Thursday, January 12, 2017

Neat or Not at All

Seldom a month goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I was raised proper - well actually raised to be proper. Between my grandparents, that I would listen to, and my parents that I tried not to listen to, I learned to say please and thank you, look adults in the eye when greeting them, and a long list of other niceties that, with a lot of prompting, became ingrained, automatic behaviors.  Credit should also be given to my great uncles who taught me how to shake hands with just the right amount of pressure, to be on time or get left behind, and how to drink whiskey neat or not at all. 

Now here in France every social event makes me feel like that youngster learning how to comport herself all over again.

Here on “the other side” of the ocean there is a very different set of rules on how to act proper in the world of French adults. Here I thank my lucky stars that I have an adoptive family that is willing to answer questions and gently teach this old dog new tricks - even though one of these French rules says that it is impolite to correct another adult. 

An evening out will start by being careful to calculate our time of departure so that we will arrive at the home of our hosts no earlier than 15 minutes late. My childish brain says I have to be ready at the appointed hour, so I am.  But I don’t want to start off my special evening in the dog house, so I sit all dolled up in my house, tapping my toes until the clock has struck the “official” hour and then sit there for another 15 minutes listening to the voices of the great uncles saying, “What the heck are you waiting for?”

Upon arriving I no longer get to show off my just-right American handshake as I introduce myself to a new acquaintance or say a quick hi to old friends. Here it’s a round of kisses to all. Then the doorbell rings and it will start all over again. I guess the best thing about being late is you get all this hello-ing over in one fell swoop. 

At some point we are all seated at the dinner table.  Now is my big chance to put to use a whole bunch of my new tricks. I hear my grandmother’s words “keep your hands in your lap” over and over.  But at the same time my mind is working overtime to remember that in France, it’s, “Keep my hands on the table”. 

Dinner served I am thrilled that my unbreakable childhood habit of eating “continental” style is now de rigueur. Here there is no need to: cut my food, put down my knife (right hand) and fork (left hand) and then pick up the fork in my right hand. Something that has raised eyebrows my entire life will go unnoticed here.

I’ll drink my wine as slowly as I can and wait until I am served more instead of having the audacity to ask for more - even if my glass has been empty for 3 or 4 minutes! 

I hold my breath that I will not be the first person that has to cut into the cheese plate and I count on the person before me knowing cheese cutting etiquette that I can copy cat. 

I put my bread directly on the table. 

I stay seated while my hostess does everything. Like a child I watch everyone to see what they are doing and try to mimic or change whatever American mannerism that is trying to sneak back to the table.

I have made great progress in my French comportment but, until last week there was one rule I had heard about, but was doing my darndest to ignore. Then some new Americans moved to town and they really wanted confirmation of what I was convinced could only be rumor. We decided that we could ask this crazy, slightly embarrassing question here in the confidence of a family from whom we knew we would get an honest response. 

We had all heard that one is never to use the bathroom when you are a guest in a French home. So sometime in the middle of Christmas dinner I screwed up the courage and asked my French hostess the question, well actually I stated it as a fact. “I have heard that when one is a guests in someone’s home they cannot use the bathroom”. The immediate response was “absolument” - this pretty much translates to of course you can not! There was an audible gasp from the Americans. Not go to the bathroom when one might be a guest for 4 - 6 hours. Now that is a rule of etiquette gone too far! I thought of the times one of us had used the bathroom here in this very home - not to mention others- and how no one had ever corrected us. (This particular friend has been a great guide to living in France and has gently guided me in other niceties. How could she have neglected this bit of info? It probably never occurred to her that we didn’t know this rule.) This great prudish problem in a country where men can pretty much pee in public pretty much anywhere they like!

I have to confess that I have taken this new trick under advisement, but as of yet there are not enough years of voices telling me that I cannot make myself comfortable if things are becoming urgent - plus my curiosity of what the rest of the house looks like often gets the better of me. I guess someone forgot to drill into me that curiosity killed the cat and that for old dogs some habits are just going to get worse not better. At least when it comes to drinking with proper French adults I never get left behind when it comes to a quick nip of 100-proof eau-de-vie and that’s a good southern way to show you have right proper manners!



Saturday, December 24, 2016

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Streets lined with bright sparkling garlands of lights, windows filled with Santa and his Elves, reindeer and polar bears, snow covered cabins filed with Christmas decorations, and cauldrons full of sauerkraut and sausages, mulled wine and salty pretzels, these are a few of the delights that awaited us on our recent trip to the splendid city of Strasbourg and it’s annual Christmas Market.

Strasbourg and it’s market are just a small part of the concept of Christmas, but the light, and wonder, the joy that was there are a big part of what keeps us connected to each other and the Christian message of love.  Love that is the message of all religions. Let us all continue to search for ways to share our light, joy and love.

Wishing you Peace, Joy and Love from our small village in France.























































Monday, December 12, 2016

DARK

Cinderella knew she had to hit the road just before midnight or else..... Here in our small village we have until 12:30 to scurry back to our homes. It’s not that at 12:30 we’ll turn into pumpkins or mice. It’s that at 12:30 the street lights go off and you might find yourself in a black hole. The street lights go off and the village turns country dark and oh boy that’s when you know what dark is! Some nights at that moment you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Woe be to the late night reveler that has forgotten to carry along a flashlight for the now daunting walk home. Baby, it’s dark outside, black as pitch, inky back, dark as a dungeon. One feels buried in darkness.
There is a flip side to the dark darkness of Bourdeilles. It is when your eyes have adjusted to the loss of the street light, and if there isn’t any cloud cover, the sparkling, enveloping light from the night sky magically illuminates your way. 

Even the slightest sliver of a moon will be a bright guide. With no lights, not even household light, because no light can escape from the tightly closed shutters in a small village in France, the streets and alleyways will be awash with a soft, lunar glow.

If the moon is on the wane and a thick fog floats up from the river Bourdeilles’ nights can be awfully scary. The ancient screech of the great grey heron sends a shiver up one’s spine and the gurgle of the river under the low edges of the bridge makes one imagine trolls are lurking in the dark edges of the night. The owl’s hoot hoot is twisted into a word of warning - hurry hurry home.

 On full moon nights it’s great fun to head into the village as the moon rises regally beside the massive tower of the chateau. The return walk home with that great moon, and whatever unearthly else is drawn out by her presence is one where each next footstep becomes a little brisker than the last
There is so little light pollution in Bourdeilles that going out with the dogs for their last walk of the night feels like stepping onto the sky’s stage. Stars twinkle, planets glow their strange colored glow, and every now and then the far off lights of a transatlantic airplane go blinkingly by the fixed constellations. Constellations that are fixed in the universe but not in our seasonally changing skies. The Milky Way, so rarely seen in the big cities, is almost always in Bourdeilles’ night sky.  Some nights it seems like all one has to do is reach out a hand and pluck one of those twinkling jewels. The darker the night the better the chance that I can lie in bed and watch a sprinkling of tiny white gems shimmering behind the window’s lace curtain.

I heard the other day that something like one third of the world’s population will never see a night sky. They live awash in acidic light. They can’t know that stars wrap around the earth and seem to touch the ground on a cold winter night. They haven’t seen stars that twinkle or that little star that tags along below a crescent moon. They wont know the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper or Orion. I hope that once in a blue moon the moon gets big enough, and the skies clear enough, that if some late night city walker were to look up they will experience the wonderment of our amazing moon, maybe even see the man in the moon. 


Like Cinderella we might find it easier to be mindful of the hours passing on the clock and arrive home at a reasonable hour, to hear the chiming of midnight tightly tucked into bed. Or we might live life in our small town version of the fast lane-- stay out late, and gamble on the light of the heavens to get us home.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The BIG Day

No hitting the snooze alarm this morning - it’s the beginning of a BIG day. 

We have watched the weather for a week to find the best day for our adventure. Rain is no good as we will be outside all day long. Drizzle is doable, but rain is miserable.

Now it’s Tuesday a.m. and the alarm goes off and layers of warm clothing go on. There’s no telling if the sun might come out and warm up our BIG adventure, or if we will need to stay snugly bundled up. We are going to need all our energy to focus on our epic adventure and being chilled and wet just wont do.

There is no communication between us at this time of the morning, just two quick questions, are the dogs all set, and do you have the check book?
There is just a hint of light as we head off down the road. I am not quite as prepared as I wanted to be so we make a quick stop at the ATM - cash is important to a BIG day. 

We are off to la Foire a la Brocante et Antiquites des Quinconces de Bordeaux (aka the Bordeaux winter outdoor antiques fair). It’s a 2-hour drive and a churning feeling of anticipation has joined us in the car. 

Over the years we have established a routine to the BIG day - discipline is crucial or else we will either poop out from exhaustion or get disoriented and frustrated. The line between the two states is just too darn close to monkey around with. Impatience has to take a back seat to seasoned reason.

Today we have no interest in the splendors that Bordeaux has to offer - too bad as it is a jewel box of a city. Zipping through the morning traffic we are early enough to get a premium parking spot right by the fair grounds.

Hearts pumping with anticipation we arrange our ammunition for the hunt. Camera - check. Note book and pencil - check. I am the team photographer to record visual reminders of the treasures that catch our eyes. Tom is recorder of prices, the # of the stand, and of noting the location marked on the map. It doesn’t take long before location becomes a blur - there are 250 stands to check out and we’ll be here for a good 6 hours.



We have just started down the first corridor, entered the first booth and BAM there are gorgeous things! A sweet patio set from the 50’s catches our imaginations. Wouldn’t those fold up chairs be perfect for extra seating on busy summer nights. The small square table would make a great side table. At the first booth of the day we can talk ourselves into pretty much anything as we drool over some potential prize. While still in that very first booth we spy a magnificent gilded mirror. (If the other 249 booths are as great as this one we might be dipping into our retirement funds.) The size and shape of the mirror is intriguing. Not to mention it’s beauty.  Working with gold as much as Tom does,  he is impressed by the intricate gilding.



Hungry to get his day off to a quick sale the seller is sure to show us how easily the chairs fold, the quality of their construction, and to mention that since it’s winter when folks aren’t thinking of outdoor items he could give us a better price. It’s listed at 150 euros - he’ll let it go for 100. This type of negotiation exchange will go on a quite a few times before the day is over. But, there will be no buying yet. We have to stick to “the rules”. Photos are taken, prices noted, and the booth location marked on the map. Goodness! One booth down and our hunting has begun in earnest.



For an hour we glide in and out of booths. Sometimes separate, sometimes calling the other back to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to some intriguing object. The #1 qualification for anything we are contemplating is where can it be placed in the decor of our already over-crowded home. Tom and I do not always agree on an item, but when we do we both love it. We’ll stand there discussing both physical and emotional elements of a thing, then haggle with the vendor before adding the info to the ever lengthening list.


Around 11:30 we take stock of our location and strategize how to to arrive at the restaurant before we drop from fatigue and before the restaurant fills up with boisterous vendors. 

Turns out there is no great crush on a drizzly midweek day. We grab a table and start reviewing the morning’s collection of potentials. “Let’s keep the little patio set, scratch off the marble urn, what are you really thinking about that painting?” We run through everything listed so far as our legs and eyes take a break. 

Lunch finished we are reenergized for the remaining work. No lingering over a coffee. A coffee break is saved for later, when we will take stock of all we have seen, the very last review - but we have a ways to get to that…..



The afternoon continues pretty much the same as the morning but, we notice that we are less and less excited by things. By now we have looked carefully at, picked up, or at least glanced at thousands of things. We are able to make the decision “no” without the need for reflection on the list. Everything is now weighed by our obsession with an armoire and a great block of carved stone we seem to have our hearts set on. This late in the day we walk past stands just scanning from the outside. We think, but our muddled brains are a bit unsure, that we have passed up and down all of the aisles. 




It’s time to head to a cafe for the last pow-wow. Susan waves off coffee, fearing that caffeine could obliterate what little is left of her self-control. Time to check the list, add up the amount of dreamed of purchases and narrow our purchases down to reality.


The mirror is gorgeous, but neither of us can think of a place for it. Scratch.
The patio set is sweet, but complicated to store. Scratch.
The painting isn’t really necessary - it was to remind Tom to have fun. Scratch. Let him find fun elsewhere.
The stone is just too amazing to pass up. Check.
The vase will make a sweet Christmas gift. Check.
No place to put the lamp. No place to put the boat. The old doors wont fit our project. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
These pots are the buy of the year. Check.
The armoire is a work of art! Check.



And so we set off to make our purchases. Vendors faces light up to see up return. Checks are written. Then, invariably, Tom does his Tom at the Flea market Thing.  He dutifully follows the rules and argues down the price.  And then after the check is written we have to write another one because Tom feels guilty for arguing down an already fair price. (He also over tips waiters.) Delivery is organized with little maps sketched out to show where we live. No one charges for delivery. They don’t even bat an eye knowing that it could be up to a 2 hour drive-- each way. It’a a little love fest as we glow in our purchases and the vendor thrills to snagging us. 


Our drive home is dark and quiet. The adrenaline and decision making of the day has worn us out. There is also the little nagging feeling of regret for the things we left behind. But having our established routine has kept us from being impulsive, and more importantly, kept us within our budget. Dang that we don’t have a bigger home and a bigger bank account. But the BIG day strategies keep us on our toes and and on pins and needles as we make the most of what we do have - and that is the love of beautiful things created with love by amazing artisans.