Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Music at the Maison

Last week our friends Harry and Cindy brought along six of their musician friends and spent a week at Maison Conti. Harry and Cindy are old friends from California and they have stayed with us in France before. We didn't, however, know the others before they arrived.

Cindy and Harry (left below) are very talented musicians, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Harry comes from a musical family and has been playing the fiddle since he was a child. He was also part of the influential band, Kenny Hall and the Sweet Mill String Band in the 1970s. Cindy plays guitar and both of them sing beautifully. Their whole family often play music together. They have published several CDs, which are highly recommended.

Walt and Clare (right below) live in Pennsylvania. Walt is a well-known banjo player and was a founding member of the Highwoods String Band, a highly acclaimed and prolific revival band. Clare is a fiddle player, having started playing as a child. Together they formed a new band, Orpheus Supertones. They tour the world and have produced several CDs together. Walt and Clare have also transcribed 1404 fiddle tunes from the original sources and compiled them in a book, The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes.

Ted and Sharry (below left) live in Berkeley, California. They are old friends of Harry and Cindy's and play the fiddle and mandolin. Cary and Debbie (below right) are from Seattle. Debbie plays banjo and Cary is a mandolin player. He was also part of the Kenny Hill Sweet Mill Band during the 1970s in Central California. Currently he plays for a band called Red Dog. They have several CDs available.

We had personal concerts at the Maison every day and well into the night, but everyone's favorite gig was a public concert given at Marie-Claire's beautiful house.

Unfortunately the day was rainy and plans for a garden concert gave way to an indoor affair. Marie-Claire prepared a salon, complete with curtains for the musicians, invited a dozen people or so and prepared a table full of delectables besides. Walt had invited his banjo playing friend Yves, who just happens to live a few kilometres from here. Walt knows old-timey players from all over the world.

 The concert was a huge success. Clare explained that the kind of music they play originated in Ireland but when Irish immigrants came to the U.S. and settled in the mountains of West Virginia they developed this new style of music which was especially meant for dancing. Most of the tunes are without words, although the titles really do tell a tale!

Marie-Claire has a beautiful house and I thought that Debbie looked as if she were made for this space!

After the concert, the musicians played some special tunes for Marie-Claire.

There was even some dancing.

All the musicians fell in love with Marie-Claire, and I think the feeling it was mutual. The whole night, despite the weather, was a real love-fest.

For the rest of the week we had the group mostly to ourselves. They serenaded us into the night.

It was such a pleasure for us to have these talented people stay with us. It was a very special end of summer event!

If you would like to sample a bit of the music, have a listen:

As if musical talent were not enough, both Harry and Cindy turn out to be talented artists and committed printmakers. Who knew?

We spent their last day in the studio and each of them produced a wonderful etching. Cindy had come prepared with a drawing and Harry chose to make an etching of Kenny Hall, his musical mentor, who passed away while they were in residence at the Maison.

After they left us they went on to Paris and played a concert at Quinn's school.

They were an enormous success there too!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A kiss of fall

There is the unmistakable end of season feeling in the air. The swallows have flown away, the grains on the hillside have been harvested leaving a golden stubble, a nip is in the air and soft breezes blow puffy white clouds around overhead. This is one of my favorite times of any year; this particular year it's one of my busiest as well!

We came back from vacation and hit the ground running. A few days of bright sun and sweltering temperatures soon gave way to chilly mornings and early evenings. We ordered fuel and scheduled our annual firewood delivery.

Our dear clients, and now friends, Wolfgang and Sabine from Mannheim, Germany, stopped over on their way back home from their annual three week vacation in Brittany. We have watched their children, Victoria and Roderick, grow up over the last several years. The family stays at the beach up until the last Saturday before the opening of school and spends one night at Maison Conti before driving back home on Sunday, cutting it all very close. They have developed this yearly routine which also includes the purchase of an enormous amount of fresh Breton fish which they drive to our home and share with us on the terrace for a huge feast. This year is was 9 oysters apiece, sardines on the grill, a huge crab for everyone. It spells the end of summer for all concerned. And what a great way to kiss it goodbye.

I came back from Slovenia very invigorated, and have tried to keep that feeling alive, although it is more difficult in the routine of daily work-a-day life. When possible we've been taking slightly more ambitious walks down the hill and through the fields and up the hill again. The circuit takes almost an hour.

It is very pleasant, especially this little portion of woods which is actually a narrow strip of trees separating two large corn fields. It's a kind of traditional bocage. Rick, who is reading The Discovery of France, tells me that farmers up until the early part of the twentieth century had secret tunnels like these to disappear into without a trace. Their entrances were elaborately woven branches which were impossible to detect by outsiders.

Last week we had an Australian woman staying with us. She is a friend of another Australian client who we became very fond of when she and her husband stayed with us a few years ago.  

Sue had been planning her European adventure for a year, so we had months to anticipate her arrival. She was on her own. On one of her days with us, she requested a tour of the local area from Rick, and I went a long for the ride, as she was our only visitor that day. We took her to the northern reaches of the Perche, Bellême and La Perrière, two villages with much to recommend them. On the way we stopped by the twelfth century chapel of Saint Germain-de-la-Coudre, which has been under restoration for years. We had never seen it, although we knew of its splendid reputation. The interior is quite extraordinary, with wood paneled walls, beautiful frescoes, vaulted wooden ceiling and rustically carved beams decorated with comical gargoyles.
We ate lunch at a restaurant in La Perrière, a beautiful spot to spend a few leisurely hours. The stone houses are quite picturesque,

 many of which have charming cottage gardens.

After lunch we walked through the little streets and enjoyed the sights.

 The landscape is bucolic

and the architecture elegant.

The fall season brings many lovely events which I will certainly share with you here. In the meantime, if you're interested in learning how to make digital dew drops, check out this Photoshop tutorial.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dober dan, Slovenija*

* Good day Slovenia

I got back from a long vacation in Slovenia earlier this week. I can hardly express how wonderful I find this little country to be and how relaxing and inspiring it was. This glorious landscape, as pictured above, was the view from our window for about 10 days.

Last year Emily and her family discovered a wonderful place to stay, Tilnik Farm, a guest house in the foothills of the Julian Alps of Slovenia. They completely fell in love with the place and wanted us to join them this summer for a family adventure. Even James and Adric were able to be us for the first day and a half.

It did not take long for Rick and me to share in Emily's enthusiasm. The farm is perched high up on a mountain plateau and overlooks a picturesque valley with the Idrijca river running through on one side  and forested hills on the other. It is owned and run by a wonderful British couple, Kate and Brett, who could hardly have been more welcoming.

On the property are pools, waterfalls, forest trails and magnificent views in every direction. Down the hill the Idrijca river slips through rocky gorges.

The water in the rivers and streams runs crystal clear and we enjoyed many hours clambering among the boulders.

Quinn and Jos made little bridges and other riverside sculptures. The setting is idyllic and we often had it all to ourselves. This part of Slovenia is something of a secret treasure. Cerkno is located in the northwest corner of Slovenia, little more than an hour's drive from Italy, Austria or Croatia.

There was not much reason to leave the property, although we did end up taking some day trips and discovering lovely local scenery. Often, however, just relaxing and enjoying the exquisite view was activity enough for us.

The children were free to ramble and wander. Quinn seemed especially happy there.

He really loved the animals, which included goats, sheep, dogs and chickens. Every morning he happily went to greet the fowls and feed them a little grain or scraps from the table.

He was anxious to join Kate, Brett and the dogs, Ruby and Lupa in morning chores.

Meals were taken outside on the porch.

The landscape was a never-ending drama. We got sun, fog, rain, mist, thunder storms and clear blue skies during our stay.

We were invited to use the produce from the little garden outside our door. Kate made us muffins and flat bread, Brett made salsa and shared some local spirits with us.

Everywhere it was green, lush and charming.

A path above the house led through the forest to a lookout point on top of the mountainside. Quinn and I headed up the path the first morning.

Brett took Rick out fly fishing and he came back with a beautiful rainbow trout which we grilled for a most tasty dinner that evening.

Life on the farm was idyllic. I don't know if I've enjoyed anywhere quite as much as this lovely little corner of the world, where everyone is kind, where life is simple, where crowds do not overrun the sites and where one can feel very connected to nature. I walked more than I ever do at home and came back feeling strong and invigorated.

It was an ideal location for the children, who could feel free to explore on their own with few dangers other than wasps or slippery rocks to concern themselves with.

Days and nights passed very quickly.

Slovenia has only been a country since 1991. Before the first great war this area was part of the Hapsburg Empire. Between the wars it was a part of Italy. Ernest Hemmingway writes about a local town in A Farewell to Arms. After the second World War this area was included in Yugoslavia and Marshall Tito, at least to some, was a hero. After Tito's death Slovenia as a nation was formed, borders based on language cohesion.

One day we went to a swimming hole, where we swam, built dams and rode a raft.

Wooden plank suspension bridges were constructed high above rivers. Walking across made us a bit queasy at first, but we became braver with experience.

One of the most beautiful outings we took was to the Tolmin Gorges. It was a bright and sunny day, so my photos are a little blown out, and not nearly as beautiful as this place really is.

The water rumbling through the gorges and sometimes falling from high plateaus is cool, clear and lively. The walk through this national park takes a bit over an hour, Up and down steep terrain.

Apparently Dante visited this place in the 14th century and based the description of his inferno on one of the enormous caves he toured. It is now named after the poet. For us it was a bit closer to paradise! At the end of the walk, after scrambling up the path, we crossed the "Devil's Bridge," pictured at right below. Some of us didn't like looking down as we crossed, but I wasn't one of those.

Another site very close to the farm was Divje Babe, a prehistoric cave where what is thought to be the world's oldest musical instrument was discovered, a bone flute. We took a walk there, which included some breathtaking views

And a beautiful hill top church. We came to think of the Slovenians as mountain goats. So many of their buildings are carved into these steep mountains. Quite an athletic feat!

It was a real pleasure to spend so much time with Zinnie, who reaches 19 months later this week. She has grown up so much this summer. She is talking more and more and has her very definite ideas about things. She happily does whatever her big brother is doing and learns so quickly, both the good and not so good behaviors!


Rick left for home a few days before I did. Emily and Jos were performing in a theater festival in Ljubljana and I went along as resident childcare worker. Rick came home to take care of clients.

We had been to Ljubljana two years ago, last time they participated in the festival and I already felt as if I knew the town fairly well. It is very beautiful, with a Mediterranean feeling. The buildings are brightly colored and ornate.

Ljubljana was declared to be the world's most honest city by Reader's Digest in 2009. There is a minimum of crime here and one feels quite embraced by its generous spirit.

The festival provided us with a lovely two bedroom apartment right in the center of town. The kids and I did quite a lot of sightseeing.

The church bells rang throughout the day and I enjoyed this music. At night there was plenty of music too, although more often from street bands.

The early mornings were quiet on the streets of Ljubljana, but the daytime and evening were jumpy. The cafe life here is lively. When everyone else left town, I had an afternoon on my own and spent most of it going from one sidewalk cafe to the next, lunch, coffee, wine, dinner. I had a good book and a nice ramble.

Now I'm back to work where September rings in lots of exciting events. I will keep you posted.