The Gates are Open

It’s both a joy and a luxury to travel freely through gates of time and place, to explore and to return, as we have done this year. Arriving home after living for a year in France, everything seemed strange and familiar all at one. As our friend Linda, who had cared for our home for all these months, drove us down the long driveway our first night back in California, the sight of the open gates to our fields and to the front garden awakened alarm in me. Instantly I wanted to shout out “Close the gates, the dogs will get out!”  But there are no dogs at home now; none to come running out barking to greet us. SweetPea me manque. I know well that grief does not respect the boundaries of time, or of a fence or gate; still it doesn’t seem right to leave our gates open.

Home in San Luis Obispo

Home in San Luis Obispo

Friends ask: what is it like to be back home? My honest answer is – I don’t know. I go through the days busy with activities and long lists of things to do. I’m happy to reconnect with friends and with my beautiful home. But I know I’m not fully present yet. I find myself wondering if it’s true that I spoke French just a few short weeks ago. Aix me manque.

Linda

Linda

Evy, Nick, Tina, Karen Mothers for Peace

Evy, Nick, Tina, Karen- Mothers for Peace

Yovanna's 20th birthday

Yovanna’s 20th birthday

Perhaps the most jarring difference between life in Provence, and my life here on the Central Coast of CA is the reality that I live in the desert. Although the Pacific Ocean is only 5 miles away from our house, the land that surrounds me is entirely dry and totally dependent on irrigation for its vegetation. The vineyards, mostly new, that spread out across the low hills in this valley, seem temporary – an expression of a wish to make this golden desert green- a wish that will ultimately be defeated. There just isn’t enough water. Recent headlines in the local papers proclaim that “water wars” have intensified in the county since we’ve been gone.

In all my travels in France, I never saw land used in the way we use land here. Our land here is overgrazed and undernourished. We are a young state and a young country. Like feckless adolescents, we haven’t yet learned to care for what we have. We continue to live with excess, as though there is no end to resources: excess in our habits, our consumption, our emotions, our wants. It’s a hard lesson to learn one’s limits.

Time-traveling. How can it be that only six weeks ago we were departing France, having to say goodbye to our dearest friends Monique and Dominique. Of course, the best way to say goodbye, or hello, in France is to share a good meal together.

Dinner with Monique and Dominique

Dinner with Monique and Dominique

Simone & Karen in the garden

Simone & Karen in the garden

For those of us of certain age, we like having a relaxing drink in the garden.

Simone and I enjoyed so many good talks, a movie, music events and stories. Her novels, which recount the history of Provence through people whom she knew or whose stories were told to her by family and friends, are treasures. Each one gave me a deeper understanding and love for the area in which I was living. A piece of my heart remains with Simone in Aix.

We received from Monique, Dominique and Simone the greatest gifts of acceptance and friendship. At our farewell dinner at a neighborhood Turkish restaurant, Monique gave us an “award” of one of her beautiful paintings: “Les Coquelicots à Puyricard,” poppies in the fields near Puyricard. Monique is a genius at capturing the warmth of a summer day, the brilliance of nature’s  colors, and the calm of painting in nature all on one small canvas. And her generosity allows her friends and students to experience with her these special places in Provence. You can see Monique’s work on her website ateliersdusoleil.free.fr/

Dominique understood so well my love of words and my desire to learn French. He sent me off with a small book, “Les Mots de Ma Vie,” with a reminder to keep alive my yearning and my efforts to learn the French language. More than all of that, they sent with us an abundance of love and kindness, and the sureness that we will see them again, bientôt.

Before leaving Aix and France, there were a few special places and people we wanted to enjoy right up to the last minute. With Monique, Dominique and family we spent a wonderful evening at a 16th century chateau/vineyard north of Aix where a troupe of Japanese drummers performed ritual music and dances. Monique and Dominique are at the heart of a cultural alliance association with Japan and they have been instrumental in many important cultural exchanges, including assisting survivors of the Fukushima disaster.

Chateau/Vineyard

Chateau/Vineyard

Japanese traditional drum and dance

Japanese traditional drum and dance

There’s a famous rock climbing area just north of Aix on the way to Apt, that we had talked of visiting all year. With time running out, we made a full-day excursion, beginning with Sunday lunch at the Auberge de la Loube (mentioned in Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence”) where the proprietor has an unparalleled collection of horse-drawn carriages stored in his small barn next to the auberge.

Auberge de la Loube

Auberge de la Loube

The Auberge is situated near the old village of Buoux. To access the Fort de Buoux and the climbing walls, you travel down a small winding road from the top of the plateau into a deep valley surrounded by steep granite cliffs. This was a world-famous rock climbing site in the 80’s, and remains a popular place today to practice high-level technical skills. From the valley floor, Ken and I climbed the long trail up to the remains of the old Fort, dating back to the 12th century. The area, however, has been used for millennia as a secure site for habitation.

Fort de Buoux

Fort de Buoux

Walls of the fortress

Walls of the fortress

During a late winter excursion to the Gorges du Verdon, Ken and I had made note to return when we had more time and the weather was warmer. The end of August seemed a perfect time. This is an area of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in which one could spend many days of happy exploration in the mountains and along the lake shores. One can also spend moments of terror traversing the length of the gorge on a narrow road that hugs the rock face with drops of thousands of feet on one side. (I know – I was there.) And so we returned to the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie at the northwest entrance to the Gorges to climb the steep cliffs to the old church and to see the faïence: world-famous ceramics and porcelain. This lovely, remote town so proud of its history and culture, built into the rocky face of mountains, served as a summary of all that I love best about France.

Path to the church-Moustiers

Path to the church-Moustiers

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

Tile in the church in Provençal language

Tile in the church in Provençal language

Of course we were eager to see our Norwegian friends Erik and Helen for a few final rounds of golf before we returned home to the States and they to Norway. We met halfway between their vacation home near Grasse and Aix to try out a well-known course called Saint-Endréol, located north of the Mediterranean in the little town La Motte. At Saint-Endréol, electric riding carts are obligatory since the slopes are severe throughout the 18 holes. A river borders the course, and defines the famous 16th hole in which the green is positioned in the middle of the river. It’s true! Perhaps we will travel with Helen and Erik to see the northern lights in Tromsø.

Ken & Erik, St. Endréol

Ken & Erik, St. Endréol

Red cliffs at St. Endréol

Red cliffs at St. Endréol

In the summer of this year in which the metropolitan area of Aix/Marseille was designated the Cultural Capitol of Europe, we were overwhelmed with choices of internationally acclaimed artists in performances of music, dance and theatre. In August we attended concerts in La Roque d’Antheron to hear Brahams and Beethoven piano concertos. In Aix we attended the best performance of the Fauré Requiem I have ever heard. We heard Corsican polyphonic singers in an ancient church in Aix, and in the streets were readings of poetry, jugglers, aerial performances, and medieval lute players. It was a riot of culture; and we witnessed only a tiny portion of what was offered. France me manque.

And now we are home, traveling across time and cultures and landscapes. People ask me: do you wish you had stayed in France?  But that was never a question in my mind. I knew I would return, and this is firmly my home. I love this desert/ocean home. I love my trees, so different from those in my garden in France. I love my birds and the frogs in my pond. This is my home, despite my disappointments with our immaturity and the dysfunction of our political system.

On Bishop Peak, in the heart of San Luis Obispo, I found steps recently carved into the mountain that reminded me of the ancient steps carved into the mountains in France centuries ago. These newer stones have yet to register the tread of centuries of boots. But they are beautiful, also, in their newness. The stoney flanks of Bishop Peak can awaken in me a longing for the rocky promonories of Provence.

Steps on Bishop Beak

Steps on Bishop Peak

Bishop Peak

Bishop Peak

And on the golf courses, here and in Pacific Grove where we recently played, we see wild turkeys and deer. I can’t say I miss the wild boar of French golf links.

Trimming the course at Pacific Grove

Trimming the course at Pacific Grove

Golf on the edge of the Pacific

Golf on the edge of the Pacific

The sunsets are miraculous in France, especially in the Luberon region of Provence. But they are exhilarating along the Big Sur coast also. There is no competition for honors here – just moments of deep inspiration.  Provence me manque .

Big Sur sunset

Big Sur sunset

Only time will tell if this journal will continue. At the moment, I have no idea. You can stay tuned by leaving your email address on the “updates” area and responding to the request for confirmation when you get it. I appreciate the opportunity to tell you my stories, and your willingness to listen.

As always, you can “comment” by sending an email to Karen@karenmerriam.com  or to kensmokoska@gmail.com.

We always enjoy hearing from you.

Bisous,

Karen and Ken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Golf, Hikes, Home, Travels | Leave a comment

The Compass

Our compass bends toward “true home”: to that place where we must return, “définitivement.” The day of leaving France has been foreseen since the day of our arrival, but set aside, well out of sight, until now. Our plane leaves Marseille on September 3, at 10:15 am. We will be ready.

Leaving our home in Aix en Provence is bitter-sweet. We yearn to see friends and family in the United States, yet we feel a real longing to stay connected with our friends and life here. And our little SweetPea will not return to California with us. She will remain in the forest where she loved to ramble, sheltered by pines and chestnut trees, with her splendid view of Mt Sainte-Victoire. She is a part of us that will always be here.

SweetPea

SweetPea

It’s impossible to describe the complete welcome we have received from “la tribu” Faillard. They have become our extended family, with whom we have shared so many moments of joy, laughter, worry and even a little sadness. Their generosity is unparalleled, and their energy and determination to live life fully are inspirational.

The Faillard Family

The Faillard Family

We had a little gathering here in our garden at the end of July to thank many of the wonderfully generous members of the Senior golf teams at Set Club with whom Ken has played all year. There were about thirty men and women who shared with us that evening their great humor and warm wishes. They admire Ken’s stellar golf, his easy camaraderie, and his willingness to help out on the teams whenever needed. They will miss him.

golfing friends

golfing friends

I will miss so many things about our life in France and Aix in particular.

Café liegeoise

Café liegeoise

I will miss the beauty of ancient chapels.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle

I will miss the everyday joys of tourism and markets.

little girl in Paris

little girl in Paris

Rue Mouffetard, Paris

Rue Mouffetard, Paris

We will miss the mountains that are so close. In a day we can pass through France to Switzerland to Italy and back again to France, winding through alpine glory.

Zermatt, Suisse with Jan

Zermatt, Suisse with Jan

Col Grand St. Bernard

Col Grand St. Bernard

Cold & windy Pass

Cold & windy Pass

We will miss the Calanques. The beaches are too populated for my liking, but the rocky promontories that shelter fishing coves along this part of the Mediterranean are treasures.

 

Jan - Calanques

Jan – Calanques

We will miss the evening magic of suppers on the terrasses with friends, especially when we were able to celebrate our friend Jan’s birthday at a friend’s home looking out over the 18th hole of Set club. Jan’s visit in August led us to re-experience the pleasures of Paris, villages in the Alps, and the tiny towns of the Luberon.

Toast to Jan

Toast to Jan

Birthday dinner

Birthday dinner

Roussillon

Roussillon

Leaving our little apartment was hard for Jan, and will be hard for us, too.

Jan leaving

Jan leaving

But it’s time to go. Our contract for our brave Dacia Duster (made in Romania for Renault) expires the 3 Sept. (I say brave because any thing and any one venturing onto the roads in France is brave.) Our long-stay Visa expires 4 Sept., and we don’t wish to incur the wrath of the Customs officials who have kindly let us stay for a year.

 

It’s time to take our bearings and prepare to set a new course.

Thanks for traveling with us this year. It’s been fun to prepare this little blog each month, and perhaps I’ll be able to continue it in some fashion. Keep your ears and eyes open to see what the new chapter may be.

 

 Until then, we wish you well.

 

As always we are happy to hear your news.

 

Bisous, 

 

Karen and Ken

 

Karen@karenmerriam.com   and  kensmokoska@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Golf, Hikes, Home, Travels | Leave a comment

Time and Customs and Cultures

It’s full-on summer now – no escaping it. Outdoor concerts abound, including the famous Aix Festival. Before setting off for England, we treated ourselves to a quintessential French dinner in the courtyard of “La Salle à Manger” in Salon de Provence.

La Salle å Manger

La Salle å Manger

After dinner we enjoyed an evening of world music by the group Lo’Jo in the courtyard of the 9th century Château de l’Empéri in Salon. The ubiquitous swallows of summer evenings were there to enjoy the music also. At the very first note one flew just above the performers’ heads to enter its nest in a small hole in the ancient column just by the stage, its privileged place to enjoy the concert.

Lo'Jo at the Château

Lo’Jo at the Château

I first heard Lo’Jo perform at Unity Church in San Luis Obispo ten years ago or more, introduced by some folks who had spent a year in France, like we are, and were captivated by their eclectic style of french- african- arab- and spanish-language, rhythms, culture and poetry. They didn’t disappoint – even though we’re all older now.

 

The next day we found ourselves on the Aix-TGV, in what’s known as a “quiet car”, making our way north to Lille. What a pleasure to watch the countryside and towns of France roll by. Everyone spoke in whispers; even the baby a few rows back cooed quietly. A very large boxer-bulldog rested his head on his owner’s knee: “sage chien.” Here and there the muffled murmurs in italian, french, spanish and british accents all mixed together.

Passing through the French farmland, made familiar by previous trips on the TGV, allowed me to mark our place in time in our year in France. In our early days in France, the grape vines were turning their sweetness to autumn flame. Now they are just setting their green fruit. Brilliant yellow fields of mustard that marked our spring trips to Paris have been transformed by mid-summer sun to tournesols/ sunflowers. Dazzling lavender is just ripe for cutting; and the first harvest of grain lies perfectly reposed in tidy rounds across the fields.

Changing trains to the Eurostar in Lille, we passed under the English Channel to London. (I find it a little unnerving to travel all that way under water.) There we hopped a cab to the next station to take another fast train across the mid-section of England to Liverpool, where we picked up a car and drove about 40 miles up the west coast to the little town of Southport, the scene of the British Senior Open Golf Championship for which Ken hoped to qualify. All of this took us about 10 hours of travel, door-to-door.

The Senior Open Happens Here

The Senior Open Happens Here

Southport is an old town that has seen better days. Its economy subsists on “the care industry.” One of the largest old buildings was a former hospital and convalescent center, now turned into condos, while the “patients” are in smaller “homes” throughout town.

The old Hospital

The old Hospital

The Southport pier hosts attractions for young and old, and is a gathering place for motorcyclists.

Motorcycles and carousels

Motorcycles and carousels

 

Beautiful Bike

Beautiful Bike

We settled into our home-away-from home, Edendale House, and were well looked after by our host, John.

Edendale House

Edendale House

And despite the warnings about proper dress code, and men-only clubhouses that we had seen in the information about the golf clubs where Ken was to play, we were both greeted cordially and with interest by everyone we encountered, both at the courses and in the towns.

To get a good feel for the links course at Southport & Ainsdale, Ken reserved a local caddy for his practice and qualifying rounds. Tim, the caddy, and Ken spent many hours together on the S&A course. Tim’s main tips for success were: “Just hit the ball where I tell you to” and “Just don’t go into the bunkers.” Tim was pleased to see that Ken could follow his advice most of the time.

Tim guiding the way over the bunker

Tim guiding the way over the bunker

While they were on the course practicing, I explored the town of Ainsdale and the local cemetery.

the littlest angel

the littlest angel

Hannah

Hannah

On qualifying day, the “Starter” was still trying to figure out how to say Ken’s last name as he teed up his ball for his first shot.

And they're off

And they’re off

Later, in the shade overlooking the 18th green, I was able to give him some help on pronunciation, and hear his stories of playing this course for 35 years, as we watched Ken and his group finish up their round.

Can you spell Smokoska?

Can you spell Smokoska?

Up the home stretch

Up the home stretch

Having walked the course with Ken and Tim the first day of practice, I can tell you it was very difficult, and the heat wave didn’t help course conditions. Links courses don’t leave much room for error, testing golfers’ precision, accuracy and patience.  About 126 golfers entered the Qualifying round. After a play-off among several golfers that lasted almost until dark, the 13 lowest-score golfers finally made it into the tournament that would begin four days later. Ken was happy that he had played well, that his score was about in the middle of the pack of mostly professional golfers, and that he had enjoyed the experience immensely.

In this part of the English coast the tides run out some five miles, leaving behind dangerous quicksand, and unfortunately, polluted sand and waters. Near Liverpool, at Crosby beach, there is an extraordinary installation of sculptures by Antony Gormly called “Another Place.” Ken and I were captivated. It was almost sunset and the tide was coming in quickly when we were there. We were able to see the water begin to cover the “men” standing, gazing into the distance.

Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley

Another Place

Another Place

a gormley figure

a gormley figure

The tide coming in

The tide coming in

With time on our hands and an aversion to continuing to face the nightmare of English driving – on the left, with manual shift with the left hand – I put out the suggestion: Let’s go to Paris! And so we did.For three days we had a total change of pace, ‘though the weather continued to be extremely hot. We strolled through the Jardin des Plantes, lunched in the shade at Luxembourg Gardens, and attended a “spectacle” created, directed and performed by William Kentridge called “Refuse the Hour.” It was in a small theater attached to the Comédie Française at the Palais Royale. It was magical, philosophical, a chamber opera with south African origins. I loved it.

Lunch at the Luxembourg Gardens

Lunch at the Luxembourg Gardens

Jardin du Palais Royale

Jardin du Palais Royale

Metro at the Palais Royale

Metro at the Palais Royale

We were almost the first in the door at the Centre Pompidou one morning where we were captivated by the vistas of Paris across sculpture ponds. I was happy to see two more works of Chagall there.

Sacre Coeur in the distance

Sacre Coeur in the distance

Reflections

Reflections

But the highlight of our time in Paris, aside from the charming garden of the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles where we stayed, was the Musée de Quai Branly. It seems impossible to describe the experience of this museum. The outside is a “living wall.”

Musée Quai Branly Living Wall

Musée Quai Branly Living Wall

For a brief rest stop we had ice cream on the terrasse with the Eiffel tower looking directly down on us. Inside the museum we were led by design of the pathways within the museum on a journey through time and worlds of culture and art of the peoples of Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The half-light and earth tones of walls and floors led us deep into centuries of statues, totems, textiles, paintings, and 10,000 musical instruments preserved for their unique contributions. We were lost in time and other worlds.

 

   The “modern” art that we witnessed in the morning at the Pompidou, seemed redundant and unimaginative when experienced next to the “living art” of the Quai Branly. It seemed to both of us that the “masters” represented in the Pompidou were yearning and striving for what was already present, to be witnessed at the Branly www.quaibranly.fr.

The heat wave that we found in England and Paris was gripping Aix with full force when we returned. But within a few days the region was struck by violent thunderstorms that cleared and freshened the air. Welcome news from our friend Jan that she was able to book her flight and receive her passport to arrive in Paris August 5. Hurray! A great excuse to run up to Paris again to meet her, then jump over by train to the heart of the French Alps to meet Ken for a few days tromping in the mountains.  What a life!

 

 We’re never too busy or too far away to receive and enjoy your emails. As usual, a reminder that you can see these photos best on the main webpage (www.karenmerriam.com) and by clicking twice to enlarge them.

 

 Bisous to all.

 

Karen and Ken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Golf, Home, Travels | Leave a comment

Of Swallows, Marmots and Alpine Splendor

 A summer afternoon thunderstorm is building in the view outside my window. Sainte-Victoire is conducting a swelling chorus of clouds;  the percussion section prepares to take its turn; the air freshens.

 

 But the swallows, les hirondelles, take no notice of the approaching storm. They are busy catching dinner for their babies perched in the eaves just inches above my window. Fewer mosquitoes for me, more food for them, bravo. Two, three, eight-at-a-time: they swoop and dive within centimeters of entering my living room. Keeping the windows wide open is a calculated risk: a refreshing breeze for me, a dive-through dinner for the kids.

 

 Just ten days ago, after Ken and his Set Club team won a regional golf tournament at Digne-les-Bains, we set off for Grenoble to claim a prize that Ken had won in a fall tournament. Taking the “back roads” we found ourselves in intriguing terrain.

Les Demoiselles Coiffées

Les Demoiselles Coiffées

 

 This is a protected park site of naturally-occuring capped earth pillars that are called “Les Demoiselles Coiffés” du Sauze du Lac.

 

 After winding through hairpin turns along the sides of cliffs, beside azure lakes, we turned west at Briançon into the magnificent mountains of the High Alps, climbing through the Col de Lauteret. We were thrilled to find a botanical garden in full spring bloom at the very top of the pass.

Botanical Garden Col de Lauteret

Botanical Garden Col de Lauteret

birds of the botanical gardenAnd did I mention sheep? This area is their summer grazing ground.

Our strolling friends

Our strolling friends

The prize we were after on this trip across the mountains was a many-course Sunday “market lunch” at Le Grand Hotel Restaurant Les Terrasses in the spa town of Uriage-les-Bains, just east of Grenoble.

Hotel & gardens at Uriage les Bains

Hotel & gardens at Uriage les Bains

The hotel is on the left, peeking through the willow tree. While we nibbled our “amuse bouche” on the terrasse, summer scenes in the garden below entertained us.

a boy and his horse

a boy and his horse

 

The etiquette of the luncheon meal was orchestrated by a maitre d’hotel, several sous-maitre-d’hotel, des serveurs et serveuses, and other functionaries who slipped in and out of view like ghosts. On command we were moved silently from the terrasse to the dining room where other Sunday patrons dined and murmured in hushed voices.  Happily, a very young french honeymooning couple was seated at the table next to us, and occasionally we would glance at each other and get the giggles. It seems they were as clueless as we were as to what these delicacies were that huddled on our plates before us, and exactly which course were we on now?

 

Three hours later we were released to take coffee in the garden and stroll, à la Seurat. Oh dear, I forgot my parasol.

coffee in the garden

coffee in the garden

 

Having been revived by the coffee and tea, we followed our strong urge to flee back to the mountains and retrace our steps among the high peaks to make our way home the next day. Before nightfall, we found a modern little chalet perched on a hillside in the town of La Grave where we could enjoy an unobstructed view of La Meije, elev. 13,071ft. at sunset and sunrise.

Room with a view

Room with a view

A little stroll in the town of La Grave before an evening snack took us to the church and its cemetery.

La Grave

La Grave

The church at La Grave

The church at La Grave

A lovely place to rest

A lovely place to rest

I loved this sign in town announcing upcoming summer games.

Alpine summer games

Alpine summer games

The next day, we found a winding road that took us deep into a long valley and brought us to exquisite alpine meadows and several refuges, some of which were a walk of several km. We strolled the meadow, had lunch at one refuge, and enjoyed a marmot at play beside us.

meadows, streams and flowers

meadows, streams and flowers

view from lunch at the refuge

view from lunch at the refuge

une marmotte

une marmotte

I suppose our trip from Aix to Digne to Grenoble and back again is a little bit like going from semi-arid SLO (similar climate to Aix en Provence) to Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne meadows, and the Lodge beyond for lunch (a different sort of lunch for sure), and back again in two days. The distances aren’t all that different; however the density and magnitude of the Alps feel quite different from the Yosemite area.

Next week we will be traveling in very different terrain to Southport,  on the northwest coast of England, just up from Liverpool, where the British Senior Open Golf Championship takes place July 22-28. This time we’re taking the train from Aix to Liverpool (nine hours in all) to be sure Ken’s clubs arrive on time with us (a repeated nightmare on the Scotland trip), and to allow a leisurely transition before the pressures of tournament practice and play.  

We’ll keep you posted!

Bisous to all,

Karen and Ken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Golf, Hikes, Home, Travels | Leave a comment

Of Sheep and Turtledoves

Standing outside our front gate today, Ken pointed high into the chestnut tree and asked how many doves I could see. At first I saw only one, balanced on a limb in the cool shade of the broad leaves. And then I saw another and another, at least five, all standing perfectly still in the deep green shadows. They didn’t make a sound, quite unusual for these vocal birds. But it’s no wonder they were perched so silently by our gate in the full shade – the temperature was just about 40 degrees C. or 104 F.

Hurray for summer. Break out the sundresses and hats, settle around the table in the garden for an impromptu picnic supper, search out a swimming hole or beach, and by all means get many scoops of artisanale ice cream down the street just past the city hall. If you are lucky enough to have tickets, you might see Rigoletto tonight in the Place Archivèche, or you can come with us to Les Écuries (stables) de l’Aube for a dinner outside on their terrace. Everywhere there are musical and theatrical events, the outdoor cafés are filled, and even the man who sells me newspapers started up a chat today about the weather. It’s the first time he’s talked with me. He prefers snow, he said, and he’s read about the fires in California; and we smiled and he complimented me on my french. It’s taken 10 months for this conversation to happen. Hurray for summer and open doors.

And summer has brought Dominique and Monique out onto the golf course with us – it’s taken ten months of consulting calendars and weather to finally make this happen. Both are just learning the game, and they have good natural talent and are “sportif”. Dominique is passionate about golf, and Ken is a willing coach, so a new team has formed, with mutual respect, and absolute glee. Each enjoys encouraging the other. Monique will try to find more time to play, and like Karen will enjoy the outings.

golf with the Faillards

golf with the Faillards

While on the subject of golf, I promised a few photos from our trip to Scotland where Ken played in the Scottish Senior Men’s Amateur Championship in June. While his score was modest, about in the middle of the pack, his spirits were great and we enjoyed immensely the whole experience of being in Scotland (except for driving on the tiny roads on the left side). The links course at Elie where the tournament was held, just down the coast from Saint Andrews, provided beautiful views of the ocean and castles of this rural “kingdom of Fife,” a peninsula north of Edinburgh.

Ken at Elie

Ken at Elie

At the bed and breakfast homes in Fife I felt as if I was “at home” in Philadelphia with the same furnishings and manners. Everyone was welcoming and helpful. The Park House at Kinneswood, with its ivy walls and sheep in the pasture (yes, sheep with horns) was very special.

Our bedroom is at the top left.

Our bedroom is at the top left.

Sheep from Arran Isle

Sheep from Arran Isle

Sheep were everywhere, on every possible slope and in every country yard.

Babe and mom

Babe and mom

While it may sound a little “woo-woo” I do think I felt a strong sense of my Scottish ancestry as we traveled around, especially on the Isle of Skye, the main site of the Donald Clan. My grandfather, Robin Macdonald, is sure to have descended from these smart and testy folk. We visited the Clan Donald museum and talked with a nice lady who will try to help us trace our ancestry, but I have a bit of work to do first to find out more about my grandfather’s family.

Sleat, Isle of Skye

Sleat, Isle of Skye

The southern tip of the Isle of Skye is the Sleat Peninsula, a moody, hilly place that yields a frugal living for man and animal alike. I loved it. It’s that family feeling, I guess.  In Sleat, on Skye, it is most always cool to cold and drizzly to downpour. But what magnificent greenery. Whitewashed stone-walled farms dot the countryside.

At Eilean Larmain, Sleat

At Eilean Larmain, Sleat

Did I mention the sheep?

Standing by the road on Skye

Standing by the road on Skye

Tucked into a rock

Tucked into a rock

At the Eilean Larmain hotel with its gentle view of the sound and the lighthouse (above) we were thrilled to hear a group of young musicians, all from the Highlands, who are carrying on the traditions of Scottish music. Below is a still picture of them playing. Unfortunately I couldn’t upload the  video that I took of them playing.

Traditional music

Traditional music

All over Scotland the spring flowers were in full bloom and rhododendrons were not just the decorative garden plant I’m familiar with, but were wildly cascading up and down mountains and hills in every part we traveled. I was astonished. Like so much of Europe, Scotland experienced a prolonged and unusually cold winter and spring, allowing us to see spring at its peak in mid-June.

rhododendrons everywhere

rhododendrons everywhere

Our last night in Scotland we stayed with Mary and Tom in their B&B, South Whittlieburn Farm, outside of Largs, not far from Glasgow. Mary loves to travel, and had just returned from a trip to France, but it’s hard, she said, to take time away from their farm of 500 sheep (a small herd).

Mary in Scotland

Mary in Scotland

There’s much more to write and photos to share of our recent trips in France, but not now. This coming week I’ll try to catch up on sharing recent events on the blog before we take off to England on July 17th where Ken will be playing in a qualifying competition for the British Senior Open Championship. It’s a BIG DEAL, and we’re excited to go. If all goes well with the golf, he will play five days there. He’s in top form, and has been winning regional team amateur events.  Next week he plays in a national team tournament at a course by the Mediterranean not far from here. While Ken is golfing, I’ll be doing more painting. I’ll close with some photos of a recent lunch our painting group enjoyed at the home of one of our painting friends. It was a great day and plein-aire painting at its best, with good food and good friends.

a toast to painting with friends

a toast to painting with friends

a pot luck fit for Cezanne

a pot luck fit for Cezanne

Okay, just one last image from a recent drive. The poppies and other flowers are still in bloom in areas just a short drive north of Aix.

Wildflowers near Digne-les-Bains

Wildflowers near Digne-les-Bains

Stay tuned for coming attractions! Next installment will include photos of the french Alps. Oh, it was glorious.

Thanks for sticking with us on our journey. You can write us at  karen@karenmerriam.com    or    kensmokoska@gmail.com   We would love to hear from you.

Bisous,   Karen and Ken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Show and Tell

With any luck, I’ll be able to share in this post many photos that will give you a sense of what we’ve been up to in the last month since I’ve written here. We’ve been traveling and exploring, golfing and painting, and all the while with a heightened awareness that we will be leaving here in just two months. Oh, that now sounds like much too soon. Yet our plans for re-entry move forward with a landing date in SLO of September 7, with a stop-over in Philadelphia for a few days before.

First, a little vignette from a recent day here in the garden in Aix. It was Tuesday, a day when a small group of painters gather to work on various projects, and I was there planning my next painting. Simone, the 92-yr-old mother of Monique (our landlady and art instructor/artist), was sitting in the sun nearby, enjoying all the activity. Along with guiding the artists, Monique was fielding myriad questions from some of the building’s new tenants about school for their children, how to navigate health insurance forms, where to find the best stores, etc. The languages circling around the garden like hummingbirds were Russian, French and English (with strong Australian accent) and the ages ranged from 8-92.  In a quiet aside I mentioned to Simone my continuing amazement at Monique’s ability to respond with such openness and generosity to all the demands that her work as artist and proprietor require. Simone replied -” it is UNESCO here”. (“United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – encourages international peace and universal respect by promoting collaboration among nations.”)  She went on to explain that this house that has been in the family for six generations has always been like this. Before Monique, her uncle served the same kind of role. But it takes a special kind of open mind and heart to do this. Monique’s passion and joy in life is to bring people together, to connect them to each other and to the pleasures of life in Provence. She is a most remarkable person. As is Dominique, her husband.

Now to the pictures:

From everyday life in Aix-en-Provence you will see Evy at the Barrage de Bimont. She arrived as the poppies came into full bloom. Then you will meet Adrian and Vincent, my two favorite guys. Adrian runs “Coffee to Go” where I get my favorite latte almost every day. Vincent is an instructor at Aix-Marseille University, loves to speak english and explain french to us neophytes. He is a fund of information. Then you will see Jacques, my coiffeur, from whom I’m learning to understand the strong accent of southern France.

Evy, Barrage de Bimont

Evy, Barrage de Bimont

Evy came from SLO to spend almost a week here in Aix, her former home during student days not so long ago.

Adrian&Vincent

Jacques & Karen

Jacques & Karen

In mid-June we drove to Milan, Italy with Monique and Dominique to see their daughter Charlotte dance principal roles with the Aterballetto company at the famous Piccollo theater. It was magnificent contemporary ballet, and Charlotte is a true star. During our six days in Italy, we also drove to lake Como and lake Garda, and spent a night in the city of Bergamo. The mountains of northern Italy are spectacular.

Milan groupCan you guess who the dancer, Charlotte, is?

lake Como

lake Como

basilique in Bergamo

basilique in Bergamo

It’s hard to take photos of these enormous churches. This one fills most of a city block and opens onto a plazza. Like so many of these famous buildings that were constructed and re-constructed over many centuries, it represents many different styles of architecture.

I love mimes - Bergamo

I love mimes – Bergamo

sign in BergamoCan you guess what this sign is saying?

Our B&B in Bergamo

Our B&B in Bergamo

So many old homes all over Europe have been converted to include rooms or suites or cottages for tourists. This one is tucked into a hillside in the suburbs of Bergamo with gardens, forest and swimming pool. The beautiful renovated building is the main one for guests and there is another wing of unpainted stone walls where the family lives. This home has been in the family for several generations. Three generations live here now, the middle one serving as hosts for the B&B as well as holding down day jobs as lawyers in the town of Bergamo.

by Lake Como

by Lake Como

Our trip home from Italy took us through Turin and into the Alps. It was a thrilling sensation to be surrounded by snow-capped mountains for hours. The roads were narrow and winding along cliffs and by lakes. Quite fun. The only downside to our time in Italy was to see the extent of the serious air pollution in the northern industrial areas, including Turin, which has made its way deep into the mountain landscapes. We were surprised that the mountains didn’t serve as barriers, but instead trapped the foul air in valleys.  Further along, into France, the air was much clearer.

I wanted to include in this post our trip to Scotland which we made right after we got back from Italy, but I realize it’s just too much for one sitting. In a few days I’ll write about golf and Scotland and sheep, and share a video of the fiddle & bagpipes I recorded at a little pub on the Isle of Sky.

Stay tuned – I’ll be right back after a quick trip to join Ken at Digne-les-Bains where he is competing with his local team in a regional golf tournament. We will peel off for a little excursion into the french alps and Grenoble for a couple of days. What a life!

We wish you well.

Karen and Ken

 

 

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Of Latitudes and Attitudes

Neither Ken nor I had ever visited Norway, so we thought – why not now, since we are in the neighborhood? Well, southern France is closer to Oslo than California is. And we have a special reason to want to get to know Norway now because of our new friendship with fellow golfers Erik and Helen who live in Oslo. We met Helen and Erik on a golf course in Cannes this winter where they take regular breaks from the rigors of living in the north-country. As you can imagine, a little lunch on the Mediterranean can be a mighty pleasant antidote to a long, dark winter.

Cannes with Erik and Helen

Cannes with Erik and Helen

From southern France it’s about a three-hour flight to Oslo, if all goes well. For us the trip became a lot longer because of a plane delay. Our unexpected overnight stay outside of Munich, Germany led us to a small-town, once-a-year beer-garden festival right behind our hotel. Lederhosen and polkas, right? Nope – more like ear-splitting punk rock music, kids in American-logo tee shirts, and lots of cigarettes & beer. Oh well, we needed an early night anyway.

 

 Expectations are so often based on misinformation. Not being much of a geographer, my idea of the world is fairly flat, the way you find it in a book of maps. I would do well to look at globes more often to get a clearer view of the real world I live in. I would then have been better prepared to see the striking resemblance between Oslo, Norway and Anchorage, Alaska; Bergen, Norway and Juneau, Alaska.  If we go to Tromso, Norway next summer (a possibility) I now understand it will be like visiting Fairbanks or Barrow, Alaska – not that I’ve been to any of the far north outposts of any country. There’s a great Wikipedia site that gives latitudes and the major cities that fall within them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_latitude  It was stunning to see how very wrong I was about so many of the correspondences. Who would have thought that Cheyenne, WY is at about the same latitude as Naples, Italy; or that Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Marseille, France are also at similar latitudes. I won’t bore you with the rest, except to note that San Luis Obispo and Rabat, Morocco share the same latitude. I like that – it’s cozy.

 

 

Back to Oslo. What a beautiful city. It sits at the head of the Oslo fjord and hosts major shipping and sailing activity as well as a thriving economic center. In both Oslo and Bergen we were treated with the site of a tall ship in the harbor. It seemed quite natural in the setting. Life is oriented to the sea, and to the forest.

 

Oslo tall ship

Oslo tall ship

 

Oslo Folkmuseum

Oslo Folkmuseum

 

 

Skiing is, of course not just recreation, but also transportation. It was a spectacular experience to go to the top of the famous ski jump, Holmenkollen in Oslo and look down toward the finish far below. A new adventure, possible on days less foggy than the one that greeted us, is to clip into a zip line that follows the exact trajectory of the ski jump and fly down the hill in a harness at 60 kmh. Yikes! Ken was itching to give it a try. Another day.

 

holmenkollen ski jump

holmenkollen ski jump

 

 

One of the highlights of our days in Oslo was a walk through Frogner Park where 212  granite and bronze figures sculpted by Gustav Vigeland are arranged throughout the many acres of land. It was a grey and drizzling day–not good for taking pictures. But I highly recommend taking a look at websites that show Vigeland’s sculptures. What moved me so much was not only the sheer size of each one – larger than life-size people, alone or in pairs, groups and masses – but the tender, joyful, aware, concerned, and deeply loving relationships between the figures: fathers and children, two older women in grief, lovers in a trance-like gaze, all intense, powerful, and filled with life. I could have spent an entire day in the park gazing and reflecting and walking, if only it had been warm with at least a little sun.

 

 

There were many wonderful sights throughout Oslo, and even though the Munch museum was closed to prepare for a big anniversary exhibit, we were able to see an excellent selection of Munch’s paintings in another museum. Very satisfying.

 

 

Helen and Erik suggested we might enjoy a trip from Oslo to Bergen on the Bergen Railway, a train ride that crosses the snowy Hardangervidda mountain plateau, with the highest point at 4,009 ft. We had a fascinating 12 hour day on the Bergen train, the Flam railway-small train down the mountains to a fjord, a boat trip up the fjord, a bus back up to the plateau, and back on the Bergen railway to finish in Bergen on the west coast. Traversing Norway this way gave us a good sense of the climate, the geography, and the beauty of this part of the country. What we had not appreciated until this trip is how huge Norway is. As Erik explained, if you tipped Norway upside down, it would reach well into Italy. Distances are long, population sparse, and life quite rugged.

 

 Following are some photos we took along the way between Oslo and Bergen

 

The Flam railway

The Flam railway

 

 

Flam train with Ken

Flam train with Ken

Stops along the way down from the plateau to the fjord to see waterfalls and navigate steep terrain.

Waterfalls everywhere

Waterfalls everywhere

heading down

heading down

Did I mention that there are over 170 tunnels on this trip across Norway? It’s the only way to keep passages open year round for the trains. The length of the tunnels is mind-boggling.

And then onto the water in a sturdy boat for a couple of hours cruising the fjord in the rain.

rainy fjord view

rainy fjord view

Finally in Bergen a supper with friends from the train and a day of sightseeing. Again a tall ship anchored just outside our hotel window, next to a ferris wheel.

tall ship and ferris wheel in Bergen

tall ship and ferris wheel in Bergen

 

Home in Aix continues to include golf for Ken, with almost weekly tournaments, and sometimes a practice round for Ken and Karen together. One day recently we finally walked to Cezanne’s workshop, not far up the hill from where we live. Karen kept going a bit further to discover the wonderful “Painter’s Terrain” at the top of the hill where Cezanne painted many of his famous renderings of Mont Sainte Victoire. It’s easy to see how creativity flourishes here.

Karen - in Cezanne's footsteps

Karen – in Cezanne’s footsteps

 

 

We are always amazed at our luck that we find ourselves in such a warm and welcoming community in Aix, with Monique, Dominique as our “hosts”, and neighbors from around the world, including Marianne and Bob from Cape Cod.

dinner with friends at home

dinner with friends at home

 

 Our travel plans for June include a week in Italy with Monique and Dominique to see Charlotte, their daughter dance with the Italian National Ballet. Then we spend a week in Scotland anchored to the All-Scotland Men’s Senior Championship just down the meadow from the famed St. Andrews golf club. We’ll be looking into Karen’s Scottish ancestry on a visit to the Isle of Sky-the home of the Macdonald clan. There looks to be fabulous walking in in the mountains and along the coast wherever we go.

 

 There’s always much more that we could have said – but it’s best not to try your patience. Feel free to write a note if you have questions or feedback on what you’ve read here. We always love hearing from you.

 

 Bisous, from Ken and Karen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Short Timers

“Time keeps on slippin,’ slippin,’ slippin’ Into the future.”

 

Here we are in May. Time feels like a landscape, and we are rushing through it on our personal “train à grande vitesse” –tgv, traveling fast now not because we are anxious to get to the other side, but because the speed is already set and we have to be quick to savor each passing scene.  

An expression here in Aix says that summer arrives in a day. Suddenly all the chestnut trees are in full bloom with new leaves and flowers. The platane trees (a variety of sycamore), pruned back so hard only a short time ago, are putting out new growth to create arcs of summer shade along the roads and for the terraces in city squares.

St.Sauveur & chestnuts

St.Sauveur & chestnuts

And the tulips! About an hour north of Aix, toward Manosque, Monique led us to rolling hill country of small farms, and the village of Lurs, where just below we found the tulip farm of friends. Monique and some fellow artists set up their easels, while Ken, Renée and I laid out a picnic on the grass. To one side we watched a herd of sheep grazing and gamboling (yes, really!) in the clear spring sun. Below us a field of tulips in perfect flower was slowly being cut to preserve the bulbs. The painters worked furiously to capture the colors before the tops of the flowers lay scattered on the ground. We, on the other hand, stretched out in the sun to become part of the painting-perfect landscape, à la Cezanne.

painting in Lurs

painting in Lurs

Renée in the tulips

Renée in the tulips

Monique's painting

Monique’s painting

Finally I’ve begun to paint also – not in the fields, but in our apartment and in Monique’s studio below in the garden. Far away from the comfort of my acrylics in my studio at home, I’m learning from Monique the nuances of painting in oils. And thanks to previous work with Tricia Reichert in Arroyo Grande, I’ve been able to do some watercolors, the best of which is a little portrait of SweetPea. Fortunately my neighbor Sophie had taken some very good photos of SweetPea in the fall that I could use to help me with this painting I just now completed.

Watercolor of SweetPea

Watercolor of SweetPea

Ken is fast-becoming a hit with the Set Club teams for whom he plays in golf matches regularly. He has a team logo polo shirt and our shelves are filling with winnings of wine and champagne.  To match the bonheur of playing well, he has also acquired the attire of a bonhomme, which Renée liked so well she went right out to find for herself.

Ken's winnings

Ken & Renee twins

While Ken went to Paris to visit with his nephew Michael & his wife, who had won a trip from Michigan, Renée and I explored some familiar and unfamiliar places in the Luberon. At Isle sur la Sorgue, we perused the Sunday market, finding many things to admire and some to buy.

Thinking of Renée and Andy’s biking ventures, I had to take a photo of this “sympa” biker girl we found in a side street.

biker girls

biker girls

Saint Saturnin-lés-Apt has always been one of my most favorite little villages in the Luberon. Now it is at the very top of my list, since Renée and I spent several delicious hours exploring the forest behind the old chateau on the hill, finding remains of bories hidden deep in the woods. In a little restaurant we learned that Joseph Talon “discovered” in these same forests the truffles that would become a delicacy dear to the tastebuds of his fellow Frenchmen. Et voila, a statue to reward him.

borie in the forest

borie in the forest

Care for a truffle?

Care for a truffle?

At the end of the day, one needs a little rest – so in Lourmarin, on our way home to Aix, Renée and I stopped at the same little café where Colleen, Ken and I had huddled in the cold in early March. This day was a bit warmer, and as we rested a bit, a local cat strolled down the street across from us, crying out loudly for some much-needed attention.  I had only to look in his direction and he trotted over, checked me out, and jumped up in my lap for a few caresses (the French word for “pats”). The men of the café were much amused and wondered/joked aloud, in French, if they made the right noises would they also get caressed? When I replied, in French, they were a bit chagrined that I had understood them. It was fun. We all laughed.

karen and the cat

karen and the cat

Alors, it’s time to end this entry. There’s so much to try to share – so many pictures and experiences. We thank you for your patience and perseverance with our little blog. Remember, if you want to talk to us – just email –  karen@karenmerriam.com or kensmokoska@gmail.com.

A bientôt. 

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Missing Pictures

Hello again.  For whatever reason, several of the photos that were supposed to be in the last entry didn’t make it to the screen. So here they are:

Etang de Vaccares with Renée

Etang de Vaccares with Renée

Françoise

Françoise

Renée at "Love Letters"

Renée at “Love Letters”

Thanks for your patience!

 

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More about …

I pushed a button I didn’t mean to and off went the post “Feeling Our Oats” – So now I’m continuing where I left off, I hope.

The Camargue is an amazing wetland/delta area that Ken and I had visited in the dead of winter – again with Gudrun as our guide.  This time we could enjoy warm temperatures and the spring activity.  We drove for a full day all over the small roads and byways of the Camargue, hearing stories and history as we went.

Étang de Vaccares

Étang de Vaccares

We stopped by the vast lake/étang de Vaccares and had a thoroughly french picnic of bread & cheese & wine and olives & paté that Gudrun had prepared for us in the morning.

Karen & Gudrun

Karen & Gudrun

roseau - Camargue

roseau – Camargue

 

Françoise

Françoise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The vast lagoons of the Camargue are host to many species of water birds, and the white horses of the Camargue run along side us in the fields.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In spring local people harvest the tall reeds (roseau) that grow along the lagoons and canals, dry them, and then sell them to be used for making roof tops and other kinds of thatched barriers.  Gudrun was able to explain  many customs of the Camargue that have existed over time without change.

 

 

 

Gudrun also shared with us her friendships – most notably with Françoise and her husband who have a “ranch” on which they raise the taureau (bulls) for running in the Course Camarguaise, and train the white horses that are emblematic of the Camargue.  Françoise is an Arlesianne beauty, generous and proud of the patrimoine (heritage) of the Carmargue.

Not all of our time was spent in the countryside. We enjoyed getting to know the little town of Aigues-Mortes (Still Waters) where Gudrun has her B&B Farniente. The town is completely enclosed by ramparts that have protected it from invasion since the 13th century. We walked the ramparts and visited the small artisanal shops where we found some beautiful clothing. Renée and Hélène, a woman from London with roots in Provence, who was also staying at Gudrun’s, came away with some terrific items.

Renée & Ken at Gudrun's

Renée & Ken at Gudrun’s

 

Here Renée is showing off her new coat and scarf, and marveling that Ken is, indeed, very tall!

While Renée and I were soaking up french language and history, Ken was exploring Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees nestled between France and Spain. He loved the high mountains, still capped with snow, and found an isolated resort where he was the only guest to spend two nights. Because Andorra is so small, he could traverse the country in a day. And it was only, by car, three hours southwest of Aigues-Mortes.

Closer to home, we’ve been enjoying hikes by the Mediterranean in the fjord-like area called the Calanques. Recently we visited an area called Sormiou where we scrambled up rocky slopes to gain beautiful views of the green and deep blue waters of the Sea.

Ken in the Calanques

Ken in the Calanques

 

Sormiou-Calanques

Sormiou-Calanques

 

City time in Aix continues to be interesting and full of surprises. We have loved the concerts at the Grand Theatre de Provence showcasing artists from around the world. And this summer promises to provide us with all the music you could want, from opera to Bach festivals, to a major Piano Festival nearby. It will be hard to choose from all the opportunities.

And right in our own building we continue to enjoy plays and musical evenings produced by Isabelle, the daughter of Monique and Dominique, our landlords. When Renée first arrived we were able to enjoy together an excellent production of “Love Letters,” a play by A.R. Gurney, an american playwright. It was in french, of course, but we both managed pretty well to understand, assisted by the great articulation and acting of Isabelle and her male partner in this two-person play.

 

Renée at "Love Letters"

Renée at “Love Letters”

It’s the best of all worlds to be able to taste of all these different experiences, and to enjoy it all with the people we love. We continue to find new friends, new restaurants, new golf courses, new expressions in french, and we cherish all who are keeping a place for us in your hearts for our return.

Karen & Ken

Keep your notes and news coming: karen@karenmerriam.com

 

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