Feeling our Oats

There are lots of things that can contribute to feeling full of energy and joy. The two I think of most immediately are 1) the warmth of Spring and 2) the pleasure of being surrounded by love and humor.  My “niece” Renée arrived for a three-week visit on April 4, and soon after the weather, the flowers, the trees and the spirit of the city blossomed into full Spring. I no longer have to bundle up in sweaters and coats.  We can open the windows wide to hear the noises of the city: bells, sirens, music from the dance studios, arguments and laughter from apartments and sidewalks. We’re all here – open and overflowing – smiling and swatting flies.

In the Camargue, where Renée and I spent two days with Gudrun Bauer, language coach and Camarguaise extraordinaire, we found the flamant rose (pink flamingoes) and the emblematic white horses frisking about in the fields and waterways.

white horse at play

white horse at play

grey and white

grey and white

the shy birds

the shy birds

 

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Once is not enough

Before I get started, just a reminder to you, the faithful reader, that if you don’t see the pictures I’ve posted on your “update,”  go to the main site (www.karenmerriam.com) to see all the photos in a better format. Also, all photos can be enlarged by clicking on them twice. Enjoy!

One of the great pleasures of living in France for a year is the opportunity to visit and explore favorite places more than once.  It seems that I never tire of the Lubéron with its small ancient villages perched on hilltops, its protected forests, pastures and vinyards, and of course its famous ochre cliffs on which the town of Roussillon is built.  I lived in Roussillon for a month over a decade ago, and still marvel at the beauty of the place.

Roussillon ochre

Roussillon ochre

On a chilly day, Colleen, Ken and I found warmth on the paths that wind through the ochre cliffs that dust you with pigment as you stroll.

ochre cliffs

ochre cliffs

I couldn’t resist buying some stunning ochre pigments which I hope to make into watercolor and acrylic paints for upcoming paintings.

 

cemetery in Roussillon

Roussillon,the town
Roussillon,the town

I was totally delighted to find that Colleen shares my interest in french cemeteries (which Ken decidedly does not) so we had a good stroll through Roussillon’s town cemetery that holds a magnificent view of the valley below.

Finally, under the heaters on the enclosed terrasse of a local restaurant, we enjoyed omelettes among families taking a pause on their Saturday drive in the country.

Lacoste

Lacoste

 

This little street in Lacoste, another “village  perché” in the Lubéron, is typical of the pathways that lead to the chateau or church at the top of the hill. In this case, the chateau was formerly owned by the Marquis de Sade, but is now owned by Pierre Cardin & company. Hmmmmm.

chateau Lacoste

chateau Lacoste

so warm

so warm

Wherever you are, it’s nice to find a friend to enjoy the sun with. And a little snack.

Lourmarin cafe

Lourmarin cafe

just a little snack

just a little snack

To work off all that good food and sight-seeing that Ken, Colleen and I accomplished in the wonderful days of Colleen’s visit with us (which included a long enchanted weekend visit to Paris!) we had to do a bit of walking. One day we walked half-way up Mt Sainte-Victoire, east of Aix;  another day we found a beautiful old vinyard that is part of the Chateau Virant estate winery, west of Aix; and we hiked along the Calanques south of Aix.  Another glorious day in the Chagall museum in Nice began with a little dance with the sculptures at the International Museum of Naïf Art, also in Nice.

Chateau Virant

Chateau Virant

hiking Sainte-Victoire

hiking Sainte-Victoire

Naïf dancing in Nice

Naïf dancing in Nice

It’s still hard to keep the right balance between wonderful meals and lots of exercise.

We’re still waiting for Spring to begin in earnest. Europe is still under the spell of the wicked witch of the north who is blowing her icy breath from west to east, north to south, including us all in her spell. We’re lucky if we have daytime temps in the low 60s(F). It’s a bit painful to read that temps in SLO are in the 80s these days and there the green grass is fairly leaping out of the earth along with flowers and lizards! Am I homesick? Well, just a little, until we too can jump into the warm embrace of Spring here in southern France.  But you can see that Ken is ready for any season – outfitting himself as a proper frenchman to take on any task.

a suave frenchman

a suave frenchman

We send you greetings and love from Aix-en-Provence, and will be happy to welcome you if you find yourself in our neighborhood!  Send us YOUR news and pictures, too.  Karen & Ken

 

 

 

 

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Just for Fun

The insistent chatter of magpies building their nest outside my window in the platane tree tells me that I can trust the rhythms of nature. Spring is a fact I can count on. And this turbulent wind and rain are the necessary preparations for its ripening.  This is what I remind myself as I try to ignore the météo, the weather forecast, which predicts two weeks more of grey rain. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the magpies, and on the hyacinth pushing up the earth in our courtyard garden, and on the rust-colored buds on the chestnut trees, and the giraffe. Each of these makes me smile.

a giraffe in Marseille

a giraffe in Marseille

In the old port of Marseille,   sculptures of a rhino, an elephant and a giraffe decorate the promenade, just for fun. And on the hill in the distance stands the Basilque-Notre -Dame-de-la-Garde whose exterior walls bear witness to the bullets of WWII which did not spare this sacred place. Built in 1850’s in the romano-byzantin style, the basillica affords a unique view of Marseille.

We’ve only just begun exploring Marseille, and soon I’m hoping to find some cafés or clubs where we can hear world music. The influence of the Maghreb permeates all of daily life in Marseille. We have only to go to meet it.

Ken in Marseille

Ken in Marseille

Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde

Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

There are many kinds of experiences that bring us closer to understanding daily life in France. SweetPea was a guide into little alleyways, forests and roadside fields. Through her I learned views of the cities and countryside from a meter off the ground, following where her nose would lead us. I miss her perspective, her courage and her perseverence.

Perhaps to make room for grieving, Ken was overtaken by the cold bug and I with the norovirus/grippe intestinale for two weeks in February. Both are epidemic now in France. We had to rest quietly at home, allow our thoughts and feelings to wander, reads lots of books, and gather new strength.

Now our horizons lift and we are searching out new territories to explore. Suddenly it seems we’ve turned a corner. We have reached the halfway mark of our séjour in France, and just like the rhythm of the seasons, our pace is quickening also. We’ve  begun to plan our “must see” trips: the countries and cities we want to visit before our return to CA the beginning of September. So far we know we will be going to England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Switzerland. Under scrutiny is Norway, especially since we have new friends there, from Oslo and Tromso.

And, of course, there is so much more of France to see and roam. Recently I learned that my cousin Ann is living in Brittany (she had lived in Paris most of her adult life) and only a couple of weeks ago we had the wonderful experience of meeting her two grown sons, Alex and Greg, and their families, who live and work in Paris. What a warm and generous welcome we received from them, sharing dinner hosted by Alex and his wife Céline (and their two precious children), and receiving a guided tour of Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower area with Greg and his two children.  We stayed in the “Hotel Windsor Opéra” where Greg is the manager of Reception. It’s a great little hotel on a quiet street where I slept like a baby for all three nights. I highly recommend it.

Unfortunately, I was having so much fun at dinner with Alex and the whole family that I forgot to take pictures. But with Greg and the children the next day I remembered to snap a few. Greg showed us a lovely long walk up the hill on Avenue Junot to Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, sharing a special sculpture and story of “the man who could walk through walls.”

the man who could walk through walls

the man who could walk through walls

Sacre Coeur with Greg, Leo & Juliette

Sacre Coeur with Greg, Leo & Juliette

The day was sunny and cold and we kept moving quickly. Tourists filled every site waiting at least two hours to  get in the door – even at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Juliette’s dream of going up the Eiffel Tower has to wait a bit longer until late spring when we return to Paris to go with her. We will buy our tickets well in advance.

Street performers have to be one my favorite aspects of life in France.  Often we will come upon a mime, all in white, standing on a little box on the street, still as a monument – until – you put a coin in his or her hat at his feet.  Then he comes to life and blows you a kiss, shakes your hand, bows.  It’s all magic. Soon he is back to still life.  And then there’s the flower woman in Montmartre with her accordion. Even the most fashionable women of Paris cannot match her panache, her charm.

Eiffel tower

Eiffel tower

the accordion woman

the accordion woman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another highlight of our brief stay in Paris was attending the Ballet National d’Opera at the Palais Garnier for a magnificent performance of a Japanese contemporary ballet called “Kaguyahime.” Using all traditional Japanese instruments of drums, wind, chimes and cymbales, the theatre pulsed with sound against extravagant sets of flowing silk drapes. Oh, it was wonderful!

And to make the best even better was the Palais Garnier itself, opulent in gilt and frescoes, and the new ceiling (1986) in the main auditorium by Chagall.  What could be more beautiful?

Chagall - Palais Garnier

Chagall – Palais Garnier

Palais Garnier

Palais Garnier

With Colleen, who has just arrived from California, we will spend three days in Paris this weekend and find more treasures. We have new recommendations for restaurants to try, tickets for a concert at La Sainte -Chapelle, a yearning to see more works by Chagall at the Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Luxembourg, and so much more in a very short time. With any luck we’ll get a few sun breaks.

Ken is pining to snowshoe in the Alps, so that is where he will spend his weekend, weather permitting. He has been meeting some very lovely new friends through golfing with the men’s group at Set – a local club and he has games and tournament dates already set for the next several weeks.

We are both beginning to feel that we “belong” here – not just passing through. Not everything is as difficult as it was in the beginning. We know how to get the local bus, and the TGV station for the train to Paris, and where to meet our friends at the Marseille airport. People recognize us and wave to us on the streets of Aix, and we are welcomed with smiles and extra good service at our favorite restaurants.  And now, with friends coming to visit, we can appreciate these familiar surroundings with the eyes of a newcomer, but without the stress of having to learn everything from scratch. Very fun!!

Thanks to all of you who have written us email notes. We love hearing your news and hellos. Bisous!     Karen and Ken

 

 

 

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Souvenir

 

 

 SWEETPEA

April 20, 1999 – January 26, 2013

SweetPea

Change happens so fast sometimes.  You think you’re all prepared for the day, the week, even the month, and then change turns the world upside down.

We learned from the Veterinarian just a few weeks ago that SweetPea had a large mass in her abdomen. Medications were no longer making her comfortable. Each day she became more fatigued and her pain became more intense. It was time to let her go. And so we did.

SweetPea's view

SweetPea’s view

Ken came home from Portugal and we buried her together in a quiet spot in the forest with a beautiful view of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Some days I can lean out our apartment window and see almost the same view, only from a bit farther away. It’s comforting to know she is there in the forest, where pine saplings surround her little grave, and great oak, pine, and birch trees create a sanctuary. When it’s time for us to return to California, SweetPea will hold our place in Provence for memories (our souvenirs) of our days together here. 

John & Darlene on the Cours Mirabeau

John & Darlene on the Cours Mirabeau

Ken’s brother John and his wife Darlene drove back from Portugal with Ken to find Aix in the midst of a cold spell. And the cold continues. The Cours Mirabeau is dressed up to celebrate the designation of Aix-Marseille as the Cultural Capitial of France for 2013. The trees on Cours Mirabeau are wrapped in a fabric design created by a Japanese artist who was inspired by Andy Warhol. Oh well . . . It really is quite festive.There are lots of wonderful events related to this celebration all year long, including opera, dance, theatre and street art.

Ken goes out to play golf even in 100 kmph winds and rain.  He is now part of a men’s golf team at a local golf course and is signed up for tournaments with them. Portugal provided a good experience in managing the stress of intense competition. Although he didn’t win a place on the Senior Tour, he had an amazing experience, especially with brother John as his caddy. The weather in Portugal that week was cold and windy.

These wintry days I stay close to home, attend class at IS-Aix language school three days a week, and yearn for warmer weather. The moodiness of the weather has reflected my grieving. I wrote a note to myself the other day trying to describe how my body insists on remembering that SweetPea has died even when my thoughts and feelings want to forget . . .

The authority of reason says: “move along, now, there’s nothing to see here, nothing to be done.”  But my body insists: this is the moment, this is the hour and the day to be marked and noticed. It is recorded in each cell; a great surge, an upwelling of tides of tears and all the watery substance of my being bears witness to remembering, resists forgetting.

And so the few hours between 11am and 2pm, the time when SweetPea died and the hours when we buried her, are filled each day with the sensation of loss, of something missing, of a sadness that surprises me each time it passes by. Every day has a new rhythm. SweetPea is safe in her own place now, and we can roam freely about exploring new cities and towns and countryside without worrying about her schedule and needs. It’s all new. Both Ken and I have had dogs in our lives continuously for the past 20 years.

In the past two weeks we’ve explored Marseille, only a half hour away for the first time since coming to Aix, and yesterday we visited Avignon, just an hour away. We walked the the great halls and the ramparts of the Palais des Papes.  The cold makes for quick steps in sightseeing, especially in the frigid stone palaces and basilicas built in medieval times.  Unfortunately, my computer isn’t allowing any more pictures to be uploaded tonight into this message or I would have shared some fun photos of Marseille.

Perhaps that’s a signal that it’s time to wish you a good night. Keep your notes and good wishes coming our way.  We love hearing from you.

Happy Valentines Day to you!

 

 

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A little bird told me . . .

“Mon petit doigt me l’a dit . . . ” is the french expression to say “A little bird told me . . .”

In this case it was a little bird, to be sure.  As I settled myself to write these few words, the sun was setting over Aix en Provence.  I gazed inward toward the past few weeks and savored the warmth of the apartment heated against the winter chill. But a little bird, not the noisy pigeons, nor the magpies, but a little insistent voice kept calling from the trees outside the window. Each time I stopped to look outside a new wonder appeared. The setting sun pierced the storm clouds that had hovered all day above the city and created new paintings of light and shadow across the rooftops and landscape each moment I looked.  And finally, after putting away the camera and settling in once again to write, the bird cried out even louder “Come look!”  And there was a rainbow rising up the flank of Mont St. Victoire, piercing the deepening night sky, turning all the paysage to purple.  It’s at times like these I wish I were a photographer with a good camera.

arc-en-ciel

arc-en-ciel

Every time I get discouraged that the winter is too cold and the days too dark, some lovely experience pulls me out of the wintry gloom. Even the snow (yes, snow in Aix) lifted my spirits.

Our garden in the snow

Our garden in the snow

snow at dawn

If you click on these photos, as well as any others, they’ll enlarge, to show you the snow drops gently falling into our garden.  It was a lovely way to start the day as I set off for another week of french classes as IS.

It has been COLD – “un froid de canard” – as they say – and the smallest amount of snow stops schools and traffic. But I’ve been a loyal student, attending french classes every morning for three hours.  And Ken has been a hearty golfer, going out to the course in rain and cold to practice. And SweetPea?  She reluctantly puts on her jacket to go for walks on the cold pavements.

Yes, I have to go!

Yes, I have to go!

But we are each finding our own winter rhythm, and I take heart that the days are growing longer and soon my dearest friends, Colleen and Renée, will be visiting., Colleen in March and Renée in April.  By then Spring will be on the way and we’ll have days of happy wandering.

All eyes are now on Ken as he enters his first competition, in Portugal, to join the men’s senior professional european golf tour.  We had a little send-off party to wish him safe travels and a fun few weeks of golf. Neighbors from our apartment building, as well as Monique and Dominique and Simone, joined us for apéros.

Send-off party for Ken

Send-off party for Ken

Michelle Emily Sophie

All ages, from Allessia at 7 yrs to Simone at 91 yrs., gathered to let Ken know we’re his cheer-leaders from afar.  His cheer-leaders up close are John and Darlene Smokoska, Ken’s brother and his wife who have flown all the way from Spokane, Washington to be with Ken in Portugal.  They arrived this morning and will stay until the end of the tournament.  What a brother!!!  John will caddy for Ken on the course.  They’ve played together since teen years, so John knows Ken’s game well, and is a wonderful calming influence.

Ooops the final photo is of Ken is sideways and I don’t know how to fix it. He took on the first tee of the course where he begins the tournament on Thursday, Jan. 24. But you can see him just fine, I know.

Ken in Portugal

Ken in Portugal

Beam up your good wishes – or send him emails at   kensmokoska@gmail.com. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Happy winter! Your friendship keeps us warm.

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YES – the word for a new year

What’s not to love about a golf course that places a sculpture at its first tee saying (in french of course) OUI  or  YES .  After Christmas and before New Years, we drove two short hours to the southeast from Aix to try out Golf Opio Valbonne. Situated between  Nice and Grasse, it gave us a good opportunity to combine sport and culture.

positive golf

positive golf

Before settling in to play some golf, we explored the Chagall National Museum in a beautiful residential section of Nice, high on the hill above the Mediterranean. We paused first on the terrasse to have a cappucino and a snack, where we were entertained by a puppy running at full tilt on the grass beside us, carrying a precious stolen object (perhaps a chestnut), playing keep-away from his owner. This set the perfect tone for entering the world of Chagall who seduces one into a world upside down,  swirling with color, and full of irrepressible life. I have always admired Chagall, and I felt a personal sadness when he died in 1985 at the age of 98 years. Many years ago, at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, I was able to see his famous stained glass windows that miraculously survived the 1967 war. And now, in Nice, I could stand again in front of his stained glass art in wonder.

 

Chagall window

Chagall window

Having faced many losses and dislocations in his life, Chagall’s art resists stasis, rejects the limits of the “orthogonal” world of logic, and invites the viewer into a dance that moves more like a waltz than a foxtrot.

I’m grateful this new year for every expression of YES that enters my life. Chagall is a painter who speaks YES in a thousand ways.  My Aunt Ginny in Pennsylvania has been and continues to be my guide and my mentor.  Very early in my life she taught me the value of greeting life with YES. Now, at the age of 92, she embraces a life whose edges are softened by a fragile memory. She is full of wonder and often is delighted by the unexpected.

Loving life

Loving life

This business of navigating the customs, mores and language of a new country definitely requires a positive attitude – aided by a good sense of humor. It’s easy to sometimes feel quite lost, or embarrassed, or downright stupid. Lately we have had to learn the complicated vocabulary of dentisty (lost fillings, broken crowns) and of veterinary care (gastrointestinal upsets of the newly-minted city-street-urchin, SweetPea). In dental jargon, temporary fillings are called band-aids. The veterinarians we have met are miracle workers who even opened their doors to see us New Year’s day. Within a few hours SweetPea was already on the mend.

SweetPea on the mend

SweetPea on the mend

Despite our difficulties with speaking french, we are embraced, assisted, and appreciated by the people who live here. For this I am immensely grateful.

Ken finds admiring golf partners near and far as he explores new courses.  And these golf journeys take us to some very beautiful places rich with history.  He may soon be setting off for Portugal to play in tournaments that could enable him to enter the professional world of golf here in Europe. He has received much encouragement to take this big step.

golf and history

golf and history

Ken, SweetPea and I begin the New Year with lots of optimism.  Our experiences here in Aix en Provence, and in our travels through France, have brought us new friends, a good dose of humility, and an eagerness to see what the next day will bring. Are we grateful to be here? YES!  Are we grateful to you for following our adventures? YES!

Best wishes for 2013.

 

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Precious gifts

It is, every day, a gift to be here in France: living a dream I carried in my  heart for over fifty years; sharing it with my dearest companions, Ken & SweetPea; receiving new friendships and tokens of love that keep me warm and nourished in this winter season. Such are the tiny figures given to our class at IS language school by a fellow classmate, Eun-Jai Lee, a beautiful young woman from South Korea, a pâtissière by training and passion. Each of us now carries with us the kindness of Eun-Jae as we go our respective ways – to Dakar, to Norway, to Thailand, to Spain, to Luxembourg, to the U.S. – or to rest here a bit longer in Aix.

a special gift

a special gift

 

A time to pause – the winter solstice has been described as a moment in time in which the sun rises to its farthest point north of the equator, and it appears to pause before it begins its southerly return. Some might say, particularly this year, that it is a time of great turning.

This winter pause is very welcome to me, coming after much struggle to learn french in daily classes and  negotiating everyday challenges. Now I sleep late in the mornings, read books in french and english, plan and carry out little excursions to nearby villages and towns with Ken and SweetPea. It feels so wonderfully luxurious. And it feels that this is an important time to consolidate all that I’ve learned so far to prepare for the next phase of my learning adventure, which will begin in late January with more classes. While I am stretched out like a cat in the sunshine on our little sofa, Ken loves to go off wandering the rocky hillsides near the Mediterranean, or the winding paths that lead to Mont Sainte-Victoire. Most days when it isn’t raining (and some when it is) you can find him on the local golf course just 15 minutes away, practicing and sometimes catching a game with locals.

Together we travel farther afield. A favorite area I discovered many years ago is La Fontaine de Vaucluse, a town where Petrarch wrote passionate poetry, and is the site of a geological wonder – an underground spring whose source has not yet been exactly marked. The waters  bubble up into a pool some 300 meters deep and spill to become the River Sorgue, which cuts  its way through towns and meadows. It bisects the town of Isle-sur-La-Sorgue to create a beautiful setting for weekly markets that line the river’s edge and fill the winding streets.

La Fontaine

La Fontaine

 

La Sorgue begins

La Sorgue begins

Daphne will be happy to hear that “bambou” products are everywhere in France. I bought bamboo socks in the open-air market at Isle-sur-La-Sorgue as well as an ingenious little basket (birthday surprise for Daphne – in the mail).

Bambou baskets

Bambou baskets

Et voilà!

Et voilà!

Last weekend we went a bit further afield to visit the Camargue – the wild, watery country of the Rhone Delta. In only a few days and nights we were suffused with stories of the deep culture and traditions of the Camargue with its “wild” white horses and black bulls with  uplifted horns. We stayed with Beatrice and Christian Chomel at their gîte, “Mas Farola”,  surrounded by their horses, peacocks, dogs and chickens. Their stories of “La Course Camarguaise” – akin to our rodeo, but more of a chase between man and bull, were very moving, since Christian had been a star of the arenas in former days.

a conversation

a conversation

For a marvelous,long day, Gudrun Bauer, (www.frenchcoach.net) a guide linguistique, who knows every inch of the Camargue,  drove us on back roads and through  private ranches owned by her friends to find special moments of beauty. In her town of Aigues-Mortes, we enjoyed one of the best luncheon meals we’ve had in France at her favorite little restaurant called “Au Vice Versa.”

Gudrun and Karen in Aigues-Mortes

Gudrun and Karen in Aigues-Mortes

And Gudrun knew well where to find the “flamant rose” the pink flamingoes that fill the delta waters in this part of the Camargue.  It was very cold throughout this trip, not exactly the weather for leisurely strolls along the 30 km of sandy beaches stretching out from Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. But it is certain that we’ll return in the spring and explore more.

 

 

 

 

pink flamingoes

pink flamingoes

We left the Camargue to travel a few hours south to the fishing village of Collioure that sits on the Mediterranean near the eastern edge of the Spanish border. Lina, our dear friend and neighbor in SLO, had introduced us by email to her good friend Lynne from LA who recently moved to Collioure from Toulon.  Having grown up in Hawaii, Lynne will always find a special place near the sea to call home.

ken & Lynne in collioure

Ken & Lynne in Collioure

With extraordinary generosity and good humor, Lynne welcomed us into her wonderful apartment in this well-known artists village, and together we enjoyed a day trip into Spain to visit the Dali Museum in Figueres. While I’ve often seen reproductions of Dali’s work in books, and a few of his paintings on walls in museums, nothing prepared me for the impact of being surrounded by this man’s creative genius in a museum all of his own. It was thrilling! The sense of movement, of creatures and objects taking new life in your presence, gave me a sense of great pleasure and joy.  I wasn’t expecting this sensation and welcomed it.

Back home in Aix we’ve been enjoying winter rains and bitter cold.  It’s a great excuse to stay indoors. Today is Sunday – the day I seem to choose to write this little journal – the bells of Saint-Sauveur Cathedral have summoned and released the town folk from mass, and we prepare now to go to the Cathedral this afternoon to hear Bach’s “Christmas Cantata.”  Ken and SweetPea are playing golf while I stay warm here. A wonderful arrangement!  Are we happy?  What do you think?!?

happy days

happy days

We saw “The Hobbit” a few days ago, and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (which I had seen in SLO).  Loved both!   We hope you have time to see some good movies, enjoy some warm hugs, find new places to explore, and enjoy a good book. We miss you and love receiving your messages = karen@karenmerriam.com    We plan to stay here quietly in Aix during Christmas and perhaps take a little trip for a few days over to Cannes and Nice (only a couple of hours east on the Med) before New Years to visit the Chagall and Picasso museums – and find new golf courses.  Love to you, our friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Un beau mec

It’s a good thing I don’t have to write this little blog post in french or I would never get it done. It takes me forever to compose even one sentence, and just when I think I’ve managed to write a little thought perfectly, Claire (one of my profs) brings out her red marker pen and covers the page with corrections. Soothingly she says – “but really it’s very good!”  Yet it’s hard to find my original words under her keen, razor sharp “améliorations.”

Both Claire and Christine, the two mainstay profs of the three-semester course I’ve been taking at IS, were thrilled with the re-election of president Obama.

un beau mec

This photo was posted on our blackboard at IS the day the results came in, and Obama was pronounced “Un beau mec!”  A beautiful guy!

Before going to school that morning, Dominique, our landlord, greeted me with a great hug (not usual in France – usually it’s kisses on the cheeks) and a great Hurrah for Obama.  A few nights later, Monique and Dominique brought together the Americans from “La Bastide” to celebrate Obama’s victory with champagne.  What fun!

Because Claire has two little girls and a third one on the way, I gave her Obama’s newest book “Of Thee I Sing” which he wrote for Sasha and Melia. She is reading it to her children now. If you haven’t seen this book, I highly recommend it.  To Christine I gave “The Audacity of Hope,” and to Dominique “Dreams From My Father.”  I offered to help them with translations 🙂

The silence from American friends and others on email about the election is quite strange to me. As someone here suggested, Americans must be very fatigued after the elections (witness Obama’s famous tear) and not eager to re-engage in political talk, even to celebrate. But I’m here – not there – and don’t really understand the silence very well.  But just ask me – was I overjoyed and relieved? 

As I mentioned earlier, IS studies are not all drudgery.  Christine thought we should learn a bit about

French cheeses and we were only too happy to oblige. We had a bonus treat with the opportunity to taste a sample of the Beaujolais nouveau – just released that morning.  Not a bad way to study french on a fall afternoon.

These beautiful afternoons are made for exploring the area around Aix.  In just about every direction there is something wonderful to see. Recently we traveled in a little arc around the northwest of Aix and were captivated by a little town called Ventabren, perched high on a hill with remains of fortifications left intact as witness to times past.  But what the history of this little man is I don’t know.

It was a Sunday and the town was shuttered for family lunches. We strolled through winding streets, not large enough for cars but just fine for walking, and mounted the hill to the cemetery, a vast recreation area, a view of Marseilles and an excellent restaurant that welcomed SweetPea and gave us shelter from a sudden cloudburst.

Ken is happy to report that his knees still work, thanks to the kind and excellent ministrations of a physiotherapist, an orthopedist, and a massage therapist.  All that good work and hours of working out at the gym and practicing on the golf courses of France has resulted in his shooting the best nine holes ever!  a six under par !  spectacular!

We wish everyone – friends and family – a very lovely Thanksgiving. Ken and I have so much to be grateful for this year and we’ll be sharing it with our new “family” here at “La Bastide” our apartment home, and we also have a party scheduled next week to say farewell to my classmates who are leaving after the final days of class.

Keep the emails coming!  We miss you !

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Winter is Coming

I know you’ve heard about the Mistral: winds that sweep into Provence from the north bringing cold and sometimes wrecking havoc. In these past few weeks, the Mistral has been asserting its prowess, knocking over a cruise ship in the harbor at Marseille, downing trees in the local parks here in Aix, and generally making life very interesting. Rain has followed the wind, with severe flooding in some towns and villages. For a few days the temperature dropped to 0 degrees celsius at night – that’s freezing in any language – and Monique & Dominique turned on the heat in La Bastide. Now the days fluctuate between warm and humid to cold and windy. Winter is arriving!  The leaves are falling, and french scarves of all sizes, shapes, and colors adorn both men and women to make theatrical fashion statements.  Babies and toddlers are the cutest in their little winter hats and scarves.

To take advantage of the season, before snow comes to the higher elevations, Ken and I took a wonderful little trip during the past few days to the Gorges of Verdon. On the way we stopped to see an exposition of 20 atisans who make “santons,”  little figures in clay of the Christmas creche, and scenes of farm life in Provence. It took place in the charming little town of Greoux les Bains – a town that has grown and flourished around Les Thermes, a spa, where folks come for “the cure.”

Les Thermes

Ken at Greoux Les Bains

After some mighty fine crepes for lunch we drove deep into the Gorges of Verdun, magnificent scenery of steep cliffs carved by the Verdun River long ago. Driving along the edge of the cliffs had me holding my breath a few times, and we were grateful for guardrails of stone on some of the hairpin curves.  Night came quickly, before we were ready, and with snow on the mountains in the distance we decided to stop in the charming little mountain town of Castellane where we had dinner and kept warm in a fine little Chambre d’hotes – bed and breakfast.  In the morning we (including SweetPea, of course) were greeted at the breakfast table by a three-month old golden retreiver-shepherd-mix puppy who revelled in Ken’s attention.  A great way to start the day! And by noon we were back home in Aix for school and assorted duties.

In case you were worried that we would miss Halloween while in France, I can assure you we had a grand time at a party hosted by Karen’s classmate from Spain, Maria.  She went all out with decorations, and the folks at the party came from all over, including Australia, Wilton, Connecticut, Switzerland, etc. Great conversations and food.

 

Speaking of food – we continue to find charming little restaurants in Aix that become favorites.

Fanny’s in Aix

 

I’m very excited to try my hand at tagines – a simple Moroccan “stew” that contains all the spices I most love, like cinnamon, cloves, coriander.  I bought a great little french recipe book on how to prepare tagines and was a bit taken aback to see that the recipe called for a “fever” of “giraffes” – or at least that’s how I translated the words “feve” and “girofle”.  Fortunately, I have my dictionary at my side at all times and learned that the ingredients really are fava beans and cloves, but hey – I’m still learning!

As I write, a tagine of lamb and carrots and prunes and squash and potatoes is simmering in our oven and the aromas are calling me to dinner.

Stay in touch and come visit!!

 

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As I Was Saying

Hello to dear friends and family –

We are so entirely happy with our new home and our “proprietors,” Monique & Dominiqe, & mother Simone. Here’s Ken with Monique & Dominique in front of the little gallery & theatre, Le Ruban Vert, on the street floor of our building, where Simone, in the gallery, signed her novels for an appreciative crowd.

Ken, Monique & Dominique

This month has been a time of settling in, feeling our attachments grow and deepen, and making plans and travels from the perspective of being residents of France.  We’re no longer just passing through, or just arrived. We actually live here. OMG.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That hit home hard when we made a quick trip to Barcelona, Spain to spend a brief time with dear friends Jeanie and Andy who flew in from San Luis Obispo to meet a cruise ship bound for Greece and Italy.  We hopped in our car in Aix, traveled across the Camargue, through Arles and Nimes, past Montpellier and Perpignan to find our way to an outstanding B&B in the heart of Barcelona.  And it was only five hours door-to-door. Fortunately we arrived on a Saturday afternoon when the streets were quiet, everyone taking a siesta, and we could walk and enjoy the marvelous architecture everywhere.  We had been in Barcelona a few years before on a chilly Christmas Eve, but this day was warm and welcoming.

our room

 

Here’s our lovely room in the B&B “La Belle Epoque 1904.”  Amusingly, as we entered the building, the brass sign on a huge wooden door facing us listed a well-known Traumatologist – What a coincidence!

Jeanie & Andy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a wonderful evening with Jeanie and Andy, and the next day we drove about 40kmwest  to Montserrat, a monestary situated high on a rocky promontory, where we heard the famous boy’s choir sing briefly. Ken was able to capture a moment of the music, but it’s difficult to transmit here.

 

The ride to the monestary is by tram/train or telepherique/cable car. Either option is not for the faint-of-heart or those with vertigo!

Because we feel so at home now, Karen at school studying french and Ken exploring a new world in France and neighboring countries we are content to pursue our interests freely.

This week Ken took off for a five-day trip to explore the Swiss Alps and surrounding areas. Hopefully he will soon add some more pictures here, but for now I’ll sign off with a stunning view of the Mont Blanc cable car as it ascends.  Ken was soon in it, going to the top for a little hike !  He came home safely and SweetPea and I were happy to have our family together again.

 

Chamonix cable car


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