Monday, July 26, 2010

Week 9: Wedding Bells, False Friends and Cloud Manifestos

This has been a perfect week! The weather was neither too hot nor too cold and in our business we were not too busy or too slow. It's so hard to strike a balance in this life, but when you do, it feels as if you've snagged that brass ring.

It was a beautiful week for clouds, which are in general quite wonderful in this part of the world. From the upstairs window, our panoramic view often provides stunning skyscapes. I was bemused to discover that there is a cloud appreciation society out there. In their manifesto they state, in part:

WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned
and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it.
Life would be dull if we had to look up at
cloudless monotony day after day.

Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen:
Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds!

That's the kind of society I can get behind! Our clouds have lots of personality and variety. Add a splash of sunset, and voila... a scene worthy of Turner.


As you must know many English words come from French. A reasonable estimate is about 25,000, in fact. Many of these words are used quite differently in English as they are in the original French. Those are called "faux amis", or false friends. One of my favorites in this category is "derange". I had a client ask me this week if it would "derange" me if she stayed past check-out time. Actually people often ask if this or that would "derange" me, as it is a very polite way of asking if something would be a bother to me. Each time this question is posed, I secretly imagine myself becoming completely unhinged. It has happened, but never in front of a client.


Weddings provide us with several clients during the summer. On average we have four or five groups of guests who come to attend weddings. They fill the house with the sweet smell of French perfume, both men and women wear them. Everyone bustles around excitedly and then all leave at once, not to return until the wee hours of the next morning. We always enjoy the happy energy but very rarely see the bride and groom. This weekend, however, we had an extra treat, as we actually had the couple themselves staying with us. In fact Elise, the bride, arrived around noon on Saturday with her make-up artist, hair-dresser and mother, who carried her dress. They put two bags of rose petals and a white corsage in our refrigerator and retired to the chambre verte, with its nice big bathroom (double sinks and large mirror), to get to work. The house was alive all afternoon with their preparations.

The photographer arrived a couple of hours before the ceremony, as did the groom, Baptiste. The Maison Conti became the set for the wedding photos. I think "Quelle belle maison!" is the most frequent compliment our guests exclaim when they first arrive, and the photographer was in agreement. Elise said "wasn't it a great idea to use the Maison Conti for photos?" It's a charming thought that this old house will figure so strongly in their memories of their big day.

Elise and Baptiste stayed with us for two nights, so we were able to revel in all the happy feelings before and after the ceremony. At the boulangerie Mme Guedet asked us "ils sont d'ou?" (where are they from?) Rick heard "ils sont doux?" (are they sweet?) Well, yes, very! I heard "ils sont deux?" (they're two of them?) I hope so! It takes both a new mouth and new ears to really speak French!


Anne and Christine live right across the Place from us, in a little house that doesn't look like much from the outside, but which is adorable once you enter through their front door. A lovely little cobbled terrace separates two buildings which comprise their house. The building in back is a big studio with a loft room on the second floor.

They called on Rick, who we call Monsieur Bricolage (Mr Handyman), earlier in the week. They had bought a huge photograph in a heavy frame that they wanted to hang on their dining room wall. Rick has the tools, hardware and muscles for the job. Anne was so happy to get it hung that she couldn't sleep that night. She told us the next day that she came downstairs at 4am just to gaze at her new installation.

Having the opportunity of making Anne happy is something that gives life in Montmirail a special richness!

Monday, July 19, 2010

At the Races, In the Studio, Meeting Old Friends

The summer garden

The church bells go quiet at 10PM, allowing for the dark hours to be timeless. They resume again with enthusiasm at 7AM.  First they ring seven times. In case you missed it, they ring again seven times. Now you're awake. After a brief pause the bells ring three times, and then again three times and yet again three times. Now you're a bit confused, but you let it go as you start slipping back into sleep. Just as you're beginning to snooze off for a few more minutes, the bells go mad. I once counted the number of bing-bongs and it's close to two hundred. It must be time to get up.

The bells perform the same extravagant cacophony at 7PM but we're usually too busy with other things then to even notice them. The bells' concerts mark matins and vespers, morning and evening prayers, which traditionally in the Catholic church were at 6AM and 6PM, so at least someone has prevailed upon the church to be a bit lenient about timing. When Quinn is here and the bells start going, he stops whatever he's doing, gives you a meaningful look and puts a finger to his ear. We all sit quietly together with our fingers to our ears too, and listen with him until they're finished.


Montmirail proudly opened its very own Hippodrome last year. There's a grassy race track just below the village, heading west out of town, and no, they don't race hippos. The races are a big event but only take place a few times during the year. There are trotting races, where beautiful thoroughbred horses with light-weight chariots attached and very small men or women, dressed in bright silk suits, race around the track. The spectators bet on their favorites, just like at any other track. The winnings are modest, but locals are enthusiastic when they gain a few euros. Almost everyone in the village goes to try their luck.

This year, surprisingly, we also had a traditional sit right on the horse, horse race. That's new. (Like to see some stuck-up jokey boy sitting on Dan Patch, make your blood boil? Well I should say!) Forgive me, I couldn't help myself from launching into Trouble, from The Music Man, the words of which are forever engraved on my mind. If I could remember French phrases the way I remember the words from old musicals, I would be positively poetic in French by now. 

Speaking of which, the other day the doorbell rang and when I went to answer it, I found Samuel and the mayor standing there ominously with a man wearing headphones over his ears and holding a microphone. "Where is Rick?" I ask  myself desperately...he's off grocery shopping. I'm alone.


They're doing a radio program about Montmirail for Radio Bleu, would I like to say a few words? Well, actually no I wouldn't! If my husband were here, I'm sure he'd have lots to say, but as it is, I'd just as soon not...I don't speak well enough...I'm too shy. I sincerely  believed they accepted my demurring. They left. Fifteen minutes later the bell sounded again. This time, as I went out, thinking to myself "now what?" the radio personality had his tape rolling and was speaking into his microphone announcing my arrival at the gate to his radio audience. "Here comes Nancy, an American living in Montmiral, to open the gate for us. Hello Nancy, please tell our audience why you moved to Montmirail," he says this jauntily and then points the microphone right at me. What could I do? A short interview was conducted. In the end I was relatively relieved that I was able to keep from making too big a fool of myself. Samuel said "your French is getting better and better." Trial by fire.


At the beginning of the week I had a day and a half in the studio. During our high season it's unusual to have too much spare time, so I very much value those precious hours where no other work demands my attention. It takes a long time to discover what it is you want to "say" in your art work...and there are plenty of side roads to explore along the way. I tend to look at other people's work and say "Oh, I wish I had thought of that!" I try this and the other, inspired by someone else and have mostly found that nothing fits me quite right. The work I have created that I have been most happy with didn't come from any particular style and wasn't inspired by someone else, but was more or less from my own imagination. One thing you learn early on when studying in art school is that you have to develop your own voice and create a body of work that looks like every piece is created from the same hands. It's a bonus if your work has it's own individuality and doesn't look like a dozen other artists.

I love type, I admire good design, I just adore painting. What I have come to realize, however, is that my training and personal interest is in illustration. I want to tell a story, I want to draw people, events, daily life. I like line, I want color and first and foremost, I am a printmaker. So how to put that all together and find my own way of working? Etching isn't naturally the most direct choice for creating colored illustrations, but then again, etching can be anything. It offers so many possible results. I have been working on a set of drawings over the last few weeks and I have been happy with the results. I went through various techniques for transferring my images onto copper plates and after several frustrating failures hit upon a simple process that works for me. Now that has been established, there is not much strain required to get the images I want...however I have not been content with how to color them. I tried mono-printing color with oil paints, using water soluble inks painted onto the paper before printing, coloring á la poupée on the original plate, and hand coloring with water colors after the print was dried. None of these gave me satisfying results. I don't want black and white and I don't want traditional aquatint shadings. What I want is water color like color, but I don't want to hand paint my prints. I want to be able to have clear flat color while still making an edition. This week I had a happy break-through. It only took me one sleepless night to figure out how to achieve what I was after.

I made a small experimental plate to test my late-night brainstorm hypothesis. I'm satisfied with the results. I made a hard ground line drawing on one plate and put aquatint tones on a second plate. The color is meant to be flat and rather abstract, so registration is not a critical issue. Besides I want the color to be breezy, clear, light and sketchy. It looks a bit retro. I added pure color á la poupée to the second plate and since it didn't have to mix with the black lines of the line drawing, it came out just as I wanted it to. I am now set to create a series of illustrations of daily life scenes and color them using my new technique. The process is a bit long and does require double the materials and lots of time for meticulously adding  color with Q-tips onto the individual patches of aquatint, but hopefully I can find the patience to realize my little series even on much bigger plates. I will be using Mariann's cold wipe technique, so I don't have to rush. I have several images going. All I need now is some time!


Buzz and Ginger are friends from long ago and far away. They moved from the Bay Area about 20 years ago, and we lost track of them. We reconnected over email last year when a mutual friend told them we had a Bed and Breakfast in France. It turns out that they get to Paris as often as possible and were keen to come say hello after all this time. We made several plans but nothing had come together until this year. One of their best friends has a son who was marrying a girl from London, and they were invited to the wedding. The couple is Sikh and if you saw Monsoon Wedding, you'll have an idea of what kind of an event it was. This couple, being modern and busy, had a short version. Only four days long. The Sikh community is extremely generous and friendly and Buzz and Ginger, being one of the few gore (white people) to participate, were treated like visiting royalty. When one of the groom's relatives heard that they were planning to take the Eurostar to Paris after the ceremony, and then the local train to our house, he insisted on driving them in his Mercedes taxi all the way from London to Montmirail. They arrived at our door in style. The driver took a cup of strong tea and off he went back home. 20 hours round trip, including crossing the Channel twice by ferry.

We had lots of fun catching up with our friends. I have always thought of Buzz as a nature sprite. I knew him when he used to scamper up huge trees and balance himself on the top branches to prune dead wood away. He clambered up one of our pine trees in the first house we ever owned and I could hardly watch him. He is clearly not afraid of heights. Ginger was always one of my favorite people, with an easy smile and a warm generous spirit. She's one of those people you can't even imagine being remotely disagreeable. It was such a treat for us to reconnect. We told stories and reminisced for hours on end, cooked, and laughed. It was as if no time had passed at all. Ginger helped me with flowers and dinner and making beds. I had to put my foot down when she wanted to help with the ironing. People on vacation should not go near ironing boards. She taught me how to make real Indian dal.

If we have time for touring when friends come, I am always happy to take the opportunity to visit somewhere we've never been before. There is so much to see near us but we rarely tour ourselves. I have wanted to visit the Jardin de la Petite Rochelle, which I have been hearing about for the last three years. It is rarely open except during the month of July. I've missed it consistently since this is a month that flies past me. It is a private garden, in a private home and it just happens to be absolutely fantastic, so the charming old lady, Hélène d’Andlauin, no doubt close to ninety by now, and her lovely daughter, open up their garden to the public for a very brief period during the year. The place has an excellent reputation in the area and we have finally discovered why. These two women, and their one gardener, maintain a series of garden "rooms" on about 4.5 acres of land, The owner is a horticulturalist and has been around the world collecting plants. She spent the last thirty years designing and building her garden. It is quite breathtaking.

We also took a lazy boat ride down the Huisne river in La Ferté-Bernard. The day was perfect and the paddle took about an hour through the ancient town,  and out into lush countryside.

Buzz and Ginger stayed most of a week. We had some other clients as well; a lovely grandmother from Luxembourg, on her way to deliver an 11 year old granddaughter to a sailing and swimming camp in Brittany. She told us she had slept "like an angel" and really hated to leave. She was very interested in bringing her daughter back to take an etching course with us. A Dutch couple who had stayed with us last year, returned for one night. They invited us to come to Holland in the winter and skate on the canals with them after hearing of Rick's life-long Hans Christian Andersen fantasy. On the weekend we were full with three French families. We served dinner  in the dining room and breakfast on the terrace. Our friends fit in perfectly. By then they seemed like locals!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dramatic Weather, Beautiful Old Cars & British Accents

Street in Bellême

We're in the middle of a heat wave in France, called a canicule over here. I love the word, but not the phenomenon. Thankfully our old house remains cool. As long as you stay inside, you can remain comfortable. Thick stone walls are efficient; in the winter they hold the heat generated in the chimneys, while in summer they stay cool.

On warm summer nights we often have thunder and lightening storms. Sitting in our window seat in our third floor apartment, we have a fabulous view over miles of green valleys that fall away all around us. When there is an electrical storm, we can sit and watch our own personal light show. The one this week lasted for a couple of hours and was particularly fierce. When a bolt of lightening lit up the sky, we cried out simultaneously. It was mesmerizing.

There are several kinds of lightening. We saw forked lightening, the kind with fingers:

This is clearly not a view from our window, but such a great photo!

 streak lightening, a single thick bolt:

 and a lot of sheet lightening, where the whole sky lights up:


This week was long anticipated. The Le Mans Classic Car Race, a biennial event, took place over four days at the track in Le Mans. If the number of phone calls we received for bookings is any indication, it is far and away the most popular event on the Le Mans calendar. We turned dozens of people away. Our clients have been planning this extended weekend for a long time; all four of our rooms have been reserved for this week since last summer.

The Classic is also a 24 hour marathon, but just for the spectators, not the individual cars and drivers. There are eight three-hour races which stretch over the course of the weekend. Cars built from 1923 (when the 24 Hour Le Mans race was initiated) to 1979, are eligible to race, but only makes and models which have once competed in the 24 hour Le Mans race itself. Similar vintages of cars race against one another. This is one of the biggest classic car events in the world and 7000 cars are on display, not to mention the cars racing and all the gorgeous cars driven by the spectators themselves. It's a real treat to the eyes to be on the road this time of year as so many beautiful automobiles are on view everywhere.

3 of the 4 sports cars driven by our guests, two Porsches and a Jaguar. Not pictured is the Aston-Martin.

All our clients are British. I am quite sure that the English make up the greatest part of any car event in Le Mans; they are simply car-mad! Roy and Julie have come every year that the Classic has been offered. Our other three rooms were taken by a group from an Aston-Martin car club. Mike and Sue stayed with us last fall to make their arrangements for this week. It is their first time at this particular event, although they are 24hr regulars. They brought their fellow enthusiasts, John and Terry, and Dave and Tina. They are a very lively and enthusiastic crowd.

Mike and Dave dressed as 50s car mechanics, complete with ascots and sporty hats

Spectators of the race were invited to dress in appropriate period costumes and were not allowed in certain areas of the course with modern clothing. 

I like to take photos of pretty old cars. They look good in front of our house! There are more classic cars on the road this time of year, but they can be seen at any time. There are many active car clubs in both England and France and when the weather is good, they like to take drives on our country roads, which are quiet, picturesque and curvaceous. Perfect driving conditions. Lovely old vehicles often pass through the village and stop for a look around. My favorite vintages are always the really old ones, from the 20s and 30s.





Our four couples stayed four nights, so we've had a chance to get to know them and vicariously share their enthusiasm. I was struck by how many different accents there were between them. For such a small place, English has a lot of regional linguistic variations. In our group of eight, we had one northerner, who sounds softly Scottish, a woman from Ireland with that lilting Irish rhythm and others from various regions east and west. Mike describes himself as from a working class background, and his wife Sue as from a white collar family, and their accents are markedly different. Mike doesn't pronounce "th", which is also a hard sound for the French. While we might say "with," a French person would say "wiz" and Mike says "wif". Do Californians have accents? I guess it all depends on your perspective. But surely if we do, we only have one for the entire region, which is, after all, bigger in area than Britain. England has many noted variations.


The wisteria is in bloom for the second time, almost as effulgent as the first one some weeks ago. The yellow rose that climbs the front of the house with it, is more or less in constant bloom throughout the warm season. The lavender, which borders our front beds, is out of control. We keep having to move the tables further into the middle of the terrace as the flowers take up more and more lateral space. The bees are gorging themselves and we are enjoying the fragrances which mix and mingle in the warm summer evening air. Our butterfly roses have finally established and asserted themselves. They are among my favorite flowers, for their happy habit of turning different shades of apricot and rose during their brief bloom. 

The dahlias in the upper garden are now in their full glory. Dahlias may not be terribly posh flowers, but they are so faithful, enduring and generous. They provide us with cut flowers throughout the summer and fall.  They come in so many forms and colors. This year we have several white varieties. I appreciate them everyday.

For Janet: neighbors' new apricot house color, lemon yellow boulangerie in the background

Monday, July 5, 2010

Week 6: Working in the Studio, Playing in the Sand

 Monique's Garden

This week was especially hot, sandwiched between two days of rain to cool things down. On the way to the garden one morning, not knowing if it was necessary to water or not, we met M. Villette, his daughter Martine and her friend, the woman who walks her burro (without a lead) through the village. They were sitting on plastic buckets, harvesting baskets full of red currants. The night before Martine had rung our doorbell just before dark and passed two handfuls of fresh raspberries through the front gate, so we knew she was in town visiting her parents.

"Bonjour, John," said Martine. She always calls Rick the wrong name, but it's gone on for too long now to correct her.

We talked for a few moments about the chances of rain when Martine's friend suggested:
"Demandez de M. Crapaud."

Apparently a large toad (un crapaud) has been living in the same place in their garden for five years, and toads can predict the weather, (and earthquakes for that matter, although that is not an issue in our part of the world). M. Villette lifted the lid to the culvert where the toad makes his home, and I guess M. Crapaud said it was going to rain, since shortly after watering the flowers, we got quite a nice shower. We should have listened to him, but we don't speak his language.

Speaking of creatures, the owls that live in the castle tower have been particularly active this week. A pair of beautiful snow white owls have inhabited the castle longer than we have been in residence, and they can often be seen, just as dusk falls, gliding over the castle grounds and wall and passing over our rooftop. The cry they make is between a moan and a screech, and if I were a mouse, that sound would send shivers of dread down my little spine. It is such a mournful call, but one that I love hearing reverberate through early summer evenings.


At the beginning of this week, Georges spent two days in the studio printing photos of a lovely Indian girl he had met at an orphanage in Delhi. She is ten years old. The woman who heads the NGO that hired Georges to take photos of the institution was on her way back to Delhi this week, and Georges wanted to send along the girl's portrait as a gift.

We are very happy to have Georges share the studio with us from time to time. He is an entertaining and pleasant addition to our lives, and very easy to have around. He regaled us with stories this time of his childhood. His father owned a restaurant at Versailles when he and his six other siblings were growing up. Their residence was on the Palace grounds and at night, when all the tourists left, his father would take the large key and lock them out and the family in and Georges' family had the entire grounds to themselves.

Georges' eleven year old daughter Leyla came along to take a course from me while her father was doing his own work. 

When Georges originally proposed this idea, I was slightly skeptical. I wasn't sure that etching would be something a child would be interested in or even capable of. It has a very fussy side to it, especially aquatint, which requires a certain amount of concentration and the ability to think backwards. Instead it turned out that Leyla was a real natural and enjoyed every minute of the process. She is very patient, creative and focused. I started her out with dry point, which doesn't require using an acid to bite the plate. She learned very quickly. On the first day she made a plate in several stages, inking and taking a proof after each change. In the end she had a sweet landscape with a tree, lake, butterfly, cloud and sun. She printed it several ways, in monochrome, a la poupée and with chine collé, like her father uses. It was a real pleasure to work with her. 

Since Leyla was such an apt and enthusiastic student, I decided to introduce her to aquatint on her second day. With aquatint, one works with tones, rather than just line. Leyla wanted to put some text into her design, which is quite complicated since one has to work in reverse on the plate in order for the words to read properly on the print. I was particularly impressed that she had arrived in the morning with a plan for what she wanted to accomplish during the day. She worked very hard to create a drawing, first on tracing paper, and then transferred to the plate with carbon paper. She had created a little shop window full of cakes and breads. She named her shop "The Leyla". (She is a good student of English at school.) She etched the drawing onto a plate and then carefully, and in four steps, added her aquatint tones. A plate like hers takes several hours of work to realize and there is no proof taken until the plate is complete. It seems a very advanced technique for someone so young, but she became an instant pro. All of us were impressed with her charming results.

Leyla and Georges plan to return at the end of July to take up where they left off.


We had an opportunity to go to the north coast this last weekend. Emily is touring with her theater company in the Dordogne and Brittany, performing their new cabaret Improbable Aïda. Quinn is staying in Paris with dad. However, Jos had his own show, The Art of Laughter, to perform on the weekend in Le Havre and invited us along to watch the boy during performances. That seemed irresistible, so we blocked out the days and took advantage of his offer. We had never seen Le Havre, and were enticed by the prospect of a couple of days on the beach. The drive north took a little under three hours. 

Le Havre was occupied by the Germans during the war and completely flattened by Allied bombs. There is almost no building remaining from before the 1940s. UNESCO has designated Le Havre a World Heritage Site

The destroyed area was rebuilt according to the plan of a team headed by Auguste Perret, from 1945 to 1964. The site forms the administrative, commercial and cultural centre of Le Havre. Le Havre is exceptional among many reconstructed cities for its unity and integrity. It combines a reflection of the earlier pattern of the town and its extant historic structures with the new ideas of town planning and construction technology. It is an outstanding post-war example of urban planning and architecture based on the unity of methodology and the use of prefabrication, the systematic utilization of a modular grid, and the innovative exploitation of the potential of concrete. 

The results of the reconstruction are strikingly handsome.

We also spent a lot of time on the beach, which is clean and expansive, so one never feels crowded. You can walk for miles through the surf and among multicolored rocks and pebbles, smoothed and polished by the waves. There is everything to do down by the water. People were flying kites, sailing beautiful boats, hang-gliding from the cliffs, bungee jumping, playing handball on courts right on the sand, swimming in a beautiful pool complex that looks out to the waves, or eating at one of the many local restaurants that line the shore. Not to mention walking, jogging or swimming in the warm waters. There are rows and rows of white changing cabins, just like in Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, as well as public outdoor showers to wash off the sand.

Quinn finds a rock to sit on, and discovers surf

Le Havre also boasts the second largest collection of Impressionist art in France - the D'Orsay in Paris, of course, being the first. At the Musée Malraux there was a show of Degas drawings, so we spent part of an afternoon enjoying this very beautiful space and its extraordinary collection of my favorite period of painting.

Musée Malraux, Le Havre

Accompanying Jos was his road manager, a very funny former ballet dancer named el Moustafa, known to his friends as Mous. He was born and raised in Casablanca, which seems incredibly romantic to me. I never knew of anyone besides Bogie and Ingrid who had been there. Morocco is a country I would really like to visit one day. It is apparently a very friendly place. Mous described how the entire city of Casablanca faces the ocean, and how his 82 year old mother swims there almost every afternoon. Mous has lived in Paris for 25 years, but Le Havre is one of his favorite places in France. Perhaps it reminds him of home. He knows the city very well and was our unofficial tour guide.

Le Havre is a walkable city with many public spaces, parks and fountains. We spent an extremely pleasant weekend enjoying perfect weather, excellent company and discovering another corner of France, even though we felt just a little guilty for playing hookie from work!

Interactive fountain

The drive home through the Normand countryside was an excellent end to a week of full-on summer. Outside Le Havre are picturesque white cliffs, very much like Dover. The sun slowly sank as we drove south, casting it's last long rays across green hillsides, turning the trees golden and lending halos to grazing horses and cows. It was a pastoral idyll. This time of year night has not completely taken over until well past eleven.