Monday, December 31, 2012

This year is going, let it go...*

*Alfred Lord Tennyson

There is something inherently wonderful about celebrating the ringing in of a new year. I much prefer January 1st to December 31st. It always dawns with so much promise. As T.S. Eliot put it: To make an end is to make a beginning.

One of my resolutions for the new year is to do more crafting. I always spend early December making things for friends and family, which I get so much enjoyment from. I always ask myself why I don't extend this activity on into the year. In 2013, I plan to spend a bit more time doing so, starting with some paper mâché sculpture. I really enjoyed making these last-minute juggling girls. If I spend a bit more time at it, I can hopefully refine my technique.

Christmas is the one time a year when the whole family gets together in one place for several days. For us this spells hours of cooking, game playing and crafting. The atelier becomes a great big mess, piled high with supplies.

This year we decided to create a family almanac for the year 2012 in order to capture in one place the highlights of our individual and collective lives. Each family created several pages to be included. It was my job, after everyone had gone back home, to bind the books together.

I bought a Zutter Bind-it-All, which is a handy-dandy little machine. Rick, as usual, was the technical guy, calculating how the books would go together.

We made three spiral-bound almanacs, one for each family. Our collective resolution for the new year is to each have a big receptacle (like a cookie jar) and whenever anything memorable happens, write it down and put it in the jar. It can also collect interesting newspaper articles, lists of things... what-have-you. At the end of the year we can read them aloud to one another and have the basis for a very nice 2013 almanac.

A lot of my pages concerned art projects. Some of my favorite times from the year were in the atelier.

The Bind-it-All can handle pages of all different sizes and weights.

Emily made a 12-page accordion book which nicely folds out to reveal a page for each month of the year.

We have recipes, maps, lists of books, a CD with favorite songs and lots of photos. It makes a wonderful keepsake.

James and Adric had their civil union last January. James has also been working on his PhD. and several other writing projects.

We got excerpts of his thesis and family-history theater project. Cool!

 I hope your new year is filled with fulfilling activities, creative ideas, loving moments and beauty of every kind.

Always be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man. --Benjamin Franklin

Monday, December 24, 2012

Visits from elves

It all started last weekend when Quinn and his family came to visit the Maison Conti. Before going to bed, Quinn put a plate of cookies out for the the morning it was clear that they had come and enjoyed their snack. The plate provided was far too large for them, so they used their own. Since they made such a mess of it, they did try to sweep up a little.

They used an ingenious little rope ladder to scale the chair and table. I guess they were surprised in the middle of their cookie munching because they left their things behind before they scampered away.

After Quinn got back to his own house, he drew a map for the elves so that they would be able to find him wherever he was. He drew his house, his school and both of his grandparents home. That about covers it.

Mysteriously enough, the next morning the elves left a map of their own. But what does it mean? They didn't label anything.

One day Quinn came down to breakfast to discover another big mess made by the elves. It seems as if they try to be helpful, but they're just too small. After having their own bowl of cornflakes they tried to get one ready for Quinn. They did manage to open the box using their very tiny scissors, but when they tipped the box over most of the cereal fell on the table rather than into Quinn's bowl.

The next morning Quinn found that the elves had cut off one of the paper whites and tried to plant it into a very small pot for Quinn. They don't seem to understand that once a flower is cut, it can't be planted in dirt. But their hearts are certainly in the right place.

These elves seem to take a lot of their meals at Quinn's house when he's asleep. One morning he came down to find that the elves had gotten into the bag of flour and were in the middle of making pizza when Quinn came downstairs. They always seem to hide whenever he approaches.

This weekend Quinn and his family came back to the Maison Conti for the actual holiday celebration. On Sunday morning Quinn found a portrait of himself next to his bed. Quinn had told us that sometimes the elves bring their little beds up next to his and when he's asleep they have a look at him so they will know what he looks like.

On Christmas eve, Quinn came upstairs to find that once again the elves had used that rope ladder to scale up onto our dining table. The top was covered with all kinds of activities. There seemed to have been some kind of garden work going on, a sewing machine with little pieces of thread and fabric everywhere, some construction tools and traces of sawdust and bits of wood. There was also a basket filled with toys, but they were obviously elf toys since they were so very small. Cars, some balls and even a little jump rope. They had also taken a couple of Bobo's coffee beans and ground one up to make themselves  cup while they were working. They left a note to Quinn explaining that they had to work quite late into the night to finish all their jobs and that now that Christmas morning is almost here, that they would be leaving on vacation. They said they'd be back to see Quinn next year.

Merry Christmas and a happy end-of-the-year to all.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Celtic cross at Glendalough

Neither James, Adric nor I had ever been to Ireland, so when we were invited by my brother-in-law Andy to come visit, we jumped at the opportunity. Andy is working for the American Embassy in Dublin and he offered to put us up and tour us around if we could get ourselves there. A flight from Birmingham to Dublin takes less than an hour and Ryanair, the cheap intra-Europe airline, makes the trip very economical.

We boarded the plane Friday evening and were in Dublin for dinner. Andy picked us up and took us to a fabulous pub on Stoneybatter Road in the heart of the city named L. Mulligan Grocers, where I ordered bangers and mash. We definitely felt like we'd landed in Ireland. The pub was warm, in all senses of the word, crowded and the food came out quickly, copiously and deliciously. Andy took us back to his very cool row house. Dublin structures are often neat red brick affairs, and Andy's place is no exception.

Ireland is a country that deserves a nice long visit. It's small enough that you can get anywhere within a four hour drive, but since there are so many places to get to, that adds up to many days of exploration. We only had the weekend, so our two days were spent traveling only a little west, south and north of Dublin. We didn't get to the wild and beautiful west coast, which calls for an entire week, probably better taken in summer.

Our first venture into the interior was over the Wicklow Mountains. The views as you travel up and down are of gently rolling grassland and peat bogs. The heather was wearing its fall rusty orange color. One can only imagine how eye-popping the view must be in summer when the heather is in bloom.

We came upon a charming wild white mountain goat chomping grass right at the side of the road.

Our first stop, nestled in a valley, was the Glendalough Abbey, about an hour southwest of Dublin. This beautiful spot was established in the 6th century by a hermit monk named Saint Cóemgen (known these days as St. Kevin).

We walked down a magical forested pathway to get to the ruined abbey. I loved the green trees against the red fallen leaves. Our forests here in France do not take on all this moss.

The abbey grounds are seen at a distance across a swiftly-flowing stream. The spot itself was where St. Kevin spent his time, making the ground sacred, but the buildings and abbey came later. The site was attached by the English in the 1300s, by which time it was an important abbey on the pilgrim route.

Passing over a charming old stone bridge we arrived at an atmospheric site of tumble down stone buildings and grave stones leaning this way and that.

The hills were covered in muted colors and the stone, as the trees, play host to lichen and other attractive fungi.

The chapel still stands, but the cathedral, once glorious, is now in ruins, providing interesting niches and angles and good photo ops.

The grave stones were from several centuries, all the way into the 20th. The feeling is marvelously Gothic.

Real estate here is dear. Set against misty mountains, this scramble of tomb stones seems a bit macabre.

On the one hand it seems a lovely final resting place, and on the other a bit crowded and perhaps uncomfortable! I guess no one is complaining.

Visiting this site was definitely like stepping into the past. One walks along gravel paths or weaves in and out through the stones feeling very much the intruder in a world long ago forgotten. Who are all these people who rest here? Their graves are untended, their stones left to pitch and lean as time has its way with them.  Meanwhile we snap our photos and can't even imagine who is buried here. The place is entirely remote.

We took a nice lunch at a tavern on the road out of town in Roundwood. The later afternoon was spent exploring Dublin.


Sunday morning dawned gloriously blue and clear. We jumped in Andy's car and headed north. Within a few minutes of leaving Dublin, we descended into one of the thickest fogs I've ever experienced! Very ethereal. We were on our way to the Boyne Valley, and one of the most amazing stone age sites in existence.

It was actually the perfect weather in which to visit the Newgrange barrow, as the mist added to the drama. Seen here in the fog, this mound of land is visible, on a clear day, for miles around. It is a neolithic burial site built 5000 years ago, 1000 years before Stonehenge and 500 years before the great pyramids of Giza.

On the winter solstice, just at dawn, the sun illuminates the inside corridor of the barrow. This is the photo on the front cover of their brochure. There is a lottery to be one of the very few people to observe this phenomena, as only a few people can fit into the tiny chamber. 30,000 people applied this year!

After our visit inside the tomb, which without electric lights is pitch black, we exited out onto a world were the fog was starting the lift and the emerald green landscape could be glimpsed all around.

After a picnic lunch, we headed for County Meath and the castle and city of Trim. I was amused to see a sign as we arrived in town stating that the city of Trim is competing for the Keep Ireland Tidy Award. Trim and tidy, I hope they win!

This castle (now a ruin) was the biggest one built when, in the 11th century, Henry II of England made Ireland the very first colony under British rule. Here was the beginning of the British Empire, which, in the end, was the largest the world has ever seen. Ireland in those days was an unruly place and Henry had his subject Hugh de Lacy help administer Ireland from here. The Pale was the portion of Ireland directly under British rule, to go beyond the Pale, into the hinterlands of Ireland, was to meet the Irish all good English assumed them to be.

We took a very entertaining tour of the ruined castle and arrived at the rooftop just as the sun was setting.

We were able to have a very nice view over the countryside and ruined abbey on one side, and the modern church and city on the other. Thus ended another lovely day in Ireland. I certainly hope to go back again for more.

The one thing about Ryanair, is that their flight schedules are not terribly easy. We were required to be at the airport at 5:30 Monday morning. Far and above the call of duty, Andy woke up in time to get us there. We arrived in Birmingham for breakfast and I then caught a train to London and from there the Eurostar to Paris. Three countries in one day.

Rick arrived in Paris Tuesday morning and we drove back to Maison Conti right away. November is often our month for a little adventure, since our clients are all back home by then. It's not the ideal vacation month, but we take what we can get. Luckily we live in a location which is always pleasant to come back to. I guess we sort of live a permanent holiday.

Winter sunrise at Maison Conti

Saturday, December 1, 2012

England in November

While Rick went off to a Thanksgiving family reunion in Oregon, I took the Eurostar to England to visit James and Adric. In the off-season the tickets are quite inexpensive and the trip is fast and easy. From Emily's place it is only a few metro stops to the terminal to catch the train. Two hours later you've traveled back an hour in time and emerge from under the channel in another country.

I arrived in London early in the morning. The whole day stretched out in front of me. The terminal conveniently has a baggage storage area, which was amazingly crowded. By the time I had stowed away my luggage, James was there. He had left Birmingham about the same time I left Paris and we met at the station. We had big plans in the afternoon to go see a West-End show together. My friend Amy, who visited a few weeks ago strongly recommended seeing Mathilda, a musical created from the Roald Dahl story. I had forgotten that this was actually the first book James ever read to himself and Dahl was undoubtedly his favorite author when he was a child.

If you don't know the story, I won't spoil it for you but suffice it to say, this was one of the great theater events of our lives. We just loved it. The children are so talented and the adult actors are funny. It was a joy to watch the story unfold and at the curtain-call I found tears rolling down my cheeks for no reason I could explain to myself. You can read a review here. The show is running in NYC as well, so if the opportunity arises to go to either capital, I highly recommend it to you.

After the matinee, we collected my bags at the station, and caught a train to Birmingham, where James and Adric live, right on the central canal. Rick and I visited together last November and I wrote about that and more of Birmingham then.

On one sunny afternoon James and I took a walk down the canal to see the Ikon art gallery and the opening of a photography exhibition.

This building, originally a brick warehouse of some kind from the industrial past of the city, has been beautifully transformed into an elegant gallery space. I particularly like that clean modern architecture when it compliments the rather ornate old building styles of former centuries.

There was one day when Adric was at work and James at the University when I had a day to myself. I did a lot of drawing and painting at the dining room table. And I did a kind of study of the canal. I loved to watch the patterns as they formed and transformed in the ever-moving water. The rain and light played upon the surface.

Birmingham, especially along the canal, has many brick buildings. The reflections in the water are bright.

The system of canals in England was, of course, created as a way to haul goods to market during the industrial revolution. The system was left derelict for many years after its industrial utility passed, until recently, when all across the country they have been renewed and refreshed. You can take a barge trip, walk or bike ride all the way to London from Birmingham just following the canal trails.

We went on several outings together while I was in town. Our first was to Oxford. There's something inherently grand in this old college town, being as it is the oldest university in the English speaking world, having been founded in something like the year 1090. A whole lot of history has had lots of time to be made. In more recent days, the dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford University's original college, was the setting for the Hogwarts Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies. Stands to reason.

For some reason which was never explained to me, there is a miniature reproduction of Venice's Bridge of Sighs that spans a roadway and connects two academic buildings. It seems a bit goofy, but it's quite attractive and I imagine useful as well.

One thing one notices in Oxford are all the bicycles. I found their congregation points to be irresistible photography subjects. 

The sign reads "bicycles left here will be removed." Good luck with that.

There are lots of pretty chapels and like all the other buildings on campus, they are surrounded by bikes.

Mostly the town seems to be encompassed by the campus, as there are thirty eight separate colleges. The city itself seems given over to the university and to its population of bikes.

The fall was in its last moments of glory, and the grounds and gardens were mutely colored. Leaves covered the ground.

On another adventurous day we went to the town of Bristol, at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Frome. This is a port city where much of the commerce between England and Ireland was centered, as well as the slave trade.

These days its the home city of the mysterious graffiti artist and film maker, Banksy, who never allows his identity to be known or his face to be photographed. An entire street in town is devoted to spray paint art by a generation of Bristol artists. 

Much of the wall art, which apparently changes frequently, makes a nice back drop for portraiture. I captured James and Adric,

and they captured me.

Bristol is a good old town, with lots of passageways and attractive old buildings.

Many of the most famous British explorers, like Francis Drake and John Hawkins, considered themselves to be pirates, as so they were. The port of Bristol celebrates this legacy and offers tours of a pirate vessel in the harbor. There is a lovely pirate statue gazing out over the water.

The Bristol Industrial Museum on the harbor is new and both James and I were anxious to visit it, as we had heard good things about it. We were able to see only parts, however, as on the very day we were there, the queen happened to be visiting as well, and several of the floors were closed for her tour.

Her car was parked out front, but we didn't wait in the crowd to catch a glance or wave to her. Instead we pushed on towards Bath.

The Roman baths in what was called Aquae Sulis in Latin, now Bath, were established 20 years after the Romans conquered England in 40AD or so. Here they found hot springs, the only ones existing in the country. The spot had been sacred to the Celts, who worshiped their goddess Sulis, thus the Roman name (Waters of Sulis). A very important temple was built to the equivalent Roman goddess, Minerva (in Greek, Athena) and healing baths were established. Today, Bath is a rather small but very beautiful town where the well preserved Roman baths are only one of the town's charms.

Because of its unusual hot spring Bath has always been a spa town, and even centuries after the Romans left people came here to take the cure. The Roman ruins themselves were buried and forgotten until the late 19th century. The site was sensitively excavated and reconstructed. In the process many important Roman artifacts were discovered. A museum at the site is full of these treasures.

The Hippocamp mosaic shows Neptune's mount, half horse, half sea creature.

Before entering the most sacred heart of the temple, the golden head of Minerva looks down upon you and pierces you wih her all-knowing glance. It's easy to imagine the impact she would have had upon a visitor to her temple.

There are numerous beautifully carved stones which have survived very well these 2000 years.

We arrived at the sacred spring, just as the sun was setting. It was very atmospheric as the oil lamps were lit.

The stones have been lying in their places a very long time indeed. We followed in the path of the millions of visitors who have circumambulated this beautiful spot before us.

We walked to the River Avon to get a glimpse of the lovely Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world that has shops spanning the entire river on both sides.

As we walked back to collect our car, we passed many shops, cafes and bakeries. There is something so charming at catching a glance into the warm inviting interior. Bath seems like a perfect spot for an extended visit.

Next week I'll bring you along to Ireland for that part of my adventure. This seems enough of a travelog for the moment! In the meanwhile I leave you with my favorite quote for the week, this from Voltaire (1694-1778):

Let us read and let us dance, two amusements that will never do to the world any harm.