French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Jacques Report

Jacques is putting on a brave face but he’s in some discomfort.

I awoke this morning to a dog who was not trying to jump onto the bed. Clearly, something was wrong. I pulled him up anyway and he just went to the foot of the bed and fell asleep: no snuggles, no face lick. That was really worrying, especially when I noticed he was limping.

I gave him a baby aspirin. Apparently this is not advisable, even though at 10 kilos, he’s about the size of a lot of babies. But I didn’t know that at the time and no question, it reduced the inflammation.

A couple of hours later we were at the vet. The problem? Apparently it’s what he gets for being white. I guess all light-colored dogs have allergies, which are exacerbated by urban pollution. Who knew? But the vet bounced his fingers along either side of Jacques’ spine — if you know Chinese medicine, it was along the bladder channel — and my little guy went from uncomfortable to absolutely shaking. I gave him a hug and the vet gave him a more serious anti-inflammatory and he settled back down.

This allergy thing, though, it’s serious. The vet’s recommendation is a series of insanely expensive treatments and a diet of insanely expensive salmon-based dog food. 200 euros later we were back on the street and now, a couple of hours after that, Jacques feels well enough to go for a walk. The vet said the limp was due to inflammation along the spine. That appears to be the case.

I think I need a second opinion. Jacques spends most of his life in the countryside. So really, is this a simple reaction to pollution? Fortunately Mr. France has a sister-in-law who has a niece who is affiliated with a veterinary school in or near Lyon. I allowed as how I wouldn’t say no to a long weekend in Lyon but, oh well, I guess she comes to Paris fairly often. We’ll have to see what she says. I’d like it if Jacques got back to his old hyperactive ways.


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Black thumb gardening tips

This is how my house looks, these days. The house is basically done. The garden is basically a wreck. I have a long way to go — okay, an expensive way to go — to be able to grade, pull up stumps and replace topsoil, all of which are needed to make this place the garden spot it so thoroughly deserves to be. However I have staked out a few spots where I am planting anyway. So far things are not going too badly. Mind you, I started from not being able to grow rosemary just outside my kitchen door. The bar was set pretty low. So, bearing in mind that my idea of incredible results (“they’re still alive!”) may not be yours, let me show you what I found.

Garden centers here in Vendee have boxes of seeds “for difficult terrain.” Of all the seeds in the couple of boxes I have scattered around, these are the ones that reliably sprout. I think we are looking a nicotiana — the pink one — black-eyed Susans — the yellow one — and I don’t know, some orange thing.

Of the bunch, the orange thing is the best. It self-seeds, even before it stops blooming. Pretty soon it might take over this whole planter, which will suit me just fine.

Mr. France — if that ever gets shortened to MF you’ll know the relationship is over — is rooting for the hollyhocks. He thinks the house needs tall plants. I can see his point. They self-seed too, and are even out there breaking through the gravel and fighting with the concrete.

I even have a few actual garden plants that are doing well. I went through the David Austin rose catalog and found a few where they basically dared you to kill them. Even I can’t do it. Give them some water and they’re good to go. Of all things I have what look to be yellow crocuses coming up now, in September. I know the weather has been crazy, but still.

Once upon a time I thought I’d plant hydrangeas at the house. They’re pretty tall. My grandmother hated hers and still couldn’t kill them. There are new varieties and a couple of nearby nurseries that specialize in them. I’m a little nervous about being any more intentional about this garden, though. The accidental, super-low expectations strategy has worked pretty well. Maybe I should stick with what works.


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Summer in the French countryside

I spend a lot of time ranting about French arrogance, French bureaucracy, all the rest of it. Then, every once in a while, I’m reminded of why I bother. This is a view of the Rhone Valley from our hotel room in Cliousclat, a village known for its potters, though artists in many media live and work there. It doesn’t look all that different from the Napa Valley. However our room cost about the equivalent of a nice dinner in Napa, never mind a whole room. While the whole California wine country scene is hyped and priced beyond belief, the French countryside is dotted with charming hotels, small serious restaurants — two just in Cliousclat! — good wineries and talented artists and artisans. While some places, generally catering to foreign visitors, are crazy expensive, many others are affordable, if not exactly cheap. And yes, I brought home a lot of very nice pottery, more than you see here.

Come to think of it, even the walnuts are small production, if not exactly artisanal. France is still a deeply Catholic country, dotted with abbeys and monasteries; I get the feeling convents are, these days, often called monasteries, though I haven’t really sorted that out yet. Anyway, I have a kitchen full of liqueurs and foodstuffs, made as a way of keeping these places self-supporting. I can highly recommend everything I have tried.

This whole concept of the French way of life is finally making some sense to me. In the cities it’s basically a marketing concept, that or a way for unions to justify stultifying labor laws. In the countryside it really is how people live. They grow things or make them and they are proud of what they do. Factory farming, which unfortunately is what is done around my house, and hypermarkets not only spoil the view, they drain the economic and ecological life from areas like this. Eventually, perhaps sooner rather than later, that is what will happen here. That view and my little bowls will either disappear or become so rare that the few that remain will be priced out of reach of most of us.

So, that is what I learned this summer. Fortunately that is not all that I did. I have a new crop of adorable grandkids. They spent a week at the house. No, you can’t see photos; the moms have requested otherwise and I respect the moms. I got a few things done. I got used to living here. This is now home for me. On balance, I like it.


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The Briar Patch

I have to get going on this garden. Too much of it looks like the gravel-strewn mess you see here, the place where the crew mixed concrete and left too much of the debris. The bushes behind are the only sizable remaining area of mature growth, so apart from occasionally pruning it back, I have left it alone.

You can see that it is totally overgrown. I figured that my first step would be to thin it out to give the “keeper” plants some air. Hahahaha, silly me. You see, threading its way through all this miscellaneous greenery is a happy, healthy and well-established blackberry bush. Or are they vines? I don’t know but they are viciously thorny and they are everywhere. I figure it’s karma.

When I was little my great-grandmother read me the Uncle Remus stories. That this was before they became unfashionable gives you a hint as to how old I am. I loved those stories and I have to admit, the whole racial angle totally escaped me. What I keyed in on was the trickster, Brer Rabbit. He was smart, clever, subversive and funny. Uncle Remus is a trickster himself — who, after all, is choosing which stories to tell and how to tell them? — but at the time I saw him as the male counterpart to my widowed great-grandmother, kindly and giving me permission to be whoever I might want to be.

For anyone who does not know the stories, they are a collection of African folk tales. They were collected by Joel Chandler Harris, a Southern white guy who made the black narrator, Uncle Remus, at least on the surface, completely nonthreatening. The characters in the stories were animals. I have read that Harris was retelling stories told to him, during his childhood, and were an attempt to create empathy for black people, maybe avert a lynching or two.

As I say, I was a little kid, probably preschool, and apart from my great-grandmother — I grew up in a family where a woman of 16 or 17 really ought to be married and with child, so she would have been about the age I am now — I knew that the situation I was raised in was one I wanted to get away from. And though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew that a girl would not have a straightforward path toward choosing her own destiny. I knew I would have to be sneaky, like Brer Rabbit. He became my role model and I wanted to be thrown into the briar patch like you cannot believe.

It worked. I got out. Times have changed and I have not always had to use stealth to achieve my objectives. And now look, I have a briar patch to eradicate. Serves me right. But there is some great stuff in there. I have shown you the fragrant white flowers that bloom in May. And just today, in among the blackberries, I found what might turn out to be an apple tree.


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I saw the best minds of my generation…

Apologies to Allen Ginsburg, if they be necessary. I'm certainly not the writer he was but I think he'd be okay with the sentiment. It's a crazy time. This is what I'm doing to stay sane. I have not touched a piano in 20 years or more but I loved it and have missed it ever since my fabulous, big-as-a-house old Steinway upright collapsed and my tuner said it would take over three months to get parts — right when I was about to move from my house of 20-plus years — the story of my life at that time. Anyway, I remember how I'd get lost in scales, even. In front of the piano was my happy place. Time to go back.

I'm starting from scratch. I would expect my musician friends to fall apart laughing, except that I remember my old next-door neighbor, who I believe is now teaching in the music department at Occidental College. Every time this brilliant guy, who warmed up, warmed up, by playing the Bach cello sonatas, would see me, he'd say, "Practice. Don't worry that your piano is right next to my studio, that I practice and give lessons there. Practice every day. You'll be good." Bless you, Tim Emmons, and thank you.

So I'm back at it. Anything to get away from the New York Times. Not their fault, but still. This is my rescue kit.

I don't expect my current neighbors to be as kind as Tim, so I got an electric piano, a Bluthner Pro-88. I think it was so cheap, way less than I sold the Steinway for, not even accounting for inflation, because there is a newer model out, but so what. It sounds good. The touch is nice, even adjustable. It came with headphones, which I'm sure the neighbors will appreciate.

So those are the basics. My life is too unsettled to have regular live piano lessons so I'm going to hope I don't develop too many bad habits. At least for now I'm going to limp along on my own.

I found these great apps. There is one just called "Theory" and another called "Tenuto." They give you the basic idea of the whole undertaking: how to read notes and time signatures, the keys to the kingdom, basically. I do better with explanations, so I can lose an hour with those, easily. I read James Rhodes' autobiography, "Instrumental," so I had to get his little book, "How to Play the Piano." Supposedly I'll be playing a Bach prelude in six weeks, all this theory time included. We shall see but I do like the book. And finally, "Mikrosmos," the piano exercises that Bartok wrote for his son. I bought Volume I all those years ago, when I got bored with the stuff my teacher assigned. I loved it, so when I found this, all seven volumes bound together, I went for it. This is all much less expensive than when I sold everything back in the '90's. It's amazing.

So here it is, an hour or so every day when I can say "Donald Who?" It's a lovely thing and it leaves plenty of time to engage with the mess we find ourselves in. And prune the roses, load the dishwasher, you know, real life.


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Jacques Report

This morning, as I was trying to decide whether to get coffee or just sleep a bit longer, Jacques was alert. Okay, when is he not alert, but this time he actually heard something, a scratching noise. Bless his brave little heart, he ran down to investigate. Five minutes of crazed barking later, I decided to go down, too. Realistically, what were my choices?

This was it, the whole thing. A loving mother rat with wings, oops, pigeon, tending her little brood. She must have figured out that she is safe behind that glass because she didn't move: not before I got there, not since. That said, I think she'll be glad we're gone.


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But is it Art?

On my first visit to Paris, I went to the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes. I couldn’t believe the whole city was as beautiful as the neighborhood I was staying in — the view from my room, a room without even a private bathroom, was of the gardens of the Prime Minister’s official residence — so I wanted to get out to a few other areas. Back then the Jardin des Plantes was considered pretty far out there. Anyway, it was January. It was cold. The animals and I were staying indoors. The chimps were bored. When I walked into their little building, they noticed. After all, I was the only person there. They ran over immediately, so excited, and spread shit all over the 5-meter-high windows, pooped in their hands, even, to provide themselves with more, um, artistic media. As I look at this wall I wonder whether I haven’t come back to where I started.
Pretty soon this wall will be covered with this paint. The furniture and silkscreen will return to their usual positions. I live in hope that it no longer looks quite so, well, poopy. The idea was to have the wall disappear behiind the clutter of stuff we have in this room. We shall see and I may update this post with an “after” photo. Meantime, I’m having a lot of fun. Making art is real work but this, this is fun. Though I am starting to wonder whether my Painter friends, Sharon and Frank, have been keeping a little secret from me: once they have worked up the general idea, I bet they’re having a lot of fun, too.


Four hours later, there it is, missed spots and all. The color is less poop, I hope, and more ’70’s almost-avocado, which makes it appropriate to the age of the building. The sofa is calling my name. Jacques’ cushions, the ones he loves to attack when dogs appear on screen, await him. And if you are wondering what the big kids do when they paint, there is one of Frank’s silkscreens. I’m tired. Time to watch Wimbledon.