Saturday, November 7, 2009

Joyeux Anniversaire à Moi


My 52nd birthday is today.  The first part I wrote a bit ago, while the second part is very much in the here and now.
Dateline: Dijon 2007
Today I turn 50 years old. I’m working at my computer in the silent attic bedroom of the apartment at 30 rue Verrerie, in Dijon, FR. I’m alone because Brad is in Tunisia for the week doing research with other mathematicians. I’m trying to figure out what 50 is supposed to feel like. I’m only a few years away from my mother’s age when she died. What did she feel like at fifty? I know what she seemed like to me. She still laughed easily because her illness had not yet consumed her spirit or her energy. But at 50 she was already old on most days. She looked tired, and probably was. She came from a generation that let its hair go gray and wore sensible shoes by 40. They were wives and mothers. They didn’t exercise, ride bikes, take trips with “the girls,” or define themselves beyond what they gave to everyone else. If they had hopes and dreams and urges to bust out of routine, for the most part they kept it to themselves.

My Grandma (Dad’s mother) was even older at a younger age. In photographs of her with my father as a child, she looked 50 by the time she was 30. Her shoes were orthopedic, and her hair was in a perpetual bun until her 80’s. A product of a hard country life and the Depression, life was about one’s work ethic more than leisure or pleasure. I’m fairly certain she had moments of joy and contentment, but mostly I remember she was always busy at something – sewing, cooking, mending, cleaning, gardening . . . you know – doing. Did 50 feel any different for her than 40 or 70? I know visits from her great-grandchildren brought a smile to her face, but did she pass on at 94 with unrealized dreams? Did she feel the desire at 50 or thereafter to proclaim that it was finally “me time”?
Photobucket Photobucket
                    Bertha Myrtle Farrar                                                               Ellen Francis Farrar

I don't mind being alone on my birthday because the best present of all is to not have to respond to the needs of anyone or anything for 24 hours. My day’s plans extend no further than anticipating the dame blanche at my favorite brasserie with which I will reward myself for achieving this milestone. The ice cream will be tongue-numbing cold and the fresh chantilly (whipped cream) will snake around until its mountainous shape hides all the sweet scoops and chocolate sauce beneath it. I luxuriate in the wonderful freedom of not having to negotiate any emotional boundaries with those I love with all my heart. Life’s net of negotiation and compromise can tangle us and pull us down. However, when done as part of the life dance for our roles as wife/mother/friend we can reap rewards that lift us up. Occasionally, though, we want simply to twirl alone, spinning faster this way and changing course and speed to twirl slower that way, to stumble across the floor while temporarily losing our “spotting” mark until regaining balance and eventually finding ourselves centered and still, ready to begin another pas de deux with those who fill the stage of our lives.

Dateline: St. Louis 2009
Does each generation grow bolder? I’ve gone farther than my Mom probably would ever have dreamed of for herself – or even for me, her youngest daughter. But my own daughter, thirty years younger than I am, already is preparing to go farther than I would have dared at her age. Not even finished with college yet she readies herself for a journey to Russia alone in January for a semester of school, with challenges beyond the cold and language that we can’t even envision. We share the same birthday, three decades apart. I wonder in what distant place she’ll find herself at 50 since she seems permanently shod in a pair of travelin’ shoes. I watch in amazement as she audaciously charges through the world in a way that I still can’t, just assuming that she belongs in the middle of it all.

In recognition of our shared celebration, I wish her un 22nd anniversaire très joyeux et bon journée.

Tonya Margaret Currey

Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Autumn Color

Autumn in Dijon
Apricot, burgundy, sunshine gold, rust. Autumn is such a drama queen. It’s impossible to ignore it. A bush that has been invisible for most of the year in its drab, green sameness jumps out of hiding wearing a coat of flaming red. No summer garden in full flower can even compete against a maple tree with its orange crown or a golden yellow ginko against a robin’s egg blue sky.

The autumn chill, though, is starting to invade my bones. It’s not just the incessant rain that brings on a creeping cold and dread of winter. No, the chill originates inside as much as out. My feet hurt. My knees ache. My shoulder doesn’t want to rotate like it should. If I sit in one place for too long my back moans. I feel my own autumn coming on.

I’m an autumn child. Born in this season of extravagant colors I feel the energy that they imbue. As another birthday peeks around the corner, beckoning me forward into the unknown, I do sense my own “chlorophyll” slowing down. The green of my summer is disappearing little by little. However, I’ve stored copious amounts of anthocyanin and carotenoids over my life. These are the stuff that bring on the intensity of the fall. As my own sun starts to hang a little lower over the horizon I want to burst forth in brilliant rainbows of golds and oranges and reds. I plan on hanging tightly to the tree limb until the last possible moment and then drift slowly down the street on an autumn wind until I gently settle on the ground to decompose and provide food for the next generation of trees.

Trick-or-treating in Dijon, 2007. The children (some in costumes, some not) travel from store to store in search of bonbons

Dijon is in full flower until the deepest of winter. "Trees" of mums in autumn colors decorate every public intersection and often cascade to the ground 

Visit the comments box and tell us what season you identify the most and why.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Autumn Chores


Almost immediately I saw it – a peregrine falcon – perched on the tangled branches of my giant viburnum bush. The muted, mottled coloring of its back made it almost invisible amid the gray limbs and fading leaves. While its back was toward me, however, his head turned sot that his black, unblinking eyes were also boring straight into me. I saw those eyes and the dangerous hook of a beak meant for ripping into meat rather than slurping worms. Its still, gray body was on alert, so I froze to keep it from flying off. Its long, yellow talons wrapped around the branch, balancing a large body made to soar instead of sit. When the bird grew comfortable with this interloper and twisted its head forward again, I used that opportunity to back up quietly and enter the house to grab my camera. Realizing I was neither food nor enemy, it continued examining me as closely as I examined it and let me take half a dozen quick shots before it flew off in search of dinner.

Oftentimes we don’t have to travel someplace grand or distant to encounter the mysterious and unexpected. My garden constantly puzzles me. I admit, I am not a disciplined gardener. In fact, this year aside from folding in some nutrients before shoving a few tomato plants in the ground, I did practically nothing. With preparations for France consuming my spring, I didn’t have much time to prune, mulch, plant, rake, weed or do anything to prepare it to thrive and expand this season. Yet it continued to grow without me. However, without my management, it certainly showed that it had developed a mind of its own.

My “dwarf” hydrangea is now more than twice as big as I had ever expected it to be. Because the tag on the small bush had definitely said “dwarf,” I placed it near the front edge of my bed so that now it smothers all other worthwhile flora around it. This week, however, its large floral heads of the bush are turning from a mossy chartreuse to a ripe cranberry color, and soon the leaves will follow. It embraces the coming cold. Somewhere around here I had planted a striking black salvia. I don’t recall seeing it this summer. Did I accidentally pull it as a weed last fall because the marker had disappeared, or was it overtaken by my hydrangea? And what is the name of that feathery plant that a neighbor had given me from his garden? I had planted it so that its delicate white flowers could add interest woven among blank spots in my boxwood bed. They are now almost as tall as my butterfly bush and will probably have to be ripped out next year so that they don’t interfere with the symmetry of the space they were intended to simply accent.

I lose a lot of plants because I’m so pathetic at adequately identifying them by any permanent mechanism. I buy a gross of markers, with all the best intentions to organize my garden as I plant, but it seems to fall by the wayside every year. Are those serrated, fuzzy leaves over there some kind of hellabore, a new kind of dandelion, or something I don’t remember buying? But the markers can also be totally useless. This year my phlox migrated on their own. None exist where I originally had planted them, but one is growing up through the azalea bush. One phlox plant has made a home where the yarrow, which has surrendered this year to the overgrown Russian sage, was supposed to grow. Another phlox slid down the rock stairs into the daisy patch. But that’s ok because for some reason the daisies didn’t bloom this year. Each summer it’s a mystery what will come up where.

I love my garden and I love the surprises and bounty it can give me. I did nothing to the tomatoes this year but plant them and leave the country. Yet here in the middle of October the ripe, red fruit keeps coming. One year I had some extra gladioli bulbs left. I stuck them against the fence because it was the only place where the ground had not yet frozen since, as usual, I was behind schedule. I thought they were annuals, but their peach loveliness waves in the summer breezes every year. Last year a neighbor gave me a dozen clumps of sweet woodruff to try as ground cover. Those few clumps are now spreading and flourishing with more vigor than I have a right to expect. A columbine I didn’t plant sprang up in the overgrowth surrounding our trash cans in the alley.

Change comes to my garden whether I want it or not. But I can also direct its renovation if I just start early enough in the season. The world recognizes my efforts from time to time. As I’m bent over toiling at the weeds, neighbors and strangers stop to smell the sweet scent of my viburnum in the spring or to ask the name of the giant white anemones standing guard at the front of my house. My garden brightens the days of those passing through. And it seems to meet with the approval of peregrine falcons taking a rest before continuing their hunt.

As I rake, and weed, and try to plant barely one step ahead of the winter chill, I also have to admit that I’m in the autumn of my years and need some tending. I feel the season changing down to my roots. But I embrace the energy of autumn. Until the first snows come, autumn is marked by a riot of color and crisp air. Instead of fading into that season of death, it’s time to prune, and rake, and fertilize, and plant in my own life. I want to anticipate spring’s energy ahead rather than the cold of winter creeping up behind me. Maybe I’ll have another hawk in my future. I’m sure my life will present more than enough dandelions and invasive wild violets that resist extraction, rooting deep in my habits and requiring special tools to rip them from where they’ve anchored. If I work hard enough my own garden, though, maybe I’ll also be rewarded with the mystery of flowers I don’t remember planting poking their heads above the weeds.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Joys of Flying Solo

Sheep in Shottery, England

One early Saturday morning in England a few years ago a train full of soccer hooligans (er . . . fans) and I were making our way from Birmingham to Manchester. The young man two rows in front of me clearly had begun his drinking long before I had even awaken that morning. Thankfully there were enough others in the train car almost equally inebriated who welcomed and encouraged his arm draped around their shoulders as he stumbled from seat to seat rambling on about the upcoming contest. Glancing around the car I saw a few families with children that could serve as a refuge if he decided I should become his new best friend because of my proximity. When we reached our destination a long 90 minutes later, he and all his cohorts stumbled off toward the stadium while I peacefully rolled my suitcase in the opposite direction to my hotel.

None of their antics were going to disrupt my mood because the day before I had stood on the same stone kitchen floor that William Shakespeare had crawled as a child in Stratford-upon-Avon. And I had walked, perhaps, along the same path he had strolled many times to reach the next village over, Shottery, where his future wife Anne Hathaway lived. I watched hummingbirds flit in the gardens that had existed in some form since the 15th century while I chatted with a couple from New Zealand and communed with the sheep grazing in the field across the road like they had done for centuries, I’m sure.

The garden at the family home of Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare

When women friends (never men) hear that I like to travel alone, these situations are exactly what they worry about when they cluck “How brave” or “Isn’t it dangerous to do that? -- as if I were backpacking through Zimbabwe instead of simply riding Britain’s National Rail line or driving to Tennessee for a couple of days to wander through Iris City Gardens or walking the 10 kilometer path from Oberwolfach to Wolfach in Germany or strolling down Lower Broadway in Nashville at 2 a.m., taking pictures of the crowds and the neon and ducking into the clubs hoping to hear Music City’s next big star. Right after those responses comes the predictable, “Aren’t you lonely doing that?” But I’m up for hitting the road alone at the drop of a hat.

Some Nashville neon on Lower Broadway

I’d have to agree to some extent. Solo travel is a brave thing. It’s not just a matter of updating your AAA membership to prepare for car trouble. It requires you to spend large expanses of time with only yourself as company. With a multitude of electronic communication devices at our fingertips, the temptation to take everyone you know along for the ride looms big. We’ve become a culture conditioned to always reach out and touch someone. But real solo travel challenges you to leave it all behind. If you can do that, you open yourself up to the freedom, serendipity, and world without compromise that you can’t get when traveling with others or when staying home.

Few things are more valuable than a good traveling partner. I’m lucky. I didn’t have to look far because I married mine. Brad and I started traveling right away with our honeymoon in the UK. We arrived with a single night’s hotel reservation (courtesy of my new father-in-law) and the advice from both friends and family to “eat ethnic” in London. With a rented car and a book about castles in England and Wales that I bought at a tourist office on our second day in town, we were off on our first of many adventures. Traveling with someone else -- no matter how compatible, though – makes it so much tougher to indulge your own whims or give full attention to what matters most to you. Striking out on your own gives you things you can’t find when you travel with a partner like a matched set of luggage.

It wasn’t until my third trip to London – alone – that I finally got to stand in the upper garret of the Gough Square house that had belonged to my word hero, Samuel Johnson. Absent anxiety about boring any travel companions or meeting someone else’s agenda, I could give my morning over to standing in the practically empty third floor dictionary war room, imagining Dr. Johnson’s amanuenses scurrying around with note cards filled with etymologies and examples for all the definitions to appear in the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. I could spend an unhurried hour talking with the young woman who took the tickets and worked the gift shop about the monumental feat accomplished within these walls and the astounding visitors, such as Edmund Burke, who sat in these rooms, regaled with tales by Dr. Johnson before they retired to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese across the Square for a good meal (where I also devoured a shepherd’s pie in one of the tiny stone-walled rooms of the cellar while reading a collection of his essays from The Rambler I had just bought).

Two weeks ago I made a pilgrimage through the maze of aisles that is Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. I wandered until my feet gave out, gripping in my arm my Holy Grail, M.F.K Fisher’s Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon. Yes, I could have gone on line last spring and ordered it off of Amazon before I actually traveled to Dijon, but the thrill of used books has always been in the hunt. Before departing, I batted around dinner ideas with two men standing at the information desk, hoping for someplace that served comfort food but was particularly “Portland.” I wanted to luxuriate in a meal that was exactly what I wanted, no compromise. I left Powell’s with four books and four dinner recommendations, plus breakfast options thrown in for good measure. And on my way to the metro train I stopped at one of the gazillion food carts that line the downtown sidewalks of Portland. Just for the novelty of it and because I was on my own schedule I ate two shredded beef soft tacos as a late afternoon snack, juice running down my wrist and up my sleeve and eyes tearing from the green sauce the vendor had assured me was his “mild” kind. Later that evening I sat at the bar of The Screen Door with my plate of greens, mashed potatoes, and a strong contender for the best fried chicken in the country, stuffing myself and chatting with the bartender until I waddled back to my car ninety minutes later (eager to return another time for their biscuits and gravy breakfast and their berry cobbler for dessert).

When I travel alone my camera, a book, and my small Moleskine notebook with Parker T-ball Jotter pen are my best companions. The straight, open highway gives my brain time and space to unfurl. I have the opportunity to be brave and talk to strangers I meet (even if I discover two minutes later that they must have left their medications at home) or to walk into restaurants and ask for a table for one. Traveling solo is a chance to briefly enter the world free of expectations from anyone around you and pursue whatever interests you for as long as you like. You experience a certain kind of empowerment when rolling your suitcase down rue des Abbesses alone in Paris’s Montmartre arrondissement, joining the morning crowd as they descend into the bowels of the Metropolitan line, changing at the Madeleine stop to line 14 and arriving at Gare de Lyon to catch a train back to Dijon. You can even feel it when you get off the highway and by-pass all the chain restaurants to eat the Sunday buffet at Saathoff’s Café on the town square in Greenup, IL (“Village of Porches”). I recommend the fried zucchini. Traveling alone – even if just for an overnight jaunt – can clear the mind, calm the nerves, and center you a bit on what is important to you.

Sunday lunch menu at Saathoff's Café in Greenup, IL

I have a travel wish list with goals big and small. I want to meander along the Quilt Garden tour in northern Indiana. I want to hit the giant weekend flea markets along the highways between St. Louis and Atlanta. I want to retrace the Burgundy Canal route Brad and I took, but at one third the pace so I can exit the trail to explore any road or village that catches my eye and take photos of every maison du canal écluse I pass. And before I pass from this earth I must gain the courage to drive in the UK because there are so many places to see that even British Rail doesn’t go. Having a travel partner who wants all of these things, too, can make the journey twice as memorable. But not having one is never a good excuse not to put on my walking shoes and go.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Suits Me to a Thé

Street Theater, Place Francois Rude - Dijon
I’ve been home a little over a month. I’ve been sick with jet lag and a bad cold. I’ve had a cavity filled, then a root canal. I’ve been to Little Rock and back, Indianapolis and back, Atlanta and back, and Nashville and back. I took the dogs for a long-overdue grooming and went to a neighborhood meeting on rat control (yes, even in the best neighborhoods). I sent my daughter off for another year of college and fixed the brakes on my car. I’ve cleaned out my closet and dealt with the same house insurance issue I thought I had resolved before we left for France. I even set up a Facebook page.

Somewhere in the distant haze of memory, however, I remember sitting at a café watching French life roll by in front of me at a leisurely pace. While over there I missed my bed. I missed Mexican food and spacious, clean public toilets. I missed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I missed my dogs. But the thing that I long for now that I’m home is the café life over there. It defines the culture. It is not just something the French do -- it’s an essential feature of their being.

America is currently overrun with coffee shops and cafés where the under (or over)-caffeinated stake out a claim for an afternoon or an entire day. They order a cup of something dark and the size of a thermos bottle, flip on their computers, and disappear into the Ethernet. They take the concept “internet café” literally. The Wall Street journal reported that some café owners are, pushing back, trying to change what Americans have started to treat as a Constitutional right – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of free wi-fi with my latte” – because they are losing money. Within a mile of my home I can identify almost a dozen coffee shops or cafés, places where people are inclined to set up their nomadic office and stay for awhile, sipping expensive coffees or refilling their cups with hot water and re-dipping their tea bags until all they get is weak, flavored hot water. But they have no idea what real café life is like.

In Dijon The only place I saw that combined food and wi-fi was the McDo’s (McDonald’s), hot spot for the young French and a magnet for 18-20-year old American males passing through this town for whatever reasons. “Internet cafés” were small storefronts where I made copies or downloaded and printed directions, never any place I wanted to linger. At true French cafés, however people sit; they do not work. They use it as a respite from the busy-ness of life rather than bring it with them.

I loved my mornings at a certain salon de thé at Place François Rude, especially on market day. As cafés go in Dijon, it’s a large one. It can seat almost a hundred people inside at its round café tables. But usually that part was empty because the action is outside except in the coldest season. The tables crowd each other, with barely six inches between them, so as many patrons as possible fit under the awnings and scattered umbrellas placed to protect them from the sun (or in the case of the summer of ’09, the rain). While the inside remains empty, the outside tables are packed by 10 a.m. with locals after a morning of shopping for the day’s bread and vegetables at the market in Les Halles. Tourists (cameras and passport wallets draped around their necks) grab a seat to consult their guidebooks and get their bearings before heading off for another museum. I slide in behind a table not yet cleared by the harried-but-efficient waitress. I order what is a pure delight, a cause to leave your bed in the morning and face the world. It’s a simple order of thé vert (green tea), but the care with which it arrives entices me to savor it until time to move on for lunch.

The waitress soon delivers a small white glazed teapot of steaming water. The teabag steeps in it, but it is no ordinary bag. It is not a paper envelope of loose tea with a string hanging limply over the edge. No, it’s a linen coat sewed around the crumbled tea leaves with a linen tail draped elegantly over the side of the pot. As my effusion reaches its peek, I disassemble the rest of my service. The simple ceramic teacup on a saucer will hold about 4 ounces of tea at a time while the rest remains warming in the pot. Nestled on the saucer are the two colorful and obligatory paper tubes of brown sugar they give because the French take their tea a little sweeter. On top of the empty cup sits a matching teabag holder – a shallow ceramic dish with a handle for resting either teabag or the daintiest of teaspoons. On top of that rests the reason for my joy – a small piece of gâteau (cake). It’s not a large offering, no more than 2 x 2. It is as golden as the tournesol flowers displayed on the florist’s sidewalk stand across the pedestrian passageway and tastes of butter and an infusion of lemon, with a lightness a step above American pound cake. But best of all, it arrives unbidden. It is there because one should have cake with tea. At other places they might offer a ginger cookie or two but the idea of this lemon cake is enough to make me want to plan a return trip to Dijon, to sit and savor, sipping a bit of tea then breaking off a crumb of my gateau while I watch the world pass in front of me and try to make everything in the scene last as long as I possibly can.

For in France that is what café life is about. I have no desire to pack up my computer and take my work with me when I go to one. French cafés invite engagement with the world. There is nothing on the internet more entertaining than a French street on market day. My senses overflow. The neighborhood boucheries have started to turn the rotisseries that will cook the succulent chickens for Dijonaisse dinners that night. The aroma of my café’s fresh ground coffee taints my sips of tea. Vendors’ stalls decorate the scene with rainbow racks of dresses, skirts, tablecloths, t-shirts, sacs and purses of all sizes and colors. Locals stroll by with their ubiquitous French dogs, stopping for a small repast at the café or chatting with a friend or browsing through the stalls. Others glide quickly in and out of the crowd on their way to work or appointments. Sidewalk buskers take up a position at a nearby carrefour (pedestrian crossroad) and start their performance, sometimes a folk guitarist treating us to some musical satire, sometimes it’s a jazz set, sometimes a lone cellist playing Bach concertos, or occasionally some street theater. As it gets closer to lunchtime, the tinkling music of the traditional European carrousel joins the sounds of the streets as the carved horses and swans dance in anticipation of their young riders starting to arrive with their parents. The sound of life swirls around.
Like the French, I sit there and watch, perfectly content to do nothing for the time being, or I read, or I make notes, my own market bag bursting with bouquets and vegetables. Occasionally a tourist, taking me for a local, might ask me for directions. One overcast morning a café regular pulled my table in closer to his so that I would have full cover under the awning as the rain began to spit. Then before he left he graciously gifted me with the bit of dark chocolate that had accompanied his espresso. I enhanced international relations among dog lovers by asking those sitting near me if I could take photos of their dogs resting under the tables. Some street vendors who inhabited this location on market day knew me as an American from the times I stopped to browse and buy at their stalls. They would call me out of my seat occasionally to help translate for an English-speaking customer as they tried to close a sale. My limited French could help supplement their limited English as the three of us did our bit to improve the global economy. I was happy to oblige.
And so on returning home I find it difficult to get into American café life. Yes, Barnes and Noble offers free wi-fi, but what’s there to see at that location but my computer screen? Do I want to sit in the new coffee shop inside my grocery story and listen to the banging of grocery carts parked ten feet away and “Wet cleanup in aisle seven” announcements all morning? The Kaldi’s coffee shop in my neighborhood welcomes dogs and is extremely busy in the early hours as parents drop off their kids at the neighborhood school and then catch up with friends at the sidewalk tables. But by ten o’clock in the morning, after the hustle and bustle, although the shop is full of customers staring at laptop monitors there is not much life, just an occasional dog walker or neighborhood mom with a baby stroller. I’m awash in a sea of cafés here, yet none of them call out to me. With no street life, with all customers burying their heads in computers, with no offering of free gâteau, I retreat to my desk in my home to write, looking out on the sidewalk that is my neighbors’ main route to Kaldi’s. I watch the seasons change. I wave to dog-walking neighbors who might look up from their cell phone call and see me in the window. And I await a return to my Dijon café and long for the world to stroll past at the pace of French life.

Share your thoughts here

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sacred Serendipity

Central tympanum of the narthex of Ste-Marie-Madeleine

The monastic brother, hands lightly clasped at his chest, moved from tourist to tourist, speaking to each in a low voice. We were standing in the transept of the Basilique Ste-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay (a UNESCO world heritage site), examining the chapels that radiated off the altar space. He spoke quickly and quietly, so the only word that I could catch was fermé (closed). Apparently a service was going to commence soon and they wanted us to vacate the chancel area.

This basilica, first placed on this high hill amid the Morvan forests in Burgundy in the 9th century, gained its renown as a major launching spot for crusade movements and as a pilgrimage destination on the road to Santiago de Compostela because it claimed to have bone relics of Mary Magdalen. In the 13th century it began to lose its prestigious position when another abbey in Provence declared that they really had the true bone relics of Mary. But the faithful continued to come and worship. Brad and I had just missed by a couple of days the annual Festival of Pilgrims. It was those relics I was about to visit in the underground crypt when I was shooed out along with the rest of the camera-toting tourists. My curiosity was piqued a bit because I had yet to visit a church in France that had mid-day services on an average Tuesday. Still eager to see the crypt, I decided to rest my feet until it was over.

A parade of monks in the long white robes of the Brothers of Jerusalem and nuns in all-white habits and veils entered through a side door, arranging themselves on either side of the linen-draped altar. Without any signal, a single, clear voice began a chant to give glory to God. Other voices joined in until a polyphonic chorus filled this sacred space. One by one the tourists still snapping pictures paused. Many took a seat near me. Town residents scurried in and quietly offered a knee before taking a seat for what was clearly a familiar ritual to them.

The lead of the chant passed from one brother or sister to another, first with a solo recitation and than a choral response. This was a monument built for pilgrims more than any other church I had entered in this country. With a nave only 10 meters shorter than the grand Notre-Dame of Paris, it was devoid of most decorations except for the elaborate tympanums on the façade over the three portals leading from the narthex to the nave and carved with figures of the apostles and the people of the world who hear Christ’s message. The carved capitals on the massive pillars holding the Romanesque arches depicted Bible stories as well as mythological creatures to educate those pilgrims as they made their way down the aisle to their goal of the sacred relics.
A carved capital in the nave

The chant rose and fell in rhythm while the brothers and sisters remained perfectly still. Although I did not understand the language, my soul was pulled a step closer to heaven with each faultless note. The light bounced off the white stone of the interior. Our bed and breakfast hosts had told us to come early in the day because the light was special. I saw what they meant. The nave had been constructed so that at the summer solstice the light flowed through the upper windows and shown directly on the altar. The solstice had passed, but the effects were still present. The dance of sun on stone illuminated the spirit of the pilgrim as much as the sacred site.

The musical supplications wove through the space and my mind. Where are these serendipitous moments in my daily life? Do I just move too fast to recognize them or do they only occur when I step outside of the familiar? What is my pilgrimage route? Will I recognize it when I get there? For the moment, though, the only journey I was prepared to take was one down the narrow stone streets to a café for lunch. I had not seen the relics; the light and the chanting were all I needed. As Brad and I ate, we heard the bells that had rung after services for centuries and we watched the barn swallows circle and dive as they fed the outstretched beaks that poked out of the mud homes hanging precariously under the stone eaves of the buildings around us. This was one sacred life ritual that had been performed even longer, centuries before the first pilgrims ever hit their knees on the steps at the top of the hill.

(Click on the highlighted links to see photos so much more detailed than I could ever do)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Finding "Doucement" in America

At play in Dijon's Place de la Liberatíon

Today I left France. For travelers, the hard part about coming home (aside from the depressing “mundacity” of unpacking) is deciding what all of this life upheaval means. Some of the answers are so obvious. New friendships are the best souvenirs to bring home. I discovered that a cheese board and a loaf of bread did more to cultivate friendships than a common language. No “French for Travelers” book included the phrase that started conversations flowing faster than anything – “Do you have pictures of your grandchildren?” You always have so much more in common with the people who populate the landscapes you explore than you have differences. In a village so small it has no street names you can spend an evening sharing a love of needlework and the children from Russia and Belarus we’ve each brought into our families.

Travel also helps you identify your limits and why you’re glad to return home. The entire country of France could be a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its efforts to preserve their whole history and culture. However, for reasons I’ll never understand they are satisfied to have toilets in public places that could have been designed in the Paleolithic age. The same way that I think all Americans should spend a week riding the local, express, and high-speed trains and metro systems of France to understand the bliss of well-funded public transportation, I think all French should spend a week just visiting public toilets in every restaurant, shopping mall, service station, and rest stop in my country. I’m sure that any culture that can design and manufacture an engineering wonder like the TGV train or a train to travel under the English Channel can come up with a better restaurant bathroom than a unisex one in which you are greeted by a urinal right inside the door (is that the restaurant floor show every time the door opens?) and two toilet stalls without actual toilet seats. At least I was spared from ever opening the door and experiencing my own private viewing.

I know that one element of French culture I would like to understand better and perhaps even have transform me can be summed up in the word doucement. In my Oxford French Mini Dictionary the word is defined as “gently, quietly, slowly.” It seems so much more, though. As I wove my way through crowded sidewalks I heard it. I heard it directed at dogs more eager to play than walk on the leash. A brief, murmured repetition of the word, perhaps with a slight touch on the arm or finger to the lip for emphasis. I heard it almost every day directed toward children in restaurants, on airplanes, on buses and the street. This is what made it seem so much more than a simple parental command. During all my visits to France many words and phrases have popped up on a regular basis – voilá, comme ça, la ba and more. All were familiar from Berlitz language lesson CDs. All had such distinct uses. Doucement was a word I had no inkling existed, yet I couldn’t escape it in any corner of that country.

To have old and young reminding each other so often “gently, quietly, slowly” imparts a cultural norm rather than makes a request. And I saw it practiced everywhere I went. Rarely did I hear a raised voice. No one sat at a restaurant making sure that everyone overheard a phone conversation about what a jerk his boss was. It would take fewer than my ten available fingers to count the number of times I heard a cell phone ring, even in a town as huge and bustling as Paris. Bus rides (even at rush hour) were relaxing for it. I want to live in a world moving at the speed of café life, where there is always time in the afternoon to eat an ice cream cone and window shop for a bit. I want to reduce the stress so that being gentle with one another requires so much less effort. It requires strolling through streets with an armload of sunflowers. It means taking breaks that shift the course of a day or a mood. I want to start my morning a little later because today is market day and the local strawberries are in season. One must have priorities, you know.

I can’t bring all of France here to the States. Nor would I necessarily want to. They seem to have an inexplicable belief that each individual is exempt from random laws of government or courtesy – where they drive their motor scooters, where they let dogs do their business and whether they clean up, smoking . They are oblivious to the benefits of standing in a line. None of their shoes fit wide feet. But they have internalized how to live in a world steeped in doucement. The trick for this returning traveler to find the adapter that lets me plug it in to an American world operating on its own extreme high voltage. Perhaps I’ll take up yoga and make “gently, quietly, slowly” my mantra.

Say it to yourself several times. Doucement . . . doucement . . . doucement. It slides over the tongue. The hard “t” at the end is swallowed in that very French way, so that it is almost all lips, no teeth, in its pronunciation. The word is as soft as its meaning. If you want to know what France is like, but don’t have time or money right now to explore it own your own, just say the word and practice a life lived gently, quietly, slowly. It’s possible to have that world over here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Seeing Paris on My Dime

La droit, la droit! Splish splosh, splish splosh! Derrière, derrière!” It was one o’clock in the morning and my French friends had been taking me on a nighttime tour of the City of Lights. We had just spent an awe-inspiring time on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower taking photographs of the engineering marvel lit up and glowing golden against the night sky. I thought the show was over as we drove past the Grand Palais on our way back to Montmartre when four people started gesticulating and telling me in French with no little urgency, “Look to the right, the right! Behind you, behind!” I was turning every which way in the front seat trying to figure out what the excitement was about. All I could see on my right were the trees that lined the quai along the Seine. But when Christophe sped up and made a quick turn onto Pont Alexander III I saw it. The Eiffel Tower, which only a few minutes ago had shown like a giant flame in the night, was exploding white and blue, like fireworks. It kept flashing with abandon (Martine’s splish splosh), as if someone had plugged an electrical cord into a wet outlet. The car went silent as we reveled in the spectacle. Then just seconds later someone flipped a switch and the structure that dominates the Paris skyline just disappeared into the darkness, as if it never existed.

So ended my whirlwind trip to Paris.

It was only my third visit to the city. Each time has only been briefly. There is too much to see and do, so learning Paris’ neighborhoods one arrondisement at a time means that it will take a lifetime to know the place (I’m willing to put forth the effort). However, Martine and I did our best to cover as much ground as possible during the day, while Christophe (with help from friends Jean-Claude and Raymonde) helped entertain me at night. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of this journey. Instead, here is a quick run down of things I love and hate about the city.

Things I Love
1) The warmth and hospitality of people like Martine and Christophe, and Jean-Claude and Raymonde (and their dog LuLut), many of the shopkeepers (especially at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore), and strangers on the streets.

2) The perfect serenity of Musée de l’Orangerie, where you will escape into the soft focus of Monet’s Le Nymphéas (The Water Lilies). The interior space was constructed specifically to house these large and extraordinary paintings, and to allow visitors to sit, and stare, and soak it all in under the canopy that filters the natural light. For those who will never get to Paris, click here and take the virtual tour at the museum’s website. You can also view an extensive collection of Cézanne, Renoir, early Picasso, and other artists near the turn of the century.
Renoir's "Peaches" (perfect for a July afternoon)

3) The extensive metro/bus system (and beyond, the national train system that got me there quickly and in comfort) that allows you to traverse this immense city cheaply and quickly. It remains a mystery to me why my own country still insists on maintaining its love affair with the car.

4) The Paris parks, big and small. In particular, everyone must visit Les Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and Place des Voges (the oldest planned square in Paris). In a city with so much traffic and so many people on the move on narrow sidewalks and metro cars, it soothes the soul to take a rest in the green garden chairs at any of the many parks and squares in this city.
These chairs are waiting just for you at Le Tuileries

5) Walking through the metro tunnels, hearing a violinist (but not seeing her in the underground labyrinth) playing a Georg Telemann piece as you exit the train then returning in an hour or so and hearing her playing Samuel Barber. I loved hearing flamingo guitar on the streets of Montmarte, klezmar music as I exited the metro in the Marais, and a gypsy violin as I walked the morning streets to the train.

6) The beauty of the architecture that is clearly valued by the residents of this city. Martine and Christophe may live in a small space at the foot of Montmarte, but they know the history of their renovated Art Deco-era apartment building. The city knows that they are custodians of historical treasures, so they find the way to make the old and new work together.
A random balcony near the Rodin Musée

7) Montmartre at night looking like something out of a Van Gogh painting. The warm glow of the café lights under the low awnings, the artists walking the streets with easels packed under their arms, the waitress with her hair wrapped in a scarf and leaning against the wall outside the door of a restaurant kitchen with the glow of sweat on her face as she stares into spacing smoking a cigarette are all images we’ve seen before on canvas from another age.
From the top of Montmartre, 10 o'clock on a Sunday night in Paris

Things I Could Live Without

1) The traffic. It is absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if there are any driving rules. I do know that on many major streets there don’t seem to be any lanes marked, and I never saw a speed limit sign, and tailgating at a hair’s breadth distance is a national pasttime. So I let out audible gasps as Christophe expertly wove his way through the streets, squeezing in between cars, avoiding the motorcycles buzzing through any free space between cars, and making all the correct turns when there didn’t seem to be any visible intersection or street signs.

2) The desk clerk at my hotel who decided I needed to be schooled in the pronunciation of my room number “45” at 11:30 at night when all I really wanted was my key and bed.

3) The exhaustion (and sore feet) that come with trying to navigate so much of the city in a day. I’d love a longer and more leisurely visit some day.

4) Shops that close on Mondays. It seemed the ones we wanted most, like the small grocer (Thanksgiving) that specializes in American food products that Martine wanted to see, were closed. The French take their leisure seriously, and for that I admire them. A day off is really a day off to relax with friends and family. However, Monday was the only day I could be there. I guess that means I have to arrange another visit – however, it will include different days of the week.

A random resident of the Marais

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Along the Burgundy Canal


The best way to experience the Burgundy region is to get out of the city and into the country. Cities like Dijon and Beaune offer so much in terms of food, shopping, and culture, but the smaller villages entice the traveler as well. In the United States if you got off the main highways and took the backroads, there would be a lot of uncertainty as to when you hit a town of any size and if you’d find anything to make you hit the brakes and explore. America has so many small town treasures, but finding them takes real effort and research or a touch of luck.

In the Burgundy region of France, however, enchanting historical villages are strung out along the roads like pearls on a necklace. You rarely go more than 5 kilometers before seeing a sign with an arrow pointing to another one just around the bend. Each one makes you want to stop and spend a few hours relishing the gardens or the history or lunch while watching the local traffic, which is frequently measured in bicycles or pedestrians.

The two unifying features of the Burgundy landscape are the vineyards and the canals. When Brad and I were in Dijon during the fall of 2007 our landlord, Max Renau chauffeured us through a tour of all the best chateaus and cellars in the region (click here to see all the fine accommodations and services Max and his wife, Beatrice, offer their renters). For this visit, he provided bicycle rental and transport 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) outside of Dijon to his home in Chateuneuf-en-Auxois so that we spend all day riding along the flat canal towpath back to our home base, the Port-du-Canal in Dijon.

The Burgundy canal is a 240-kilometer engineering feat that connected the north and south of France because no rivers ran in that direction. It allowed commerce and industry to grow in the area between the Yonne and Saône rivers. Now it services luxury and vacation barges, the Burgundian version of fifth-wheeler campers and custom RV’s.

Before pedaling a single kilometer, I promised Brad that I wouldn’t stop to photograph every bird, wildflower, or stone cottage I saw for fear that we wouldn’t reach home until long after the sun set. So this ride became a true test of will. I won’t even begin to tell about the fields of sunflowers turned toward the light, the giant wild butterfly bushes with deep Concord grape arms bowing under the weight of butterflies, and saucer-sized Queen Anne’s lace.

What really challenged the photographer in me, however, was not stopping to photograph every écluse, or lock house, that still operates along the canal. Appearing every couple of kilometers, many are still occupied. Canal service workers race up and down the towpaths on scooters tending to many of the lock operations, but often it’s a hand-operated system worked by the lock house resident or the barge residents. These stone houses with their geraniums and rose bushes and white bed sheets waving on the line at the water’s edge made me want to park my bike and start a new life that day.
Écluses (lock houses) along the canal
We rode past such charming towns as Pont-d’Ouche (the canal paralleled the Ouche River), Veuvey-sur-Ouche, and La Bussiére-sur-Ouche. Our greatest find, however, was to stumble upon an outdoor restaurant at Écluse de la Charme. But outdoor, I mean the restaurant was in one tent and the kitchen was in another. But despite the rustic atmosphere, I ate duck with mushrooms and Brad could order a bottle of wine. The lock house had a gallery of photographs showing all the wildlife in the immediate area and sold regional products such as honey.

While there, we had the great fortune of watching a boat go through the lock. It was all automated and with the push of a button the process began. The boat was through the lock and on it’s way in about 15 minutes. After a lunch of good food and good conversation with a couple who lived down the road in Saint Victor-sur-Ouche (who so kindly waved to us when we passed their home later) and the young man who served us and spoke perfect English since his mother was from Birmingham, England, we were on our way as well with only one big detour at Lac Kir to watch a bit of the kayak races.

In France, life does not focus only on the largest metropolitan areas. In fact, the second largest city in France – Lyon – has only about two million people. That’s the same size as my hometown of St. Louis, MO – and to many in America a town of two million isn’t even worth visiting. No, France relishes these villages and the land that surrounds them. I lost track soon into our ride the number of people I nodded to and “bonjoured” as I pedaled. The canal was as packed with boats as the path was with bikes. Some were out for a day trip while others on land and water were clearly going the distance.

If I had my way, I’d do the whole trip all over again, only I’d take a week so I really could stop and photograph every flower and écluse, have tea at every village café, and enjoy the land while moving at the same slow pace as the water in the canal I ride beside.

Do you like traveling the back roads?  Tell us about your favorite lazy trip in the comments box.

Friday, July 17, 2009

One Must Agitate

The beginning of a strike march in Dijon's Place de la Liberatíon during the national train strike in November 2007

Some things are universal. No matter what city I’m in or in what country, I’ll inevitably end up in line behind someone who has to make the simple complicated. Whether in a French or an American “McDo’s,” fate will place me behind the one person in the country who walked into that oh-so-familiar fast food establishment actually not knowing what he or she wanted to order. Standing slack-jawed before “le menu”, this novice to ordering a McDonald’s meal engages in deep self-reflection over the choice between a “Royal avec Cheese” or McNuggets. Conversations with the cashier are necessary to ascertain the exact size of the soda that comes with a meal and what the options for sides are – frites? salade? un autre? Of course, this patron of fine dining waits until the last possible moment to reach for the wallet and then decides that today is the day to pay for everything with exact change, even though that requires a search in six different pockets.

Today I walked into a Dijon post office and briefly thought I was back home. It was a small office with only two clerks. It just so happened that at the exact moment I had decided to buys stamps for my postcards two men who had never mailed anything in their entire lives arrived, one at each window. My luck is the same, no matter where I am. Over the years I’ve mailed packages large and small – domestic and oversees, I’ve sent things overnight delivery, I’ve had “return receipt” to verify delivery. I’ve even sought refunds for packages that didn’t arrive when scheduled and had clerks search back rooms for packages that were supposed to be waiting for me but seemed to have disappeared. Yet I’ve never spent more than two minutes getting anything mailed. Most of my conversations with clerks beyond the weather were asking which form I should fill out or what pretty stamps they had in stock for Christmas cards. Yet if there is anybody who wants to complicate the process, you can bet I’ll be in line behind him or her.

My limited French made me ignorant of what the hold up was about. I couldn’t understand their difficulty with filling out a form, but I could understand the wonderful patience of the clerks who listened while each of these men went on at length about whatever grievance they had with the post office and how business was conducted. Arms were waved and voices were raised (not in anger but for emphasis) as each of these customers found further issues with the simple act of filling out a form to attach to their package. One of the fellows even asked to borrow the clerk’s phone so that he could call someone. While he had exerted extreme effort badgering the young clerk just trying to do her duty, he had not exerted any effort in bringing with him the address to which his package was to be sent. I had never witnessed such a grand debate over such an undemanding task as posting mail.

While I watched the ten-minute post office drama in two acts, I remembered a conversation with my husband’s mathematics colleague at Université de Bourgogne. The last time we were in Dijon a national strike occurred across the length of our visit. The main strike was a fight for certain retirement benefits. Many other “sympathy strikes” arose to show solidarity with the cause. It was clear that these work stoppages were not going to be effective, and after the first week even the general populace had given up support as they found it harder to manage transportation to work or day care for children locked out of schools. I asked our friend, Didier, why they continued the strike if it was clear that nothing would change. He told me, “It’s simple – in France, we must agitate!”

So while I didn’t comprehend the words of these two postal protesters, I could hear in their arguments the echo of Descartes and Rousseau, Pascal and Sartre – great agitators all. I just wished that I hadn’t been in line behind them today.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!


Today is Le Fête National in France. Not too much celebrating going on, however, since it's been raining all day. In fact, it's rained almost every day that we've been here, sometimes buckets like today and sometimes just a steady drizzle. On Monday evening I wanted to get out to get some evening air so I went to my Les Grands Ducs café to get a salad for dinner. Shortly after I grabbed a table under the awning near the front entrance the rain came pouring down. It was blowing inward so the awning was only the most minimal protection. When some people finished and left, I picked up my food, camera, book, and newspaper and moved away from the edge and closer to the center. The rain came even harder. I didn't get the blowing rain too much, but there was a steady drip . . . drip into the center of my plate and in my glass of coke through a leak in the awning. This is what I saw as I ate:

You make ask, "Why, in heavens name, did you continue to sit out on the sidewalk instead of retreating into the restaurant?" Well, first, I was not the only one sitting outside eating. The rain was a minor inconvenience because the French rarely give up an opportunity to dine al fresco. The astounding French waiters never stopped serving, even though most of the tables are out the door and around the corner of the building in the large Place de la Liberátion. They just took an empty tray and held it over their head as they hustled food and drinks out to the people sitting under mammoth sidewalk umbrellas. Second, by the time my dessert arrived, I had moved to a perfectly dry spot in a corner up against the building. I went to that café specifically to eat on Monday so that I could get a Bastille Day ice cream dessert. This particular café always finds some way to dress up the most simple bowl of delicious, freshly made ice cream. Here's my banana split:

I got a few photos of the town decked out for the holiday before the skies opened. I wish I had some firework shots, but they postponed that. By the sound of the thunder and the look of the lightning, however, I don't know if they'll even be able to do the fireworks on Wednesday night.

Place de la Liberátion

Rue de la Liberté

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Eat Your Vegetables


When I’m in France I’m torn between going out to eat for every lunch and dinner (there is no such thing as an IHop for breakfast – the French don’t do breakfast) and staying at home to cook. “Why would you want to cook on a vacation?” you might ask. After all, it means schlepping to the store, the heat of the kitchen, washing dishes, and all those unpleasant tasks that have nothing to do with actually cooking. The reason is quite simple – the street marché. France has modern grocery stores like the Monoprix, or the MarchéPlus, or the Carrefour – bigger than any Super Walmart I’ve been in – but for many the street market is where French cooking begins. It occurs on set days 52 weeks a year, from small villages and on up to giant Paris. In Dijon it’s in Les Halles (a 19th century structure designed by Gustav Eiffel) on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings.

Yes, the markets will have some out-of-season food shipped in from Spain or Chile or elsewhere, but French food markets are all about regional products, in season. And you know it’s regional because they always tell you the origin of the food, and frequently the name and address of the grower. Food is personal here. You talk to the stall vendors. You have conversations about why you are buying the fruits and vegetables and when you plan to eat it. And the stall vendor frequently picks the fruit for you. There’s no squeezing the tomatoes. But then there is no need to because these haven’t been picked two or more weeks ago, left sitting in a warehouse, and then shipped green and hard. They are picked a day or two before they show up at the market.

The conversations about the food are where you develop a relationship with the vendor. When we were here for an autumn visit I wanted apples for a tart. My vendor wanted to know when I planned to make it so she knew how many days the apples would sit around. She asked what kind of tart I was making. She wanted to know how sweet I liked my apples and how big the tart would be. Then she picked me the fruit that would make my pastry absolutely perfect. When Brad wanted an avocado last week, the vendor first needed to know when he would eat it. Then he gently squeezed a few until he found the perfect one.

Summer is apricot season. The colors are so trés belle that I want to pull out a canvas and paints in order to preserve the shades of colors as well as the textures. The best I can do is aim my camera and hope for the best. Yesterday I fell in love with a display of apricots. As an indirect “payment” to the vendors for letting me photograph their beautiful fruit I asked to buy one apricot. The husband and wife chose a beautiful piece of fruit for me and with a grand sweeping gesture passed it over the display, saying “un cadeau” (a gift). I took the apricot and my photograph then walked home through the teeming food market relishing the slight give in each bite of the fruit’s velvety skin and the sweet juice that ran down my throat. I relished, as well, the opportunity the market gives me to make food personal again.

This is beautiful enough to make me want to learn how to cook with rhubarb


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Strawberry Ode

I knew heaven was not far away if I just followed my nose. I was standing at one of the dozens of fruit and vegetable stands that populate Les Halles in the center of Dijon’s Saturday street market. It is next to impossible to do more than creep through at mid-morning on market day because of the SUV-sized baby strollers, the dogs on leashes, and the two-wheeled shopping carts of every description that form a permanent blockade. Brad and I elbow our way to one side of a stand to buy some fruit when our senses are aroused by the strawberries sitting in front of us. I have never been so enticed by a piece of fruit in my life as I wave my hand over the display to bring more of that aroma closer to my nostrils. We buy a carton and I began to dream of breakfast the next morning.

I don’t care how many farmers’ markets you’ve been to in America. And buying from local growers means nothing once you’ve tasted a French strawberry at the peak of perfection. The container filled with these delectables is a work of art. There is none of that dull uniformity of supermarket strawberries on steroids. Americans let themselves be fooled into believing that bigger is better, but beauty comes with a touch of imperfection in the randomness of shapes and sizes in this container. Nature has blessed them all, however, with a bright scarlet that is possible only when the fruit has the opportunity to rest on the vine undisturbed until the exact moment when it is ready to achieve its destiny – my breakfast.

On Sunday morning I slice one in half and find that brilliant red saturating the fruit straight to its heart. Every molecule calls out, “I’m ripe and ready to be eaten.” Soon my fingers and the knife blade drip with the sticky sweetness while the captivating essence of strawberry fills the kitchen. I could eat them straight off the cutting board, but decide to pair them with a serving of French vanilla yogurt. American yogurt would not have the same effect. With a tendency to over-sugar everything, the American counterpart would mask the chance to taste the pure, natural sweetener that is just-picked strawberries.

I scoop up my pieces of fruit and lay them on the mound of creamy yogurt in my bowl. Rivulets of juice make their way down the bone-white dairy folds as the strawberries settle into their soft base. Without delay I push my spoon in and raise an equal amount of yogurt and fruit to my mouth. My tongue slides over the velvet cream and strawberry mélange. If it were ever possible to taste an aroma, this is it. I want to bathe in it and walk through my day covered in a perfume of fresh strawberries. As I sadly reach the bottom of my bowl, my only comfort is that I know I’ll get to do it again tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Look Up


I love to travel to a place different from where I exist on a regular basis, if only for the fact that it exercises my eyes. At home I’m most often looking to the front, eyes on the road as I drive from place to place, sneaking quick glances to the right or left to check for cars exiting driveways, pedestrians crossing streets, bikes merging into my lanes. Even walking my dogs through my neighborhood my eyes are at street level. I do stop to admire gardens, chat with neighbors, but how I see doesn’t vary much.

Église de Notre-Dame de Dijon
When in a new place where everything is unfamiliar I find myself engaging in what, for lack of a better description, I might call “spontaneous looking.” I look in new directions and in new ways. My favorite direction to look in French cities is up. This isn’t about the neck-craning wonder of skyscrapers in Chicago or New York. No, in a city like Dijon with its mélange of centuries constructed cheek to jowl, life is frequently happening above street level. It’s summer now, and even if the residents have a climatiseur (those marvelous ductless air-conditioners) when the evening comes they throw open their large windows (what do the call “French doors” in France?) and invite the night air in, perched on their deep window seats or leaning over the wrought iron balcony, watching me watch them.


Up is where the French obsession with geraniums takes root. Up is where the lights glow. Up is where the architectural intricacies hide. Up is where unrecognized music drifts out of unknown windows. A suburban American can almost be overcome with vertigo walking down the narrow maze of streets while trying to take in the vista above her. As I write this I sit in my first floor apartment, which in Europe is above street level. My six-foot windows are open to let in the bit of cool air that came with last night’s rain. Rue Hernoux is such a narrow street that I feel I can reach out and touch the half-timbered houses across from me. I stare at a small window, not much more than 12 in. X 18 in. I see a shadow of a head and shoulders but the window stays closed. What room was that when the building was constructed? The window seems too small to be of any use for ventilation. In the neighboring building the current resident sticks his head out of the yellow-glassed windows that encase the ancient, carved wooden staircase to his upper floor (date on a window lintel: 1644) calling down to a friend on the sidewalk.

Flemish-influenced tiled roofs found throughout the Burgundy region

So many talk about the café life found in the plazas of major European cities. What they forget to mention is that life is lived vertically as well as horizontally here. The city surrounds me in a way that my own hometown fails to do. Perhaps, however, when I return there at the end of the month I’ll exercise my eyes a little more often and find life happening in a few more unexpected places.

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