Friday, May 31, 2013

NoGlu, Paris

I took my camera to NoGlu on Saturday May 25th, my 49th birthday, and my first - but with luck not my last - birthday celebrated in Paris. How cool is that? How lucky am I? So amazingly privileged to live the life I do that I often can't believe it. And I am so glad that Mom and John are here for a too-brief time to share it with me.

I took the camera so that I could get pictures of me and Mom and John, and of John Wilson and Anne Wilson and their daughter, the musician Siobhan Wilson, whose birthday was the day before and who had flown over from Glasgow to Paris for the weekend. We all had a good time eating and talking and eating some more, and of course I took pictures of the food, but neglected to take any pictures of people. Smoked salmon with guacamole to start, and a spot-on roast duck breast with cauliflower purée, served over braised lentils and topped with a roasted eggplant. I think that was one of the best things I've eaten in France so far, and that's saying a lot.

A rhubarb cake for dessert, and then a walk back out through the Passage des Panoramas and past all of the other people who hadn't started their dinners at the unfashionably early hour of 7:30pm, as we had. 15 minutes on two métro lines and another short walk past even more diners sitting out in their coats under the darkening sky, the haze from their cigarettes veiling their faces, and we were back at the hotel. Yes, I could spend every birthday like that.

Que Será, Será

So I did get the little plastic dove in my last slice of the gâteau de Pentecôte that we'd bought in Aix-en-Provence, and apparently that means I'll be married within the year. I would take Jean Reno, but he's already married, and he stood me up at the Château de Montmirail the other day anyway, so who needs him. I'm kind of off the whole OKCupid thing that I joined before Valentine's Day (I always focus on the down sides of being single about that time) and don't really have the time or energy to think about relationships. So much to do, after I see Mom and John off on Monday, and while I wish they could stay another three weeks, I've got a paper to finish editing and books to plan out and write and official people to convince of my worthiness and qualifications to stay in the country for another year.

My Aunt Ann, who was my great-aunt really, one of my grandmother McHugh's three older sisters, used to sing to me, "Que Será, Será" mostly. Grandma McHugh used to sing "K-K-K-Katie" and "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and "Last Night on the Back Porch (I Loved Her Best of All)" but Aunt Ann was of a more wistful nature. She never married, but she bought herself a diamond ring, which I have now. There's an old sepia-toned photo of her with Grandma on the beach of Lake Michigan in Chicago perhaps, where she's vamping in a skimpy (for the era) bathing suit. She lived by herself, but never alone, because her nieces (my aunts) and some of my cousins were always stopping by to help with shopping or mow the lawn or just to visit, after she went into an assisted living facility. At least that's what I've heard - I was moving around the country with my family, or in school in Minnesota Oregon Japan. But we kept in touch by letters. She died while I was in Tokyo.

I don't know what I'll be, still. I'm as pretty as I'll get, and the way I spend money I'll never be rich, I imagine, but I am living a rich life, and am looking forward to what comes next. If that's a dove-granted partner, that will be fine - if I live alone, that's what will be. Life is sweet, in any event.
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:

Que Será, Será
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours to see
Que Será, Será

- Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (1956)

Civilization At Last!

After spending a week shivering on a damp boat sleeping separately, because the beds in the rear of the boat were too small for two people (I was bunked on the padded seats tucked under the bow), the first thing Mom and John did when we got to the hotel in Paris was to get into the big double bed, under the fluffy warm duvet. The first thing I did was take a hot shower, for about half an hour. Hot water! Flush toilets! Dry bedding and thick pillows! I think if we hadn't had a dinner reservation that night, we would have just stayed at the hotel enjoying the comforts of a non-rocking fully-equipped lodging. We spent two nights at the Hôtel des Bains in the Montparnasse district; a quiet place surrounding a small central courtyard, and only slightly outrageously expensive.

Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,*
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams.
* And we certainly had plenty of that while boating up and down the Marne canal. Verses from "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J. R. R. Tolkien, for all you non-LOTR geeks out there.

Remembering War

Top: National cemetery at Sillery
Bottom: Shrapnel holes in the Palais de Justice, Rouen

Every village has a war monument. Shrapnel and bullet holes scar façades in most of the towns in the northern half of the country. Unlike the World War (both I and II) veterans with direct experience of the conflicts from the United States who were adults, if sometimes young adults, at the time, here in France there are two generations still living who have visceral memories of bombings and armies and deportations. Streets, buildings, and even parking lots are named after important dates of victories, defeats, surrenders, heroes, martyrs. And that's only going back a century, in this country built on the bones of two thousand years of battles. It's no wonder the French have such a fiercely protective attitude towards patrimoine. And yet for all that the national guards in the airports and museums carry machine guns, it's a fairly pacifist country, at least in my experience, even with the recent protests over gay marriage. I hope it stays that way.

Châteaux et Colza

Neither of the big châteaux we drove by last week on the way to Paris were open to visitors, so we just peeked through the gates. The first, at Montmort-Lucy, was a fortress in the 11th century; the turreted 16th-century castle was built on and within those walls. It's a private residence now, and only does group tours by reservation. We got in the car and continued our drive north through the bright-yellow colza fields.

The second château is at Montmirail, and the name sounded familiar to me. I thought it was the name of the castle in a French movie I'd seen at the Portland International Film Festival a few years back, but that was "La Princesse de Montpensier." Now that I'm looking into it, Montmirail was the title granted to the knight Godefroy at the beginning of the wonderful French movie "Les Visiteurs," although the castle in that movie isn't this one. They open this place up for special events throughout the year, including a fancy-dress ball, but not that morning. No handsome Frenchman came riding down the grand avenue for me. I'll keep looking.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Qu'est-ce qu'il y a à manger?

I can't eat cheese (though I have been tasting it, and then regretting the fact, so I've stopped that now) but Mom can eat cheese, so we have been buying representative samples in the various regions of France we've visited. We didn't get a Rocamadour at Rocamadour but we did buy one once we got to Le Paradou, and before we left Provence we picked up a chestnut-leaf-wrapped Banon. We ate well in Provence, taking advantage of the fresh vegetables and the olives, and of course the delicious rosé wines.

I apologize to John's arteries and his doctor but I was sort of living vicariously through him for a while, buying sweet-smelling yeasty breads and flaky pastries for him to eat. And I watched as Mom devoured the cheeses. Sigh.

Mussels aren't exactly native to the Champagne region but we had some very good ones at the harborside bistro, with really great frites. We might have some more this week, now that we're closer to the Atlantic.

As well as the French onion soup, John had a French grilled cheese sandwich, the croque-monsieur filled with ham and cheese and topped with a béchamel sauce and more cheese and put under the broiler. In Vernon he had a version topped with a fried egg. Mom and I have been buying gluten-free bread wherever we find it - there's a new (to me) brand now, Allergo, which produces quite tasty baguettes that are even closer to the real thing than the Schar brand I've been eating, though I still like Schär's seeded rolls, which we've been eating with vegetable soup this week.

We'll have lunch in Paris today; we're taking the train from Rouen in to visit the Louvre. It's a cold rainy day here, though yesterday was nice and sunny, so we'll spend it inside looking at beautiful things.

La Cave Aux Coquillages, Fleury-la-Rivière

I know I've been talking about the Roman ruins scattered about, and how walking down narrow alleys between age-darkened buildings gives me the shivers from ghosts of times past, but to get a real sense of history, you need to look at things in terms of geologic eras. Underneath the clay and chalky soil of the Champagne vineyards is a relic of the shallow ocean that used to cover the area 45 million years ago, and under the village of Fleury-la-Rivière is a series of caves and galleries that have been carved out by amateur-turned-professional fossil hunter (and champagne maker, of course) Patrice Legrand, in La Cave Aux Coquillages.

A layer of shell-rich sandstone contains microfossils, and macrofossils as well, in particular the Campanile giganteum, a giant sea snail. M. Legrand was spending his free Sundays wandering around the region with a rock hammer looking for fossils and noticed that the cliffs and caves in this town had some of the richest concentrations of fossils, so he bought an old complex of farm buildings and began tunneling beneath and behind them into the hillside. He and his son have done all the work of carving out the tunnels, using only jackhammers and picks.

Once they identify the locations of the fossils, they choose which ones to leave in situ and which ones to bring out for further cleaning. M. Legrand said that he hopes to expand the caves and the fossil excavation project and invite people from schools and universities to come to study and work. They've just recently gotten permission to open the caves to the public - the permits were granted in 2011 - and he's still working on getting all the exhibits in order. The visit starts with a walk through time and a discussion of evolution, with displays of fossils from the region and from around the world representing a span of geologic eras, with trilobites and leaf-print fossils and even the impression of a dinosaur's foot. M. Legrand and his friends collected all the fossils themselves. Then going further into the cave system, you see the giant sea snail fossils coming out of the ceiling and walls, with niches full of shells to run your fingers through. He's got a very educational setup, well suited for elementary school visits, but it's not oversimplified, so it's interesting for adults as well. Especially when your mother requests that you ask questions about sedimentary stratification and thanatocoenosis, requiring vocabulary that did not make up part of my medieval French poetry classes and which took a good bit of rephrasing and pantomime.

A friend and fellow fossil-hunter created some dioramas in niches in the second cave gallery, showing the undersea environment and the animals that lived there, using fossils colored and provided with latex bodies to replace their long-gone meat ones. And there's a workshop space underground as well, where amateur fossil hunters, university students, and scientists can come to help out with the research and to pursue their own studies, but that wasn't open to the public.

In a large laboratory room above ground, the work of cleaning and sorting and identifying the fossils goes on. The work is done with dental tools, including old toothbrushes. Paintbrushes and shaving brushes are also used to dust off the surface before more chipping away of the crumbly stone is done. When the fossils are exposed, they have a choice to leave them partially embedded in pleasing configurations, or to extract them entirely. Either way, they protect the cleaned fossils with resin to preserve both shape and color, and add resin and acrylic to the stone so that it doesn't fall to pieces.

Mom bought a small fossil shell in a graceful fluted spiral that had just been finished the day before (most of the samples for sale were fairly boring smooth-shelled snails or clams, or unaffordable and untransportable giant snails). The sample cases are in the salon of the main building that M. Legrand and his wife use as part of their chambres d'hôtes business, with three rooms for rent, breakfast included. They've been renovating and restoring the old buildings, which takes much time and money. We couldn't figure out where the time came from, but some of the money must be from the champagne side of the business. His grandfather started working the vines, his father developed the champagne business, and he has continued to make champagne, though now he's only spending 50% of his time at that, with the other 50% devoted to expanding the fossil site into a study and research center.

We enjoyed the afternoon and the tour, and talking to yet another person totally passionate about what they're doing. And the champagne was good, too.

Epernay, France

Along the "Avenue of Champagne" in Epernay the champagne houses aren't the 16th-century tilting earth-brick constructions we were visiting in the smaller towns in the hills, but massive marble and gilt mansions with high gates and a general air of "if you have to ask, you can't afford it." Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier Jouët, and 50 others line both sides of the kilometre or so of the avenue that's in Epernay proper, though technically it stretches out for another several along the D3 road.

We stopped in only one spot, a small storefront connected with the Collard-Picard house, and tasted a flight of their blended champagnes for 12 euros - the first time we'd been charged anywhere - plus a glass of the grand cru Dom Picard made of 100% chardonnay grapes. That was good, but, as we commented with an authentically jaded air of ennui, we'd had better ... we did end up going back to the Caillez-Lemaire house in Damery to get another bottle of their cuvée Jadis because that one was truly excellent.

Tour bus groups were swarming the Moët & Chandon building entrance, but we considered going in there anyway because one of the independent vintners had told us that they have very beautiful caves that date back centuries, and that there are bas-reliefs carved into the walls above the racks of bottles, and that also the ornate mansion above the cellars is all chandeliers and gold, which would be fun. But we didn't want to fight the crowds. Or pay the entry fees.

The town is full of well-maintained 19th-century architecture and 21st-century boutiques, and lots of delis selling prepared foods and bakeries with complicated and delicious-looking pastries. We passed a chocolate shop with intricately molded sweets, like the horse above, and we drooled over the dozens of cold and hot options in the trays in the windows of the traiteurs. The Portail Saint-Martin, a remnant of a 16th-century church, sits at the edge of a small park, and there are fountains in the middle of several traffic circles.

We didn't have picnic gear and the weather was still chancy, so we went back to one of the restaurants we'd passed earlier after parking the car and walking towards the center of town that morning. Le Chapon Fin serves good food at a reasonable price, with traditional specialties like the onion soup that John ordered. They substituted avocado for the soft-boiled egg on Mom's endive salad, and I enjoyed their house-smoked salmon with avocado. We all had the honey-glazed pork ribs for the main dish, and those were quite tasty. No champagne at lunch.

We could have taken the boat up from Mareuil-sur-Ay to Epernay but it was much quicker to drive. I think we would have enjoyed docking there, though, and taking a bottle back to the boat with some of the ready-to-eat delicacies from the shops. That will have to go on the agenda for the next trip.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ruins, Rains, Reims

Paris was once named Lutetia. Aqueducts like the Pont du Gard crossed rivers and ran for thousands of pedes across the proto-French countryside, and water bubbled up in stone-tamed thermal springs for baths in Arelate (Arles), Cassinomagus (Chassenon), and Nemausus (Nîmes). The amphitheatre in Arausio hosted entertainment for soldiers and civilians 2,000 years ago; the same structure in Orange is home to a summer opera festival today. Blocks of stone carved by the remote ancestors of today's French citizens are lying scattered in their public parks, incorporated into their homes and garden walls, or still placed and piled where they were two millenia ago, scarred by weather and war. I get shivers when I run my hand over these old stones, or walk the narrow cobbled streets between them, thinking of the millions who have been there before me, and wondering how many millions more are still to come.

On our way driving north out of Provence we stopped briefly to see some of the monuments at the site called Glanum, though we didn't go into the archaeological site where they've been excavating the ruins of the old town. The arch and mausoleum were impressive enough, and it was spitting rain, and we had a long way to go. But it would be an interesting spot to wander through, some day.

There are ruins in Reims as well, and there was rain. Mom and John had both packed full rain gear, jackets and pants, and it was a good thing they did. I borrowed John's rain pants so that I didn't get too cold and soaked while leaping about the boat with ropes, and it was cold and rainy in Reims that afternoon. We caught a local bus from Sillery and were dropped off right by the cathedral.

The cathedral in Orléans is taller and Notre Dame in Paris has nicer bells but for sheer Gothic splendor the cathedral in Reims takes the highly-decorated cake. Intricately carved stone pillars support thousands of saints and angels and gargoyles that look out in all directions over the city; they're being cleaned and restored section by section, and the newly-redone quarter of one tower shines white in contrast to the age- and smoke-stained dark grey stone of the rest. Mom and I disagreed as to whether restoration is a good thing; I liked the sense of history the old façade gives, but she argued that it would have been white and clean in the beginning, so they're just restoring what was once the normal appearance of the structure. Clean or dirty, it's just beautiful.

There was an art exhibit featuring different representations of Joan of Arc, with whom this cathedral is closely linked. She brought Charles VII to Reims to be crowned in 1429 after beating back both the English and Burgundian armies, a triumph that lasted less than two years for the future saint. We're in Rouen right now, where she was tried and executed, poor thing. One of the older statues inside the cathedral is a lovely thing, with her calm face carved of ivory. I forgot to write down the sculptor's name, but remember reading that this was the last work he created, because he refused any more commissions.

Some of the stained glass windows are new, some are older, some are original. The church took down many of the windows before World War I so that they wouldn't get destroyed in the bombing raids. Four of the windows were done in the grisaille style by local artist Brigitte Simon in the 1970s and look like ice; the German artist Imi Knoebel added six more two years ago in fiery colors of yellow and red; and Marc Chagall's fluid watery blue windows frame the three sides of the rear chapel space. I liked those the best.

The stone-walled bays that were once Roman market stalls stick out from underneath a new paved shopping area. Short straight and longer winding streets thread between buildings constructed during the last four or five centuries, with half-timbered houses leaning up against modern concrete apartment buildings. There are champagne houses here, too, but they're all the big ones, and thronged with tour groups. When I went into the tourist office to pick up a city map, a German group was headed out and the flag-waving leader of a Japanese group just coming in.

Reims, which was known as Durocortorum back in Roman times, was the capital of the northern province of Gaul and was at one point the second-largest city in the Roman Empire, just behind Rome itself. All roads might have led to Rome, but the Via Agrippa also led to Reims, terminating in the Gate of Mars, which is still standing at the edge of a large park, across from the modern train station.

Andrew Carnegie added to the monuments with his donation of the Carnegie Library of Reims, built in the 1920s. We didn't go into the book stacks or the garden, but instead admired the architecture and the art deco stylings of the light fixtures and the mosaics on the walls of the entrance hall.

Mom poked her head into the reading room, and said that everyone there was reading on a computer. Old school library function was retained in the catalog room across the way, however, with two stories of card-filled pull-out drawers done in oak. Do you remember when you had to use these to find things in your local library? I do. I used to volunteer at the public library in Ashland, and type up new cards to put in the catalogs, and I remember how annoying it was to pull the long central rod out of the drawer to put the new card in its proper place, because it was so hard to get the rod to go back through all the holes in the cards afterwards. Technology is a wonderful thing - but someone needs to remember the Dewey Decimal System, just in case.

We had been told that the bus back to Sillery left at 5:30pm but when it arrived, the driver wouldn't let us on. Apparently it was a school bus at that time, and only open to school-card-carrying kids, though I did see an older woman get on. We had to wait - in the cold and the wind and the rain - for another hour until the 6:30pm bus arrived. A girl who showed up to wait for the same bus explained that yes, the schedule indicated that the 5:30pm bus was available, but that they couldn't be precise on the schedule whether it would be for school transport or not. We did not exactly understand this explanation, but chalked it up to another idiosyncrasy of the French government. We shivered back to our boat and cranked up the space heater, bundled in all our sweaters and coats, and warmed up with another bottle of cold champagne.