Monday, August 30, 2010

Week 14: Garden Visit

The Queen's Chair, a giant natural sculpture on display at Chaumont-sur-Loire

The rhythm of life has changed dramatically as people are beginning the rentrée (the reentry). There is a hint of Autumn in the air, we find ourselves reaching for sweaters, and the days are shorter, a few leaves are thinking about turning colors. Fewer meals are served on the terrace as the beginnings and ends of days are cooler. Less people arrive on the Place, the castle is only open now on weekends. It's time to order the firewood and get the fuel tank filled. Other signs of the end of the season: Celine, the hairdresser is back. Rick and I no longer look so scruffy. Anne and Christine suddenly reappeared and their shutters are open again after weeks of being firmly shut. They have been soaking up the sun on a Greek Island. And speaking of islands, Quinn and family are somewhere in the Adriatic as I write this, enjoying "the Mediterranean as it once was" (as the Croatian tourist board slogan would have it).

We had several quiet days this week, although we weren't completely free. We did have some Russians staying with us for a couple of nights. Two families, each with two children. The fathers are cousins. Those days were not quiet at all as the four children were all under the age of 8. One family now lives in New York and the other in Israel, so they meet in Europe during the summer and spend time together. Monday was Adi's birthday, she was the oldest girl, turning 7 at Maison Conti. Her father got up early to drive to Vibraye for cake, as Monday is the day our own boulangerie is closed. He arrived back at the house about 9am just as everyone was coming down for breakfast. He was carrying two huge boxes of large and small cakes and numerous pastries of every description. Adi showed her wisdom by asking to delay the cake consumption until the evening. I was impressed by her restraint. They had a long day visiting the Loire Valley and then returned to the house. We had set them up a big festive table in the dinning room and they celebrated into the night. 


We profited, as they say over here, from a few days without responsibilities, and did some touring ourselves. Most of this post is devoted to a garden visit we made early in the week. We have been hearing about Chaumont-sur-Loire from Georges. From June to October each year numerous landscape architects are invited to create imaginative gardens which all respond to a theme. The result is acres of fabulous exposition garden plots which are open to the public. Since this International Festival of Gardens is towards the end of its season, we were anxious to visit and discover what we've been missing. The festival was created in 1992 and is now world renowned.

We opted for the garden tour only, although one can purchase tickets to visit the château itself and the celebrated stables, which when built in the early 1800s were the most sophisticated and best-equipped in the world. The castle is in the château fort style, that is it was fortified to withstand attack. During the Renaissance, when wars were no longer fought at castle walls, buildings became much sleeker and delicate. Kings and nobles tried to convert these old, rather squat castles and added graceful Renaissance touches as they were able. The castle of Montmirail is an excellent example of that, as is Chaumont-sur-Loire. This particular château was purchased by Catherine de Medici who was queen of France from 1547-1559 and a very ruthless character (she was the author of the St Barholomew's Massacre, where thousands of protestants, guests at her own daughter's wedding, were assassinated). The king, her husband, Henry II was very much in love with his long-time mistress Diane de Poitiers and gave her the castle of Chenonceau, the most beautiful and famous château in the Loire valley. Upon the death of the king, Catherine forced Diane to trade Chenonceau for Chaumont. Apparently this was heartbreaking to Diane, but one can't feel too sorry for her. Chaumont-sur-Loire is really a stunning location.

The park is huge, with beautiful manicured lawns and gorgeous old trees and shrubs arranged to create breathtaking views from every angle.

One can walk for hours, (or better yet ride a bike) down well-tended paths that wander through seemingly endless woodlands. Although we didn't see a gardener the whole day, there must be a small army of them as every blade of grass is meticulously trimmed and every tree perfectly manicured.

The vistas over the Loire River are spectacular. We enjoyed watching an art class put their impressions down on paper.

Along one pathway a row of basket chairs were arranged for enjoying the view. I loved the design.

It was a splendid day to enjoy the exposition gardens. There were hundreds of people there at the same time, but the grounds are so immense that we never felt crowded. Twenty-four exposition gardens were created to respond to this year's theme Body and Soul

One of my personal favorites was the tea garden, complete with a wall of tea cups at the entry. Each afternoon tea is actually served in the porcelain cups in the charming little garden behind.

The garden itself was a cottage garden filled with a jumble of flowering plants.

Each garden had a panel at the entry with a short explanation of the idea behind the garden design. My favorite was this:

"Mysterious and light, fanciful and joyful, this garden evokes the soul of those departed and works on the idea of reincarnation. The presence of birds brings peace to its visitors." It then quotes this marvelous story by Philippe Cailltaud:

Every day at the end of the 1970s I went to see my grandparents, who lived in a street close to mine. The rue du Haut-Pas in Dieppe. They lived in a flat on the first or second floor. I can't remember now. I often saw my grandmother feeding the birds on the kitchen window ledge. A group of feathered creatures, that was to say the least mixed, had become habitual visitors and came to beg for their sustenance every day. Side-by-side there were pigeons, sparrows and of course a seagull; an emblematic creature of the town, providing the soundtrack of life in Dieppe. It seemed to be the same ones who always came back and my grandmother talked to them. She had a conversation with them. One day she explained to me that these weren't in fact just any old birds: they were the reincarnation of members of her family (and so of mine) that she had known well and who had died at various times in the past. Obviously their appearance had changed a little, but she could recognize them because their fundamental attitudes had remained the same. So Aunt Léontine was still as stingy and surly, Uncle Marcel, miserly, Uncle Ferdinand generous and musical, Aunt Alice reliable and cheery, Godmother still ate as much, and so on and so on. She recognized the dead people who came to visit her. She gave them her little offerings and all these birds found they were given names. Dieppe Metempsychosis. So it seems that in my family, our souls transmigrate into birds.

There were several water gardens, reflecting white puffy clouds, with golden carp swimming below the surface.

We entered one garden through a spiral path that led to a central space where one could relax on hand-crafted chaise lounges. This was purported to be mother nature's birth canal.

Some of the gardens afforded lovely views through the trees and down to the river.

All along there were places to sit and relax and enjoy the many colors, glorious day and pleasant aromas.

Ceramic balls of various sizes make wonderful benches

Tibetan themed prayer garden

After exiting the exposition gardens, which are re-created by guest gardeners each year, you find another space called the Experimental Garden, created by the regular Château gardening staff. It is evolving but permanent. I am slightly partial to vegetables, so I particularly enjoyed this one, as it is basically a big kitchen garden with its seasonal crops grown and displayed in highly attractive and creative ways.

Vertical seems to be a big theme in the garden and it's such a great way not only to get more space, but allow the produce to grow unencumbered.

If you've been in Paris and seen the famous vertical garden at the Quai Branly, by the new museum near the Eiffel Tower, you know what a gorgeous and exotic thing it can be. Basically a building is covered with a kind of netting that holds soil and an irrigation system. Plants of various shapes, colors and textures are tucked up and down the fabric and create a living wall of plant growth. The technique was first developed here.

After hours of garden exploration, one has a whole series of cafés and restaurants to choose from for either a quick refeshment or a full-on meal. No wonder Georges and his family spend two full days here.

We, on the other hand, had to hurry back home to prepare the house for our next visitors.


The week in Montmirail ended with a Brocante, basically a village-wide garage sale. During the season one can always find one village or another hosting such a sale. This week was our turn.


Moon rising over the Loire

Monday, August 23, 2010

Week 13: Eat, Drink, Print!

 A week of rain clouds and sunny clear skies, of hot days and chilly nights. Fall whispers its approach.

Georges spent some time printing in the atelier again this week. I always learn something interesting when he comes. No exception this time. One interesting discovery was made when he set up the press for himself, as I had not gotten around to that before he arrived on Monday morning. He printed all morning and was never satisfied with his results and could not understand what was different. The image was not accepting the ink correctly and there were little while spots all over the finished print. He tried adding oil to the ink, wiping in different ways, wetting the paper more or less and always the results were the same. Finally we realized that he had put the blankets on upside down. There is one felt blanket that goes on top of the print and one thick wool blanket which goes on top of that. The felt of course is tightly woven and the wool is highly textured so with the wool blanket on the bottom, directly on top of the image as it's printed, a texture is created in the warm ink. I had never put the blankets on backwards so I had't considered what an effect that could have.

Georges has a very interesting chine-collé technique which I have never seen anyone else use. He creates hand painted papers which he then glues onto the printing paper as a frame to his printed image. The plate is inked and the glued paper is placed on top, so it all goes through the press in one pass. Leyla used some of his hand painted paper to very good effect on her own swan image. Georges uses waterproof ink (which he purchases at Sennelier in Paris) to create the textures on his paper.


Georges also introduced me to the photographer Sarah Moon. She does beautiful fashion and art photography often with images that are out of focus and atmospheric. Her color work is particularly beautiful, I think, although she apparently prefers working in black and white. She inspired me to take a couple of my own out of focus images and create some prints of Quinn. I was happy with the results, though of course she creates all her effects in the camera while I used Photoshop.


We had some California friends as clients this week. I used to work with Ann at a private school in Lafayette. Her daughter Laura is studying theater and went to the same school as my own children, who are also both in theater, so we have a lot in common. Ann is showing her daughter around Europe before Laura goes off to study at RADA in London, one of the preeminent theater programs in the world. Ann also invited her 85 year old father to accompany them since he spent some time living in both Italy and France when he was younger. As he said to me, any place on the Mediterranean feels like home to him. Ann was actually born in Marseille, which is where they headed after spending several rainy days at Maison Conti. Larry is first-generation American born of Sicilian parents who met Ann's mother while stationed in Italy after WWII. I picture them in their rented villa below a sunny Tuscan sky as I write this.


I have lately had the enormous pleasure of planning out the Wonder Wander Workshop with Gail Rieke which will be given at Maison Conti in early October. Gail is a collage and assemblage artist who specializes in travel and journal creation. Her studio is itself a work of art. The creative responses to her numerous travels are contained within beautiful old suitcases. They become a kind of interactive sculpture as she mounts them on the walls of her home gallery. Each case contains a separate experience, beautifully arranged which reveals something special about a real place and a specific time.

During the three days of the workshop, participants will make three book forms. The first will be a kind of prototype of many ways to bind pages together in a unique travel journal. The second will be a book for holding collections of things we discover. We will take walks together in order to respond creatively to the landscape around us. We will draw, take rubbings, photographs and collect bits and pieces we find along the way to put together into a unique travel memory. The final form will not necessarily be a typical journal. Our ephemera can take many forms. The most important aspect of the project is to imbue it with personal meaning and creative response to our individual experiences. Gail has many unexpected ways to put these disparate pieces together into a coherent whole.

We will discover many unique ways to collect and bind our travel journals together. Gail has led many trips to Japan over the last several years, but this is her first European adventure. There are still a couple of places available in the workshop if you would like to join us. Pleasures of all sorts are guaranteed!


One of my favorite printmakers on Etsy is Andrea of Starkeyart . For Jos' birthday I ordered one of her incredible prints which arrived this week. I just love the colors and her delicate, precise drawing. This is a reduction lino print, which I find almost unbelievable. Rick did a beautiful job of framing it. It will be a bit of a wrench to give it away, but luckily I can visit it anytime I like. Jos loves trees and Andrea has some wonderful images of landscapes and trees in her shop. She also has a blog which I enjoy following.


Last summer around this same time, we had a lovely German family stay with us for one night on their way to a vacation on the Brittany coast. We were very happy to welcome them again. This time they came bearing gifts, two bottles of German wine which we fully intend to enjoy at the first opportunity. Wolfgang seems a passionate advocate of German vintners and explained to us that when buying German wines, which he insists are as good as any made in France or California, one must be sure to look for the eagle logo on the neck of the bottle. This insures that the wine inside is made of all the same kinds of grapes from the same location and not a mixture of grapes from hither and yon. Of course that means the wine is of the highest quality. You need to look closely at the eagle logo as there is apparently an imitation that tries to pass itself off as the real deal. Wolfgang and family will be revisiting us on their way back home in three weeks, so it is incumbent upon us to give these wines the taste test and report on our experience.


The week ended in a big way with the village Éclade de moules in the Place outside Annette's. Mussels are arranged on large planks of moist wood, covered with seaweed and grape vines which are then set ablaze. They cook quickly, popping the shells open, and are served straight from the coals on the plank. Annette sets up rows and rows of chairs at long tables under a huge tent and people come from miles around to eat the mussels with French bread slathered with butter. That's almost all there is to the meal, except for a piece of cantaloupe with parma ham to start and an apple tart with cheese to end. 

We had invited our good friends Jonathan and Renata to join us. Bertrand, a neighbor from the first place we lived in France happened to call us that morning so we invited him too. 

I don't think I've mentioned either Renata or Jonathan in twelve weeks, which is odd, since we count them among our dearest local friends. There is a reason, however; we see them so very rarely these days. For this I only have myself to blame. I introduced them and it was the most successful match-making I have ever accomplished. Renata happens to live an hour away, so Jonathan, who has a house just a few doors down from Anne and Christine, is hardly ever in town anymore. 

We met Renata when we bought our first house near Alençon. She's Czech and was friends with the woman who sold us the moulin. Renata was like a little bonus that came with the transaction. She became our guide, our friend, our helper, really our angel when we knew very little French and were orienting ourselves in a new country. She took us to Prague a few years ago and acted as our personal tour guide. She is always cheerful and patient. We've felt so lucky to have met her!

We met Jonathan when he appeared at our door as we moving into Maison Conti. He offered to help us with the construction that was necessary to create our Bed and Breakfast. He is generous and talented. Without him I don't think we could have managed at all. He was essentially our roommate for the entire first year we were here. He was our Montmirail angel, so naturally I thought of conveniently arranging a meeting between the two of them. Suffice it to say that sparks flew, puffy pink clouds manifested all around and we simply stood back and watched. That was a couple of years ago and they still seem positively radiant together.

Bertrand, Renata, Jonathan and Rick in front of the unlit mussel pyres

The tent in the Place du Château, outside Annette's

Firing up

Plank of mussels--we had two like this to divide between 6 people!

Live music blasted into the night. Renata seemed to know the words to every song. Besides the eating, there was dancing, singing and general revelry. 


Cafe in Barcelona, this week's color etching experiment

Monday, August 16, 2010

Week 12: Short Escapes and Other Adventures

 Le Luart, a beautiful estate entrance we pass on our way to Le Mans. It has always intrigued me.

Even if Montmirail is surrounded by countryside and taking a vacation from being on permanent vacation could be seen as redundant, from time to time I get the urge to hop in the car and discover a new corner of our world. Such was the case at the beginning of this week. We took only a few hours out to discover some wonderful new places. We had an idea to ride the tourist steam train which we've heard about for several years, but have never taken. Unfortunately our adventure started late in the day and by the time we got to the station, we'd missed the last train. No problem, we simply continued on to the charming Village of Montfort-le-Gesnois with it's picturesque Roman bridge.

We walked along the river Huisne, and enjoyed others enjoying the afternoon. A fisherman, kids swimming near the waterfall, people sunbathing, biking, strolling.

Part of the path we took went through a beautiful forest which is habitat to flocks of nuthatches, a blue-gray bird with black eye patches and apricot colored bellies. They forage for insects along the trucks of trees or find nuts and berries. They receive their English name from their habit of wedging their food into nooks and crannies and hacking at their catch with strong bills to break it into manageable sized morsels. In French they are called sittelles, a name given to them by the ancient Greeks.

On our way back we stopped at the Château de Pescheray for a peek around the grounds (185 acres) of this public estate. Rick had attended a meeting here last year and wanted to show me what I had missed. There is a cafe in the castle park where we sipped a Perrier before having a walk around. The chateau is known for it's ancient boxwood trees, prized by cabinet makers for it's hardness and close grain. The castle sits at the top of a little hill with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

Pigeonniers (dovecots) were introduced into France by the Romans and were built to house hundreds of birds at a time. Pigeons were an important form of protein in the Middle Ages and their droppings also provided a sure source of fertilizer for crops. After the fourteenth century it was illegal for anyone who was not of the noble classes to build a dovecot and the size was restricted according to the rank of the owner. This estate was obviously owned by someone of  high class as their pigeonnier is quite large. Each niche would house a bird. The wooden arm swings around so that the ladder can be positioned to reach any hole.


Leyla returned this week to do a bit more etching. She's become enamored of the process and is starting to be quite confident. Her father tells me she doesn't want to leave for her vacation by the sea but would rather stay and do etching at Atelier Conti! On Tuesday she came on her own, and I worked with her to produce another etching and to introduce her to lino.

She had chosen an image by Matisse of a simple line drawing of a swan which she used as a model but didn't trace. She then used a soft ground varnish to embed mint and bamboo leaves to create a beautiful texture. She printed it in blue. It turned out beautifully, I think.

She made a charming lino image as well which she experimented printing in several colors. I liked it in black.

While I was working with Leyla, we had a large group from the nearby area arrive in the studio for a brief tour and explanation of our etching process. Rick was thankfully available to do the presentation.


Emily and family are off for an extended vacation next week so we took one other short break to visit them in Paris before they left. We wanted to see Quinn. We took a train ride outside of Paris and had a picnic on the more bucolic part of the River Seine. Quinn couldn't quite wait until we got there so his lunch was on the train.

Less than an hour away from central Paris you can find sleepy villages just beside the river surrounded by forest. While Quinn slept in the stroller the rest of us spread out a meal on an old port on the banks of the river in a pretty little town named Thomery. We walked to and from the train station to the river though the forest.


I more or less finished another two plate experiment, this one a Parisian street scene. Color applied a la poupée is printed first and the line drawing is over printed.


We had another marriage in the village this week at our local church. Both the groom's parents and the couple themselves stayed at Maison Conti.  When the young man called to make a reservation some months ago he requested that his room and his parents' be as far away from one another as possible!

After the ceremony the newlyweds were carried to their reception, just outside of town on a caleche, a horse drawn carriage. The horses were, of course, Percherons, for which this area is famous.

 Tomatoes found at our door when we came home from Paris. Another garden gift from Martine.