Monday, March 28, 2011

Week 44: Between Heaven and Hell

Photo taken of the Green Room this week. Filters applied in Photoshop.

This week our weather forecast looked like this:

We're talking centigrade here, so 18º translates to the mid-60s in fahrenheit; the warmest weather we've had since fall. At the weekend rain was predicted, but we didn't see it until late Sunday evening. It was the most glorious week in recent memory. The heat was turned off, the fireplaces left unlit. We flung doors and windows open, since it was actually warmer out of doors than in. A whole new group of birds arrived in town. A finch, hopped past as I walked down the hill one day. Neither one of us seemed to have a care in the world. We took several steps side by side before the pretty stranger flew away displaying black and white striped wings. Chattering, scouting for nesting sites, collecting in the terrace garden to argue and discuss from early morning until sunset, the village bird population filled our week with pleasure. Huge bumble bees began visiting the lavender plants, even if they have no blooms. The bleeding heart, the fastest growing plant I've ever met, began its annual take-over and is showing a few red and white blossoms.

What could mar such an idyll? Jack hammers day after day chipping away at the house next door. The noise rattled our brains from 8:30 until 5:30 (with the blessed lunch break from 12 noon exactly to 1:30). For three days this noise carried on, until it became so normal that I no longer heard it.

In the photo below you see the workman's truck parked in front of our house to the right. The road between our house and the jack hammers is a narrow one. Houses here are made of stone.  Originally all the houses, as ours still, were covered with a skim coat of enduit (lime mixed with sand and water). In the 60s and 70s there was the unfortunate convention of replacing the enduit with cement. To resurface such a house a jack hammer is required to remove the cement.

You can see how intimately we lived with our neighbor's masons during the week. This photo is taken from the Green Room. I actually like the way houses look without the enduit, but they are never left with the rustic look of bare stone.

It turns out that workmen, like the birds, descend upon the village in spring. While Simone, next door to our left, is having her house resurfaced, the house across the street is getting a whole new roof. This work, as you can imagine, can only be done when no rain is expected. All the slate tiles and  insulation below have been removed, leaving only the bare wooden beams which support the tiles. You can see the roofer on the back side of the house, clinging to the wooden slats. This is not a job I can imagine enjoying. By the end of the week the beams were once again covered with a board and next week the tiles will begin to be replaced. The roofs in our area are either slate or ceramic tile

On our right side there are workmen as well, repairing the windows on the village exposition hall. We are surrounded currently with industrious workers. It has put us deeply in the mood for a profound spring cleaning. Rick began by resetting loose floor tiles. Since they are held in place with sand and lime, and no hard cement or grout, they do begin to wobble after a certain time and each year there are some to re-seat.


The sunshine and jack hammer sound track were perfect excuses to spend quite a bit of time in the garden, preparing the beds. Rick has a nice edging tool given to us by our English neighbors. It keeps the bed well defined. One by one the beds were weeded and the earth cultivated around the perennial plants which seem ready to take off. We have many roses, a whole bed of beautiful white iris and various other favorites. We will fill in with some annuals during April.

I love the wild flowers that volunteer around the edges of the garden. These are just a few of them.


I took my camera on a recent trip into town, hoping to catch a few images of spring. One of my favorite visions, as we drive down the road, is black and white cows against the green green grass. These, who live on the grounds of a local castle, are particularly nice ones. They're kept so clean.

They seemed like such friendly cows. They followed me from one end of their pasture to another while I took their photos.

They live on the grounds of this lovely little castle down the road from our village. I think of this as a garden-variety castle. It is really just someone's home. There are many castles in France, including the one behind our home, where history was made, where tourist buses disgorge day-trippers and where people pay admission to visit, then there are the ordinary castles where people live ordinary lives.

This is how spring begins in our region. It's still a bit barren but along the rows of wintry hedgerows, a few fruit trees begin to show their colors. The grass is so green it almost burns your eyes. It's douce, as we say in French, sweet, soft and heart-breakingly temporary.

One of our neighbors has a garden made for these few days of spring glory. He has a huge tulip tree, several cherries, a quince and many forsythias which all bloom at once.

It is such a pleasure to pass by and enjoy the show.


On Saturday night, after dark had descended and dinner was simmering on the stove, someone rang our bell. We so rarely get walk-in clients, especially this time of year, that we are always taken by surprise. The couple who presented themselves told us that they were icon painters, and had spent the day painting at a local church and needed a place for the night before heading back towards Paris the next morning. At breakfast we had such a nice conversation with them about their work. They told us about St Jean de Shanghai who is buried in a church in San Francisco. We had never heard of him, but he is revered in the Russian Orthodox church. Our clients did not paint the following icon of St. Jean, but it is similar to work they do. I found it here.


I met a very nice photographer on line this week and he convinced me that I should make some of my own photographs available in my Etsy Store. I printed a few of my favorites onto rice paper and have made them available there. My photo of the Green Room, which opens this post was put up on Etsy's front page. That's a first for me.

Cooking Peche de Vigne in the Dordogne

Sunset in the Dordogne

Monday, March 21, 2011

Week 43: A Walk Through Paris

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Pont Alexandre III, where you feel like you're in an Opera

We had a wonderful week full of activity and fun. We experienced our first shirt-sleeve weather since last fall. Oh spring, how we love you! Farid left for home mid-week, but not before we took him to Paris and introduced him to some of our favorite corners by way of a half-day walk around the city. I thought I would take you along with us. One of the best ways to discover the city of light is simply to start walking. The following itinerary takes you in a wide circle around the center and past lots of beautiful landmarks.

Starting at the Place St. Michel, turn towards the river and descend onto the quai.

 A blimp over the river at the Place St Michel

Down by the river you walk towards the Louvre, passing under the Pont Neuf. And no, Pont Neuf doesn't mean bridge #9, it means new bridge. It's actually the oldest standing bridge over the river.

 The Pont Neuf

You can walk back up to street level before you get to Pont des Arts, which spans from the Academie Française to the Louvre. Cross the river from the left to the right bank.

 Academie Française

Enjoy the views left and right. You will see the Ile de la Cité on your right with its charming park at the very tip. Great place for a picnic.

View from the Pont des Arts towards the Ile de la Cité

Pass through the courtyard of the Louvre Palace and into the courtyard of the Pyramid. This is a perfect place to sit and enjoy the sun, the water, the people, the view. You can experience the grand axis of Paris here.

 The Pyramid of the Louvre

Pass under the Louvre through a passage that leads to the Rue de Rivoli. You'll be able to enjoy an expansive view of the interior of the museums' statue gallery.

 The statue gallery of the Louvre

Cross Rue de Rivoli, heading towards the Palais Royal. There is a busy café just there, next to the Comédie Française (the national theater) where it is quite pleasant to take a quick cup of coffee and enjoy some people-watching.

 Enjoying a cup of coffee in a popular Paris café

Pass through the sculpture garden where children and skaters love to play. Here is one of the many examples in the city of modern and ancient living together in harmony.

 Sculpture garden of the Palais Royal

The gallery of the Palais Royal houses some of the most exclusive and expensive stores and restaurants in Paris. It's fun to peek in the windows.

 Galleries at the Palais Royal

The garden of the Palais Royal is a glorious place to sit and enjoy the sun, the birds, the fountains and the pretty people.

 Palais Royal Garden

At the back end of the garden, exit through the gallery onto a little street, mount some stairs and find yourself just across the street from the Passage Vivienne, one of the most beautiful in Paris. It's well worth a detour into the covered passage to discover the shops, restaurants and light-filled space.
Passage Vivienne

Exit at one of the side doors or out the front and turn towards the statue of Louis XIV on horse back. You're at Place des Victoires, with its beautiful curved buildings and elegant facades. The Bourse (the French stock market) and the National Library are just down the street.

 Place des Victoires

At this point you turn back towards the river and follow small streets towards the church of St. Eustache, built in the 16th century and recently restored. This is another spot to stop, sunbathe, frolic and generally enjoy life.

 Church of St Eustache

Pass Les Halles and Beaubourg (Pompidou Center), which are currently undergoing renovations. Continue into the Marais and enjoy exploring this popular neighborhood, with some of the oldest buildings in Paris.

 Street in the Marais

The Marais is a perfect place to have lunch. There are lots of great restaurants both cheap and expensive.

 lunching at a falafal restaurant in the Marais

Turn towards the river again and be sure to pass by the Hôtel de Sens, former royal residence and one of the very oldest buildings left in Paris. It is now a museum, library and very nice book shop.

 Hôtel de Sens

Walk through the Village St. Paul, with many interesting shops and cross over one of the bridges onto the Ile St Louis.

Pont Marie

Walk the length of the Island towards the Ile de la Cité and enjoy the many galleries and shops along the way.

Rue St. Louis

Now you simply must stop, no matter the season, weather or time of day and purchase an ice cream cone from Berthillon. This is some of the best ice cream you will ever taste. You can choose between many flavors. Enjoy your cone by the river and catch a few rays of sunshine, or watch the street theater on the bridge.

Standing on the tip of Ile St Louis

The boats go by. If the day is fine, you will feel like you're at the center of the world. You probably are.

 View from Pont St Louis

Cross the bridge back to the Ile de la Cité and enter the back garden of Notre Dame Cathedral. If it's summer you might have a free concert here.

 The park behind Notre Dame, a very pleasant place to rest

 Why not enter Notre Dame and enjoy the stained glass windows, especially if it's a bright sunny day.

 Rose window, Notre Dame Cathedral

Cross back to the left bank right in front of Notre Dame to see the oldest tree in Paris at the garden of St. Julien le Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris, built in the 13th century.

 The garden at St Julien le Pauvre

The historic Shakespeare and Company is on the quai, just down the street. They were shooting a movie in front when we passed so we couldn't enter, but normally it's a wonderful bookstore (English language) to browse and enjoy. Sitting and reading in a corner is encouraged.

 Shakespeare and Company bookstore

 You will have a lovely view of Notre Dame from across the river.

 Notre Dame

Finish the walk by enjoying the many streets in Saint Germain des Prés. You'll hear as much English being spoken here as French, as it is one of the favorite spots for the 50,000 Americans who live here and the many, many more who visit.

 Saint Germain des Prés

If you're lucky, you could end your day with a cultural event as we did. We enjoyed Jos' opening night at the Theatre du Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees. I had another lovely sunset walk through the Jardins des Tuileries to get to the theater. But that is another story.

Quinn came to the theater too and enjoyed sharing the limelight with his father.

After the show, a reception for Jos and Quinn takes center stage


Our week ended with a concert in Alençon with our friends Jonathan, Renata, Anne and Christine. We saw Marianne Faithfull on her first stop in Europe to promote her new album Horses and High Heels. Recommended!


If you'd like a map of the walk described in this post please send me an email and I'll return a .pdf file to you. If you simply leave me a comment requesting the map, I may not be able to find your email address, so an actual email is much more efficient.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Week 42: Kings, Artisans, Atletes and Vintners

The distinctive roof line of the castle of Chambord

All of us here had a productive week at home. I continued with my artistic deadlines while Rick completed a handyman project that has been awaiting our attention for quite some time. Farid was content to spend his days biking around the countryside or doing some reading and writing. At the weekend we had a few adventures.

Outside my studio is a brick wall. Let me just say here that after about 200 or 300 years you can fully expect that the mortar is going to start disintegrating...In the before photo below, you can see that there is nothing much between the bricks. I don't know how long it had been that way, but certainly as long as we have lived here. The deceptive thing is that even though it looks as if only air exists in those cracks, for the last three years, particularly in the cold weather, sand has been sifting down and making untidy little piles on the floor below. As can be imagined, this was less than desirable and rather annoying. Rick has now repointed the wall, by adding a new layer of mortar between the bricks. Doesn't it look better? The mortar is made by mixing sand with lime and a bit of water. The water creates a chemical reaction in the lime, which calcifies when dry, making for a nice hard bond which should last another 200 years or so. It's the traditional way. Small things like this can make life seem so much more reasonable.

 wall outside the studio

I have mostly been spending my time painting during the last few weeks. I have covered six canvases with six entirely different styles and imagery. It has been a kind of experiment to see where I can go with this. I do love my printmaking but sometimes I crave simple, bright, unrestrained and thick color (always a big struggle when etching). It was a kind of printmakers rebellion. This week I went back to etching like a repentant philanderer and created a whole group of new etchings both large and small.

inking bench with some of my current projects

In the end there was only one out of the six paintings that I feel satisfied with. I had meant to make this one much less sketchy and vague, but as I was working along I found myself allowing a lot of the underpainting and drawing to show. I liked its spirit.

at the beach

With my printmaking I always seem to be struggling with how best to add color. It's difficult to do it well. Either you must make several plates, one for each color you want, or if you print a la poupée, (adding colors one by one to discrete areas on one plate), you must be able to be very careful, patient and slow. Not virtues I naturally possess. It is easy to have color turn muddy on the print. I suddenly had a brainstorm for a new technique...this is my second invention for color application with etching. I'm sure others have thought of it, but if they have I haven't heard it from them. When one spends a lot of time meditating or dreaming about these issues, inspiration does occasionally strike like lightning. In this case I had the idea that instead of using aquatint to hold the color, which sometimes turns out rather disappointingly, I could create an image with a great deal of line work texture, giving the plate enough places to hold the ink. This woman in a hat was the image that came into my mind, so I began with this as an experiment. All these colors are added to one plate. I was mostly pleased with the basic idea, although obviously there are some faults. This is simply a hard ground with lots of lines. I plan to see where I can take this technique.

girl with a hat

For this village scene below I used another idea for adding color. I made one plate with aquatint areas to color a la poupée and another plate with the line drawing. I made this one several months ago and have never been able to print it entirely to my satisfaction. I tried it again this week using another new technique. I passed it through the press twice, allowing the colors to become very pale by the second pass. I like the more subtle colors.

village by the river

I also made a series of eight tiny little water birds with the idea of puting them together into a book. Each plate is 2" square and each bird got 2 plates, one for the drawing, one for the color background. Here are a few from the series. They were a lot of fun to create. I do rather like working small.

common loon

snow goose



Farid was very keen to go to a basketball game in France. He has an interest in understanding how the European basketball league functions. He represents a young American player who will soon become a pro. Apparently college basketball players from Europe (think Tony Parker and Joakim Noah) are routinely scouted for American professional teams, and American players are hired to play European basketball. It turns out that Le Mans has a very nice big new arena and there was a game being played there this weekend. Rick and Farid got tickets and went off to enjoy some French basketball.

The home team, Le Mans, was playing Limoges. Apparently both teams had several American players and players as young as 19 and as old as 35. Farid heard the coach speaking English to his team and apparently the score was called out in English as well. The stadium held approximately 3000 spectators and they estimated it was 2/3 full.

team line up. Players were from all over the map

Farid was impressed with the quality of the venue and game. He had seen a basketball game in Barcelona but reports that the French version seemed more professional to him.

 Farid watches the action

We've never attended a sports event in France, so this was a treat for Rick. It's great to know we have such a nice venue close to us. And it turns out they're constructing a football stadium in Le Mans as well. I guess soon we'll be on the map for some top quality sports teams right here in our own backyard! In the basketball contest, Le Man's team was the winner.

Farid had never been to the Loire Valley, so we took him to see the most famous château of all, Chambord. It's quite a pleasant drive south from Montmirail to the valley. The further south we traveled, the more signs of spring appeared in the landscape, a garden full of daffodils in bloom, fruit trees abloom in various shades of white and pink, bright yellow forsythia, all a week or two in advance of our area.

Rick and Farid in front of the extravagant Chambord castle

Chambord was a hunting lodge for the kings of France. It was reconstructed in the 16th century by François I with design help from Leonardo da Vinci, who was his court guest at the time. This is the biggest château in France and one of the most ornate.

Chambord castle reflected in the river

We shared our visit with few others. Early spring is an excellent time to visit the Loire Valley castles, especially if the day is fine. Our day was neither too cold nor rainy, however we didn't see the sunshine. A gray cover kept the landscape rather somber and atmospheric.

We all agreed that a walk around the grounds was more appealing than a tour through the inteior of the château, so we followed a path which lead around the back of the castle, following the river and branching off in many directions. There is a huge forest surrounding Chambord, as in old, and we really enjoyed the scenery and stroll.

an ancient bridge on the grounds of Chambord castle


What is a visit to the Loire Valley without a wine tasting? California has some very fancy wineries and wine tasting is a favored activity for tourists and locals alike. Here in France the wineries are often more humble, but I wouldn't say the same about the wine itself! In my opinion, nothing beats a nice light French red, and the Loire Valley is the home of some of the best quaffers.

Vines in Cheverny

We passed by a winery we knew in Cheverny. They make both red and white and we tasted two of each. The whites are crisp and dry, the reds light and easy to drink. We bought a case with some of each and headed back home just as the sky opened up. It rained all evening, sometimes in torrents, but we had a lovely peaceful day behind us and a nice glass of wine in front of us.

The boys pontificate on one of the whites


This afternoon we head for Paris. We'll show Farid some our favorite corners. Later in the week he'll catch his flight home. Meanwhile Jos' one-man show, The Art of Laughter, opens at the Rond Point Theater, one of the nicest in Paris. We all have tickets. More on all that in next week's post.

Larger than life advertisements for Jos' show are on kiosks all over Paris