Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Motherhood Act 2

March 1, 2013
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Turning 18 is a big event here.  You fall asleep a dependent, and awaken with the right to vote, enlist in the army, take the driver’s permit test and order a Remy with your espress.

The concept of ‘sweet 16’ smacks of commercial seduction to the French, and 21 is just an odd number.  20 is celebrated as the start of a new decade, but 18 signifies emancipation.  Ta fille has become une femme, and ton garcon… un homme.

Our youngest celebrated her 18th birthday yesterday – far away with new friends at university in London. As Emma crossed the threshold of adulthood, the curtain closed on Act 1 of my life as a mother.  It’s a period that spans the entirety of my time in France – soon to be 25 years.  To add insult to injury, my carte familles nobreuses (which entitled me to 30% discounts on trains and museums) also expires.  Official notice that it’s TIME TO MOVE ON.

When we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport in April 1988, I was pushing a stroller and carrying a diaper bag. Devin was nine months old.  What were we thinking?  Parenting is already a grueling apprenticeship, but somehow we assumed we were up to the challenge without a safety net of family and good friends.

The choice to stay on (and on) embraced challenge and isolation, but ultimately solidified the nuclear family.  Our three children, now 25, 22 and 18, didn’t grow up outsiders, but sensed they were different.  It was a status they attempted to camouflage or ignore but eventually came to embrace with gratitude.

We did more learning together than many families.  We taught them English, and we absorbed French grammar, history and geography overseeing homework. By round three I finally mastered the subjunctive.

As they grew up in the country, we gradually figured out how to garden, tend vegetables, restore a ruin, care for and train dogs and horses.  I’m not certain Devin, Sarah and Emma were as keen about our choices as we were, but as Jeffrey likes to remind me, we planted the seeds of nostalgia – memories infused with pungent odors, the fury and glory of nature.

Last autumn they left us behind for schools in Philadelphia, New York and London. The French phase of their education is over, and they’re exploring life in familiar, but ultimately foreign cultures.

This morning it hit me that I’m the age my mother was in 1988, when her only daughter and first grandchild moved an ocean away.  At least I have the consolation of what’s app and skype.

 

 

 

 

Strung Out on High Strung

December 19, 2012
Kalmar

After admitting to a passion for poetry, I decided to come clean about another addiction. It’s comparably indulgent, with the added frisson of masochism.

Horses.

You may be rolling your eyes, but indulge me – as this is sure to have therapeutic benefit, at least for me.

Owning and caring for a horse qualifies one for automatic enrollment in the school of humility. Similar to parenthood, nothing prepares you for bringing a horse into your life. Not only will anything that can go wrong go wrong, you’re also condemned to the unsolicited advice and condescension of anyone who’s ever had their butt in a saddle.

On my side of the family, horses are synonymous with misery and folly; extravagance followed by ruin or the madness of desperation. When I announced we had three horses and a pony to one particularly battle scarred aunt, the phone line went silent. “That’s it, no more, stop there!” was all she could muster. As an Irish-American it doesn’t take much genealogical research to connect the dots.

My paternal great grandfather James O’Brien traded rural poverty in Tipperary for a rung on the ladder of American upward mobility mucking stalls at the 5th Avenue Bus Co in Manhattan. Meanwhile, on the earlier-to-assimilate maternal side, John H. Cooney was investing profit from his Harrison, New Jersey heating contracting business in racehorses.

So you see it’s not entirely my fault.  Among the Irish, partiality to poetry, tippling and the Virgin Mary are often accompanied by fondness for horses.

Though I’ve ridden off and on since the age of eight, I didn’t seriously consider owning a horse until I began hunting in France 13 years ago.  At first renting seemed a viable option. You think blind dating is stressful!  Not only was I a complete novice concerning the intricacies of hunting to hounds (la chasse a courre as it’s called here), I was dead bottom of the stable pecking order.  No sooner would I rent a horse with a tolerable quota of vice, than I’d discover it was reserved for the remainder of the season, and be back to Russian roulette.

My limit was tested one freezing January morning, when recovering from flu, I fantasized being up to the challenge of tearing across forests and fields glazed with slick frost. Clipped horses are especially frisky in winter, and when I sighted my date fresh off the van, blanket removed, steam rising off his back and snorting in anticipation, I sensed my number was up.

Etiquette demands horses walk from the rendez-vous to the parcel of forest where a stag is ‘launched’ by the hounds. Setting off next to Jeffrey (astride his OWN horse) I quickly gained ground as Ivanhoe transitioned from race walk to nervous prancing.  Panic wreaks havoc with survival instinct – drivers slam on the brake, skiers lean back and lose their edge, riders pitch forward.  A horse detects a crack in confidence quicker than a mosquito hones in on young flesh. That shift in weight was all Ivanhoe needed to get his head down and break away in a gallop. I shut my eyes as the road approached, opening them as we skidded into the haunches of a pasture pal.

Next morning I announced “I’m buying my own”. Out of the frying pan…

Horse and rider, like happy couples, do best when temperaments are complementary, but just as we’re apt to fall for unsuitable partners, equestrians are hopeless at recognizing their limitations. The consequence is too many horse and rider combinations fraught with angst and frustration. I should know.

Kalmar is my second horse. We’ve been together five years and accept one another’s shortcomings. There’s plenty to complain about on both sides and neither of us has the upper hand. Trading in for a new model is a last resort.  It’s unlikely to work out well for either of us since Kalmar’s getting long in the tooth and I prefer coping with the evil I know.  Taking on a new horse before it’s absolutely necessary presents a set of potentially worse unknowns. The expression ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect horse” is spot on.

In an ideal world, a horse-for-sale ad might read: “Recently broken 4 year old thoroughbred gelding seeks relaxed, experienced rider”.  Sadly, full disclosure is as rare in horse-trading as used car sales. A key difference is the feeble percentage of horse buyers capable of judging the quality and suitability of a horse, and they don’t have “Consumer Reports” to fall back on.

The golden rule is young horse/old rider and vice versa. High-strung or fearful riders stand a chance when paired with a calm, not-prone-to shy horse; while over bred warm bloods and afraid-of-their-shadow horses should only be entrusted to a confident, experienced rider. “Finally have an age appropriate horse” a veteran hunter recently consented with a smile as we headed back to the trailers after clocking 40 kilometers. At 75 he was ready to accept a mount aged in double digits. In terms of speed, a horse’s prime is between four and eight; so male hunters don’t celebrate their horse hitting 11.

I took on Kalmar at 8 after his retirement from a career as a steeplechaser. Horses leave the track wounded either in body or mind.  Kalmar has yet to limp but could use use a good shrink. He reacts VIOLENTLY to black and white dairy cows, rears if a strange person tries to touch his head, can’t be attached without risk of breaking his halter, or be clipped without resorting to desperate measures.  Yes, part of the pleasure is the thrill of potential danger.

Despite the insanity and uncertainty I love him, and accept that whatever goes wrong is my fault because he’s a herd loving herbivore, while I’m the wily carnivorous biped responsible for his physical and emotional well being.  Mostly I’m grateful – for the yin of beauty, grace and trust paired with the yang of power, perseverance and guts. Kalmar taught me the difference between sensitivity, vulnerability and fragility – to see with my ears and speak through touch.

This isn’t to say I haven’t sworn to myself and others, more than once – I’m quitting!  Can’t take it anymore! Not squandering more good money after bad!

I carry on because my frustration is self-directed. To my husband’s annoyance, I can’t get mad at my horse. Jeffrey’s lucky to be free of the sort of psychological vulnerability and nervous reactivity that gives me insight into a horse’s twitchy insecurity.

I can be furious for a horse about the unknown past, imagining the fatal encounter that left an indelible scar, and wish we could go back and make it right.  Life isn’t like that, so we adapt and get on with it. If it weren’t one tick it would be another.

Once when our eldest was six and taking his first riding lessons I watched a young woman galloping a thoroughbred around the perimeter of a paddock.  She was raised off her saddle like a jockey and the two of them moved in graceful harmony. In my memory they circle in slow motion. I dreamed of taking her place.

And I did, beyond the paddock – galloping up a grassy track leading to a narrow forest path. We race into a tunnel of bark, branches, leaves and ferns, where earthy forest odors mingle with the scent of leather and horse sweat.  We’re galloping beyond time – today, fifty or three hundred years ago – decades on.

 

 

 

 

Touraine Tradition: Boxwood Sunday

April 18, 2011
Buis

In Catholic parishes where I attended mass before moving to Orbigny, Christmas and Easter services were the big draw, but in rural Touraine, it’s Palm Sunday that really fills the pews.  Considering it’s a lengthy service including the longest gospel reading of the year, I was amazed to see our typically sparsely filled church packed to  capacity with men, women and children clutching bunches of boxwood clippings.  Among the faces were avowed agnostics and vociferous anti-clerical types whom typically cross the threshold only for a funeral.   This wasn’t about an excuse for dressing up, since Sunday go-to-meeting preening isn’t something the French go for even on holidays, with the exception of a wedding.

I suspected the swell in attendance was linked to a primeval sentiment beyond piety – the power of ingrained tradition and superstition to overpower cynicism and skepticism.  But why boxwood instead of palm fronds?

In French, the feast is called Dimanche des Rameaux (Sunday of Branches). No mention of Palms.  Boxwood, or buis, is a hardy evergreen plant that requires little watering and thrives in the alkaline clay soil of the region.  You find it throughout Touraine, growing as a tree in the forest, a trimmed hedge or bush in cottage potagers, or sculpted into fantastic topiaries in chateaux gardens.   Thus it’s readily available, unlike palms imported from the southern Mediterranean.   In the UK and US, pre-blessed palms, typically woven into the shape of a cross, are distributed as congregants exit the church.  Here we hold up boxwood cuttings from our gardens (or a supply set out on a table by the entry of the church), as the priest walks up and down the aisles blessing the congregation with holy water.

A few years back, while out riding my horse, I came across a farmer and his wife on their knees planting a sprig of buis in the plowed earth at the corner of their field.  The spot is a local landmark known as Les Trois Croix, for three crosses erected at an intersection of four fields, where the boundary limits of three villages meet.  It’s also the highest point in the county, and seemed an apt setting for a ceremony with echoes of pagan ritual.  That was my aha moment and confirmed my hunch about the superstitious appeal of blessed buis. Read More »

Far from the blinking lights

December 20, 2010
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Turning a duck’s liver…

December 10, 2010
Maison Perrin

…into a silken slice of ambrosia.

‘Tis the season of gourmet delicacies – truffles, oysters and foie gras – perennial stars of les fêtes de fin d’année. The seductive/repellant duality of these acquired tastes is undeniable.  There’s an unsettling aspect either to their appearance, texture or how they are produced, which heightens the guilty pleasure of consumption; earthy truffles detected by a pig’s snout, fresh oysters ingested essentially alive, and the incomparably subtle flavor of a force-fed duck’s swollen liver.

Working on French Country Hideaways, which features several properties that produce foie gras and truffles, I stopped short of hands-on involvement.  So when friends proposed an atelier foie gras offered by Maison Perrin, a small Touraine producer, I was all in.  I always found purchasing foie gras a challenge with so many variations and pricing inconsistencies. Numerous French friends prepare it at home, but I envisioned a complicated ritual.

Maison Perrin is a farm in La Celle Guenand, near Le Grand Pressigny, owned by Valérie and Philippe Charcellay.  Its remote location conjured images of a convivial country kitchen with our intimate group gathered round a worn trestle table scattered with earthenware terrines, warmed by the glow of an open hearth.  The destination conformed to expectation, as did a modest shop with hand woven baskets suspended from the ceiling, shelves stocked with conserved duck dishes from cassoulet to rillettes and a cold case stacked with vacuum-packed magrets, lobes of foie and jars of foie gras mi-cuit.  Maison Perrin

It was startling to discover that the idyllic kitchen was actually a chilly white tile and stainless steel laboratoire, where to match EU standards, the ambiance exuded the charm of a hospital canteen annexed to a morgue.  Comfort was not to be part of our experience.  The temperature had to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  I regretted forgoing the long underwear and fur-lined boots I’d considered because of snowy weather.  Gloves weren’t an option, but mercifully we got to warm our hands intermittently under a steamy tap.

Read More »

EJP

December 1, 2010
Frozen Ivy

When I moved to NYC after college, the impossible dream was to take over the lease on a rent-controlled apartment. Rent control symbolized mythic, affordable Manhattan before housing ate up half a paycheck – the stuff of urban legend.  I never got lucky.

Well, every dog has its day, and I can finally gloat in my rural backwater that I’m grandfathered into EJP, a bargain electricity option which EDF (formerly known as Electricité de France) no longer offers because it’s far too good a deal for the consumer.  I’m tempted to be smug, except EJP is a blessing disguised as a curse, and it was more fun when you could bitch about it.  Now complaining you can’t do laundry or use your electric oven because it’s an EJP day is considered obnoxious.

EDF created the EJP (Effacement des Jours de Pointe) option for secondary residences, where cold weather consumption occurs (if at all) on weekends and holidays.  They offered a very low annual rate, excluding the 22 coldest weekdays of the year, when national consumption peaks and the EJP rate correspondingly spiked.  Where EDF miscalculated, was promising not to include weekends, school holidays and the wee hours between 1am and 7am. Read More »

Mid-May in the Potager

June 25, 2010
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May is when things get going in the potager. The first radishes plump up, baby lettuce, arugula and spinach are lustrous and strawberries begin to ripen.

Our potager is a bit of a laggard because of a predominantly northern orientation (along the fence line), with southern light filtered by an ancient hawthorn hedge that developed into a row of trees. Read More »

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