Monday, December 27, 2010

Week 31: Christmas Pleausres

Our wintery neighborhood

We had an eventful Christmas week spent with our local family. So much was enjoyed and shared together that it would take several blog posts to recount all our adventures, so I will mainly focus on one of them. It was Quinn's second Christmas and he got right into the spirit of things. Emily spent a great deal of time making presents for everyone. Adric organized three wonderful activities for us to participate in. One involved taking photographs of stories we all acted out, another was a series of impressions we wrote about one another and the last was a crafts project we participated in together in the studio. He put all these mementos into a beautiful book and presented them to us on Christmas.

James offered us a Christmas eve treasure hunt/adventure that took us out into the snowy world. We came downstairs to discover an envelope which had a map, a quote, a comment and a clue:

Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight lines, triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows--only hard with luminous edges--and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said "my universe;" but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things. --Edwin A. Abbott

We're all points on a map, when it comes down to it. Today our maps converge here. This morning, shall we chart new territory?

It's hard to imagine how all our maps crossed here. They just, well, they did. In this country of little hills and little towns with little churches. So many little hills, and so many towns and churches. It seems there's always time to discover more. This little church is in a little town which is not half as charming as the little church itself.

There was also a photo with a town name just visible. From this we searched the provided map and headed off to our first stop.

Emily and Rick discover our first destination

Quinn is dressed and ready for the adventure
We drove to an adorable 11th century church in a village we had never visited named St. Georges du Rosay. The church was turreted and had a lovely statue of St. George above the doorway.

Emily discovered the next clue nestled under the plaque mounted on the church wall.  James had gotten up early that morning and hidden clues along our way. Each one led to the next location. Each destination was something special and almost all unknown to us before this day and, as we came to realize, each also represented one of us.

Our second destination was a feudal motte. Rick found a clue hidden in the ivy nearby.

Next stop a snowy pasture full of horses. Quinn had a nice conversation with one as the others looked on.

By now it was mid-afternoon. Our next stop was La Perrière, one of the most charming hilltop villages of the Perche, where we had a wonderful long lunch in a place we love called Maison d'Horbé. It is a restaurant, salon de thê, fancy food boutique and antique store all in one.

Quinn was enthralled with all there was to see.

The shop is always overflowing with interesting knick knacks.

This time of year, beautifully decorated for the holidays.

Quinn tried on a lovely red hat.

After lingering well into the late afternoon, the waitress handed us another clue and off we went. This time to discover a prehistoric dolmen.

These stones were stacked together thousands of years ago and are thought to have been a kind of ancient communication point. For us they revealed yet another clue.

Our last destination of this memorable Christmas eve was a beautiful château, which we reached through a narrow forest track. The windows were aglow, another family gathering to celebrate the season.

Our last clue took us back to Maison Conti. The sun was just setting as we turned our car towards home, with even more fun and adventure in store for us.

Whenever the family gets together, a great deal of cooking and eating always takes place. We all dream up our favorite meals and take turns sharing them with one another. Everyone helps out. Our week included some exceptional meals. Adric cooked up a traditional Filipino feast, including a delicious fresh shrimp and mint salad, chicken adobo and tilapia followed by pineapple upside down cake. Jos made us sauerkraut and German sausages one night and a fabulous minestrone another. Rick made a particularly delicious roast beef. I offered homemade bagels with lox and cream cheese for one breakfast, eggs Benedict for another and New York Goodwich sandwiches for lunch one day. Christmas dinner was a platter of shellfish, fresh from the sea served with Rick's excellent potato leek soup, accompanied by a memorable bottle of Marsannay (from Jos) and finished with a box of Mont d'Or which had been nestled in the coals of the fire until it was as soft as fondue.

Quinn was amazed and delighted by Christmas. He was quite surprised to find an electric train running under the tree on Christmas morning, and the stocking he had hung by the chimney with care the night before was magically filled up with all kinds of wonders.

Holidays over, family departed, the sun rises this morning on another snowy week. Our last one in this wonderful year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Week 30: Snowy German Visit

Smoking Man, typical German wooden Christmas toy, bought at the Mannheim Christmas Market

A few weeks ago our friends Wolfgang and Sabine invited us to come visit them in Germany and share a goose dinner to celebrate Saint Martinmas. Wolfgang ordered a goose from a well-reputed organic producer in the Northern Germany. Mannheim, where they live, is not too far over the French border and there is a direct high speed train from Paris which normally takes only three hours. We have had many clients invite us to come visit them but Wolfgang is the only one who really made a very specific proposal. How could we refuse? We were very happy to visit this family that we had grown so fond of, and to see them in their native habitat! Besides, going to Germany at Christmas time, the cradle of many of our holiday traditions, has always been a dream of mine.

Of course, when we made this plan a few weeks ago, Europe was not yet plunged into a temporary ice age. Our host family also had some last minute complications. Roderick, their five year old son, developed an angry skin infection just days before we were due to arrive and had to spend several nights in hospital. It was touch and go right up until Friday morning when we boarded the train in Paris, but in the end Roddy had improved, the trains were running, and so we headed off on our next big adventure.

At the Gare de l'Est in Paris, passengers huddled around electric heaters to keep warm. Temperatures hovered around 0º. Trains were delayed as everything in the high speed system was required to slow down considerably. In Paris there was no snow, but the further east we traveled, the whiter the landscape became.

Mannheim was covered with a fairly thick blanket of snow, which more or less scotched plans to visit Heidelberg castle and university (where Rick's grandfather once taught). Someone also had to stay at home and wait for the goose to arrive via UPS, so Wolfgang and Sabine took turns making forays out into the wintery world. We followed along.

We didn't mind at all staying at home. Our hosts have a lovely big house with large windows, allowing us to look out on the Mannheim cityscape and enjoy the warm, Christmasy atmosphere indoors. Wolfgang is the chef de cuisine of the family and he made sure we were well-fed all weekend.

The house is right on the tram line that leads into the heart of the city. We took it into town one morning with Sabine and the children.

Victoria is ten. Both of the children are lovely and intelligent. They don't speak much English yet, and I have no German whatsoever. What German Rick had from studying it in school has mostly vanished. This did not seem to be too great a disadvantage when talking with the children. We became very fond of them. We had our ways of communicating that did not require language.

Roddy was feeling very well indeed. After his hospital stay he was definitely ready for a little fun and activity.

Mannheim, like many big cities in Germany, was pretty much flattened in the war, though a few very beautiful buildings do remain. The center of town is dominated by the biggest contiguous group of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. They are in red brick with grand arched promenades encircling a large park. Since everything was dressed in snow, it was a little difficult to see it all.

The old water tower is very beautiful.

Mannheim is also known as the city where the first automobile was built by Karl Benz.

I was anxious to visit the Christmas market, as Mannheim has one of the celebrated ones. In fact there are two of them. One is large with lots of crafts from all over the world, the other is small with just traditional German craftsmen participating. We visited them both.

The bigger, but less traditional market

bird houses made by hand

One of the things that bonds Wolfgang and Rick is their shared love of great coffee. Wolfgang has a state-of-the-art espresso machine and a very fancy grinder. Morning, afternoon and evening coffees were on the agenda.

By Saturday morning the goose still had not arrived, and more guests were due to come to enjoy the evening feast. Rumors of closed freeways, treacherous roadways and canceled flights made its arrival uncertain. No one could be reached to confirm one way or the other. We headed to the local fresh air market with Sabine and the children to gather some supplies, even though we didn't know what the menu would ultimately include. The day was crystal blue and beautiful, but bitterly cold.

By the afternoon the goose still had not arrived, so the menu was changed to beef roast. Side dishes were organized and in a flash a whole new plan was put into production. We helped a little, and then waited in the living room for the other guests to arrive and played a game with Roddy.

I don't have any photos of our very convivial meal together. Frankly, I didn't miss the goose at all. We had a beautiful and tender beef roast in delicious gravy, sliced thickly and served generously. Side dishes included oven-fried potatoes, mashed celery root and parsnips with carrots and parsley. Everything was lovely. Another couple joined us and we enjoyed getting to know them. Almost all Germans speak English, which is fortunate for us.

I was a bit nervous about getting back to Paris as I watched the snow coming down hard on Saturday evening. The train was a bit late and again had to travel at reduced speed, but in the end our return journey was smooth. Again, the further west we went, the less snow blanketed the ground.

We picked up James and Adric in Paris and arrived home yesterday afternoon. When we came into town there was no snow at all, skies were blue and our house was quickly warmed up again.

This morning was a different story. We woke up to several inches of freshly fallen snow. I was happy to be safe and sound with nowhere to travel for the foreseeable future. Snow is beautiful, but best enjoyed from the comfort of one's own windows. As soon as Emily, Jos and Quinn arrive we can begin to celebrate Christmas in earnest. Once everyone is at home for the holidays we'll be able to more happily sing "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Week 29: Deck the Halls

It was crazy cold after getting back from London. We woke up to beautiful sunrises, but day after day the view out the window was of what I began to call the frozen tundra. It is rather unusual in our area to have much snow at all, let alone snow that sticks to the ground for several days. The nightly news showed images of the freeways around Paris with traffic completely halted and passengers forced to sleep in their cars. Some furniture stores allowed people who were stranded to use their mattresses and couches. One group of kindly souls went from car to car delivering hot cocoa to those trapped. Weather was the top news story for most of the week.

Winter sunrise

A frozen landscape

We had no need to travel, so the snow and cold didn't bother us so much. We built fires to stay cozy while we began to decorate the house for the holidays. This year we used bay leaves to create our various swags and wreaths. Pines are not readily available to us, even in the forest, whereas bay trees grow tall in the garden.

Wreaths on doors and gates

 Bay leaf swag

Guest lounge

 Bay wreaths sprayed with silver

We actually have clients for Christmas eve and evening as well as having our local family. New Year's eve we will host a feast in the dining room for a large group of Parisians. I want the house to look very festive.

An ornament bouquet

I enjoy the holidays tremendously and have been collecting ornaments for many years. It's lovely to live in a home that offers me the opportunity to use them all.

Bay leaves sprayed gold, some of the birds from my collection and green glass balls from the Czech Republic

Next week we will be in Germany visiting friends and immediately afterward the clan will arrive, so this was our only week to get everything organized.

The doors into the studio

The village seems to be on the same schedule. On Saturday a huge tree was deposited on the Place. A crane and about ten locals, including Gilles and the Mayor, maneuvered it into place. There is a special base embedded in the pavement to receive the gigantic tree.

Hoisting the village Christmas tree

In years past I have been less than thrilled with the arrangement of lights, as they are placed somewhat haphazardly and don't necessarily please the eye. I admit to being a bit of a Christmas tree snob, but that is because my mother was very firm about how to arrange the lights and ornaments and especially the tinsel. I remember one year when my father came home with blinking lights. My mother burst into tears. It seemed so crass to her traditional sensibilities. She was very serious about her holiday tree aesthetics, even though in other areas of life she was much more casual. The lights on the village tree blink on and off too. I don't find that particularly cheery. All in all, however, the lights look better this season than in years past.

Bright lights, small village

Saturday also brought a respite from the intensely chilly weather. It was almost like spring, with the sun shinning brightly and the temperature warm enough to melt every last trace of snow. Rick went out to rake up all the wisteria leaves that had fallen with the first hard frost. The vines are practically nude now, revealing the morning dove nest just below our apartment windows. I suppose they'll be back in the spring to reclaim it when the wisteria can once again provide adequate privacy.

A very welcome blast of sunshine

A promise of spring