Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année

I wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I’ve been absent from this space this fall for a variety of reasons, but a big one was because I had been traveling. When I was on the ground, I frequently had bad internet. In between the bad internet I was taking care of the business of new situations. But now it’s Christmas and I’m back in Dijon. Europe is know for its Christmas markets and Christmas celebrations. One day I’ll get to Strasbourg, France - the self-proclaimed Capitale de Noël. For now, though, I’m happy with the local festivities.

The explosion of Christmas lights, the vin chaud (hot wine) stands, the carrousels, and the crowds strolling down the streets window shopping make you so much more eager to head out on a cold December night than does the traditional American last-minute trip to the malls or Walmart. Dijon makes it a public affair by lowering the price of its public transportation. It sells a special pass for 3€, that lets 2-5 people ride the trams and buses for a day in order to shop everywhere then come back later for the evening events. Luckily for me, it was all just a short walk from my apartment.

Have a safe and relaxing holiday. To start it off, here’s a look at the one here in Dijon, France.

The area of Place Wilson

The Christmas Market at Place Republique

Hot wine, hot orange juice with honey and cinnamon, pralines and marshmallow dipped in rich dark chocolate all keep you warm as you browse the little booths of both schtick and crafts.

Activities at Place de Libération

A temporary skating ring and Christmas animations projected on the walls of the Dukes’ Palace makes this a lively place.

For next year

Here are a couple of teasers for what I’ll be sharing after the new year. You’ll have to wait to see where in the world they are.

Please share in the comments box your favorite Christmas activities. Or your favorite activities of the most important holiday for your family. See you in 2014.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving For Those Who Fought On The Beaches of Normandy

Crosses reaching out to sea over Omaha Beach. Almost 10,000 men rest here. More died. The thin,
mishapend trees give you an idea of the harsh weather along Normandy beaches.

This Thanksgiving, while I’m still thankful for family, friends, enough food to eat, the ability to see a doctor when sick, and all the other things that make life good I am grateful for something new. Unexpectedly, I found it in France.

Part of our river cruise was to see the D-day beaches in Normandy. Their images were imprinted on my brain, especially with the marathon war documentaries and movies on The History Channel every Memorial Day. I thought it would be like when you finally get into the room with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and say, “That’s it? That little thing? What’s all the fuss?” I was eager to get to the American Cemetery because I have loved the beauty and serenity of National Cemeteries ever since, as a Girl Scout, we hiked the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and at the end had the land open up into V’s of white crosses that stretched to eternity. For my own father and grandfather at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, I love to go just before closing as the deer come out at dusk to feed amid the headstones.

But as we drove down country roads that hadn’t changed much except for the paving, the tour guide pointed out that there weren’t many old buildings. The Germans forced the townspeople out and demolished the towns so Allied troops would have no place to hide. What used to be centuries-old villages now were little pink weekend vacation cottages risen from the ashes of war. We saw farm fields instead of Norman cows grazing because so many had been killed by battles or eaten for survival that they no longer filled the neatly, walled parcels of land.

Brad next to the remains of war at Arromanches

The full impact of the invasion swept over me when we hit the beaches at Arromanches. While all the mines the Germans had planted have been removed, the hulking, barnacle-covered pontoons of landing forces and the temporary harbor that had been constructed immediately after the invasion remain to give some perspective of what it took to get those soldiers and tanks across the English Channel and to shore. The beaches were so wide that they seemed to stretch all the way to England. The Germans thought that the Allies would come at high tide to avoid the open space, so they had planted and wrapped with explosives large, sharp obstacles of wood, cement, and steel to tear out the bottom of landing ships. As a result, for the invasion the soldiers had to hit land at low tide and make their way across this minefield in the early hours of dawn. I can’t even imagine what physical and emotional strength it took for the young men to run onto the beaches and keep moving forward as the Germans sat on the high ground, picking them off like the proverbial shooting gallery. There really was no way but forward.

Windsurfers next to decaying landing pontoons

As I strolled calmly along the beaches among the windsurfers, joggers, and parents playing with dogs and children, I knew something of the distance, and the wind, and the rain that made this attack even more dangerous, for bad weather is constant in Normandy. They say it rains twice a week in Normandy, first for three days then for four. And the rain was coming down as I tried to keep my camera dry, whipping it out for a quick picture with one hand while holding my hat with the other before sticking it back under my scarf. 

 Aerial shot of bocages that men and tanks had to penetrate to fight

The hedgerows - or bocage in French - that still line many of the roads in Normandy were for centuries a utilitarian feature in daily life. For the stone and thatch homes they served as windbreaks from the incessant ocean wind of Northern France. Or they provided privacy for the courtyards of village farmhouses. They marked fields for the small crop acreage or to keep the iconic Norman cows contained. During the war, however, they turned sinister and deadly. Planted atop raised mounds of earth, the tightly woven thickets provided perfect cover for the Germans to hide and pepper the Allied troops who had just landed on the beaches as they moved down the dirt roads closely hemmed in by the village buildings. It was impossible to escape. And still they stand, silent witnesses to the man-made chaos and horror of war.

Our guide was from the Norman area. Her family had lived there for generations. When she spoke of the Vichy government during that era she almost spit in her disgust. She had tales from older relatives of lives turned upside down when all they wanted was to fish and tend farms. They evacuated their Norman villages and kept on the move, hoping to find safety. Her grandfather, she said, rarely spoke of the battles that now make that region a tourist mecca. While I had no family member who had fought that battle, many on the bus had the same story to tell. They were there for their soldier fathers and grandfathers, trying to understand what they had experienced because they had said very little about that battle once they came home.

From outside and inside the bunkers overlooking the beaches of Normandy

Only by standing on the beaches, driving through the claustrophobic hedgerows, or visiting the cemetery and listening to the stories told in the words of the soldiers in visitor center movies did they begin to understand why their fathers and grandfathers said little about one of the most significant days in world history.

“The Greatest Generation” has been thrown around so much that its meaning had become a bit diluted. But standing on the beaches of Normandy I comprehended the all-or-nothing risk that the Allied troops took on to capture those concrete bunkers hurling fire and death down on them. I understood that “The Greatest Generation” was not an exaggeration. The level of cooperation among nations, the boldness of thinking, and the degree of sacrifice to literally save the world is something we see today primarily in movies with Will Smith or Bruce Willis single-handedly fighting aliens in space.

I stood on the beaches realizing that there was not one speck of cover. When the ramps of the landing craft lowered the soldiers had no option but to race forward across the wide beaches of Normandy -- beaches that now hold thousands of holiday revelers on a summer weekend. They pushed forward, often dragging their injured comrades with them as they sought cover. They climbed the cliffs to the bunkers and kept fighting against all odds.

For that I’m truly thankful.

What are you thankful for this year? Tell us in the comments box and then get to baking those pies for your family. Happy Thanksgiving.

If you’ve never seen the opening to Steven Speilberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan, you need to watch it to understand what it took for the soldiers to cross the distance from sea to land and up to the concrete bunkers of the Germans.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Taxonomy of Life On A River Cruise. Or Who Do You Think You Are?

When Brad and I walked into the dining room for the first time on our first-ever cruise, we both had the same thought: why does this seem so familiar? Yes, it was just like we were starting high school and trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria. If we sat at a table for two, would that mean we’d never meet anybody? But what if we sat at a table for four and nobody ever joined us? Wouldn’t we look like a couple of losers? Would we wander the dining room seeking a spot to land, isolated outsiders and clearly newbies in the cruise world while everyone else started on their first course?

Happily, none of those worst case scenarios happened during our week on the Seine River.  The thing about a ship with only 150 travelers, though, is you quickly encounter everyone and figure out who to avoid and who could tell a good story, especially for those daily dinners, which were always open, rather than assigned, seating.

The first evening taught me about a special genus called competitive cruisers ad nauseum. Even from across the main lounge you can hear them name-checking the places they’ve visited and which ships they took. If someone asks a question, they’re the first to answer because they know everything even though they’ve never been on this ship or this tour. Don’t bother sitting with them at dinner unless you’re somebody who likes to listen while someone else talks.


In a small space like a river boat you can’t avoid the second group of people, i.e., cruiser queribundus. The complainers, they’re the same people on dry land who always find fault with the smallest thing. They’ve perfected their grumble. The cruise director isn’t as animated as their last cruise director. This gourmet food selection and unlimited wine at every meal wasn’t as exciting as back home in their town with four Michelin star restaurants. Nobody told them in advance where the most famous paintings were in the museum we visited. Meanwhile, the entire country of the Philippines has practically been wiped off the planet by the largest storm in recorded history AND you have chocolate on your pillow each night and a 24-hour espresso bar. PERSPECTIVE, people!!

Sigh, we find the indecoris Americanus still exists. This group and the cockroach will continue to exist after the zombie apocalypse. While no country produces perfect tourists, I still feel like I need to run up and apologize when I see the performance of an Ugly American in the flesh. A woman from the cruise walked up to a guard in a museum and said, in English (in her outside voice), “Where’s the bathroom? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.” Yes, in English. As if she assumed the guard should speak English just for her. No bonjour or s’il vous plais, or merci. No attempt to use the most basic travel word, toilette. On my first trip to France I clutched my phrasebook like a lifeline. The best part of owning a smartphone is the dictionary/translation app. But people still assume the world bends to their comfort zone.

In true high school fashion, this cruise offered an example of the genus cool kids. They didn’t take Latin, hence the modern title. They travel in a herd. The whole lot of them booked the cruise together and have no use for the rest of us. They eat together, they tour together, they sit together on the tour bus. My close encounter with this high school royalty occurred early in the trip when after dinner I took my computer aft to the “quiet” lounge to complete my MFA homework. The cool kids had set up camp with bottles and bottles of wine and a laptop playing party music at top volume. Never mind that music, dancing, and drinking were happening in the main lounge. “Do you hear that sound? That’s not how the engine on our last cruise sounded. That doesn’t sound right. This boat needs an overhaul. Those glasses on the table shouldn’t have moved like that. That engine needs an overhaul, I tell you.” Repeat a dozen times, each iteration louder and louder to sound over the music and successively slurred as bottles empty. They never even acknowledged my presence. I wasn’t part of the cool club.

Gaudium est - life is a joy. And we found plenty of this type throughout the week. There was the couple where the husband surprised his wife with the trip just a couple of weeks before they were supposed to leave. “Thank heavens my sister and I had just made a shopping trip to New York,” surprised wife laughed. Or the couple whose suitcases never arrived until just before dinner on the last night. The ship kept moving and the luggage was always one day behind. They appreciated the crew doing their laundry each day and joked about the situation because, well, what else could they do. The joyous set said c’est la vie when the flooding Seine meant some of our cruise was cruisin’ down the highway in a bus, and the cold and rain of Normandy made us feel like we were going to grow mold. There was the group united by knitting on rainy afternoons and others, like me, who thought the espresso machine that also delivered steaming, foamy milk for hot chocolate was worth the price of the cruise.

If you’ve done group travel, what categories have you encountered that I’ve overlooked? Share with us in the comments box your own close encounters with any of these kinds of creatures on your own travels or your own taxonomies.

The photos are the colors of Honfleur, the French port town that played an important part in the Hundred Year’s War and that I remember being mentioned of in Shakespeare’s history plays. This was one of two days of the trip we had some sun. It was also a favorite subject of Impressionist painters.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On French Terroir - Or Something Close To It

 My own impressionist version of life along the Seine 
(I promised my nephew I'd try Lightroom for my photos)

I’m an old vine. And that’s not a bad thing. At least that’s what I heard last week when I was rolling down the Seine River, drinking wine beginning at 9:30 in the morning.

Brad and I have been on a wine cruise down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur and back. At least some of the week was cruising. You see, the rain they’ve been having in northern France raised the level of the Seine so much that no boats could fit under the famous Paris bridges. We were lucky that our ship got stuck outside of Paris. The first part of our cruise consisted of getting on a tour bus and driving for a long time in rush-hour traffic to meet up with the ship in Conflans-Ste.-Honorine. Thank heavens the the bridges from here on out were new and tall enough to handle ocean-going vessels. At the end of the cruise it was back to Conflans where all kinds of river boats were tied up four across at the dock, waiting out the water.

  The high Seine in Paris

But back to my viney old self. Or rather, wines and old vines.

Vigneron Jean-Marc Espinasse (here and here), who came up from his warm Provencal vineyard to cold and rainy Normandy to teach us, was asked “When is a vine considered an old vine?” He said many might say 40 years, but he felt it was closer to 60. And with the older vines the roots are sunk deeper, so they can endure more. After hearing that, I didn’t feel so bad about this old body getting creakier by the month. Because I fell -- again -- and am feeling as ancient as the vines that produce the wines we’re drinking.

Jean-Marc Espinasse

I keep trying to tell myself that being an old vine is the best thing, that I’ve still got some grand cru life left in me. Jean-Marc told a story about how when he ran over one of his old vines, his babies, with his tractor he cried. Nobody cried when this old vine went down on the bus steps, though the bus driver was very solicitous the rest of the day like I was an old grandma who wears orthopedic shoes and reindeer sweatshirts.

Whatever Jean-Marc talks about, he always gets back to the French concept of terroir, or the influence soil, geography, climate, and other natural elements have on the wine or food from a certain place. Since he’s an organic winemaker, terroir defines everything he does. On a previous trip to France, another winemaker did an experiment and showed us how different wines that came from grapes grown just on opposite sides of a road could taste so different. Perhaps this plot had a little more sun, or that plot was a little closer to some lavender. “Without good terroir,” Jean-Marc told us, “you can’t have a good wine.”
While sometimes in France I just want to go the the Picard store and buy a week’s worth of frozen dinners (salmon on a bed of puréed broccoli - yum!), I love shopping at the weekly market and see where my food is from. Every merchant has labels on everything telling you if the dates come from Tunisia or Algeria. I prefer the clementines from Spain over the ones from Provence. Most of my vegetables come from within an hour of Dijon, my chickens come from Bresse-en-Bourg and my beef is Burgundy Charolais cows.

During this time when we can’t even get the U.S. government regulations to label if our food has been genetically modified, I like to come to a country where the origin of food is so essential (although not universal, I admit). On the bus tour to Honfleur the tour guide pointed out some stunted corn in the field. She said that the corn plants don’t produce ears of corn because it’s too cold and wet; however after the buds fade they mow it down and save it to feed the Normandy cows in winter, along with the peas, beans, and other crops they grow for the cattle. France escaped the mad cow problem, she said, because they don’t feed them much commercial food.

Even the houses in Normandy are about "terroir" with thatch roofs and irises growing on top

France can be maddening sometimes, like when you want to go to eat dinner before 7:30 p.m., or  if you have to deal with paperwork. But I do love the idea that nourishing our body begins with all the centuries of plants and minerals that have inhabited a small plot of land. The circle of life and all that.

Unfortunately, I also like French fries, French ice cream, and French chocolate. Sigh.

More stories from Normandy will be coming. Have any of you been to Normandy? What is your favorite part? Wherever you live how much do you know about the origin of your food? If you buy organic or local, what particular food do you try to always buy organic or local? Share your Normandy and food thoughts in the comments box.

We sailed on the Amallegro with Amawaterways and all of our arrangements were made by the über efficient Susan Boehnstedt of Critics Choice Vacations. Thanks to everyone who made our first cruise so relaxing and interesting. More stories to come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Postcard from Dijon

 Words cannot capture my joy at returning to the apartment to find
the geraniums I planted this summer still blooming.

You know those times in your life when everything is running so smoothly that you will be a front page feature in the HOME section of your local newspaper, star of an article full of tips about how to do everything better than anyone else? Me neither. My life always feels like herding cats.

Somehow I’ve made it back to Dijon. After my disastrous trip in the summer, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to walk onto the plane, let alone lift anything into the overhead bin. After my fall two days into the July trip, I got back into physical therapy the day after returning home, sticking with it until the day before heading back to France this fall. Steroid shots got my knee moving, but I probably will have to have rotator cuff surgery sometime next year. That meant that nothing in the house got cleaned. The garden was never finished. Brad was out of the country in Germany since September. I had the new challenge of keeping up with all my MFA homework (I’m reading and writing a lot - just not blogs).

To add injury to injury, neither arm nor knee has done well because each day I had to lift and carry my 40 lb. dog who was in worse shape than me. Skyler’s arthritis is making it hard for her to stand, plus she decided not to eat the food she’s eaten for years.  I never know what the day will bring in her condition. Even though she’s on multiple pain meds and is playing food roulette, every day she still wants her walk (now reduced to three houses up and three houses back then -- alley oop -- lifting her up the front stairs). I almost cancelled the trip this time, but Brad and I have a special event planned you’ll hear about later. So when the GREATEST FAMILY MEMBERS IN THE WORLD (hi, Melinda and Laurie) stepped up to take care of my old girl and get her to her vet appointments I put my aching body back on a plane.

 And when I started breathing the air of France, I exhaled. I sat and had tea at my favorite comptoir. See that book I was reading? Be good to yourself -- run to whichever place you get your books and get Kathleen Finneran’s, The Tender Land. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing you’ll ever read. It’s an exquisite memoir about a St. Louis family that must carry on after tragedy. Find a quiet corner and read this weekend.


I took a walk down Cours du Parc and wondered how many Sunday mornings this couple had walked this path after buying their daily bread. What other streets were part of their long lives in this historic city?

This was definitely not on the menu when I went to the market to buy the meat for our first dinner party in our new apartment. No thank you. In my very French Dutch oven I made a recipe I had saved on my computer ages ago - Braised French Onion Chicken with Gruyere. It was a wonderful night with good friends Didier, Francoise, and Claire -- even if we did have to get up and wash dishes and silverware between courses. We started with kir and ended with Vanille Pecan Caramel Beurre Salé ice cream and chocolate.

As evening approached this past weekend, I was racing around to find a screwdriver, expandable curtain rods, a book light, and other sundry items sold uniquely in who-knows-which specialized store. When I heard these guys laying down some smooth jazz up ahead of me I slowed down to listen and breathe. And I always drop something in the pot when I take pictures of street artists.

This is a short trip because I need to get back to my baby.  At the end of this week Brad and I leave on an adventure outside of our little Dijonnais sanctuary. Uncertain of internet access. But if it’s there I hope to bring you stories and photos of places new and interesting (and probably filled with rain). Meanwhile, if you have any questions or any requests on what you’d like to see or read about this country I’m still trying to figure out, leave them in the comments box and I’ll see what I can do.

Come to think of it, I do have a handy tip. If you’re having something from IKEA delivered that’s bigger than a breadbox, make sure you pick the option where they bring it up the winding stairs to your third-floor apartment and not the one where they leave it in the street or on the sidewalk. Trust me, it’s worth the extra 30 euros.

This was the space we had to prepare a four-course dinner

Friday, September 27, 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women . . . Writers

Oh, the irony that at the same time we’re celebrating Banned Book Week a well-known male writer declares that he will never teach women writers in his classroom. “I teach only the best,” David Gilmour said in an interview about what he reads and what he teaches. Apparently women’s lives and ideas are banned from his classroom because for him “the best” is defined as “[s]erious heterosexual guys.” He’s all about manly men.

I know, I know. “Banned” is probably too strong a word to describe this situation because he’s not fighting to get all women writers stricken from the department curriculum. He’s happy to allow someone else to handle the lesser, estrogen-influenced literature. However, his students are aware enough to realize at some point that they’re not reading any contemporary female authors in his class. Their education is missing something. To that he explained, “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.”

When social media and book bloggers went crazy over this admission he tried to hide behind the standard jerk’s response of “my words taken out of context.” In its defense, the website that posted the original interview immediately came back with the complete transcript of their discussion.

So why should you care that one writer-teacher has such a Neanderthal approach to his classes? Over on Book Riot, one columnist wrote a thoughtful response about the danger of this limited vision coming from a teacher. The classroom is where we explore a wider world-view, not study only what we like. How can we allow a classroom instructor to declare from the beginning that the ideas of women as a whole are not worthy? That talents of an entire gender are particularly lacking?

While I know that Gilmour doesn’t care what I think about anything, my first thought is that if we can’t find female writers whose works will live for centuries to come, is that because they’re inherently lesser writers or is it because there are great writers not being given the chance? Virginia Woolf (whom Gilmour places on the lower rings of not-a-hetrosexual-guy purgatory) ruminated on this exact question in her essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Who knows what “Judith” Shakespeare could have accomplished if cultural prejudices hadn’t held her back?

In a more modern method, the VIDA organization tracks the role of women in the literary world by maintaining statistics on how many females have their books reviewed by heavyweight book review sources and how many females are published in literary journals. The numbers they’ve charted can cause sleepless nights among those of us women who want to be published. Is this because women don’t write as compelling pieces or because there are a bunch of male editors who hold an opinion similar to Gilmour? Or because of the age-old problem of not enough women in the decision-making roles at the office?

This week I was originally planning on telling you about a book I’m reading. Mira Bartók's The Memory Palace, a mesmerizing book about family and love, and forgiveness. After leaving for college she and her sister sever all ties with her mother, who had once been a promising classical pianist but who had sunk deeper and deeper into mental illness. The book tells about reconciling as a family when Bartók receives word that her mother is dying in a homeless shelter. There are many memoirs about dysfunctional families, but Bartók stands out because of the “memory palace” she created to tell her story. After a car accident, she’s left with extreme memory loss and inability to remember things from one day to the next. A Jesuit priest told her how to build a memory palace, where everything she wants to remember has an image. Each image has a particular place in this palace in her mind. Throughout the telling of her story, she returns to her memory palace often, guiding us through her rooms and making connections for us between the abstract images that make her memory. Bartók teaches us how to map our lives, how following the path backward through landmarks can lead us forward to reconciliation with the present.

More than once a man has said that they don’t read women writers or books with female protagonists because they just can’t relate to the story (go ahead and ask your guy friends; I’ll wait). But you rarely hear women say they don’t read male authors.

And so I’m also reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. I know nothing of murder, or fly fishing, or the rough characters of bunkhouses in the West, or of the wild outdoors. But that’s why I read it. I want to understand. And I want to soak in the clean language: “I am haunted by waters.” Ultimately, both Maclean and Bartók talk family -- something which we all experience.

Maybe that male inclination to avoid what they just can’t relate to explains a whole lot in the world.

So in recognition of Banned Book Week, pick up one of many books by women writers who have enough trouble getting the literary respect they deserve from a bunch of people whose minds are the size of lentils. They just don’t need Gilmour disrespecting them, too. Here are a few to get you started:

Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird
Alice Walker The Color Purple
Kate Chopin The Awakening
Lois Lowry The Giver
Isabel Allende The House of the Spirits

Share titles of works by your favorite female writers, fiction or non-fiction,
in the comments box. Or just share what you’re reading now.

Friday, September 20, 2013

5 Random Thoughts On Travel

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The whimsy of French windows

I’m a month away from hitting the road, or rather hitting the river since Brad and I will be boating it up the Seine north to Normandy in France (more about that when the time comes). But already my head is full of travel. “Travel” is one of my favorite words because it’s so expansive. Travel expands my mind, my connection to the world, and my circle of friends. I’m up for it whether it’s an overnighter just down the highway or another country. Whether city or country. It means I’m about to bring something new to my life.

Here are 5 random thoughts on travel. I hope they might spark random thoughts of your own that you’ll share.

1) Today my better half, Brad, leaves for a research trip and won’t be back until after Christmas.  First Germany. Then France. Then Tunisia. The transportation logistics have been a challenge. The packing for changes of weather over that extended time hasn’t been easy since he always does the “one suitcase plus a backpack” thing. There’s the “not speaking German” thing, of course. Mostly, though, I wish I could be with him for the entire trip.

Sometimes, though, there are things that tie me to home. And my furry girl, Skyler, is that. She is getting old and had a bad summer when I was gone. At this stage of her life I can’t abandon her. I couldn’t enjoy such a long trip from worrying about her. I’ll just join Brad for a short time.

A French dog, not Skyler
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2) I’ve become enthralled by several travel blogs since I myself started blogging. However, there are two I never miss. Kristin Espinasse’s blog French Word A Day convinced me that France wasn’t such a scary place. She introduced me to the day-to-day life of the country beyond Paris and taught me something about the personality of the place that made it seem manageable. She offered her American take on her adopted homeland with great good humor and enviable photographs, all of which you can see in her two books Blossoming in Provence and Words in a French Life.

The second blog that is a staple in my week is Southern Fried French by Lynn McBride. Most blogs about France focus on Paris or Provence. I was so glad to find Lynn’s because it was based in the Burgundy region, which is my home away from home. She chronicles all the little village festivals, tells us about people we’d love to have as neighbors, and like Kristin she teaches us a thing or two in her book about learning language as an adult. But most importantly, she ends most posts with a creative recipe that melds the culinary elements of her American Southern background with her new country’s love of food.
A marquise - I learned the word for this glass cover from Kristin Espinasse
after so many years of loving and photographing them.
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3) When I’m in France I’ve become addicted to watching the video channels. First, it’s because American pop culture is everywhere, so it gives me a chance to hear a familiar language. But I also love to see what other cultures are obsessed with. For the most part the French videos don’t do much for me. The females are waifs who sing in little girl voices and float around in something gauzy, longing for an impossible love (at least that’s what it seems like because I don’t understand all the words).

However, the French pop singer Zaz just blows them all away in my book. Her influences range from Edith Piaf to Ella Fitzgerald. She has a unique jazzy vibe that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and bop to her tune. I ask myself how Zaz can have over 17 million views on one video, yet her fame never spreads to this country. Whether you understand the language or not, her talent is universal. Get your weekend off to a good start by listening to her most popular song, “Je Veux” (I Want). This version is the original video. This version is live with English subtitles for the lyrics.

4) I’ve fallen in love with Henri, Le Chat Noir. This tuxedoed cat covers both the sublime and the ridiculous as the premier French cat philosopher on the internet and winner of the “Best Cat Video.” Can you say ennui? From his website you can access his videos, his Facebook page, and his tweets.
Paris graffito
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5) And finally, travel for me means photography. And I’m already trying to come up with a photo theme for my next trip to France. I’ve done dogs. And windows. And flowers. And doorways, And street art.

What have been your best photo themes when you travel? I’m taking all suggestions.

Share in the comments box what travel means to you. If you’re more of a homebody, I’d love to hear about that, too.

French doors and flowers in one photo
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Today's post is part of the Random 5 Friday theme. Click on over to the site to see other interesting takes on randomness.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's In A Name Change, Mrs. Justin Timberlake?

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Even the cars are fashionable for French weddings

When I was young and so full of optimism and a sense of empowerment I made a decision that I was so certain put me squarely in the world of the new normal. Now I’ve found that I’m living in the world of dinosaurs. Or maybe it’s the world of the Giant Panda – there are some others like me, but we’re in danger of extinction. And we owe it all to Jessica Biel, the new Mrs. Justin Timberlake.

She just announced that she’s officially (as in paperwork and everything) changed her last name to “Timberlake.” She’ll continue to use her original name professionally, though, since she’s created quite an extensive body of mascara commercials under it. Maybe she’ll use her last name to take up the role of backup dancer in The Mrs. Carter Show of another name-changer, Beyoncé (aka Knowles-Carter)

And so I ask myself as part of the measley 8% who maintain their last name after marriage why so many women continue to go down the traditional route when generations of women who came before fought so hard that we could join country clubs under our own name, and own property, and vote without our husband’s permission, and be on the verge of perhaps becoming the first female president. (Alas, I’m aware of the whole controversy when Hillary went from “Rodham” to “Clinton” to “Rodham Clinton.” What a shame.) Why do more than 60% of the people in a poll – men and women – think that women should take their husband’s name when they marry?

It didn’t take much effort to decide to keep my name. When I got married and was spending all my time in a bastion of liberal progressiveism, i.e., the university, keeping my name put me in extensive company. I already had started down a professional life and thought it would be too complicated to notify colleagues across the country or to connect past articles I wrote with future ones. Plus, -- and more importantly – I liked my name. I liked the family it connected me to. It wasn’t any kind of political stand. However, it seemed that by that point in history more women would be staking claims on their own identity.

At first, my husband-to-be tried to convince me to change it, but then I said, “If having the same last name is so important, then why don’t you change yours to Farrar?” That pretty much closed that discussion. I had no problem giving our kids his name without any fancy hyphenation (although in college I knew a couple who hyphenated their names and then both took the new name). All of the friends of my kids called me Mrs. C instead of Ms. F, but I was fine with that. When relatives we rarely saw addressed Christmas cards to Mr. and Mrs. C, I could let that go. However, when telemarketers call asking for Mrs. C, I can honestly say, “There’s no one here by that name.”

However, finding that the women in my kids’ generation are still opting for the traditional route, with only 8% changing compared to 23% in the decade after I got married, I’m confused. This generation does nothing traditional, from the careers they follow to the technology they adopt to the styles they wear. Yet young American women – who are now marrying in their late twenties and have careers of their own – are still willing to do all the paperwork necessary to do what women did back before they had the vote or owned property under their own name. One researcher theorizes that name changing is a symbol of unity and commitment. Since I’ve been married 28 years I don’t think that reason flies. I’m sure actress Demi Moore was envisioning long-term commitment when she set up the now-abandoned Twitter account @MrsKutcher.

This issue of a different last name has stalked me doubly recently. Ever since we bought property in France we’ve had all of the France-related mail showing up in our American mailbox addressed to “Mme. Farrar.” This means “Mrs. Farrar” because the French have yet to develop any word or abbreviation the equivalent of “Ms.” Madamoiselle” is for unmarried women while “Madame” is for married ones, no matter your age or name situation. One rebellious town in that country, however, has passed a law that proclaims nothing but “Madame” should be used when dealing with adult women. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least they’re taking a stand while the rest of their country continues to dither over this language issue into the 21st century.

And so here I remain, a symbol of the Boomers generation, realizing I'm practically extinct.

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So what about you? Are you a name changer? What were your reasons for whichever direction you went? What are your theories as to why young women continue on this traditional path? Talk to us in the comments box about what’s in a name.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Back To School With Random 5 Friday

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Fall is in the air in the Black Forest of Germany

Fall is so quickly blowing in. During the day it may be almost 90˚, but I take my dog out at night and I see dried leaves curled on the sidewalk and the air feels like I should build a bonfire. Soup weather is quickly approaching. I need to find some Jonathon apples and make my first pie or apple crisp of the season. Of all the signs of fall, none signal it more than the march of children back to school.

And so as part of Random 5 Friday I offer five memories of starting school each September when I was young.

1) Mom took us to The Model, a clothes shop in downtown Kirkwood. This was before shopping malls, or boutiques, or national chains. We got to pick out our first-day-of-school dress – always a dress per 1960’s dress codes – and our saddle shoes, sometimes black and white, sometimes tone on tone. My oldest sister recently told me that she had found out at some point after our mom had died that Grandma always paid for our shoes. With four girls in the family, paying for so many shoes a year was an issue. Grandma paid for a pair of school shoes and a pair of Keds for summer. If we were good and patient while all four of us tried on the clothes, sometimes Mom would take us to The Velvet Freeze ice cream shop across the street for a scoop of the world’s best ice cream.

2) We walked to school. There were no buses except for students who lived on the far edges of the suburban community. So all the kids on our cul-de-sac gathered by 8 a.m. in the morning and walked together, down Wilson then half a mile straight uphill on Simmons then right on Peeke to cross at the crosswalk on Geyer guarded by Pete, the retired policeman. He lived on Evans, across from my Brownie leader, who held meetings on Tuesdays. And we reversed it on the way home after a quick stop at the gas station across the street to buy some Bazooka gum. Often I walked alone because I dawdled or because I had Brownies. We only got a ride if it rained hard. Not even in the cold winter months. We didn’t live in a world of “stranger danger” and “Amber Alerts,” unlike now when parents are buying GPS trackers for their kids, anticipating every possible horror.

3) The best part of starting the school year for me was buying the supplies. Such a cornucopia of folder and notebook choices! Even down to the small spiral assignment notebook. Oh, the colors and themes. The perfect color for each subject. And the excitement when I finally was allowed to switch from wide-ruled to college-ruled. From fat #2 pencils to thin ones – even to mechanical ones in high school. And then blue Bic pens. I never have outgrown my obsession with just the right notebook. I will buy them now assuming before I die I will have filled them all with writing. And I’ve started buying even more when I’m in France because, well, they have different kinds.

When I started back to school to earn my MFA this year, I stocked up on notebooks for writing, found my best pens (2 – one in purse, one by computer), and wandered the aisles of Office Depot hoping I would spot some special school paraphernalia that I absolutely had to have. This go-round for my education, though, it’s just going to involve taking my student ID to the Apple store and getting a new computer. Not half as exciting as new notebooks.

4) The buying of the metal lunchbox (with matching thermos, of course) took more mental space than anything else I ever did in grade school. I’m pretty sure of it. I gravitated toward animal themes over teen heartthrob themes.

5) We actually carried everything to school each day. Like, in our hands, unless we rode our bike, at which point we put stuff in the metal basket on the handlebars. We didn’t carry it in a car, or in a backpack, or on a computer. We carried actual stuff in our actual hands and shifted the books from side to side in response to that biting ache that came from keeping the wrist bent just so and arm straight to hold it all tight against your body to keep it from tumbling to the ground. Which it did on several occasions, so you hoped that you were with friends who would help you chase down handouts, permission slips, and homework that needed signing as it blew down the sidewalk and into the street.

Most schools around here start long before Labor Day now. However, for me it’s the early part of September that always brings out the nostalgia. It also is my emotional New Year’s Day. Perhaps that seasonal cycle became so deeply ingrained because I also taught school for so long. So all I want to say today is Happy New Year!

The tiny notebooks I carry in my purse on a daily basis for writing ideas, taking notes at the doctor's, or jotting down the name of a contractor someone recommends. The Moleskine notebooks are for travel because they're lightweight and flexible. The larger Mead are for writing at my desk.
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What memories do you have about the start of school for you as a child or when you were a parent sending your own children off to school. Share them with us in the comments box.

And you can find other wonderful Random 5 Friday writing here.

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