Monday, February 26, 2024

Peanut Butter and Jelly

 This might not be true, but way back when I was in elementary school it seemed that at least half of us ate PB&J sandwiches at lunch time. A few unfortunate kids might have a bologna sandwich in their lunch box, but remember the way the smell hit the kids around you and everyone cried “ewwww. (I loved bologna sandwiches).  Peanut butter and jelly was unoffensive, delicious, and quick and easy for someone to make before you ran out the door for the school bus.

Memories of school lunches came rushing back to me as I was thinking up what would be the quintessential American snack to share with a bunch of French teenagers. I have been meeting on Saturday mornings at the village library with a gang to play around with English. We sing silly songs, read baby books to each other, act out charades, and laugh at each others drawings for Pictionary. We play like we are in kindergarten. And just like kindergarten the most anticipated activity of the morning is snack time.

For our first snack time I whipped up several peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches. I cut them into fourths because that is how I like them and because there was a good chance that no one would eat them.

Before snack was passed out I pulled apart one of the little quarters —

“Whoah.The jelly is spread with the peanut butter?” 


These kids have already acquired a certain snobbishness and disdain for American junk food from media and family.

They reluctantly took their snack, looked at each other, kind of held their noses, and nibbled. The sound of yum went around the group. 

“That’s good.” 

They were surprised by how they liked this often heard of, never tasted, combination. Even the librarian couldn’t resist coming over and trying one.

As they gobbled up everything on the plate we talked about lunch time in an American elementary school. Lunch boxes, leaky thermoses, milk cartons, cafeteria lines, cafeteria food (if you wanted it), sitting with friends and recess.

You have to understand that no one brings their own lunch to school in France. Every day the students sit down to a hot meal. There is a starter (cabbage and tomato salad) They have a meat and a vegetable (veal marinated with mushrooms, broccoli). Followed by bread and cheese (camembert). Then there is a dessert (kiwi). The only thing to drink is water. Lunch is the main meal of the day for the students. When they get home they will have a little snack and then a light dinner. The thought of only having a sandwich for lunch is confusing. I have spoken with students that spent time in the States and they say the hardest part of their experience wasn’t the language, but getting used to quick, cold lunches. They always felt like they were starving - until dinner which left them too full to sleep.

After their big lunch French students do what all children want to do at school, they run out to recess to play.

So even though it’s a bit early on Saturday morning the teenagers and I have our snack and play around with the sound and feel of English. A childish song animates the room with action words and silliness.

It has been fun to see this group be willing to take risk in speaking a language of which they have little or no command. To risk looking foolish and realizing there is nothing wrong with foolish if it is helping you make progress. How the heck else would we have made it through kindergarten? Plus your friends liked it when you made them laugh. They still do.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Gallic Rooster and Marianne

 I wrote this blog two months ago. It has been sitting on the shelf waiting for Tom to edit and for me to get going again. Last night watching the musical Les Miserable I got the kick in the pants that I needed. I’ve written a very short and hardly political story of the symbols of France and one of the social concerns of today. Victor Hugo’s story is much more rousing and moral. I recommend watching the movie. I’ve never tried to read the book.

Liberty Leads the People
Eugène Delacroix

Living in the land of duck and goose fat it would seem perfectly appropriate to say I was on a wild goose chase, but in fact I was on a wild rooster chase because I was chasing Emmanuel Macron, France’s president. Or, as the French would call him, le coq gaulois.

The French like their national symbols. The flag (blue white red), their national anthem La Marseillaise, the moto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Bastille Day, the Gallic Rooster and Marianne. 

Now you are asking who is Marianne? Marianne is the personification of France - she represents the values of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity and reason. Marianne was created for the French Republic after the French Revolution. She symbolizes opposition to monarchy and is the champion of freedom and democracy against all forms of oppression. Her idealized portrayal as the Goddess of Liberty is displayed in government places and appears on coins and postage stamps. The inspiration for Marianne came from a dramatic painting by Delacroix.  In it Marianne is heroically leading a charge over the barricades of Paris.  Bare-bossomed.  Go figure. 

Stamps are what set me off on this Gallic Rooster chase. Turns out that the only stamp factory in France is here in the suburbs of our closest city, Perigueux. A billion stamps are printed a year. There are four hundred employees, twelve of which are expert engravers.

Reading the Sunday paper I noticed a tiny article saying that President Macron would be in Perigueux on Tuesday. He was making this brief appearance to inaugurate a new stamp featuring Marianne. One is created every five year to correspond with the quinquennat (five year term) of French presidents. This is President Macron’s second Marianne. 

I remember when he was here back in 2018 to inaugurate his first Marianne. On that visit people lined the streets and Macron shook hands and and answered questions from the crowd. 

He was to arrive at 11:50 and leave at around 3:30. So off I went that Tuesday morning on a wild rooster chase trying to see Monsieur le president de la France, Emmanuel Macron. I knew I wouldn’t meet him, I knew I wouldn’t even get close to him, but then one just never knows.. It would be fun to join the crowd of onlookers and maybe see that warm smile of his. Feeling ridiculous and yet hopeful I headed off.

As I neared the neighborhood of the stamp factory there were police everywhere. I nervously rolled down my window to ask a machine-gun armed policeman if one could approach on foot. “Non madame, pas aujourd’hui.”  I drove around the entire industrial area looking to see if there were any other people. Not a person to be seen. Only national police on every corner.

I finally parked a couple of blocks away and braved walking past one corner of police - no one said anything. At the next corner I could just see the main entrance to the stamp factory. Five glaring policemen made it clear that I wasn’t to go any further. I wanted to ask what the plan was, but was afraid of being shooed away. 

Then walkie talkies started going off. I heard, “That’s the last one, no more cars allowed.” I heard, “The motorcade will be arriving in the next five minutes.” I heard, “Two minutes.” Then I heard, ”All clear he’s here. He came in the back.” And that was it. I hadn’t seen anything.

President Macron went in, met with the printers and engravers, was presented the original drawing by the artist, then headed off to have lunch with forty local politicos. Live internet coverage (who knew…) showed he left at 3:15. I could have stayed home and seen more of the event. But then there had been that tiny chance….

News stories continued the next day with a big announcement. The  Marianne presented to President Macron wasn’t wearing a French cockade on her bonnet! A French cockade ( a badge made up of colored ribbons, attached to a uniform to show which side you are on) is red on the outside, white in the middle and blue in the center.  The artist had accidentally used the colors the Royal British Air Force used on British Spitfires of 1940 (blue on the outside, white in the center and red as the center). The saving grace is that this Marianne of the Future with her long neck symbolizing momentum towards the future and a leafy background highlighting environmental themes will be printed in green and white to fit with her environmental theme.

I never even got a plume feather on my wild rooster chase, but the French postal system got my support when I bought a book of those green stamps. Turns out no one was rushing out to collect them - the woman at the counter had to go out back to get the stamps. No one had asked for the latest Marianne yet.

Oddly, it seems I could be the most patriotic person in France.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

What do you do?

 It never takes long for visiting friends to ask a worried question - “This place is gorgeous, but what do you do for entertainment around here?” They’ve arrived from the real world where there is a convenience store on every corner, 24 hour grocery stores, restaurants that cater to the clients whims, and miles and miles of suburbia. Visitors are startled by the quiet that goes on forever here. They can’t imagine what unexpected and quirky events are out there just waiting to be experienced.

The most obvious ‘event’ is the simple activity of living in the midst of history.  Everyday we go about our everyday life in a movie set: castles, shopping at village markets and boutiques hidden along Renaissance streets, wine tastings, hikes along ancient pathways, warm baguettes on the corner.

There are annual events noted on the calendar. Garden fairs in spectacular village settings, antiques fairs in city squares, Christmas markets in medieval halls, and spring open house days to visit private gardens, mid-summer open house days to visit private castles.

But the extra spice added to our quiet life are the unexpected and often quirky local events. Here’s a few highlights from 2023:

In early spring we took a chance and attended a “local” opera production. We got a little bit dress up (opera is opera) and headed out with low expectations. We weren’t the only ones dressed up!  Entering the concrete foyer we noted velvet coats and suit jackets, lipstick and silk scarves. Outside the weather was grey and wet, but inside there was a warm, happy buzz in the air. Once the lights went down and spotlights hit the stage we were lost in the land of Traviata. Turns out there is a treasure trove of hidden talent in the area and enough enthusiasm to attract professionals to raise the bar. An unexpected night at the opera that was not at all quirky - except for being in a concrete basketball arena.

In July THE Tour de France came whizzing right smack dab up the center of our small village! This had given us something to talk about for months and now the BIG day was here. We staked out the best viewing place, grabbed memorabilia from free swag tables and hung around for hours in anticipation of the riders. Then things started to happen. Swag trucks whipped through the village throwing out silly toys and snacks. Followed by zooming, honking security. The riders are coming! When the TV helicopters swooped and hovered overhead we knew the peloton was really close. Swish, the riders were sweeping past in a powerful gust of wind —and they were gone. Hours of waiting for seconds of thrill. A good time was had by all  (even those cynics that thought it was pointless to sit around waiting and visiting for all those hours) were caught up by the unexpected and quirky energy surrounding 176 absolutely crazy professional bikers.

Then on a very hot August night there was another opera. This one was in the courtyard of our very own chateau. We reserved tickets (shockingly it was selling out), got a little bit dressed up and walked up through the village. The scene was set up under one of the tallest castle towers in France, swallows swooped over the stage and the audience sat nestled under the sun-kissed walls of the Renaissance chateau. There were four singers and one narrator. The singers were quite good. The narrator kept falling asleep. The magic of the evening was unexpected and the production just as quirky as expected.

As the season changed along with our wardrobes I headed into Perigueux for a fashion show. I’m not kidding. It was an honest to goodness beautifully presented fashion show. Three models sashayed to spunky music, an MC gave details of each outfit and dressed up women in the audience took notes on items that caught their eye. Who knew there were so many chic women hiding in our middle of nowhere. The evening was hot and the boutique doors were open. Light from the shop spilled out onto the sidewalk along with the hip swinging, sashaying music. A little girl drawn in by curiosity appeared in the rays of light, eventually she crept directly in the doorway, then she relaxed and sat down. She was entranced by the scene. I was entranced by this vignette of curiosity leading to bravery. It was a beautiful evening with unexpected glamor and a sweetly quirky childish, twist. (The little girl’s parents were just next door at an outdoor café.)

We were up bright and early the next morning and off to a World Cup Rugby match in Bordeaux - Fiji vs Georgia. We joined forty thousand large, t-shirted rugby fans streaming into the cathedral-like stadium. The stadium was a bonus architectural adventure, but there was more to come - there was the rugby - a first for us. The almost genteel ambiance of the eloquently designed stadium was quite unexpected and the game of rugby is insanely quirky.

The year is wrapping up in a blur of too much fun. I haven’t even mentioned the day trips to Paris to see art and soak up city noise and energy and day trips to Bordeaux for antique fairs, window shopping and wine tastings.

There are still a few weeks left in the year - I’m curious to see what unexpected, quirky events drop into our laps.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Hall of Giants

One summer afternoon we were walking from the studio to the back of the garden with some friends. Tom was describing this and that about the yard and then he stopped and declared, “This is my Hall of Giants.”

I raised my eyes and realized I haven’t been paying attention to changes in the scenery.

When we bought this property thirteen years ago this part of the property, about two-thirds the size of a football field, was an abandoned vegetable garden held in by tumbling down walls. The edges of the field were curved up, creating a bowl. At the end of the bowl was a mess of tumbled down sheds and years of emptied wine bottles and oyster shells. Tom couldn’t have been happier with all that mess. Before him was a dream project, a blank canvas. Here was an excuse to ride around on his tractor for hours on end, moving out trailer loads of debris, and scraping and leveling out what would become a flat lawn. On Sundays when you can’t make noise (especially repetitive tractor noise) in France we’d head off to garden fairs. While other shoppers focused on gaudy roses and brightly colored annuals Tom scooped up tiny, weird conifers and every weedy columnar tree available. For quite a bit of time there were a lot of potted trees accumulating out by the studio waiting to be planted.

There were afternoons when Tom got off the tractor seat to go collect hornbeam seedlings from a friend’s forest. Hornbeam seedlings root quickly and as a hedge they are easy to trim and shape. Stepping off the spacing for his envisioned design he planted out these dozens of puny little trees. The first layer on a well prepared canvas. Seemingly overnight a hornbeam wall with a little doorway separated the lawn from the end of the garden.

With the first layers of the canvas brushed on Tom could start to add structure and texture. All those large potted trees started to find their permanent homes. Each tree added its own particular personality and presence to the composition.

The composition was good, it was sweet.

Then somewhere over the last ten years those trees really took off.

It was good that Tom slowed us down on that summer afternoon and said we’d be entering the Hall of Giants. We paid attention, looked up, and realized he wasn’t kidding. Walking through those columnar trees you feel the weight of them, the elegance of them. You feel small under them. They are powerful yet welcoming. Imposing yet graceful, stately and grand. Giants.

Walk through the gateway into the next room and everything changes. In here it is the small that have a large and powerful presence. You have entered the bonsai garden. Visitors go quiet. Friends who have been here before say, “I told you.” Tom glows with the satisfaction that he has created an emotional tableau.

Thank goodness for that blank slate, ten years of vision and hard work, and now the time to enjoy his friends, the welcoming Giants guarding over the magical bonsai garden.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Opera in the Middle of Nowhere


I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of the cultural outing I had organized for us. Way back in January I noticed that an opera was coming to the nearby “big” city of Perigueux. What I saw was not a fancy add for a professional traveling show, but an article for a collaboration of local talent and internationally recognized performers. An association called Labopéra Périgord -Dordogne was going to present Verdi’s Traviata. What the heck, I bought two tickets in the hopes that if nothing else we were supporting a good thing for the local community. And if it was truly terrible we could sneak out at intermission. Now that I was committed I learned more about the organization.

At first glance this seemed like an impossible undertaking here in our middle of no where part of France. Some international “ringers” were to be brought in for a few roles but the bulk of the opera is produced and put on by local students and amateurs. Local students and amateurs?  Where were they going to climb out of the woodwork? Schools in France do not offer extra curricular activities like music, chorus, football, chess, etc., so there are not a lot of young classical musicians or singers. The few amateur choruses are spread out all over the region.  However it turns out that there are a lot of talented folks with the courage, the time, and the drive to pull off a major opera production. They just need the opportunity presented to them.

Cholé Meyzie, a music teacher and conductor in nearby Thiviers, is both the instigator of this project and the conductor of the orchestra. Through her national contacts she is able to bring together professionals and advanced amateurs, both on the stage and in the orchestra. 

There is a mix of fifty local musicians. Some are students in the regional Conservatoire. The youngest is 11 years old. His ambition is to play music for fun and to become a doctor. Then there is Nicolas, a clarinetist that is a plumber during the week. His dog Ulk is the mascot dog along with another dog, Gustave, hiding under the chair of a trumpeter.

The seventy member choir directed by Gersende Michel is composed of several vocal ensembles. There are teachers, surgeons (including a former chorist in Paris), and computer geeks. Learning to sing while dancing was hard for this ensemble, but learning the text in Italian was an even bigger challenge. The nine professionals arrived in early March. One of which, 29 year old Mathys, actually lives in the area. He was thrilled to be able to practice and perform and then go home to his own bed.

For this grand production the need didn’t stop at singers and musicians. The costumes were produced at the high school Léonard-de-Vinci in Périgueux. The sets were constructed by apprentice students from Thiviers and Chardeuil. 

All this pulled off with everyone coming together on weekends and school holidays so they could maximize time and decrease travel. The schedule was especially helpful to students that were preparing for their final exams.

Finally the big day arrived. We drove the 40 minutes to the other side of Perigueux where the concert hall The Palio is located. Not at all your beautiful opera house The Palio looks like a modern concrete bunker. You enter in to more concrete and imposing metal staircases. My hopes of an elegant outing were sinking. We entered the “concert” hall (mainly a place for pop music concerts for young wild things), more concrete, stadium style seating and erector set lighting looming overhead. Maybe we would leave at intermission after all….

The lights went out, the orchestra tuned up, the conductor took her place and they were off. Immediately we fell into the magnificence of the music, followed by the energy of the chorus and the strength of the principal singers voices. We really were at the opera! 

The Labopéra Périgord -Dordogne completely succeeded. We spent a magical time in the drama of Italian opera in our middle of nowhere part of France. Here we discovered that there are oh so many people that can come out of the woodwork. We are already looking forward to the next collaborative effort.