Friday, October 28, 2005

Basic castle protection

Our best day in Nice was spent at the beach, with the boys building a series of increasingly elaborate sand castles in cahoots with the occasional French playmate. They communicated perfectly through the universally understood needs to: 1) build fragile sand castles much too close to the waves for their own safety and then 2) to struggle mightily to protect said castles from the inevitable consequences of the poor site planning. This is clearly a metaphor that will serve them well later in life.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The pond that launched a thousand paintings

Tags: France travel, Giverny


A French friend told me

A French woman recently returned from San Francisco and won my eternal gratitude by telling me that the garden at our house there reminded her of Giverny. To find out exactly how much she was flattering us, we decided this weekend to head to Monet’s house and garden at Giverny before it closes at the end of October.

We took the train from Gare St Lazare to Vernon in around an hour, then took the bus to Giverny. Next, we joined a large group of lost tourists wandering about with the dubious help of many different official-looking signs all claiming to point definitively to Monet’s house and yet all pointing in different directions.

After a few detours, we arrived at the gardens, bursting with Dahlias and cosmos in a final fling before winter sets in. Monet’s house was a wonderful portal into the artist’s world – all blues and yellows and packed full of Japanese block prints with their indigo blues and beautifully stylized water scenes.

On the other side of the road was the famous water lily pond – it is nothing short of a religious experience. It is a pond I have stared at many times in paintings at the Met and now at the Musee Marmotton; and have spent hours marveling at the blues and purples and blacks, losing myself in the reflections of the trees, the effervescence of the flowers, the depths of the roots dangling down into the water.

In real life, the pond is every bit as beautiful as Monet depicted it, but somehow even more perfect in his paintings. In real life, my gardens are nowhere near as beautiful as Monet’s, but somehow stay perfect in my memory.

Tags: France travel, Giverny

Budding Monet?

Alexander concentrating on capturing the water lilies at Giverny just so.

A long walk if

One of many prodigiously talented parents from Eurecole, Kelly Spearman is has a Phd in art history from the Sorbonne and conducts regular tours for the other parents. We tagged along this Friday to visit the Basilica of St Denis in the presence of somebody who knows what they are talking about.

In the tradition of Ina Caro’s book, “The Road From The Past,” Kelly brought this enormous monument to life for us by helping us understand how it had grown over time from a very humble graveyard to an enormous basilica. Rather than giving us a pastiche of highlights a la a Michelin guide, Kelly started with the ruins of the original church located in the crypt and then toured us through the basilica as though we were riding a time machine.

St Denis is located just outside Paris on the main trade route going North to Normandy. In the year 220 or so, St Denis and two other brave guys were dispatched to convert the heathen Gauls to Christianity. This was dangerous work, as Rome was still using Christians to reduce the care and feeding costs of their lion populations.

Not long after St. Denis and his buddies arrived in Paris, the Romans captured them, grilled them over an open fire and then removed their heads. This being back when men were men, St Denis and his companions calmly picked up their heads and walked a good 10km north (just think of the blisters) before finding a burial site more to their liking. This site became the location of the Basilica of St Denis.

In addition to the saints, most of the French kings and queens are buried at St Denis as well. Some of them, rather unintentionally, even went as far as to emulate St Denis by getting their heads lopped off. It is important to note, however, that none of them had the gumption to pick up their severed extremities and hike the distance to the graveyard themselves.

Tags: Paris travel


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hanging on the balcony

Our Paris apartment is microscopic on the inside but spacious on the outside.

The view on our walk home from school

Enjoying a "blue tropical" slushie on the walk home from school. School may be tough, but the fringe benefits are great.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Being interesting

One of the great catastrophes of life as we know it is the feeling of being less interesting, both to yourself and to others. The abrasive effect of repetition renders almost any activity dull. For example, swimming in the San Francisco bay is thrilling the first time, and always retains the dark fantasy of encountering something with big teeth, but with enough iterations inevitably takes on a mundane aspect something like a chore.

Even the parts we like best about ourselves become suffocating after almost a half a century of admiring them in the mirror, expressed eloquently in the Christine Lavine song about Elvis being “a prisoner of his own hairstyle.”

So why is it that simply changing location is enough to make you interesting? In San Francisco, we were flies caught in our own web of self-imposed constraints, but in Paris (although we have immediately overscheduled ourselves) the strands are all more more malleable, have an entirely different quality.

Not only do we have the opportunity to be more interesting to ourselves (and each other) we find that people are interested in us here too. In San Francisco, we are run of the mill software yuppies, but in Paris we are exotic. We meet actors, art historians, dancers, artists – all of whom are as intrigued by us as we are by them.

Within the ex-patriot community in Paris, nobody has a feeling of belonging or permanence. Everybody is to some extent a misfit and everyone has an interesting story to tell about choosing to be a colorful misfit rather than fading into the woodwork of their own lives.

Austen may have summed it up best when he was describing how he has gotten so many friends at his new school, “I knew I was only going to be here for a year so I decided that if I wanted to have any friends, I would have to try harder.”

Sunday, October 02, 2005

French as a terrifying language

Imagine you are an 8-year old boy at school. Your teacher has just written the homework for tomorrow on the chalkboard. Only she has written it in cursive, which you cannot read. Even if you could read the cursive words, you would not understand them, because they are in French. You are writing with a fountain pen, which, when in a temperamental mood, can deposit entire lakes of ink onto the page.

To your right is the only person in the room you are allowed to speak with, Diane (“dee-ahn”). Diane, although a very sweet, speaks almost no English. In your desk is a dizzying array of color-coded notebooks, one for each subject, one for your homework assignments, and one for communication between the teacher and the parents. There is an equally broad array of books for each subject, some of which would no doubt be helpful for completing the homework you have just been assigned, if only you knew what that was.

Welcome to language immersion the French way – who said the reign of terror is over in France?