Entries in Light the Corners of My Mind (32)

Thursday
Sep172009

The Great French Saga, Part IV

I love this window in St. Pierre's church in Montfort-l'Amaury.  The Hebrews are collecting manna as it falls from heaven.  Speaking of food, I have yet to mention the food shopping on our trip.  As you know, I hate shopping in general.  Clothes: hate.  Shoes: hate.  Furniture, equipment, accessories, etc.: hate. 

Even with both books and yarn, two of my most favorite things, I'd rather just know exactly what I want and run in and get it fast; I get overwhelmed otherwise. 

Food shopping in the States is fine--not my favorite way to spend time, but it must be done--but I'd rather just have all the ingredients I need magically appear in my cupboards and fridge.

Food shopping in France is another story.  So many new things to discover and try!  The regular markets and supermarkets are great all by themselves, but the neighbors told us about a market that is my new Mecca: La Marnière in the town of Maurepas, just ten minutes from Neauphle.
 
We went there for the first time while Carmen was with us.  I walked in and whispered to Patrick and Carmen, "It's like food porn."  Symmetrical arrays of the most exquisite, gem-like produce greeted my eyes.  Cheerful and knowledgeable grocers kept watch over their flocks of broccoli and leeks, ready to engage in lengthy and earnest conversations about methods of preparation.  "He's flirting with you," P muttered as I discussed butter lettuce with a kindly fellow. 

"Yes," I answered under my breath as we walked away, "But he gave me an amazing price."  The grocers have the power to write a little note to be placed inside the bag of whatever vegetable you've just taken away from your discourse.  This note discounts the regular price by quite a bit.  Such a delight.

Ohh, the fish and meat; ahh, the cheese and dairy.  We ate simply, but we ate so very well.  Nothing was wasted, no one overate.  Perfection.

Then there was Picard.  It's a chain of boutiques.  That sell frozen food.  It sounds neither glamorous nor appealing.  And yet.

As we left the palace of Fontainebleau on our second Saturday (details will come later), we realized we had a bit of a problem.  By the time we got home, the markets would be closed, and we still needed to shop both for dinner and for Sunday's meals.  We decided to look for something on our way out of Fontainebleau.  P saw the Picard sign and pulled over.  "Try here," he said, "Though I'm not familiar with this store."  I went in while everyone else waited in the car.

Picard was utterly empty and looked like an operating theater, with pristine white floors and walls.  Rows of frozen food cases awaited exploration.  I took a cart and opened the first case in the first aisle.  My heart started racing.  Artichoke hearts!  Sausages stuffed with herbs, parmesan and pine nuts!  Court bouillon

Vivid photos and prose described the contents of each beguiling box; I quickly planned two dinners and a lunch and filled the cart.  Last to go in was an insulated bag ("Mon Sac Picard") with which to carry my treasures home.  Picard did not disappoint; the food was as good as the containers had promised.  Why do we Americans settle for less than mediocre, when utter deliciousness is possible?  It is a puzzlement.

But back to our chronology:

The day after our post-Normandy R&R day in Montfort (see the photos at the top of this posts) was Patrick's birthday.  It was also the day we planned to start the use of our Paris Museum Pass.  The Museum Pass is a 2-, 4-, or 6-day card that a) saves you money (about half of what you'd pay for admission); and b) LETS YOU JUMP THE QUEUE at almost every place on their 60-venue list.  All the big places--except the Eiffel Tower--are on it: the Louvre, the Orsay, the towers of Notre Dame, the Arch of Triumph, etc.  We had loved our Museum Passes on our trip 16 years ago and were thrilled that they still existed.  Patrick and I bought this new set back on our first day in Paris, but they are not activated until you date and sign them.

We'd bought 4-day passes and then went through the list very carefully so that we could plan our four days and use our passes to the utmost advantage.  We started with Versailles, which seemed a fitting way to celebrate Patrick's birthday. 

What a DELIGHT it is to walk past the kilometre-long lines and straight into the ticket-holders' entrance.  Why everyone doesn't buy a Paris Museum Pass is completely beyond me, but whatever.

The palace itself was quite crowded, and some of the wonder of the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Apartments was lost on the kids because they were distracted by the hordes.  Once we got out to the grounds, however, all was right.  We sat in the shade near one of the glorious fountains and ate our lunch. 

Then we strolled down the canals and eventually made our way to the Trianons and Marie Antoinette's farm. 

Poor, deluded Marie, playing shepherdess at her little Disneyland of a compound while rebellion fomented.  But what a delightful place it is: the gardens still grow, the animals still roam their pens, the little faux-Norman cottages are still thatched to perfection. 

The hands-down favorite thing for the kids about Versailles were the carp in the farm's pond.  Sixteen years ago, when P and I went there, I took an old baguette with which to feed the ducks.  Imagine my alarm when, as I cast my bread upon the waters, the surface immediately boiled with what looked like TRILLIONS of LARGE, seething fish, all competing madly for the crumbs.  The ducks never had a chance. 

I had told the kids this story in dramatic detail and hoped the fish would still be there and live up to the expectations I had raised.  Christian, our young angler, even mentioned them as we walked toward Marie's hamlet.  "Those fish had better not disappoint," he said. 



Oh, they did not; they exceeded even the wildest imaginings of my children.  They squealed and chortled at the bizarre spectacle.  We were well prepared with crumbs and crusts, but you could stand there all day and the fish would never stop begging for more.  Once the food was gone, the fish stayed there raising their open mouths out of the water for several minutes.  It was highly entertaining.  The kids even fed the fish a few dandelion heads, but I made them stop picking flowers pretty quickly. 


After a many hours of walking and admiring, we bought some excellent sorbet on the palace grounds.  Tess's boule of sorbet fell out of its cone and onto the ground with almost her first lick.  Christian immediately handed her his cone and took her empty one.  He's a prince of a boy, I tell you.  Patrick persuaded him to trade with him, so Christian did get some of the mouthwatering sorbet, but I was a little emotional over the unselfishness of my sweet kid.

We took the kids home, fixed them hot dogs (or, actually, saucisses de Strasbourg, which are far more delicious), and left for our mindblowing dinner at l'Abbaye des Vaulx de Cernay

The place was gorgeous.  The service was unbelievable, once again reminding me of the difference between waitstaff that has gone to college in their field and waitstaff that are actually unemployed actors.  (P asked at dinner, "So, what do unemployed actors in France do, if the waitstaff is all professional?"  We laughed, but the question went unanswered.)

The food was lovely: not the best we've ever had, but more than adequate.  The cheeses and desserts in particular were quite delicious.  We lingered for hours in that beautiful room; I can't imagine a better way to spend a birthday.

Speaking of Patrick's birthday in France, 16 years ago, we celebrated him at a terrific Parisian restaurant called La Fontaine de MarsGuess who recently copied us on their much publicized Date Night?

Coming tomorrow: the fifth and final installment of The Great French Saga!

Tuesday
Sep152009

The Great French Saga, Part II

Our fourth day, we went to Parc Astérix.  This is a Six-Flags/Lagoon-style amusement park based on the famous French cartoon character and his gang of Gallic upstarts.  P knew all the books by heart as a child, and our kids love both those and the hilarious (though highly politically incorrect) Tintin series.  The Parc was crowded and very pricey, but worth it.  We chatted as we stood in long lines, and the rides were so fun that we kept going back for more.  We stayed until closing time; we wanted to get our money's worth. 

Every day in the car on the way home, I'd hand out Prince cookies.  These are gaufrette wafers with thick chocolate cream sandwiched between.  By day three, this was an inviolable tradition, and after that, I made sure we always had a packet of them in the glove box. 

The French family had left their keys with a friend who lives in the village.  When we arrived our first day, we called her; she came over, let us in, and showed us around.  She then invited us (all eight of us, mind you) over for dinner for Thursday night (day four).  We demurred, but eventually said yes after she insisted.  So after Parc Astérix, we showered and got ready to go to dinner at the neighbors' house.  We were nervous: these were total strangers.

We had the time of our lives.  The neighbors have three kids who are basically the same age as James, Hope, and Tess (and the same age as our house exchange family's kids).  The kids surmounted the language barrier by playing an extended and enthusiastic game of Cache-Cache (Hide and Seek) in the gardens.  They played for HOURS, resuming the game between each course of dinner.

Dinner was magnificent after we got over the social hurdle of refusing champagne.  Elizabeth and Jean-Michel made us juice cocktails instead (which were delicious).  We also had fresh melon (have you ever had a French cantaloupe?  They make ours taste like pablum).  Next came fresh foie gras, which, as you know, is about my favorite food of all time.  The main course was duck breast, potatoes, and sautéed apples.  The cheeses were fabulous, and then we had ice cream topped with fresh peaches from their garden.  They also had a plum tree loaded down with almost-ripe fruit; they told us that they were leaving for Turkey for three weeks that weekend and begged us to come pick plums while they were away.  More on that later.

We stayed for hours; Anne fell asleep early on, so we put her on a cushion on the grass (we were eating on their terrace), covered her with a blanket, and let her lie while we talked and ate and laughed.  It was a magical evening, and we marveled at the miracle of it as we walked home through the dark village streets at midnight.  That's right: we spent four hours with people we've never met before; we now consider them friends.

Day Five = Chartres of the glowing, jewel-like windows.  The city of Chartres is built in a bowl-like valley.  This means that as you approach the city on the autoroute, only the cathedral (built on the highest hill within the valley) is visible in the distance as you look out over the farms and fields.  It looks completely isolated until you get right into town.  It's astonishing. 

We went on a Friday, because on Fridays they clear the cathedral floor so that people can walk the stone labyrinth.  We went there early in our trip because we wanted to hear Malcolm Miller lecture.  Mr. Miller is an Englishman who moved to Chartres as a young man fresh out of Cambridge.  He taught English at a French high school, but almost immediately began giving lectures in English to tourists on the history and symbology of Chartres Cathedral.  He's just completed his 50th year lecturing there, and he's still going strong.  Patrick heard him there when he was on Study Abroad in 1986; the two of us heard him when we went there 16 years ago.  Before we left, I emailed Mr. Miller to find out whether a) he was still alive; and b) he was still lecturing.  Sure enough, he is, but was leaving for vacation after our first week in France.  We adjusted our schedule accordingly.

As we met him in the nave, I was a bit nervous.  Would the kids be bored and make a scene?  My fears were soon laid to rest; Mr. Miller's lectures (he boasts that he's never given the same one twice) are so riveting that the children sat through the entire 75 minutes transfixed.  He taught his audience how to read a stained glass window and talked a lot about the symbols, which the kids loved.  ("Why are Melchizedek and Peter holding keys?" Mr. Miller asked, I'm sure not really expecting an answer.  Yet four young hands shot up immediately.)  Our time with him was fabulous.

We walked the labyrinth and climbed to the top of the bell tower (oy, the stairs).  All the kids basically wanted to move in, and their enthusiasm for religious edifices miraculously held throughout the entire trip.  They positively lit up any time we were inside a church or cathedral.  Even now, if Daniel sees a photo of a cathedral, he starts jumping up and down with joy.

I haven't mentioned many food specifics yet.  Here's what we did almost every day for breakfast and lunch.  Patrick would get up early and go to the boulangerie.  He'd get croissants, brioche, or pains au chocolat for breakfast and baguettes for our lunch.  Our breakfasts were invariably: plain yogurt with turbinado sugar mixed in; a boulangerie treat; and juice (they had all kinds of exciting juice mixes in the supermarkets).  Our lunches were almost always bottled water and sandwiches made from baguettes, fresh Normandy butter, some sort of ham or roast beef, and some sort of delectable cheese.  I packed a picnic lunch almost every day, no matter where we were going; we never got tired of this routine. 

For dinner, I'd make something simple (chicken or grilled sausage or roast beef) with lots of vegetables.  We followed this with a large salad, then a course of cheeses.  Ahh, the French cheeses that are completely unavailable here due to import restrictions: all the tommes (from the Pyrenées, Auvergne, or l'Ile de France); the double- and triple-crèmes; the little goat crottins; and my favorite new discovery, the curé nantais.  The kids' favorite was hands down the morbier, a firm cows' milk cheese that has a distinctive layer of ash in the middle.  After the cheeses, we'd each have a pot de crème for dessert: either chocolate, caramel, or vanilla.  I bought these pre-made: mouthwateringly delicious.

Stay tuned for Part III: the catacombs and cemeteries of Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, and Normandy!

Monday
Sep142009

The Great French Saga, Part I

This week I'll present my journal of our adventures in France in five parts.  It won't be linear and it won't be exhaustive, but I hope it will be somewhat entertaining.

France, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

I love thy cheeses and thy gorgeous fruits and breads, not to mention the genius that is the pain au chocolat and the oranais pastry.  Thine art is a feast for mine eyes; thy language falls so sweetly upon mine ears.  I love thy tiny, vibrant villages filled with cranky old men and nearly nude octagenarian sunbathers.  I love just about everything....

We found lodgings through HomeLink.org, and I highly recommend the house exchange system.  We had a very positive experience all the way around.  The house itself was great: 300 years old, right on a main road in the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, which is about 20 minutes outside of Versailles.  The husband of our exchange family is an architect, so the inside of the house was interesting and comfortable (though not the most babyproof place--their youngest child is seven). 

The house had a tiny backyard completely enclosed by a 10-foot stone wall that had ivy, grapevines, and espaliered pears clinging to it.  There was a little wooden swingset, a hammock, lots of bee-covered lavender and rose bushes, and enough chairs so that we could all eat outside while watching the golden French twilight fall and listening to the carillion of the village church....

Only drawbacks: lilliputian washer/dryer.  And we took only three days' worth of clothes each, so we did 2-3 loads of laundry per day.  No matter; it was like regular life.  I just hope the our exchange family didn't have a collective heart attack when their electric bill arrived.  Oh, also: lilliputian kitchen sink.  So arty; so useless for actually washing dishes.  But the kids were on KP most nights, so it was fine.

Only 20 minutes away from Neauphle (in the other direction from Versailles) was Montfort-l'Amaury, birthplace of my ancestor Simon de Montfort.  We visited the ruins of the castle (which was destroyed in the Hundred Years' War) and the gorgeous little church with lovely intact 16th century windows.

We also went to the public pool in Montfort, whereupon we found out that males MUST wear "les slips de bain."  Or, in other words (you guessed it): Speedos.  C'est beaucoup plus hygienique, n'est-ce pas?  Christian balked initially, but all four Perkins males ended up getting new swimwear out of the vending machine conveniently located in the poolhouse's lobby.  Though it took them a while to not be embarrassed, the boys actually looked great, and P looked hotter than July, what with the suit and the gorgeous vandyke beard he grew while on our trip.

Giverny: even more gorgeous that you would imagine.  Monet's house is to die for; the kitchen is bright yellow with delft blue tiles everywhere and an enormous range (even bigger than mine).  All the rooms are painted the most beautiful pastel shades--the original colors Monet devised for the house, about a century before anyone else was coming up with these color combinations.  The gardens were at their peak and TO DIE FOR.  No picture or essay could possibly do them justice.  They are as sublime as his paintings.  The Japanese garden is idyllic, and standing on the little arched bridge Monet painted so many times, looking at the water lilies--you feel as if you yourself are art.  Transporting.  My version of heaven looks an awful lot like Giverny. 

Our first day in Paris, we took a Batobus from the Eiffel Tower to the Botanical Gardens and back.  We wanted to orient the kids using the river Seine; there's so much to see from the water, and you get a great sense of the city's center that way.  We got off the boat at the Louvre and walked across town to the Opera quarter, where we went to a multimedia presentation called Paris Story.

It was cheesy and unutterably French: the history of Paris told in dialogue between an actor playing Victor Hugo and an actress who represented the spirit of Paris.  The best part of it was that in the lobby of the theater, there was a large, 3D map of Paris with a list of landmarks at the bottom.  You could press a button next to the landmark's name and the site on the map would light up.  The kids played with that for a long time, and they really did get a sense of where things were in the city.  After Paris Story, we strolled through the streets to the Tuileries Gardens, where we had ice cream.  Heaven!

Coming soon in Part II: a French amusement park, a gorgeous cathedral, and the best backyard dinner ever.

Wednesday
Jul152009

Quilts Have Borders; Friendship Does Not

I met Debra in the early 1990s when Patrick was in law school at Columbia. To help make ends meet, I was working as a secretary at a large investment bank. I was delighted to have landed the job; at the time, investment banks paid their administrative staff about double the going rate. In addition, if you worked past 7:00 p.m., you a) scored hefty overtime pay; b) had your dinner paid for; and c) got a free car service home. As a result, I worked past 7 most nights, and might have done so for the magical evening rides through Central Park alone.

As cushy as the situation was, and as much as I adored my boss, there were some negatives to the job. The corporate culture was somewhat of a caste system. There was upper management; the sales force; the analysts; their assistants; the legal and editorial staff; and the admins, also known as the untouchables. Upon reflection, I realize that we admins were not low girls on the totem pole; the cafeteria and custodial staff probably earn that dubious bragging right. But we had little interaction with them.

I felt lucky; my boss was brilliant, kind, sane, rightly considered the best in his field, and interested in my perspective on things. Some of my peers were far less fortunate and were regularly abused for the slightest missteps.

I had good friends among the editorial staff; one of them was an old college friend of Patrick's who had gotten me the initial job interview. The others approved of me once they realized that they wouldn't have much to do in the way of proofreading when it came to the documents I submitted on behalf of my boss.

But still: there was not much crossing of the social strata, aside from the occasional extramarital scandal. This is what makes my friendship with Debra such a miracle to me.

Debra was (and is) a highly ranked equities analyst, like my boss, but in a different area of research. The high rankers often consulted one another on strategies, however, so Debra and my boss spoke fairly often. One day at lunchtime as she walked past my desk, Debra noticed me reading a science fiction novel. "Hey!" she cried with her characteristic enthusiasm, "I just read that one. I loved it!"

An animated conversation followed. Mutual geekery easily bridged the previously immense social chasm between analyst and secretary. After that, we went to lunch once in a while and lent one another books nearly weekly. Over the next year and a half, we attended the superlative Readercon twice and the fascinating Lunacon once together. (I'll never go to Lunacon again, but that's a subject for another post.)

Once I left Morgan Stanley (with sixteen weeks of fully paid maternity leave, thank you VERY much) to have our oldest child, Christian , Debra went out of her way to keep in touch. I'm not great at long-distance relationships, but due to Debra's efforts and the wonders of the internet, we've been friends now for eighteen years.

Debra has always loved art, color, and light; when I first met her, she collected kaleidoscopes and dabbled in creating collages. In recent years, however, she has become an avid quilter. She pieces both traditional and contemporary patterns of her own design. During her vacations, she takes classes from quilt masters around the country and is always striving to improve her technique. Whenever she visits, she brings her quilt photo diary along to show me, and I'm always astounded at the breadth and genius of her work.

Debra came up to Cold Spring recently and presented Anne with a gorgeous quilt. I wish the colors in this photo were truer; the blue is a true periwinkle, and the green is a very satisfying olive. The work that went into the design and the execution astonish me; Anne and I will treasure this always. Gifts from the pocketbook are often nice, but gifts from the heart and hands? Priceless. Thank you, Deb; I feel rich to count you as my friend.

Monday
Jan262009

The Parable of the Kevlar

We didn't have much money when we first got married. Patrick was teaching school at first, then began law school at Columbia the next fall. Our financial situation was of great concern to Patrick's grandfather, who I'm sure imagined us scraping out a miserable existence in some little hovel on the edge of Harlem. Grandpa would send us packages of vitamins on a regular basis; he was very worried about my health, as well as that of his future great-grandchildren.

One day, a package from Grandpa arrived that was much larger than usual. We found inside not the usual bottles of pills, but a double bed-sized bedspread. Grandpa explained in the accompanying note that he was worried that we would not be warm enough at night in the winter to come. He'd seen this very warm and durable bedspread on sale and had thought of us at once.

(Little did Grandpa know that nearly every night of our 11 winters in Manhattan, we slept with the bedroom window open at least a crack. Energy-conscious officials should put addressing the chronically overzealous radiator heating systems of New York City's apartment buildings near the top of their lists when looking for ways to cut consumption and costs.)

Warm? Yes. Durable? Without a doubt. But also: the most hideous thing I had ever seen? Absolutely.

The bedspread is a denim grayish blue, one of my least favorite colors in the spectrum. It's spattered with little black and white and gray splotches, sort of Jackson Pollock-style, just not as cool. It's machine quilted with that transparent, stronger-than-the-cords-of-death nylon thread. And it's got thick black piping running all the way round the perimeter.

(Patrick would insert here that it's not that bad. He's not mistaken very often, but in this case? He's dead wrong.)

But we didn't have a bedspread, or really any substantial blanket-type bed covering, so we used it. I was grateful to have it, and don't worry: I thanked Grandpa profusely for it and his thoughtfulness on more than one occasion.

I thought we'd surely replace it after law school, one P was pulling in the big lawyer salary and we had our own bed out of storage once more (the married student housing in which we lived was furnished). But somehow in the years that followed, there were always other things we needed, and the bedspread hung around.

Once I tried to throw it out, but I discovered that my analytical husband has a bit of a sentimental streak. "It was a gift," he protested. "It was from the heart." I couldn't argue; I have hung onto plenty of stuff over the years purely because it reminds me of the giver. Then Grandpa died, and getting rid of the bedspread altogether was no longer an option.

For a long time, it lived in the linen closet and only emerged when we needed something to put on the futon when guests stayed over. Once we got the cat, though, it enjoyed both a second lease on life and a new name: The Kevlar.

Goldberry, like most cats, enjoys attacking things that move under cover--like bare, vulnerable feet, for example. Having a brain the size of a small bran muffin, Goldberry can't differentiate between feet moved in play and feet moved innocently in sleep at three o'clock in the morning. I don't think she bears us or our appendages any malice, but her claws are razor sharp, and she is very, very strong. Her midnight ambushes did little to foster bonds between owners and pet, to say the least.

I can't remember how we discovered that her claws couldn't penetrate Grandpa's gift, but once we did, the bedspread rarely left our bed. We could waggle our ankles and Goldberry could attack to her heart's content, with no one getting hurt in the process. I believe it was Patrick who, with the cat furiously biting and rabbit-footing the blanket surrounding his legs, cackled gleefully, "It's Kevlar, cat; knock yourself out."

I've contemplated recovering the Kevlar, making some sort of duvet cover for it out of fabric I actually like and wouldn't mind seeing on the bed. Doing so is low on my project list, though; it seems like I always have ten things more urgent to accomplish. Though I still find it hideous, it evokes fond memories every day when I make the bed, and it remains much-needed protection from nightly feline aggression. After nearly nineteen years, I've made my peace with the Kevlar.

We don't choose much about our lot in life; sometimes our circumstances seem unappealing indeed. But with time, we often find that those things we'd most like to change turn out to be the things that are most useful in difficult circumstances. Patience and faith can grant us a new perspective on even the ugliest of gifts, if we will only cultivate them.