Monday, April 25, 2011

Week 48: Spring Pleasures

We are becoming accustomed to sunny warm weather...very unusual for this time of year, especially for weeks running. As always, weather is the main topic of conversation in the village when people meet. It seems amusing to me that generally speaking, no matter what the weather is doing, it never seems to satisfy people. When it rains people complain, now that it's sunny, people are worried that it isn't raining. Of course it is true that these abnormal weather patterns cause havoc for farmers and others who depend upon the predictable nature of the seasons. These bright days may indicate an underlying problem of grave global significance, or they may be the harbinger of bleak dry days ahead, but for myself, I can only take the attitude of get it while you can.

The swifts have returned to the village. They epitomize summer for me, with their evocative calls as they swoop, swirl and dive bomb the church at dawn and dusk. Our black birds seem to lumber through the evening sky by comparison. A pair of morning doves, as usual, are nesting in our wisteria, hidden behind a flowery barrier. Mother-to-be sits on the nest, right outside our apartment window, all day cooing. Proud papa stands guard on the roof top, protectively surveying the terrace and our comings and goings.

The mutabilis roses have burst into glory. They will bloom continuously throughout the season. All the plants now have grown up, providing a soft cover to the metal fence. We put wooden panels on the front gate, so that now our terrace is a real secret garden.

Lilacs all over town are in full bloom. Does anything smell sweeter? Ours are white ones, but various shades of lavender are also in abundance throughout the village.

Even if the garden is not completely filled in, it is starting to blossom and bloom. Usually it's more like the beginning of June when plants are so advanced in their growth.

The peony is full of buds and blooms. In California the weather does not easily support growing this plant, but here they seem weed-like.

I love the tender green of perennials that are just waking up from their winter slumber.

Our first tea rose in the garden has bloomed. The smell is indescribable.

Even the rumpled corners of the garden are trying their best of join in the spring ebullience. We let parts of the grass paths grow as we can't bear to shave off the little daisies.

Iris are in their glory at the moment. Light lavender in the terrace and white in the garden. Our neighbor Catherine gave us a bouquet of strange brown ones yesterday. I wouldn't have imagined a color like that, but I enjoy all the forms and shades that irises take.


We were so happy to see Georges again this week after so many months. He was in town with his family for the Easter vacation. Leyla and her cousin Militine came along for a day of etching in the studio.

They worked very hard at their images and Militine, who had never tried printmaking at all before, was a quick study.

Leyla arrived with a drawing she had already made. She really loves this process and does wonderful work. She created a Chinese dragon figure and printed it several ways.

She is gaining quite a bit of confidence in the studio.

There was a lot to do in just one day of work. In the end I think Leyla was not entirely satisfied with her results. She had other printing ideas in mind, but time ran out. I imagine we'll see her again soon the next time school lets out.

Militine created an image of a dog's head, a pug, with a bottle in the background.

She printed it in bright colors and left a lot of ink on the plate, so the colors were deeply saturated. It looked very nice.


Easter weekend brought a visit from Emily and family. One of the many pleasures we can count on when they show up, is lots of good eating. Emily is a fabulous cook and it seems to be one of the activities she and Jos prefer when they have downtime. Making a beautiful meal is not necessarily what I like to do for fun, but I am an enthusiastic appreciator of those who do!

Emily has a new and irresistible cookbook, called A Year in My Kitchen by the fabulous Skye Gyngell, which we utilized throughout the weekend. Jos brought us some very special white asparagus from Belgium (they have some of the best this time of year) and Emily made us Salad of Spring Vegetables with Herbs, Parmesan and Lemon-infused Oil Garnished with Roasted Red Onions, Tea-smoked Wild Salmon with Pickled Cucumber Mint Salad. It was really divine, and so beautiful to look at. This cookbook has wonderful basic herb blends, scented oils, and garnishes which can be made ahead and then used in different ways to transform ordinary ingredients into spectacular meals in no time at all. Her inventive cooking techniques can also be applied to different foods. Smoking meats and fish in tea, for instance, adds dramatic and delicious flavor.

Another pleasure of a visit from the family is the opportunity to enjoy Quinn and all the new things he learns every day. We decided to dye some eggs with him and he enjoyed the process tremendously. He began by making some designs on an egg with crayon.

Emily made a beautiful natural red beet dye with water, beets and vinegar. Quinn enjoyed the flavor.

Our eggs were brown because there doesn't seem to be a chicken in town who lays white ones. It made our colors seem a bit antique.

On Easter morning, after feeding breakfast to our other clients, I went to the garden with the Easter Bunny, who hid the eggs among the plants.

an orange one

a blue one

a red one

When Quinn arrived he got right to gathering them up.

Quinn's Easter Bunny doesn't hide chocolate eggs, at least not yet. It's difficult enough to keep Quinn from eating all the hardboils in one go.


With days and nights like this, who can resist the call of the out-of-doors for meals? Unfortunately our kitchen is on the third floor and it makes for a lot of ferrying up and downstairs. We hit on the plan of lowering our supplies in a basket.

Jos and Quinn received them.

Easter dinner consisted of: potatoes and parsnips

garbanzo beans with spicy carrots and cilantro

Roast Lamb with fresh garden herbs


Another agreeable week has past. We had a brief dramatic thunder storm in the night with some rain, but not enough to satisfy the farmers, I'm afraid. Today dawns bright again, and promises a week of sunny skies.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Week 47: Urban Meditations

I think I would characterize myself as basically a country girl. I grew up on a 40 acre ranch, surrounded by woods. It was quiet, with not one neighbor in view, completely dark at night without light pollution or any noise other than the natural world around us. That kind of isolation seems very comfortable to me. But most people live in cities. Over 77% in France, 82%+ in the U.S. and 90%+ in the UK. And of course, in many ways, that's much more environmentally friendly.

I have been thinking about cities, as I spent part of my week in Paris and part of it in London. Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, with over 20,000 people sharing a single square kilometer. Paris is 41 square miles whereas London is 610 square miles. Population density in Greater London is less than 5000 people per square kilometer. Those are the facts, but in practice, I always find London feels denser, busier, more stressful. Maybe its just that Paris is so much more manageable in terms of size and so many of the boulevards in Paris are broad. In London the streets are narrower, the buildings so much closer to the road. As you rattle past on the upper deck of a bright red city bus, you feel as if you can almost reach out and touch the second floor windows of the apartment buildings as you pass by.


We took care of Quinn for a couple of days and spent one of them visiting the Parc de la Villette, a large urban park within a few minutes walk of Emily's house. We have eaten at the Café de la Musique many times, we watched Joshua Redman in concert at the Cité de la Musique and I even enjoyed an outdoor movie one evening many years ago, sitting on the grass with a film projected onto a huge inflated silver screen. But we had never really explored the entire park. 

This time of year, I suppose, everywhere it's beautiful. The park was no exception. So much green and lots of corners from which to enjoy the verdant season.

Quinn found a bridge and enjoyed crossing it. I find this combination of steel and foliage somehow wonderful. Large red structures are dotted throughout the park and are called follies. They are meant to help the visitor navigate his way through the space.

There is lots of green space. People can gather, have picnics, play, chase or just enjoy the sunshine. I love the giant bicycle tire buried in the grass.

We had wanted to take Quinn to the Museum of Science and Industry at the back end of the Park, but if you've ever taken a stroll with a two year old, you know that it's all about the journey and not the goal. By the time we reached the museum we realized that there would not be nearly enough time for it and besides, the out of doors is better at Quinn's age. The museum will have to wait.


I went to London with Emily, which was a lot of fun. Rick stayed with Quinn in Paris, as Jos was directing a show in Italy. We left before dawn and caught the Eurostar at an ungodly hour. James was hardly awake when we reached his apartment in East London. The advantage to this train schedule, was that we had the entire day ahead of us. We decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, affectionately known as the VandA by the locals. James and Adric had never visited and I was interested in seeing their current show The Cult of Beauty.

While in London we took every form of public transportation: taxi, train, tube and bus. Before heading to the museum, we decided to lunch at the brand new Whole Foods, the largest one in the world. It has an entire floor of various restaurant/food courts. James and I chose Middle Eastern Cuisine, Emily went for Japanese and Adric chose Mexican.

After lunch we walked back to the VandA through Hyde Park. What a fantastic stroll! There were huge chestnut trees and lush grass.

We had a nice walk through the gated Princess Diana Memorial Walkway. It was a world apart. So much blooming loveliness, meticulously manicured.

Extravagant blooming trees, shrubs and plants made for a very pleasant stroll.

And the most incredibly friendly wildlife seem to live among the hedges, including this adorable red breast. We saw gray squirrels that casually take treats from your hands.

Towards the end of the walk you can see the gilded Albert Memorial towering over the shrub border.

Then the Royal Albert Hall (as in How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall? I couldn't believe my children had never pondered this question.)

At last we reached the VandA, considered these days, a very hip place. Despite the old marble tombs, it tends to feature young and interesting designers.

It's a gorgeous space with soaring columns,

cupolas and modern glass sculpture. We spent a very pleasant afternoon there.

The building itself, of red brick, is luscious and expansive. There is a beautiful tea room designed by William Morris where we had a very enjoyable break from our museum going.

We had scones, jam and various kinds of delicious teas served in individual pots.

The British really know how to make an agreeable mid afternoon snack and to create beautiful spaces in which to relax and enjoy it.

While staying with James, I spent a certain amount of time on his balcony looking over the urban view and enjoying it very much. I have never really lived in a big city full time, other than spending extended stays in Paris during one summer and two winters. I think it would be difficult for me to get used to the noise, congestion and the effort it takes to get from one place to another. Still, there is a kind of beauty in a city. I found that making a sketch of the layers of buildings made it easier for me to actually see and appreciate it. Of course, this time of year, with the trees leafed out, the view was softened. Trains went by quite often with their distinctive clickety clack. I found that noise rather comforting.


The weather in France is just a little bluer and warmer than in London. We arrived home on the weekend in time to welcome some clients. I am always happy to come back home. Our wisteria is in its full glory and a huge clump of purple bearded irises are in bloom outside my studio door.

But this time of year is characterized by the safflower in my mind. I keep publishing photos of the fields because it is so difficult to share what a strong impression they make. You have to be able to imagine that these bright patches surround you 365º, with this vibrant patchwork of color. Electric yellow, young wheat, which is blue green, and the green green of the grass. It is a short moment of the year, but it is the view that I most associate with the Perche, this region of France, just as the lavender or sunflower fields are associated with the south.