Monday, October 31, 2011


Call it Halloween or The Day of the Dead if you prefer. Here in France it's called Toussaint and the emphasis is less on candy and costumes but more on graves and flowers. The history of this fall celebration is ancient indeed, going at least as far back as the Middle Ages, and probably much further still. It is the time of the year to honor the departed and many French people visit the burial sites of their ancestors, cleaning the graves and decorating them with flowers. Of course All Saints Day is on the first of November,  while Halloween is celebrated on the last day of October. The roots are the same but they have evolved with slightly different flavors from country to country.

In the States children don't even get one day off from school for this particular holiday, while here in France it's a two week school break! Apparently Toussaint is one of the most celebrated days of the French calendar. The trick-or-treat thing hasn't really caught on here, but there are lots of family celebrations and get-togethers to mark the occasion. We have an overflow of clients this weekend, with 11 breakfasts served this morning and Montmirail in general is hopping today. Houses that are often shuttered are flung wide open. Everyone has come to town and holiday-makers are bustling past my window as I write this.

We had our own family celebration earlier in the week. Quinn and Emily came to town and stayed with us for several days as Quinn's school is closed. On the day before his break he had his first Halloween school party and made his first pumpkin face.

Quinn likes to visit because we have the Brio trains. This is something which can occupy him for a very long time and he is becoming more and more skilled at putting the track together and building his bridges and tunnels. Under the radiator is called the garage. This time I showed him how the magnets only work in one direction when putting the cars together and he was very gratified to discover the mystery behind that. He had not yet understood why the trains sometimes attached and sometimes just wouldn't.

I've been awaiting the time when Quinn would have enough patience and dexterity to do some art projects with me. He isn't three until the end of January, and until only very recently he wasn't very interested in painting or projects that take a certain amount of concentrated focus. The influence of school was certainly clear to me this time, however, as his abilities have taken a quantum leap. I had an idea to allow him to cut out little animal shapes with some air-drying clay I have and then paint them after they had dried. I was amazed at how interested and skilled he was in this.

I loved his results and he was very pleased with them himself. We wrapped them up and put them inside a tiny gold box which he took home to his papa who had stayed behind in Paris to rehearse his up-coming show. (If any of my blog friends live in New York, you will have a great opportunity to see Jos in a marvelous Peter Brook production of Fragments by Samuel Beckett during the entire month of November.)

It is the end of the fall season here and the weather is definitely nippy, but often the sky is crystal blue anyway. The leaves have fallen from the Lime trees in front of the house and Quinn enjoyed the time honored fun of running through the pile.

We took a nice walk in the sun, saw some donkeys and played with shadows.

I also pulled out a set of books I've had since Emily and James were children. It is one of my favorites, The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak, four gratifyingly silly stories with charming illustrations.

It is also only recently that Quinn will actually sit and listen all the way through a story, without wanting to turn the pages. It was such a beautiful day, we sat outside for story time.

Another great discovery Quinn made was toppling a line of dominoes.He wanted to do it over and over again.


In the studio this week I finished one little print I'm calling Living in the Country. Currently I'm working on the companion Living in the City.


La Ferté-Bernard was showing its fall colors all around the lake. I did a little PhotoShop manipulation on these two and I liked the results.

Speaking of this type of photo transformation, the first time I saw the dramatic color changes that people with an iPhone app called Instagram could do with a simple point and click was on Pia Jane Bijerk's very cool blog. I was completely enchanted. Since then, however, I've seen it everywhere and of course the more it's used, the more tiresome it becomes. At least for me. The two photos above were actually created in fall 2010 when I first discovered this technique. I don't have a fancy cell phone and don't own one single phone app, but I did discover that these same tricks can be downloaded as free actions for Photoshop. If you'd like to try them, they're simple as pie to use. Just load them into your actions folder and play them. It's fully automatic. Here's where I got mine, but you can find many sources on the internet.

This photo I took this week and I like most everything about it. The clouds are just right, the texture of the old wooden gate is in crisp focus and the soft landscape spied between the slats is nicely colored.

With one of the Photoshop actions (Lomo) it becomes much more saturated. I leave you to judge which photo is more interesting.

And this one. It is a little hard to discount the richness the color saturation can give to an ordinary shot. But since it's totally automatic, I feel it's a bit like cheating. Still, it can have its uses. All things in moderation.

Here's a photo from this week that needed no manipulation whatsoever. The low winter sun, just past sunrise was bathing the castle and Mairie behind our house with a rich golden glow. The lowering stormy sky in dark blue added a bit of moodiness.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Autumn Excursion in Britain

 A moody castle on a moody day in Wales

My son James moved from London to Birmingham in September. He is working on his Ph.D. at Warwick University and Birmingham is not only much closer but much less expensive as well. For half the price they were paying in London, they were able to rent a beautiful new apartment right in the city center of Birmingham. It also happens to sit directly on the canal in an attractive red brick building, and they even have a little piece of garden on the bankside.

We spent several days visiting and had a wonderful time discovering the city and surrounding area. We were lucky enough to have beautiful weather almost all the time we were there.

Birmingham is the second largest city in England. I found it to be very attractive. Living by the canal is wonderfully lively, with houseboats passing and people riding bikes or walking past frequently, all on the far bank as on James' side, it's entirely private. Ducks and geese glide by.

Historically, Birmingham was a center of industrial innovation and its canal system was developed in the 19th century to aid transportation of resources and manufactured products. Nowadays commerce remains the economic driving force for the city and the banks of the canals are beautifully restored and maintained as attractive walkways and store fronts.

Birmingham, as a city, has a lot to offer by way of culture. It is ethnically very diverse and offers a wide variety of restaurant choices and cultural activities. The city itself is mostly modern, as it was heavily bombed during the war, but in the city center there are some very grand old buildings, including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which I was very excited to hear had the largest public collection of pre-raphaelite art in the world. It's a beautiful building and the work is wonderfully displayed. And in England, all art museums have free entry!


Another bonus to living in the East Midlands, rather than London, is that getting out and about is much more easily accomplished. It was just a two hour drive to Wales, and James and I had much interest in going there as we had just recently uncovered some family roots from that part of the world. I have to say that the sound Wales, has always had a slightly magical ring to my ears. It evokes some kind of wind-swept beauty and fierce independence of spirit. Perhaps I was not too far off. I would characterize it as the Maine of England. It is breathtakingly beautiful and the day we arrived was blue and crisply clear with punctuations of stormy clouds rolling in and out.

The photo below and the one which opens this post are of Harlech Castle in Gwynedd, on the northwestern coast of Wales. It was built by King Edward I of England, in the late 13th century. He used it as his base for the conquering of Wales. It was built to withstand siege from land and sea. At the time it was built, the sea came to the foot of the mountain upon which it is situated.

As you can see from this view, taken a few steps away, the Irish Sea has receded in the following centuries.

After visiting this landmark, we took a wandering drive through the Snowdonia National Park. We found ourselves stopping by the roadside every few miles to get out and enjoy the scenery. After taking a few steps into the lush forest, with the sunlight playing among the branches, we could imagine how fairies and other wee folk could have come to be in this part of the world.

If ever there was a tree that cradled nature spirits, this is surely one. Notice how small James (over 6' tall) on the right side of the photo is in comparison to this perfectly formed grand old specimen.

The park has plenty of lakes, steams and waterfalls. 

The colors were muted and mellow, filling me with a kind of poignant sense of loss and longing, which fall often gives rise to within me.

We were practically the only people on the road this day.

The greenest of green grass, the rusty red of dying ferns, the craggy cliffs and the short, stout, pure white sheep with long, very unsheep-like tails, made for picturesque views.

If you click on the photo below you can see the little house in the very middle of this photo which is constructed from the flint which extrudes from the earth all about it. There is no other human habitation for miles around this rustic cot.


Birmingham is just 23 miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon. On another day we took a day trip closer afield and began here. Rick and I had been to Stratford before about fifteen years ago. Either it has changed or we have! We had no recollection of all the commerce and cute little shops, the crowded street traffic and the overwhelming number of tourists. 

This time we decided just to stop for a quick walk along the Avon River, and to get a bite to eat.

We passed this enormous sycamore tree on our way to the village churchyard where Shakespeare is buried.  I wonder if it was alive when the bard was walking through the fields here. It may well have been.

The old church had a wonderful moss-covered graveyard all around it. It was very creepy and reminded me of the theme to Mystery by Edward Gorey. If you haven't seen it, you really should click on the link to the youtube version. You will NOT be disappointed, I promise you.

Lunch was taken at the Dirty Duck Pub.

The boys all had ale, I stuck with water.

We were aimlessly driving through the scenic Cotswold countryside after lunch, when we came upon a sign pointing towards Hidcote Gardens. Zounds! We made a quick left turn. If you've never heard of Hidcote, then you won't know that this is probably one of the most glorious garden designs on the planet. It is the quintessential English garden, although, in truth, it was realized by an American.

The manor house was bought in 1907 and was simply a beautiful building surrounded by fields until Lawrence Johnson, an American horticulturalist decided to make his famous arts and crafts garden. By 1920, he had twelve full time gardeners. He developed the concept of garden rooms, thus the grounds are divided into areas, each with their own individuality.

We had imagined that by this time of the year, there would not be much in bloom, but we were wrong.

The colors were not the bright summer ones, or the pure clear spring ones, but instead those delicate fall ones which I have already revealed fill me with a sense of profundity.

I particularly like the views created between the rooms.

The light was perfect at the end of the day for some dramatic shots.

Surrounding the gardens is the unspoiled landscape which can be viewed through the open gates which dot the perimeter and seem to continue the garden into infinity.

Magnificent trees punctuate the transitions between rooms.

Some are exotic or rare varieties.

The charm and diversity of the planting makes for lovely photographs. The garden was donated to the National Trust in 1947 and they have maintained it ever since.

There is also a greenhouse where lots of lovely vines were growing. On this cold afternoon, it was a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the lush foliage and delicious smells of blooming flowers.

Thank you James and Adric, we had a really wonderful time visiting you!