French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Catania

I can’t say I’m thrilled with Catania. From what I have seen it has all the seediness of Palermo with none of the charm. This hotel, though, I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. It’s old. Though generally well maintained it has aspects, like dodgy wifi and wood-look plastic flooring, that I’d really rather do without. Though it has quite a nice restaurant, their idea of a light meal is definitely not mine. But then they throw in these things that a new hotel would never dream of including.


Look what I found! Right next to an outdoor shower! An outdoor shower is one of those things that I didn’t appreciate until I took one. Now I’m hooked. It’s one of those cheap luxuries that everyone should have though in this case, it being quite open to the view, I think I’d keep my bathing suit on. And why is there an outdoor shower? Well you might ask.



It’s because they have a scuba school. Right here by the rocks! The chances for loss of life and limb are infinite but come on, in Sicily, who’s going to sue? You can even go out without the scuba school. That’s how unconcerned they are.


No lifeguard, no problem. But look how clear the water is. And though there is too little shaded seating for my taste, the pool is lovely. There is a warm breeze. I have been reading a book, which I am generally much too tense to do. After a couple of days of not much to do, not much to look forward to, apart from the novel that I’ll read after I finish the memoir, I might settle down enough to stop complaining.


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Barcelona

I usually joke about the difficult life of the accompanying person but this time, no, not even as a joke. Barcelona is just too beautiful. This photo was taken at a reception in a room designed by Montaner, a contemporary of Gaudi. We drank cava, the local sparking wine, and listened to a couple of English lawyers talk about their efforts to ensure that this whole Brexit thing would be nothing more than a slight bump in the road. I wish them luck.


We went to something else at Casa Llotja de Mar. It featured this staircase in the entry courtyard and, just on the other side of the wall, an enormous hall with an oompah band and videos of Bavarian cows. I had a drink or two extra, to tamp down stray thoughts of Kristallknacht.


This particular event has no organized accompanying persons tours, for which I am grateful. Traveling around with 50 other people isn’t the best way to see a place. Instead I booked myself into two walks organized by Culinary Backstreets, of which I have taken one, so far. I recommend them. Our Catalan speaking guide took us to all sorts of places I would not have tried on my own, including this place, which has no name that I could find, but where the food was simple and wonderful. I half expected to see Anthony Bourdain at the next table but no, we were the only outsiders, three visitors with a translator.

These doors are all over the Born neighborhood. You see a portrait in this style surrounded by lots of graffiti, also in this style. Maybe there is a story behind it. I prefer less self-conscious images, like the one below.


And finally, though it may be no more a secret than Le Grand Vefour, I want to tell you about this quadruple gastronomic delight, lots of food fun, all within about 10 meters on Carrer dels Agullers, a quiet pedestrian street in Born. Vila Viniteca is a wine store that has all kinds of amazing imbibables, at all price points, and a staff that speaks fluent English. Just across from them is Vila Viniteca food, a grocery with a couple of tables, in case you want a snack. Just across in the other direction, where I sat while taking this picture, is a restaurant favored by locals, Agullers: soup, main, a bottle of wine and two coffees apiece for 35 euros. Breakfast and lunch only, neither web site nor reservations, at least I don’t think so. And finally, in the fourth corner, a panaderia — I forget the name — that makes this incredible spongy bread that is perfect for soaking up drizzled olive oil and crushed tomatoes. It’s all good.


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Birthday Thoughts: happy 81st, wherever you are

Robert would be 81 tomorrow. Perhaps it’s only coincidence but I have just now come to the end of the things that we planned together, fleshed out after his death by the answers to my “what now?” questions. The Vendee house we were going to buy together was going to be a second home. When I decided it would be my primary residence, I decided it would be one Robert, too, would be happy to call home. That meant it would need room for lots of books and it would need a hot tub, what people generally, these days, call a spa. He read voraciously and ended every day with a long soak.

In the last month the house has been buttoned up. The contractors will return but rarely and for nothing that would make it impossible to live here. A permanent spa will have to wait for the garden overhaul but I found one of those inflatable ones on Amazon. It fits nicely on the terrace. After only a few days the heater went out, so not such a hot tub after all, but it’s in. And here, two months early, is the new bookshelf. It’s not in its intended location but it is in. If I had been buying for this location I’d have bought one more section — Flamant makes them in a variety of sizes — but I’m fine with this and like that it does not overpower the room. Though I show it empty, it is now nearly full. That bottom shelf is filled, end to end, by Robert’s art books. I’m saving up for another one of these and will surely fill that one, too. When the overflow from the Paris bookshelves arrives, it will be packed out. That space to the right awaits its comfy reading chair and accompanying lamp.

So. The final milestone, the last of the things we had absolutely planned to do together, has been reached. The transition is complete. It’s going to take me a while to get used to that.


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Garden Triage


I’m sure the contractors will return but for the moment they are gone. And oh, look what a mess they left in what used to be a pretty front garden.

As I have mentioned before, I bought a stone tent: spalling crépi, dodgy wiring and plumbing, no insulation but plenty of mildew. Folks had died in all the bedrooms and down in the dining room, too, though probably not from the food. The house was sad and in need of rescue. The garden looked to be in better shape. Then it turned out that it wasn’t. As the family ran out of money, they cut corners on maintenance. Improper pruning caused three stunning chestnuts to rot, to the point that they were soon going to fall right over. They had to go. Other trees had not been pruned at all. Bulbs were in desperate need of division. Rose bushes had become spindly. Three years of contractor parking and general abuse basically finished the place off.

This is the first week I have really had the place to myself. I did some shifting of stuff inside. Then it dawned on me; it was finally safe to do a little gardening.

I have a beautiful garden plan with no money to implement it. I have more weeds than plants worth keeping. Until the finances recover, I have one real option: garden triage.


So this is what I am doing. I tackle one little thing at a time. I do that and I don’t worry about what is not done. There is no point. Here I have a planter with thyme that survived the winter. So I added a little more thyme and added a few pelargoniums. I’m hoping the pelargoniums are tough, too, and don’t need a whole lot of water.


I am wildly grateful for anything that survives my style of gardening. Back when I lived in Los Angeles I would search the Western Garden Book for anything that was said to be both invasive and drought-tolerant. Those were my plants. This salvia is one of them and I am glad to have found it here in France. It has gone almost a year with no water, pouring rain, light frost, heat waves and near-constant shade, when it should be in full sun. It is not only alive, it’s in bloom. I love this stuff.


Back in December I thought the contractors would leave in a month or so. The city wants to sell me a strip of land and said they would expedite the escrow; I’d have the property by the end of the year. I believed them. Silly me. So here I am with trees and rose bushes that have intended homes and there is nothing I can do about it. Julien rigged up a temporary planter and we’re hoping they make it until the next bare root season. Most of the trees look a little dubious but this apple, Reine de Reinette, is actually setting fruit. I can’t wait to taste it.


The city approached me about buying that land because it is an attractive nuisance, a partly hidden area where kids like to party. They asked me to put in a wall. I thought yeah, and maybe a barrier hedge, too. So, David Austin to the rescue. The rose on the right is a rugosa, notoriously tough and just look that those thorns. That is a serious barrier. The one on the left is called Queen of Sweden and is earmarked for the planter along the front of the house.


Of course I pay close attention to anything that survived all this abuse and neglect. This bush not only grows with no encouragement whatsoever, it flowers for a month or two and is taking over its corner of the garden. May it live long and prosper.

My favorite discovery of this whole process is that deadheading roses is a meditative experience. If you can protect your knees, weeding is, too. I could learn to like gardening. Faced as I am with an acre of weeds, that’s good.