Home…

My original plan was to stay in France the full year of my long term visa, but as it turns out I came back to the United States after a little more than 9 months. There were several reasons for this, the most urgent of which was a health problem that I am happy to say was not serious, as feared. Also being “the mother” living with children, I wanted to be sensitive and not get in the way of some decisions they were making. Hence I returned to the US the end of July.

Since I’ve been back in the United States for a while now, I have had some time for reflection. I am surprised at how similar my transition back to the US was to my transition abroad in France.  One was an adventure into the unknown and the other was a return to the known. Quite different. But I experienced the same emotions (dread, excitement, fear, anticipation, anxiety, exhilaration), made the same mistakes (too much stuff), and felt the same emphasis on time (one minute I wanted the flight date to be immediate, I couldn’t stand this waiting; the next minute I wasn’t sure I wanted it to come at all, I liked where I was just fine). This was not just about being a tourist, this was life adjustment — a bit like going off to college. I’m surprised, I must say, that an “outrageous older woman”, as my daughter recently called me (to my delight) by giving me that phrase on a bumper sticker, would react like that.

I did have a “return moment” however. When my plane touched down in Philadelphia, the jolt of the wheels meeting land felt reassuringly solid and I was filled with the thought and a slight rush of “I’m proud to be an American.”  I’m home!

So now, I need to process this year of discovery… need to bring closure… need to let everyone know that I am no longer in France. I have been struggling with this. It seems harder to write about my homeland than a foreign land. I should have a profound something that I learned. Whatever I have been waiting for has not come, so here goes without it.

What is American?

        The Flag   I don’t remember even seeing the French flag in France. American flags are everywhere: schools, residential houses, malls, state and federal buildings, even McDonalds and Chick-Fil-A…and not just on the 4th of July. There are small flags, huge flags, and all sizes in-between.

This flag is about four stories high.

        Wheels   America has a love affair with cars and trucks. They have defined the culture and depicted individual personality since they have been in existence. There are old, restored wheels, custom wheels, and huge wheels. My daughter Avery refers to the big ones as “obnoxious”. (Me thinks she has been influenced by the French culture.)

        Baseball   Baseball does not exist in France.

Outside the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is home to the Cincinnati Reds major league baseball team that just won the Central National League Championship. Big celebration going on in Cincinnati!

Crowd gathering in the stands beneath the video screen.

A mascot comes into the stands

Mascots on the field shown on the video screen with special guest children

        Football   American football, which also does not exist in France, actually emerged from the European game of Rugby. (“Football” in France is our soccer.) Football is so popular in America that it has become a multi-billion dollar industry. High school football is the center of small town culture on Friday nights during football season. Collegiate football takes over college towns and professional football games dominate TV on week-ends during football season. Football merchandise feed the football mania.

Recent Florida State vs Clemson game on TV.

Pre-game merchandise sale at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

Big truck football mania

What is home?

I’ve been thinking and doing a little research about “home”. I thought of France as home for awhile and had to adjust to leaving. Was I fickle? I wondered.

Here are some definitions that I found. Home is:

— where the heart is

— my place… a special space around my doorsill where I find some kind of cosmos, peace, assurance of purpose

— the most elemental embodiment of life

— where I live, flourish, and grow… not the places where I have just existed

— a restful place of reflection and renewal

— where I can be myself without society being in my face

— a reminder of my true nature

— a sense of belonging… not constrained by walls or geographical boundaries

— an internal response to place.

It seems then that the feeling of “home” comes from within. So that being the case, that I carry it within me, I will always have a home. I like that.

Trekking the French Pyrenees Con’t

My daughter’s blog:

ma machine a ecrire

After my heavy climb up to Cortalets, I slept alone with a strong wind whipping at the sides of my tent. I dreamed strangely that night and then woke to a crystal blue sky with the jagged Peak Canigou towering in front of me. I realized just how high I’d climbed and felt privileged to be there, breathing in crisp mountain air, being that much closer to the sun, facing Canigou up close still with patches of spring snow. I felt the healing process begin that morning. It was as if the mountains were responding to me, blowing away the mist, revealing the beauty and immensity beneath.

My first night on my own, far from a village or staffed refuge, was at a place called Bonne-Aigue, which means good water. But the spring was dried up, so there wasn’t any good water there for me. No matter, this camp will…

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Two Old Biddies in England

The dictionary defines “biddy” as a woman, especially a garrulous old one. That could fit my American friend, Joan, and me as we spent two weeks tooling around England. At least it felt like we were probably seen as such… from laughing hilariously at what had become our inside jokes as we adjusted to maneuvering our rental car about two sizes too big (which was a free upgrade, and not to our liking, to a big— car) down the left side of narrow horse and buggy lane roads to acting like school children when making a purchase with strange coins. It helped to be old and verging on senility just to preserve our dignity. Great fun and a “lovely” time!

Joan once lived and taught school in England, but she had not been back since 1981. One of the delightful things about the trip for me was retracing places and people that she knew. We, of course, saw the tourist sights, but we also saw inside the homes and the culture of local people.

LONDON

Tower Bridge lit up with lights for the upcoming Olympics.

Joan’s nephew and his wife graciously let us stay with them in their beautiful 5th floor flat where their balcony overlooked the Thames River near Tower Bridge.

(Photo by Joan)              View from balcony of estuary from Thames.

Big Ben

Buckingham Palace with guard.

In front of Buckingham Palace there was mass construction going on with scaffolding and road blocks. We realized that bleachers were being installed and later learned that there would be an Olympics torch ceremony there. A picture of the construction may have made a more interesting picture to show what is happening currently. Instead  I took a picture of the famous balcony where the royal family greets the crowd.

Beautiful St James Park on a beautiful day in London. 

BRIGHTON AND HOVE

After a train ride south to Brighton, we visited Joan’s friend from her teaching days who lives in an 1880’s house in the neighboring town of Hove. She lived there when Joan knew her years ago, so it was enchanting to step into her house and see remnants of the past.

Inside the front door she had placed (just for us) postcards of local places of interest on a beautiful  mirror. Notice the door reflected in the mirror with the original porcelain door knob. This woodwork was throughout all the house.

She gave up her upstairs bedroom with the bay window, complete with towels and wool socks. She explained that at one time the dresser was placed inside the bay window. If you had walked up and down the street back then, you would have seen the backs of dressers in all of the windows.

A delightful person and hostess, she had thoughtfully prepared for our visit by purchasing car parking permits so we could park our big car on her street every day and said she had danced for us to have good weather. Thanks to her, it did not “tip it down” the whole time we were in England.  One morning I noticed two glass bottles, one of milk and one of orange juice, by the front door. She had ordered extra for us from the milk man who still delivers in Hove.

The blackbird friend who lives in her garden.

Her house was filled with special momentos and exhibits of her love for nature. She told us stories behind her collection of 4 champagne bottle corks. We stirred bowls of lavender that she had grown and gathered over the years to renew the scent in the room. When asked about the large crock of white rocks by the back door, she explained that they were “wicked rocks” because they had come from Her Majesty’s foreshore where it is forbidden to take them.  I heard her talk lovingly to her many plants and I must say I felt her passion contagious.

We stayed four days in Hove with day trips to the surrounding countryside.

Bright yellow fields of rape dotted the landscape everywhere. Rape is new to England and France. It produces rapeseed oil to be used in animal feed, vegetable oil (Canola Oil) and biodiesel fuel for engines.

Don’t panic. This picture is not reversed and Joan is driving on the correct side of the road.

This windmill is Jill.

When Joan taught school here, she remembered driving past windmills. We stopped at the two windmills on the Downs, known as Jack and Jill, which are said to look as they did when they were in full use in 1906. Jack is a brick tower mill, but Jill is a wooden post mill. They are located within sight of one another.

With a little searching, driving up and down the same road multiple times and asking for directions multiple times, we located the “bridle path” to Dan Farm where Joan’s ancestors lived before coming to the United States. On our map it looked like a road, but it was actually a path for walkers and horse riders with no signage. Surprising then that the name of the farm was on the gate. Joan has a little booklet with letters that were written by relatives to and from the United States. “Dan Farm” is a local term meaning “farm with fields.” The booklet also lists relatives that are buried in a nearby cemetery. Felt like we had hit the jackpot that day.

We also located the very house where Joan lived when she was teaching. We took a picture but it is not worth remembering. It was a bit disappointing in that the Wisteria was missing that used to cover the front of the house, the two fish ponds out front were cemented over, the pear tree was gone along with Miss B. who gave the place life. “You can’t go home again”  –Thomas Wolfe.

WOODSTOCK

Blenheim Palace 

We had a charming guide at Blenheim Palace who told humanistic stories to break the starchiness of the painted portraits of all of the past dukes and duchesses. For example, on one of the tapestries that covered two walls from floor to ceiling, she pointed out a dog with horse hooves and human ears. The dog looked a little odd but I had not realized why until she pointed out the details. Possibly they just didn’t know how to create a dog since most of the tapestries were of horses. Another interesting story was that after the MI5 (comparable to our CIA) learned that Hitler did not plan to bomb Blenheim Palace because he intended to live there after he won the war, the MI5 moved in.

THROUGHAM

To become a seasoned traveler I guess you must learn to “wing it.”  Joan and I became seasoned when our Bed and Breakfast in the tiny village of Biswell thought we had not confirmed our reservation even though Joan had the internet paperwork to prove it. We learned of our predicament around 5:00 PM in a town so small there was no downtown. Fortunately the lady in the Post Office, who was counting her money to close up for the night, found us a B & B a few miles down the road in Througham, which I don’t think is even on a map. Definitely in the country and a quiet, delightful place run by a friendly, welcoming couple. For breakfast, we had homemade bread with homemade jelly. Joan says she still intends to find the recipe for that marvelous grapefruit, lemon, and orange marmalade.

Scene with buttercups, sheep, and horses outside our bedroom window. 

 BAPTON

I think Bapton, just a group of 3 or 4 houses, is more isolated and tiny than Througham. That is the excuse we give when having to admit that of course we got lost on the winding one lane roads (more like paths) and it took us twice as long to get there as it would have anyone else. We were visiting Miss B’s daughter in Bapton.

Joan asking directions to a voice in the upstairs window.

Eventually we found it and enjoyed tea and conversation in the garden surrounding their thatched roof house, talking about  differences between England and America and American politics (which I am amazed that everyone in England knows so much about). Seeing their thatched roof up close was a treat. Straw tied together into bundles was twisted and wired to wooden rafters.  Wire netting (similar to chicken wire) was placed on the outside to keep animals from burrowing down inside.

(photo by Joan)

Thatched fish on a recently built thatched fence

Joan told a Miss B story (with imitation British accent that I wish I could replicate on the keyboard) about the day she came running over to Joan’s place: “Come quick, Matron has driven into the fish pond.” Matron was an elderly neighbor who had back issues and used a small three-wheeler car. That led the conversation to differences between the UK and the US in the meanings of the same words . “Walker” in the US most likely means a metal frame used by the elderly to help them walk steadily but in the UK it could mean a young, gay man that serves as a social escort, best friend, or confidante to an older woman (usually single or widowed).  It had been noted that I was the one sitting beside the driver (we didn’t pay extra so that I could drive) pointing relentlessly toward the left to keep Joan on the left side of the road, and did we realize that I might be referred to as Joan’s “walker?”  Beware what you say while in England. “America and England are two countries separated by a common language” –George Bernard Shaw

FISHBOURNE

I think my favorite tourist site on this trip was the Fishbourne Roman Palace. It was hard to grasp the fact that mosaic tile floors (some whole room size) have been unearthed that date back to Roman times. And it was hard to imagine that they created them with such tiny mosaic pieces in the first place.

The small black bird

This mosaic, laid in the early third century, shows a Solomon’s knot surrounded by a circle of braided colored strands.

Most Roman villas in Britain were fairly modest country houses, but Fishbourne was built on the scale of an imperial palace with gardens that extended under the present town’s housing as far as main street. There were more than 100 rooms. As many as 100 people may have lived there, enjoying the luxuries of baths and underfloor heating with hot water which flowed through ducts as pictured below.

(Photo by Joan)

PORTSMOUTH

(Photo by Joan)

My attention was drawn to this statue in this seaside city even before I knew its message. It commemorates the generations of Portsea children who were forced into “mudlarking.” Mudlarks, as mentioned in the writings of Charles Dickens, were poor working class children who would entertain travelers by scrambling to find the money they had tossed down into the muck, sometimes dipping their heads into the mud. The coins they found were used for treats or given to their parents to help the family.

(Photo by Joan)                       The muck that appears at low tide.

FOOD

I think my favorite drink was Pimm’s (the drink Joan remembered and always ordered). But I also became fond of sherry. Loved the Guiness mushroom, beef pie. We made sure we had the famous British fish and chips. The chips are actually our french fries. Potato chips are called crisps in England.

Great marketing of their crisps on the part of Tyrrell’s.  Guess I could identify.

“Procession of the Sanch” (Easter Good Friday)

In several towns in and around Perpignan in the south of France, the Roman Catholic Holy Week celebration begins on Good Friday with a solemn march, or parade, through the streets to commerate the death of Jesus and to make penance for the sins committed throughout the year. The “Procession of the Sanch,” an old Christian tradition with strong Catalan influence, is organized by the Brotherhood of “La Sanch”  and over the years has become a well-attended annual event.

I first heard about this Easter tradition from English speaking British friends who described it as eerie, like the Klu Klux Klan, scary. My interest was peaked so I wanted to attend this year. The largest one was in Perpignan in the afternoon, but I chose to attend a smaller, more impressive one (I was told) in Collioure in the evening. I suppose it was the atmosphere created by the shadows and the carrying of torches. All of the “Processions de la Sanches” were well advertised.

HISTORY OF THE TRADITION

I couldn’t help but be intrigued about hooded figures intermingled with Christian faith, so I set about learning the history. A very good synopsis was in the P-O Life magazine:

“The brotherhood of ‘La Sanch’ (the blood) was founded in1416 by Vincent Ferrier at the church of St Jaques in Perpignan, its origin to assist and accompany the condemned to their execution.  A preacher, Ferrier is said to have undergone a life changing experience in 1398 when he nearly died of the fever, but was miraculously cured after Christ appeared to him in an apparition. He attracted followers, penitents from all walks of life, who he led around Europe, preaching penance and helping sinners to prepare for judgment and punishment.  The wearing of the black and red hooded robes (orcaparutxe) was to prevent criminals from being recognized and ‘lynched’ in the streets as pay back for crimes committed.  Prisoners, penitents, (there to give solace to the person about to die), and executioner were hooded for maximum confusion.”

THE PROCESSION TODAY

Participants joining the procession today are commemorating the passion and agony of Christ and are seeking expiation from sin through bearing their crosses, as Jesus bore his to Calvary. Hooded men and veiled women carry “miseris” (full-size representations of the different scenes of the Passion story). Crosses, crucifixes, carved wooden figures and religious statues mounted on platforms, are carried on the shoulders of penitents. I read that some of them weigh as much as 30 – 50 kilos.

In Collioure, the procession started at 9:00 PM on April 6th. I arrived in time to see the display windows, featuring  the stations of the cross, located on the procession route through the town. I didn’t understand the significance of each one, but I captured some of them in pictures.

 

As the crowd gathered around the church, Notre Dame des Anges, where the procession would begin, I noticed there was a beautiful full moon.

My first glimpse was of the red-robed figure (le regidor) who led the march and occasionally rang a bell to announce to the people that the procession was approaching.  Even though I saw movement, there was complete silence except for the solemn tapping of a tambourine and the taps of sticks on the cobblestone as part of the rhythm of the march. At times it came to a stop so that the participants could rest from carrying heavy loads or switch carriers. The crowd was still, silent, and very respectful.

 

After a while I realized that a voice was being broadcast over a loud speaker. It, of course, was in French, but I caught some phrases such as “sur la tête” (on the head).  I assumed the Biblical passage that included the “crown of thorns” was being read. Another time, the participants and maybe members of the crowd were saying “The Lord’s Prayer” in unison in French. The phrasing (cadence) was the same as when we say it in English.

 

At the end of the procession, the crowd fell in and marched behind. As I walked with the crowd, I saw that some people observed from balconies.

The procession ended with a finale at the church, but I didn’t go as I am not a member of the Catholic Church. Thinking back over the evening, I felt a sense of reverence from the entire crowd the entire evening, almost a sense of being-in-church worship at times. I didn’t find it frightening, but having read about it, I understood its meaning.

Behind-the-scenes at Can Rigall

 My introduction to Can Rigall was staring almost straight up a mountain slope at a tiny wind turbine on the tree-lined horizon from the tiny village of Arles-sur-Tech. It was hard to imagine being up there. And I was right; the feeling of being on top of the world when I got there, could not have been imagined.

Wind turbine high above the village of Arles-sur-Tech.

Located 800 meters up on top of a Pyrenean mountain in the south of France, Can Rigall is now an eco-luxury hotel, but it was once a Catalon farmstead. In a three year restoration project, the stones from the farm ruins were turned into an amazing resort. Upon arrival, I was struck with the awareness of the ancient and the modern so evident all around. I could be in a stone building of a Catalan farm 300 years ago looking out into a meadow with a breath-taking view on all sides, but a modern swimming pool and luxurous surroundings would bring me back to the present. I think anyone who wants to experience France off-the-beaten-path will want to consider this hidden treasure and paradise.

That was the front door to Can Rigall, now I will take you through the back door for a look behind-the-scenes.

Following Alain–

Alain, my son-in-law who is the gardener, has allowed me to tag along with him under the pretense that I am helping. I am working, just not sure how much I am helping. And I am enjoying it immensely. Who would ever have thought, including me, that I would almost crave “physical labor” in retirement? Perhaps it is all in the “choose to” not “have to,” I don’t know. I also enjoy the complete silence except for the birds talking to each other or a limb falling when I am alone pruning the roses; the sudden breeze that cools my skin and brings my thoughts back to my physical self; the little rosemary bush I find hidden under some overgrown brush, the tiny bird that seems to have forgotten that I am there. And I get to ride around in an old, beat-up pickup truck.

A unique feature of Can Rigall, and the one that I think was instrumental in attracting Avery and Alain, is its emphasis on ecology. My first day with Alain, he showed me how energy is generated with solar panels, bio-diesel, and the wind turbine.

Energy from the sun and wind is harnessed and stored in batteries.

Then it is changed through converters from 20 or 40 volts t0 220 so that it can be used in the main building.

One of the first places we went in the pickup truck was to a nearby horse farm for some horse manure because the vegetable garden is organic and uses only animal or vegetable fertilizers, never synthetic. In fact synthetic chemicals are avoided property-wide.

Strawberries and tomatoes (summer 2011)

I actually slung a little “merde” too and Alain took a picture to prove it, but there was no memory card in the camera that day! I also just enjoyed the horse farm.

One morning we got the truck stuck in the pile of manure. Alain loved driving the farm’s “crazy truck,” as he called it, to pull ourselves out.

Back at Can Rigall, the manure was put on the garden plot to be tilled into the soil.

Following Avery–

To avoid the use of synthetics on the property, Avery started a green cleaning program last summer. Last week she led a training session for all the newly hired housekeeping staff on the basics of natural ingredients and how to mix and use them effectively. They will use the manual she put together, that contains “Our Cleaning Recipes,” to make all cleaning supplies on-site. Helle, the manager, got interested also and is now going to buy essential oils in bulk and special baskets to “showcase” the handmade cleaning products. The staff is encouraged to share the actual recipes with the guests along with the benefits of using products without harsh detergents and chemicals.  “The Green Theme” is spreading through efforts at Can Rigall.

Food, wine, and bath products that are not produced on-site are mostly purchased from local, organic producers. Avery locates these local sources and I went with her when she visited the organic olive orchard that now furnishes Can Rigall with bath products and cooking oil. I never knew that olive oils, like wine, have different flavors. So I had my first olive oil tasting and sampled the natural olive oil bath and body products.

Following Moi–

And me, I have taken charge of the strawberry bed. I have learned that there are 2 kinds of strawberries planted there and that they are 4-5 years old. My research on the internet showed me how to prune strawberries, so my job has been to remove the dead foliage.

Can Rigall is part of Basecamp Explorer, called “Basecamp Pyrenees.” You can visit the official Can Rigall website  at  http://www.canrigall.com/. By the way, if you want to subscribe to the Can Rigall newsletter which Avery publishes, click on the “submit newsletter”. You will not be “submitting” but “subscribing” (problem in translation to be fixed). Then type in your email address and you will receive a confirmation in your email. Can Rigall also has a blog under “Things to Do.”