsel, so excellent for wine, went back and forth between the two countries. Normandy also was once English-ruled. Some British feel it was only an unlucky and unfair quirk of histroy that erased these lands from the English map, and that they should still be part of England. One Englishman told us they were reconquering the land one house at a time! It’s true that there are villages in our region and in the Dordogne, where there are more English than French. Our friend Jonathan lived in the Dordogne for more than ten years and never learned to speak a word of French. All his friends and clients were fellow Brits.

The blackbird (merle in French) is a continuous happy presence outside our windows this time of year. As they make their nests, lay their eggs and hatch their chicks, they sing a varied, sweet and never repetitious series of melodies. After their babies are born, they stop their singing. I guess they're too busy. Their song is another special part of early June.

One of the most interesting clients we had this week was a brave and adventurous 20-year-old named Mia who happens to be the daughter of a friend of my sister back in Santa Cruz. She went a long way out of her way to stay with us and, in fact, missed the last train from Paris the first night she was due to arrive here, so had to find a place to stay near the train station. (She found a room above an Asian restaurant.) She is traveling around Europe crisscrossing the continent to visit her various pen pals. She has about thirty of them. She went to England, Finland, back to England, to Paris, back up to Lille, down to Portugal, back to England, then Scotland and finally back again to England one last time and home. I had no idea that people actually have pen pals anymore. What a cool way to travel around the world! It’s her third summer in Europe.

 After dinner on the terrace. The weather was warm enough to eat outdoors. It stays light until almost 11!

Tomorrow brings Bud Allen to the Maison Conti. He reserved a room with us out of the clear blue sky about a month ago. I had never heard of him, but he turns out to be Rick’s old roommate from prep school, who he hasn’t seen or been in touch with for 42 years. We look forward to finding out how he discovered us. Should be interesting week!