Thursday
Oct162014

An Octoberish Playlist

Image from bianchibooks.com

Autumn: my favorite time of year. Last year to celebrate, I gave you lists of books and movies suitable to the season; this year, to get my Octoberish mood on, I'm turning to music--popular music, to be precise. (Maybe next year I'll do a classical music edition.) 

I tend to default to melancholy, anyway, so it wasn't hard to come up with songs to get me in an October frame of mind--and genius WMWC DJ Christian (our oldest son) came up with some other excellent ones as well.

We didn't get into any nasty stuff; there's no grindcore or screamo here. Also, I'd be just dandy if I never heard "Monster Mash" or "Ghostbusters" ever, ever again.

Instead, most of these songs tell a sad, strange, or tragic story, with haunting vocals and atmospheric accompaniment. So, light the candles, fill the candy bowl, and put on this playlist while you wait for the costumed kids to ring your doorbell. Your house will be the most Octoberish on the block. 

1) “When You’re Strange” The Doors

Okay, Jim Morrison is probably talking about getting stoned. But it doesn't have to be that. In my experience, the world is weird enough without any chemical help, and this song communicates that perfectly. "Riders on the Storm" would also have worked for this list. 

2) “Fake Palindromes” Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is way talented and more than a little creepy at times. Someone else characterized this song as "the David Lynch movie of songs"--subtly horrifying images strung together in a way that evokes rather than narrates a tale. Even though it's perfectly "SFW," this song in on the unnerving edge for me. 

3) “The Ghost Who Walks” Karen Elson

Elson is a very successful British fashion model and designer. But apparently, that's not enough for her--and that's lucky for us. (Her former husband) Jack White produced her first album, which includes this song. Its production feels very Doors-y (especially the keyboards); Jack knew what he was doing. A very 21st-century story song with an old-school feel. 

4) "Go 'Way from My Window" Joan Baez

Folk music enthusiast John Jacob Niles collected this eerie song in his travels around the United States back in the day, and virtuoso Joan Baez tinges it with both longing and fear. Stalking is not a new invention, it seems. I love the version by bluegrass artist Sally Jones, but I couldn't find it online. 

5) “The Tinkerman's Daughter” Niamh Parsons

No one does October as well as the Irish, and you don't need ghosts or psychotics to create a chilling story song. Niahm Parsons's mournful interpretation is exquisitely accompanied by pianist Eddie Friel. Unparalleled excellence; Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") is a goddess. For other Octoberish goodness by Niamh Parsons, try "The Lakes of Coolfin," "Orphan's Wedding," and "The Water is Wide." 

6) “Nebraska” Bruce Springsteen

Whenever I tell people that Nebraska is my favorite Springsteen album, they get a little confused. No "Thunder Road," no "Born to Run," no E Street Band. Just a series of dark, moody pieces of Americana--brilliantly realized by The Boss all by his lonesome. I wonder if Bruce binge read Flannery O'Connor before he sat down to write these songs. The title track is one of its best. Love that harmonica, Bruce.

7) “Country Death Song” The Violent Femmes

This song naturally follows the one above. In the early 1980s, The Violent Femmes brought a new level of irony to the alt-country scene--which is really saying something. Gordon Gano's acerbic vocals ensure that you feel no sympathy for the delusional father who pushes his daughter down a well.

8) “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Bauhaus

Talk about influential: this song started the whole Goth scene. Dracula. Bats in the bell tower. Somber lyrics delivered in Peter Murphy's best funereal monotone. Creepy percussive effects and a bass line that bores into your brain like no other. Pure gothic awesomeness. 

9) "She's Lost Control" Joy Division

Sad, sad story. Singer Ian Curtis wrote this song after being diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that drastically affected his ability to perform. He committed suicide on the eve of the band's first American tour--but even without all that context, it's an unsettling piece of music. 

10) “Mad World” Michael Andrews

Let's travel even farther down the rabbit hole of gloom, shall we? "Mad World" was creepy when Tears for Fears debuted it, but in the hands of pianist Michael Andrews, who used it as part of his soundtrack to the cult classic film Donnie Darko, it's absolutely delicious. "And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Shiver

11) “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush

Kate Bush wrote this song when she was a mere eighteen years old, after finishing the novel and finding out that she and Emily Brontë shared a birthday. For me, it perfectly evokes the mood of the book. Pat Benatar's cover is equally great. (It's probably better not to watch Kate's official video; just listen. Her dancing and emoting date her badly. This was music video in its infancy, people.)

12) "Bad Moon Rising" Creedence Clearwater Revival

Dude, the bayou is inherently freaky (have you seen True Detective?), so John Fogerty has an edge when it comes to Octoberish fodder for classic rock songs. Bad Moon's catchy beat and singable melody completely belie the apocalyptic lyrics. "Hope you're quite prepared to die." Yeesh.

13) "The Killing Moon" Echo and the Bunnymen

Vocalist/songwriter Ian McCulloch isn't quite as subtle as Fogerty, but this post-punk ballad works on every level. "Fate up against your will"--that's always the struggle, isn't it? 

14) "Strange Fruit" Billie Holiday

One of the earliest and one of the best protest songs. "Strange Fruit," which describes the real-life horrors of lynchings in the American South, has October written all over it. Holiday's grace and understatement perfect the piece.

15) "Under the Milky Way" The Church

Baritones have a natural advantage in the October department, and the jangly, neo-psychedelic guitar along with the bagpipes (!) in the bridge all work together with the vocals to produce a slick but spooky song. 

16) "Miss You" The Rolling Stones

In their long history, the Stones have probably produced at least thirty-one Octoberish tracks all by themselves. "Paint it Black," "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Under My Thumb" immediately come to mind. But "Miss You," a flat-out mercenary reach for some of the crazy money that was disco, reigns supreme. Hooting, howling, and growling--this is some of Mick Jagger's best vocal work."I bin walkin' Central Park, singin' after dark/People think I'm craaaaaazy." It doesn't get better than that. 

17) "Stan" Eminem

Dido's dreamy vocals and the sounds of a thunderstorm are an ideal opening for Eminem's epistolary song. It's the story of Stan, an obsessive fan who writes increasingly erratic and menace-filled letters to his idol, Slim--ending with Stan's murder-suicide and Slim's belated response. (I love Marshall's nod to Phil Collins's "Something in the Air Tonight," which was also a contender for this list.) 

18) "Undertaker" Southern Culture on the Skids

According to Wikipedia, SCOTS usually writes music about "dancing, sex, and fried chicken," all worthy muses, to be sure. But they take a sinister turn with this tune--like James Taylor's "Handyman" gone even more wrong. Dig that musical saw at the end of the track.

19) "Long Slow Goodbye" Queens of the Stone Age

Then again, tenors can also rock the creep factor. Stalkers are bad; ghosts are worse. Ghost stalkers? We're done here, people. A simple, subtle blues riff with pared-down lyrics--this track shows off the Queens' genius, which I've only recently begun to appreciate. Thanks, Christian.

20) "Shallow Grave" The Parlor Soldiers

Here's another song introduced to me by Christian. This hip, attractive duo from Fredericksburg, Virginia describe their music as "niche pieces about outlaws, sheriffs, hookers, and whiskey." Well, alrighty, then. Hop aboard the October train, young'uns. 

21) "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" The ‚ÄčKillers

Christian suggested "Midnight Show" for this list, but I chose instead another from The Killers' "Murder Trilogy." Brandon Flowers is a little bit messed up--and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The song's story is told from the point of view of a boy brought in for questioning regarding the murder of young Jenny. "There ain't no motive for this crime," the boy protests. "Jenny was a friend of mine." I love the minor key, and dig that funky bass line--like Duran Duran on steroids. 

22) "The Stranger" Billy Joel

I bought this album when I was thirteen, and I love it dearly still. This song muses on the masks we wear for one another--as well as what lies beneath. "Everyone goes south every now and then"--oh, yes, Billy. Yes, they do. That whistling, that piano--pure gold. 

23) "Golden Brown" The Stranglers

What's timeless and mournful about this song? The harpsichord and the minor key help; so does the compound rhythm (3/4-6/8-4/4). But it's the ambiguous lyrics, sung wistfully by Jean-Jacques Burnel, that are the key to its poignancy. Is the song about heroin? Maybe. But, as with Simon & Garfunkel's "Like a Bridge over Troubled Water," that might be part of its appeal.

24) "Gallows Pole" Great Big Sea

Folks have been singing versions of this macabre song for centuries, and it was most famously recorded by Led Zeppelin. And as much as I love that version, GBS's somehow rocks even harder. (Maybe it's the bodhran.) My best darlings Sean, Alan, and Bob usually sing very cheery, upbeat songs--even when they're about wakes, drowning, freezing to death, and other Canadian tragedies. But this time, they're unreservedly savage in telling the story of a woman willing to sacrifice everything to save the one she loves. Awesome.

25) "No Quarter" Led Zeppelin

"Close the door, put out the light/You know they won't be home tonight." I've been listening to this song for thirty-five years, and it still gives me chills. Nordic ghosts? Fallen soldiers? Barrow wights? Whoever or whatever "they" are, Robert Plant and the boys want to warn us all. 

26) "Creep" Stone Temple Pilots

True confession: I listened to almost no popular music during the 90s. (Don't judge; I was busy with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, etc.) With Christian's help, I've been catching up ever since. In this song, the Stone Temple Pilots are unflinching in their self-examination. "Feelin' uninspired/Think I'll start a fire." Written in D minor ("the saddest key of all," as the band claims), it's a veritable hymn to despair.  

27) "Harlem River Blues" Justin Townes Earle

What's scarier than drowning? Drowning in the frickin' Harlem River, man--especially when you've got a gospel choir cheerfully backing up your suicidal intentions. Justin Townes Earle is Nashville royalty--the son of Steve Earle and godson of Townes Van Zandt--and his aesthetic, genius, and Cash-like voice reflect his heritage. 

28) "Yesterday" The Beatles

Other Beatles songs could be on this list, "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," and "Golden Slumbers" among them. But is there any song ever written that is more replete with regret and sadness? This is one of my favorite songs of all times, and Paul McCartney should go straight to the highest heaven just for writing it--and then singing it in such stunning, simple fashion. Perfection in 2:05; Octoberish in the extreme. 

29) "Drowned Lovers" Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby's angelic vocals weave a terrible tale; Kate, like Niamh above, can convey yearning like few else. Even her Christmas album is mournful. It makes sense; she's from Yorkshire, after all, and they know a bit about October up there on the moors.

30) "Arlington" The Wailin' Jennys

Ah, my Jennys. "Does it stray very far?" The brilliant lyrics ask questions that have no answer, celebrating the ineffable mysteries of life and death. Pair them with exquisite harmonies. Add minimal accompaniment. Gorgeous. 

31) "October" U2

An obvious way to close the list, I admit, for the title alone--not to mention the provenance of the band. But Bono himself said "October is an ominous word"; I can't argue with that. As evocative and inevitable as leaves falling from maple trees. 

My work here is done! But, tell me: what did I leave out? What would be on your Octoberish playist?

Saturday
Sep062014

Life in Burgundy--The Rest of the Trip

The thing about France is that it gets under my skin and stays. We've been home for well over a month, and I think about going back. Every. Single. Day. Could we retire there? Could we serve back-to-back senior missions there? Could Patrick's employer suddenly decide that opening a movie studio in France is imperative, and ask us to move there so he could head it up? 

I'm sure it's odd to get homesick for a place I've never lived, but there it is. So I've put off summarizing the rest of our trip, probably because I knew it would exacerbate my Francesickness. But it's time. And I'll do all the rest in one fell post.

Day Eleven--after our whirlwind weekend of family fun in Switzerland, we needed a quiet day of recovery. The kids played with Praline, our host family's rabbit. Tess and Hope rode the neighbor's horses. We shopped at the grocery store and did laundry and read and ate and dozed. One of the true luxuries of such a long vacation is the downtime. Bliss.

On Day Twelve, James enjoyed one of his graduation presents: a trip to Paris all by himself via the TGV. He explored all his favorite museums, ate lunch in the Latin Quarter, ambled along the Seine, and generally had a fabulous time.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were ready for another day of exploration. James isn't a big cheese lover, so we saved our tour of a local cheese factory for this very day. We drove up to Gevrey-Chambertin, through the "Gold Coast" wine country, getting to the Gaugry fromager in time for a light picnic lunch. After that, we took a self-guided tour through a family operation that makes some of our favorite cheeses, among them the fabulously stinky Époisses.

After the fascinating tour, we had a private cheese tasting in the little restaurant-café attached to the factory. The hostess arranged five cheeses on plates for us, from mild to strong, and we savored each one slowly and carefully. Afterward, we chose our two favorites and bought some to take home. 

Then we drove to Autun--one of my new favorite spots in all of France. We visited an ancient Roman amphitheater; the locals were gearing up for a big son et lumière, which made for some interesting scenery. Next stop, the local cathedral, was another Romanesque wonder, especially the tympanum. As we drove from amphitheater to cathedral, we'd seen signs for the "Roman pyramid," so of course we had to go see what that was.

Local oddity, indeed. It's built over a Roman necropolis, and over the centuries, treasure hunters have dug into its sides. But it's largely intact--and the view from the hill on which it stands is stunning. The Autun valley, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight--it's a sight I won't soon forget.

On our way back to the car, we saw signs for a nearby waterfall. We figured that we had some extra time until we had to pick up James from the TGV station in Mâcon, so we took a leisurely streamside walk up to the cascade and back. We decided it wasn't very impressive--and maybe there's more to it at times other than July--but it was still a delightful ramble. 

We picked up James and heard about all his adventures over another wonderful dinner. Notably, I made my mother-in-law's carrot soup, and it was a triumph, by all accounts. 

Day Thirteen was another local day--but that doesn't mean it wasn't adventure-filled. Five minutes from our house stands the Château de Pierreclos. One of the many great things about it was how interactive it was. They had a weapon room with replicas of medieval weapons and armor, and the kids (and the parents) had a blast trying stuff on and swinging stuff around. 

On the way home, we toured the grounds of the château right next door to our house, eating wild plums and skirting the wheat fields. 

That evening was Patrick's and my Date Night. Before we'd left on our trip, I'd read that a local orchestra and choir would be performing an all-French program--including the Fauré Requiem, one of our favorite pieces of choral music--at Cluny Abbey, so we bought tickets. We thought the concert was going to be in the jaw-dropping farinier, but it ended up being held in the abbey's cloister. This was at first disappointing--but then the music was sublime, and we forgot our complaints. 

But beforehand, we visited the village of Paray-le-Monial, which boasts yet another sublime Romanesque basilica. I wanted to see the church because it was modeled on the much larger abbey church at Cluny, which was mostly destroyed centuries ago.

(Doesn't Patrick take brilliant photos? This one looks like a postcard to me.) Paray is the most visited historical site in Burgundy, and we found out why once we got there. In the 17th century, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque founded the modern devotion of the Sacred Heart in Paray after several dramatic visions she had of Christ and His atoning love. Today, Paray actively welcomes pilgrims and hosts retreats and other devotionals year round. A little church down the street from the basilica is dedicated to Marguerite-Marie's visions; we walked down to see it, but stayed outside when we found that it was packed to the gills for a daily mass. 

We explored the basilica and the cloisters and a building full of dioramas depicting Marguerite-Marie's visions, then made our way through a spectacular thunderstorm eastward to Cluny. We had a picnic of scrumptious pâté, cheese, bread, fruit, and French lemonade on the (mercifully dry) abbey grounds. Then, just after sundown, we filed into the cloister and took our seats. 

This was another unforgettable evening. Gorgeous music very well played in the haunting acoustics of an ancient monument, while a flock of starlings wheeled exultingly in the twilight sky in hypnotizing murmurations--perfection. I was moved to tears several times, especially when the choir did a surprise extra piece--Lauridsen's "Dirait-on." I get misty just reliving the memory; it was a Date Night for the record books.

We repeated our "recovery day" on Day Fourteen. Our kind, delightful neighbor, Paul, brought his horses over and gave the big girls and the little kids riding lessons. Paul speaks very little English, and our kids speak even less French, but somehow, everyone understood one another. We took a walk. We read. We ate more great food. Not exciting to retell, but oh, so satisfying to experience. 

Day Fifteen was another rainy day, such a balm to our California-droughted souls. We visited the medieval stronghold of Berzé, which was about fifteen minutes from our house. The château fort is truly ancient; parts of it date to before the tenth century. It was abandoned for a couple of centuries after the Wars of Religion, but in the early 19th century, a descendant of one of the original owners bought it and began restoring it. Since then, it has passed down through the same family and is today inhabited by them. 

The gardens in the basse-cour are extraordinary, and the food they supply supports the bulk of the family's needs. We went into the tiny chapel that is recorded as having existed in AD 991. "Five hundred years before Columbus," as Patrick kept marveling. As we left the château, we visited the 17th century chapel outside the gates that's still used for worship by the family and neighbors. Chickens and Charollais cattle grazed placidly nearby, and we ate some wild blackberries that grew along the road. 

We drove a little ways through the rain to visit the nearby monks' chapel. We'd heard the frescoes were extraordinary, and they did not disappoint. We watched a video of a modern fresco artist demonstrating the centuries-old technique, then went and sat in the tiny chapel and gaped at the ceiling. Photos were unfortunately not allowed. Amazing. 

That evening, cousin Valérie and her son Nolan arrived for a visit. After dinner, Patrick and Valérie and I took a long walk to a nearby quarry. People began quarrying limestone there in the third century AD. We talked and admired the gorgeous scenery and went to bed afterward pleasantly tired. 

On Day Sixteen, we went to church in Lyon. This was another terrific ward--warm, welcoming, interesting, kind. Amazingly, we saw people we knew. As Sacrament Meeting progressed, I realized that two rows in front of us sat a man I'd known as a missionary in the MTC in 1989--but hadn't seen since. I introduced myself after the service. He remembered me well, and then informed me that I knew his wife. He brought her over, and it turned out she was my RA when I lived at BYU's French House in 1987! I had no idea they'd married, but it made sense, since they grew up in the same stake. They're happy and have several children--just like us.

After church, we recognized other people--a French family that had visited our ward in Pasadena two years before. I had translated for the teenage daughters during the Young Women's meeting--and then they'd met our friend Sunshine and invited her to come stay with them in France for a month. Which she did. 

We chatted and took photos of our two families together, and then we ate our picnic lunch on the lawn outside the church.

Next, we drove into Vieux Lyon and visited the cathedral there. It houses a treasury, which was great fun for us all. Then we took a funicular train up an enormous hill so that we could visit the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, "the fanciest church I've ever seen," as Daniel said. Ornamentation everywhere. Gorgeous, gilded, gigantic mosaics. Bright colors and soaring ceilings. And the stunning views outside--we loved it all.

To get back down the enormous hill, we strolled down the hairpin turns of the Rosary Walk. Every few feet, a brass rose embedded in the asphalt reminds the faithful to say a Hail Mary, and after ten of those, a larger, numbered brass medallion indicated the need for an Our Father. I loved the invitation to meditation, as well as the lush hydrangeas and roses that bordered the walk. 

At the end of the Rosary Walk, steep staircases lead back down through narrow alleyways to the plaza in front of the cathedral. Shaky-thighed at the bottom, we headed back to our car.

Our tradition for every day trip was to have a packet of Lu's Prince cookies as a snack on the drive home. This was something we'd invented on our trip to Paris years before, and it bore repeating. We often added some Haribo gummies, especially on long drives. These in no way spoiled our appetites for dinner.

Monday morning (Day Seventeen), we bid goodbye to our dear Swiss cousins. This was another rainy day, so we decided to drive about forty minutes south--back near Lyon--and visit the Château de Fléchères. I'd read that it was lovely, but I had no idea how much we'd adore this place.

First of all: rain. It makes every secluded country site more romantic. Second: this was the most "Pemberley" of any place we'd visited. Third: as nearly always on this trip, we were among the very few who were visiting, and having a gorgeous château all to oneself makes it exponentially more magical. 

Our tour guide was terrific; he was the same man who'd complimented my French at Cormatin days earlier, so he was already on my good side. But he was a fount of knowledge and obviously very passionate about the history of the site. We loved the building, with the original furnishings and the Italian murals and the textiles from Lyon, the silk capital of Europe; we loved the gardens, which were a hybrid of the sculpted, formal French style and the loose, lush English style. I was ready to move in.

By the time we got back to the car, though, certain people were getting hangry. We decided that the best course of action would be to go to the French McDonald's that was not too far away. Some of our children had never been to a McDonald's ever, so they were curious. 

The food at "MacDo," as the French call it, was definitely better than its American counterpart--but for me, after eating the simple but delicious and utterly fresh French food we'd prepared ourselves--it was unimpressive. It did the job, though, so we went with it. 

Once we got home, Patrick and I went to the lavanderie in Mâcon. Most French people have washing machines, but hang their clothes out to dry. This works brilliantly, even when one brings the racks inside on rainy days--unless one has brought only three or four outfits to France, as we had done. The rain wasn't letting up, so we went industrial. While the laundry was going, we shopped at the local Carrefour, which we found decidedly inferior to the Super U (but still better than most American groceries). We got some fancier-than-usual items, since we'd be eating our last home-cooked meal that night. 

Day Eighteen was the day of cleaning and getting ready to go. Everyone chipped in, so it didn't take long to get the bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen, and living room into shape, and then get mostly packed up. We'd made reservations to eat that night at a very well-reviewed farm/inn/restaurant called the Auberge de Mâlo. On the way there lay the restored and (we found) somewhat Disney-ish village of Brancion, so of course we had to visit. 

People actually live in Brancion, but they have very enterprisingly turned it into a tourist destination. Just inside the ancient gates stands a well-appointed gift shop, and your ticket to tour the château fort's ruins includes the option of borrowing of medieval costumes. Daniel and Anne indulged, but the rest of us forebore. 

The ruins were enchanting, especially in the misty grey weather, and the views from the top of the donjon were spectacular. Brancion already sits on a hill, and the donjon was quite tall. But it was the empty windows that won my heart.

We had some extra time until our dinner reservation, so took the scenic route to Étrigny. Daniel had been begging us to sing a hymn together in nearly every church we visited, but I was shy of making a scene in front of other visitors, so I demurred. I promised him that we'd sing if we found an empty church--and in Ozenay, we found one. 

It was nearly dark, but we gathered in the nave of the beautiful old building and sang "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" in parts--literally a capella. I must say that we always sound good when we sing together, but in the flattering acoustics of an ancient stone chapel, singing words written by Bernard of Clairvaux, we were at our very best--except we missed Christian even more sorely than we already had. 

Daniel, having achieved his innermost desire, was happy; all of us had full hearts. We drove to the inn and had a glorious and abundant and very long and properly French multi-course meal. Savory, plump duck. The freshest green salad dressed with savory chicken livers and a sumptuous vinaigrette. Sumptuous charcuterie. Loads of braised chicken. Roasted potatoes and sautéed wild mushrooms. Fabulous cheeses of all shapes, tastes, and textures. And fruit tarts--apple, plum, apricot, and rhubarb.

Absolutely everything had been grown on the farm--except the mushrooms, which were gathered nearby. We ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate some more. Anne fell asleep on my lap. Our family, almost always well-behaved, looked even better in contrast to a loud, large group of Scandinavians with several rowdy,overtired children. A couple of people, clearly locals, made quite a show of leaving in Gallic contempt when one of the kids had a meltdown of some kind. I must confess that I felt more than a bit smug as my children's excellent manners continued throughout the evening. 

Full and happy, we drove home. It was late, and we had to get up early, but we couldn't resist one last episode of Buffy before bed. 

Day Nineteen, we stripped the beds and piled all the linens in the laundry room. I always feel bad on the last day of our exchanges. We generate so much laundry! But we'd arranged this beforehand, and our host family assured us that they'd simply go to the lavanderie and take care of the issue when they got back. We left the bunny with a thank you note and a bottle of wine for Paul, who would take care of things for the interim days. And we bade goodbye to our marvelous mini-château, piled into our trusty rental car, and drove to the airport in Geneva. 

The flights home were uneventful, and it made sense to get all the customs nonsense out of the way between flights in Montreal. Our car service was waiting for us in Los Angeles, and I was relieved that we had thusly splurged, because I had a hard time staying awake on the drive home. 

Our house was pristine upon our arrival, and we quickly got to bed. The next day, we picked up Moneypenny from her devoted sitter, and that was that. Another successful, life-changing house exchange!

Thursday
Aug142014

Life in Burgundy--Days Five through Ten

Here's my summary of Days One through Four.

Our exchange family had left us a brochure listing about twenty châteaux in Southern Burgundy, and as we looked at the map, we realized that they were all within an hour's drive of our house. It was hard to choose which one to visit first, but we finally decided to visit Cormatin on Day Five, which is fifteen minutes north of Cluny Abbey (much more on that later).

We had a few minutes to explore the immaculately kept formal gardens (and the moat!) before our guided tour started. The hedge maze was intricate enough that Hope had a hard time finding her way out once the bell rang for our tour. Our tour guide was a young intern with a very entertaining speaking style; the little kids followed along with a binder that contained an English transcription. The 17th-century structure is in very good condition, and the chambers of the Marquis and Marquise--decorated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli--are stunning.

After our tour, we had some ice cream in the former orangery and made our way home.

Before our trip, we'd realized that the Tour de France would be passing close by Prissé on what would be Day Six of our visit, so Patrick and I made plans for him to take the three older kids to the village of Fleurie so that they could see the cyclists race by. We knew it would be a long, hot wait, so I decided to stay home with the younger two. Patrick and the teens got an excellent spot on the village thoroughfare and settled in to wait. 

First, the sponsor caravan came by and threw free stuff to the crowd. Patrick and the kids came home with snacks, drinks, frisbees, and other little toys in a little backpack they'd also scored. A couple of hours later, the cyclists came through--and Vincenzio Nibali, the guy with the famous yellow jersey that day, was the one who ended up winning the race. Viva Italia! 

In the meantime, I filmed Daniel and Anne giving a tour of our mini-château. It's sixteen minutes long, and it's hilarious (to us, anyway). You'll have to head over to Facebook to see it, since I can't seem to upload it here.

We also played ping pong in the cave and had a picnic under a mulberry tree on the lawn. Bliss.

Since Day Six was pretty mellow, we were up for adventure again on Day Seven. First, we visited the abbey of Cluny, most of which was destroyed right after the French Revolution. (This was unusual; most of France's gorgeous architecture was preserved as part of the national patrimony despite the antagonism toward religion at the time.) What remains is impressive, and amazing virtual reality technology shows visitors what the massive churches must have been like in their heyday. Here's James walking through what was once the ambulatory of one of the churches; you can see remains of the pillars to his right:

Everyone loved everything about Cluny, and Patrick and I were excited, because we'd bought tickets to a concert to be held there the following week. We splurged on lunch at a restaurant, which was leisurely and delicious. Then, because it was so hot, we made for the Caves at Azé in the afternoon. The idea of a fresh, cool tour through a 50-degree grotto running alongside a subterreanean river sounded heavenly--and it was. 

Once again, our guide was fantastic--completely immersed in his source material. Prehistoric man lived in the caves, and many skeletons of bears, lions, and other creatures have been excavated from within. The geology, the history--it was all fascinating--and I was once again bursting with pride over my children. Patrick and I translated some of what our guide told us, but mostly, they patiently gleaned what they could from the fast-paced flood of French that washed over them--and then asked questions when it was appropriate. 

Every evening was wonderful--a home-cooked dinner; a twilight walk; some Buffy accompanied by chocolate--the routine was extremely satisfying. 

The next day, Day Eight, was Saturday, and we went to Switzerland to see Patrick's family for the weekend. We met his cousin, Valérie, at her cute apartment, and then headed to downtown Lausanne to do some exploring. As lovely as Geneva is, I far prefer Lausanne, and would be quite content to live there. Perched on the edge of Lake Geneva, with the stately Alps rising above the other side, Lausanne is small enough to be comfy, but sophisticated enough to remind you that you're very happily in Europe. 

We visited the cathedral (including the awesome crypt, which we hadn't seen before), bought chocolate (of course), and found an issue of Vogue Italia for Hope. A friend of ours who is a model was featured in an extensive spread, so we bought it as a souvenir.

In the evening, we all went to the village of Servion, where Patrick's second cousin, Dany, lives with his family. I cannot convey to you how wonderful this evening was. Dany and Yolande are kind and hilarious and generous people. They made a traditional raclette dinner for us with all the scrumptious trimmings, and we ate and talked and laughed in the gorgeous Vaudois twilight for hours. Here's a photo of James and me, with the view from Dany's terrace in the background. Heaven.

Speaking of heaven, the next day (Day Nine), we went to church in Renens with Valérie, her awesome son, Nolan, and Patrick's Aunt Sylvia. What a fabulous ward, with dynamic youth, excellent lessons, and a comforting yet energizing Spirit. After a yummy lunch at Valérie's and a nice visit with Sylvia, we drove to Montreux (yes, we all sang the "Smoke on the Water" riff--several times) so that we could visit the Château de Chillon. I've been there before twice, but it doesn't get old. 

We explored the whole thing from dungeon (which boasts Lord Byron's graffiti) to tower. 

It was rainy, but the Alps rose majestically through the mist, and I could have looked out over the platinum water forever. 

The rain persisted the next day (Day Ten), but we were undaunted. First, we went to visit the Cailler chocolate factory near the village of Gruyères. (I was dying to take the kids to the castle at Gruyères as well, but I didn't want them to burn out on castles too early--plus, with the poor weather, it wouldn't have been at its best. Next time.)

The factory was packed, but we bought tickets for the tour and then lounged around watching the big spenders (those who paid 75 euros) make hand-molded chocolates in the glassed-in lab. (Again: next time, we'll fork out for the atelier du chocolat).

The tour was delightfully heavy on history and atmosphere, but I had hoped for more technique/technology. But at the end, we did get to see chocolates being made--and then, for the grand finale, the tasting room. In which we could stay as long as we liked and eat as much chocolate as we wanted. Shades of Wonka. Cailler makes our very favorite chocolate, Frigor, and let's just say that the Perkins family got its money's worth. Délicieux!

Nicely stuffed, we made our way back to Lausanne to visit the fantastic Olympic Museum. This was definitely the kids' favorite visit: loads of interactive displays, memorabilia, and videos of Olympic highlights--it's easy to spend fascinating hours there. I highly recommend it. 

By this time in our trip, Patrick had driven the autoroute to and from France twice, and while the autoroute is efficient, it's not necessarily the most scenic way to go. Patrick, as driver, wanted adventure, so we planned an alternate route back to Prissé. It was pouring rain a lot of the way--through Vallorbe, Pontarlier, and then skirting Lons-le-Saunier back down to Mâcon--and it took us about four hours (instead of two).

Now, I love a good road trip with Patrick at the wheel, but this was the one time our kids mutinied a bit, so we decided to stop for a splurge dinner in Tournus. Hope got adventurous and ordered a pizza with escargots--but I ended up eating most of them along with my hanger steak. Ah, the sacrifices I make for my children. But everyone was happy, and we got back to our lovely mini-château in time for an episode of Buffy

To be continued! Stay tuned for more châteaux, churches, cheese, and chocolat!

Wednesday
Jul162014

Life in Burgundy--Days One through Four

Good grief, this poor blog. I've never gone this long without updating it. Where did the time go?

Well, longtime readers of mine will know about my writing energy unit (WEU) concept. As a woman with six awesome kids and a foster daughter; a fabulous husband; a darling dog; and a demanding, five-day-per-week teaching gig during the school year, I find myself with only a very limited amount of time/WEUs to write every day. And those WEUs have been spent on fiction lately, to the detriment of this blog.

Since my last post, I've finished a middle grade contemporary fantasy (it's now being considered by an agent or two). I've written a romance novella that was included in this anthology that came out yesterday! And then there was that short story that will come out very soon as part of this anthology

I have another commissioned work of longish-form fiction that needs to be drafted by the end of the summer, but that's on hold at the moment. Why? Because I'm on vacation with the family in fabulous France. Southern Burgundy, to be specific--and we're having the time of our lives. 

The photo at the top of the post is what we see from our bedroom window. The view is even more fantastic than the house in which we're staying. Every time I walk into the room, the view captivates me, and as the light changes throughout the day, I notice new things to love. I'd have a hard time getting sick of that scenery, I can tell you.

We're doing another house exchange through HomeLink. Our first exchange was with a family from Neauphle-le-Château in 2009, and we spent a grand three weeks showing our kids around Paris and its environs. The year after, we exchanged with a family in Twickenham, England, and had a similarly memorable time.

But the next year, it was time for Christian to go to college--and the summer after that, we moved to California, and so on. Finally, this year, we felt ready to do another exchange. Our first choice was Italy, but nothing worked out there. For a while, it looked like Bath might be a possibility--but then, that fell through as well.

Then we got an exchange offer from a family in Burgundy, and things fell into place. We realized that from here, we could visit Patrick's extended family in Lausanne, Switzerland (we're headed there this weekend), and that we'd also get to see a gorgeous part of France that is less frequented by tourists. 

The one sad thing about our exchange is that Christian, our oldest, couldn't come with us. He's between his junior and senior years of college, and he scored a jaw-droppingly cool internship with Senator Reid in Washington, D.C. for the summer. He's having a great time, and it's the kind of opportunity that's life-changing--but I wish we could clone him, because we miss him very much.

The good/bad part of exchanging houses--at least, if you're a bit obsessive, like I am--is that it involves a considerable amount of deep cleaning beforehand. (Yes, it's a ton of work getting the place ready for the exchange family--but the flip side is that you come home to a house that's pretty darn clean. Thus my ambivalence.)

But clean we did, and pack (very lightly) we did--one large suitcase and three carry-on suitcases for the seven of us--and we were off. Day Zero: We flew via Air Canada (highly recommended: organized, drama-free, and prompt) through Montreal to Geneva. One of the few downsides to living in California is that it takes fourteen hours (including layovers) to get to Europe instead of just six or seven. But we survived. 

Day One: We barely fit all our luggage into our rented minivan (thus the need to pack very lightly) and headed west into France. We got to Prissé at about noon, a couple of hours ahead of my pessimistic schedule. Geneva's baggage handling and car rental systems were true to the legendary Swiss stereotype of efficiency! We met our exchange family's neighbor, who handed over the key to the place that would be our home for the next three weeks. 

We knew a little bit about the house before we arrived--that the oldest part of it was built in the 17th century, and that it has sixteen bedrooms and extensive grounds--but it wasn't until we arrived that we realized we'd really won the house exchange lottery. I'll do a separate post with photos of all the rooms and as much of the history as I've gleaned; it's pretty amazing. 

We had a delightful time exploring corridor after corridor on all four floors, both attics, and the extensive cave (basement), and then the kids each chose a bedroom and unpacked. Anne and Daniel decided to bunk together in a darling room in the north tower, and I don't blame them; all the hallways can be a tiny bit spooky, and it took us a while to orient ourselves. 

Patrick and I made a trip to the Super U, the local supermarché, to stock up on food and supplies for the next day (Sunday) as well as the day after (Bastille Day). We had a simple dinner of amazingly fresh and exquisite local food and called it a day. 

We didn't get much sleep the first night, but we did our best. Day Two: We'd planned to go to church, but ended up sleeping right through it and not really minding. We're on vacation, and we refuse to push ourselves.

We went into Mâcon in the afternoon and explored a bit in the light rain (which we all welcomed, having come from drought-stricken Los Angeles). That evening, we watched the World Cup Finals, and it was cool enough (with the big windows open) to have a comfy fire. 

Day Three: Since Monday was Bastille Day, a national holiday, we knew all the tourist sites would be closed--so we went to Switzerland! I've spent time in Lausanne, but had never been to Geneva before, so it was an adventure for all of us. We saw the iconic Jet d'Eau (and plenty of swans, geese, and ducks) on Lake Geneva and ate our lunch on Rousseau Island.

Then we walked up to the Cathedral of St. Pierre, then through charming streets and parks to the Reformation Wall, and back to a supermarket to stock up on chocolate. It may not sound like a lot, but it was quite a bit of walking, and we were still jet lagged. Why push it? We've got days and days left to our stay. 

Another evening in our lovely house; another wonderful dinner. I'll probably have to do a separate post about the food: the cheeses, the milk, the bread, the desserts. Delicious! After we cleaned up the kitchen, Patrick, James, and Hope went on a sunset bike ride; it's light out until about 9:30 this time of year, and we all want to make the most of the amazing countryside that surrounds us. 

Late evening routine: Patrick and I, remembering how we watched a couple of exciting seasons of Lost with our big boys on our London trip, wanted to find something similarly engaging to watch with James, Hope, and Tess in the evenings after putting the littles to bed. We decided on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so far, it's been a hit. 

Day Four: Yesterday, we visited Brou Monastery in Bourg-en-Bresse. I'm going to run out of words that express extreme beauty very quickly. 

This gem of Flamboyant Gothic architecture was a joy to explore. The church itself was amazing, as was the unique, three-cloistered monastery. One of the best parts was having it all nearly to ourselves; there were only a few other visitors. I was very tempted to gather the kids in one of the small, side chapels so that we could sing something in harmony literally a capella, but I forebore, not wanting to cause a scene. Or have people leave money at our feet. Because they would, of course. :)

We ate our picnic lunch in the shade of a quince tree in the middle of the monastery's formal (but unfortunately somewhat overgrown) vegetable garden. Most of us were tempted to do some weed-pulling; the local volunteers must all be on vacation. 

Then we drove back through Mâcon and followed the signs to Solutré. It's one of two roches in the area, and archaeologists theorize that it was once a prehistoric hunting site. Early man would apparently drive herds of wild game off the cliff, then collect the bodies at the bottom. Today, Solutré rises above picturesque villages and hectare upon hectare of grape vines. Apparently, this area produces some of the finest wine grapes in the world. 

It was a strenuous but gorgeous walk to the top. Anne had hurt her foot earlier in the day, so had a bit of a challenge, but she made it both up and back. Once back at our car, we rewarded ourselves with Prince cookies and headed back to the house.

Patrick and I had thought about taking the kids to Lyon today, but this morning, we decided against it. We need to do some grocery shopping, and Patrick has a bit of work to do. We'll do something local and low-key this afternoon instead; there are literally a score of ancient châteaux within a few minutes' drive of the house. Stay tuned for more updates!

Tuesday
Apr222014

The Weekend Getaway

This is our darling house. The guest house is around back.

As part of the Altered Perceptions IndieGoGo campaign, I've come up with a perk for a couple of big donors. It's outlined on the website, but I thought I'd give some more details here. 

Weekend Writing Retreat

A private, spacious, light-filled, air-conditioned guest house in sunny Pasadena will be all yours for a full three days and two nights. It includes a kitchenette with refrigerator (stocked with snacks and drinks of your choice), queen-sized bed, desk, full bath, Wi-Fi, cable/Blu-Ray, and a huge library of books and movies. The pool and hot tub are also available for your use.
Three gourmet meals* per day will be delivered to your door at times you schedule, selected from a menu similar to this: 
  • Homemade cinnamon rolls, yogurt parfaits, or French toast for breakfast
  • Panini, chicken salad, or charcuterie plate for lunch
  • Poached salmon, homemade ravioli, or homemade fried chicken for dinner
You are responsible for your own transportation (we'll work out the dates). Bring your laptop and your imagination.** We'll provide the rest!
 
* Here's the thing about the food. I've published a cookbook and taken a class at the Culinary Institute of America. I promise: the meals I provide will knock your socks off. But say you wanted to go out to lunch instead (on your own dime). Really good restaurants are within a few minutes of our house, like Din Tai Fung, named one of the World's Best Restaurants. 
** You don't have to be a writer to claim this perk. Instead, you could bring your significant other for a relaxing break. If you're a hiker, you should know that there are amazing hiking trails literally around the corner from us (and I can pack you a box lunch in that case). Take our boogie boards to the beach, 45 minutes away. Or go to Disneyland. Pasadena boasts great museums and amazing gardens. And, you know, there's L.A. Seriously: so much to do and see. You'll love it here.