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my new occupation in france

With less than a week until I’m back in France, I’ve been thinking.   When I was in Auvers, my principle goal was to experience life in France, soak up the culture, the food, the art and do some writing, which I did.     I halfheartedly pursued a few whims (ie:  tried to learn French, considered writing a book, getting a job, finding a rich husband with property in France), but I lacked focus. As a result, all I got out of it was knowledge and experience, which has little currency in today’s world.

This time around, it’s going to be different.  Now that I’m going to be in France long term, I need a long term goal.  I need to wholeheartedly pursue something substantial.   Something life-changing.   Something that’s evident not only from the inside, but also externally, for all the world to see.    None of this vague stuff. It’s got to be specific and it has to be etched in stone (or blog) or I’ll get distracted.

After a great deal of research and thought, taking my skills, interests and location into consideration, I’ve found a new raison d’etre that I can pursue wholeheartedly.   I’ll be stalking Johnny Depp.   He lives a mere 20 minutes from Vidauban, so it will be very convenient.    I can’t wait to get started.

So, in addition to continuing this blog, my new blog, Stalking Johnny Depp will chronicle my efforts.   Please check it out, subscribe, share, link and like.

dubrovnik. heaven on earth, 18 hours a day

When you’re driving into Dubrovnik, you don’t see it coming. Even when you cross the modern, soaring bridge that looks like wishbones, you’re still wondering “where’s Dubrovnik?  Then you drive around a few more curves, take the Dubrovnik exit, look down the windy road, and gasp.    It’s a huge walled city/fortress built on top of cliffs and rocks overlooking the Adriatic. Everything around it is a jewel toned–the lush green suburb dotted by colorful flowers, the sparkling azure Adriatic..

In fact,  the only thing ugly in Dubrovnik is my mood.

katherine rolling eyes at us under photo of man rolling eyes

It’s about 8:00 PM and we’re about three hours later than our scheduled arrival time.

My dad is checking in to the hotel but there seems to be a problem.  But when I ask what the problem is, my dad screams across the lobby (even though I’m only two feet away) for me to” shut up and fetch his goddamn glasses from the car!”. How rude. How disrespectful. How crass. I scream some shrill obscenity back at him, but try to do so tastefully.

After dropping my bag in our room in the scullery maid’s quarters, I storm the old city gates (the Hilton is conveniently located just outside the Pile gate) and head for the nearest ice cream stand. Like any good bartender, the ice cream guy tries to distract me from my problems. He flips my scoop of forest berry into the air and catches it on my cone. I regress about 40 years and giggle in appreciation of his skill.

My cone and I stroll the Stradum, a wide main promenade of shiny marble slabs that gleam like ice. We look in store windows. We get kicked out of europe’s oldest pharmacy (they don’t allow cones, which I consider racist in this day and age). We climb the tiny sidestreets leading up hills to a series of outlooks that are just slightly different from the last one, but all worth seeing.

We pass a wall and a gate, taking us to Dubrovnik’s small stone harbor. I didn’t notice at the time a hulking beheomoth cruise ship lying quietly in wait to devour Dubrovnik tomorrow morning before scuttling off to Venice for her next meal.

The next morning I make peace with the family over breakfast at 8:30, hit the old city by 9:00, by 9:30 I have a brand new tee shirt and a pistachio ice cream cone and all is right with the world..

Then the crowds start pouring in and I get a chance to see the ugly side of Dubrovnik. Between the hours of 10AM – 4PM, the jewel of the Adriatic becomes the jewelry store of     the Adriatic.

Hundreds of cranky men of various nationalities line the Stradum, waiting impatiently outside jewelry stores for their wives. The theme is so prevalent, I start filming them. While capturing one such cranky man in front of a jewelry store. He looks at his watch, “tsks” and glares inside the jewelry shop. Then he makes a threatening gesture in the window and starts to walk away. It isn’t until he stops and storms back that I realize I’m filming my Dad.

After he destroys the video tape, We manage to drag mom out of Richard’s jewelry boutique #3 in Dubrovnik for a refreshing beverage and snack. But we lose her again at Trinity Jewelers and just hope she knows where to return when it’s time to leave Dubrovnik.

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago the Yugoslavian army left this place in ruins. It’s only from the wall I can see the only visible effects of the war. The predominantly, redder colored rooftops indicate where reconstruction was needed.

The hour and a half walk around the wall also provides eight million of Dubrovnik’s finest views and is best in the morning or late afternoon when the sun isn’t raging. You’ll get an inside look at 1200 years of history as well as a peek at modern peoples’ kitchens and backyards. Someone even has a little orchard growing on the rooftops of Dubrovnik.

cavtat

cocktails on the rocks

 

I also recommend walking through t

he old town early in the morning or late at night when you can hear your footsteps echo; A 40 minute boat ride to the town of Cavtat during the 10-4 Dubrovnik tourist hours, Have lunch on the harbor; Back in Dubrovnik, Have a drink on the cliff rocks on the outside of the Dubrovnik walls facing the sea in the afternoon.

Dubrovnik is a testament to forgetting the past and moving forward. They’ve survived foreign invasions that are hard to imagine. And yet here she is, a beacon on the Adriatic, glowing with the hope that no matter what destruction may befall us, pleasure and beauty can always endure. Sure, there are still grim reminders from past onslaughts. But the tour bus will pick them up by 4:30.

See more pictures of Dubrovnik

the halfway point

Trogir and Split are the halfway point of this trip. This is officially where the Dalmation coast begins. Where North turns into South. This is also where the trip is halfway over. We’ve been tromping through foreign countries together for about a week and half now.

For me, the halfway point is a time of taking stock. This is when I start counting how many days are left and wondering whether I can stretch 3 days worth of underwear into 7 days without washing anything. This is when I wonder if that tickle in my throat is allergies or a cold. Or bird flu (or whatever the next great plague will be). This is where I decide I don’t need to shave my legs again because nobody is looking at them anyways except in this case,  my mother (and yes, she is judging me).

The halfway point is where we start having heated arguments about which direction the airport was in Zagreb. Who had the lamb in that place between Ljubljana and Rovinj. Whether using the the word “Mongoloid” is racist when uttered with a pure heart. A vicious “discussion” about the relative merits of watching college football vs Oprah threatens to end my parents’ 51 year marriage.

This is always a dangerous juncture in any vacation because it’s usually the time where horrible secrets are revealed (my niece likes German boy bands), dreams, expectations are shattered (George Clooney does not have a villa here) and the wounds inflicted earlier in the trip (or in life) become scabs to be picked at.

if you’re traveling with relatives, It’s also the point where you discover great truths about them that explain why your family is doomed to an endless cycle of dysfunction.

One raging disorder reveals itself (again) when we check into the Villa Sikeaa in Trogir. In every hotel so far, my mother has wanted OUR room. Even if the rooms are exactly alike, there’s something about our room that looks better to her. If it’s bigger she wants it, if it’s smaller, she wants it. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, It seems totally reflexive.  Not a day has gone by where my mother hasn’t sighed several times a day and exclaimed “your room is better”. Katherine and I decide to conduct an experiment.

The minute Mom makes the inevitable comment that she likes our room better (often entering the lobby upon arrival), we offer her our room. She takes it gratefully. After we’ve moved rooms and it becomes hers, she’s happy for about an hour. The next time she comes to our room, she looks around and sighs “your room is better.” I’m sure there are deep psychological implications in this story, but I’ll ignore it for now because it makes me laugh (In a hysterical, rocking back and forth, emotionally scarred kind of way.)

Trogir is a great in between place. It’s a medieval village (what a surprise!) and UNESCO World heritage site. The entire old town is smaller than the Lobby of the Empire State building and surrounded by a small canal. It’s packed with tiny shops, a church, ice cream vendors and restaurants. .

On one side of the old town is the market. It’s not as “pretty” as the market in Rovinj, but it has its charm. Here, they recycle old bottles to bottle their homemade grappa and other herbal concoctions. A smart shopper can get a Croatian farmers’ homemade berry and lavender grappa in a classic coke, Herbal Essensence, or Crisco bottle for the equivalent of 3 Euro. In my opinion, that kind of souvenier gives you more bang for your buck than a “Simpsons in Trogir” tee shirt.

On the other side of the old town is the small harbor (a two minute walk), guarded by an ancient stone fort. Our hotel is across the harbor (a 5 minute walk) and affords a great view of the old town. Gorgeous boats park in the tiny harbor. Our room has a birds eye view and I shop for potential husbands in the comfort of my hotel room during the hot midday hours. We’re in the south now, so everything and everyone has a golden glow.

There’s something about Trogir that isn’t conducive to cultivating negativity or wallowing in psychological wounds. The only time I come close to crossing over to the dark side in Trogir is at night when those loud motorbikes blast by our hotel. I spend an hour parked at the window with a big glass of water, waiting to douse the next offender. Thankfully, my attention deficit disorder prevents me from spending the entire night poised at the window in ready-to-splash position.

Split on the other hand, has meltdown written all over it. There’s always a palpable tension in our car when nearing a city, When we round the bend and see Split’s sprawling metropolis, the tension rises into what can only be described as a shrill escalating siren sound in my brain.

I try to drown it out by engaging in a little genial rhetorical chit-chat with myself. “So, this is where Diocletian decided to retire back in 300 AD. Probably a shrewd real estate investment. Highly desirable location. It was probably a lot nicer back then. Without all the communist era buildings, rigs and industrial crap.”

The further into Split we go, the more panicky I become. Maybe we should turn back now. We’ll NEVER get out of here.. I don’t even know who Diocletian was, why the hell do I need to see his goddamn palace? And just when I think Split can’t get any more horrifying, we find ourselves at the gates of the old town, where cars dare not go. Our hotel is in here somewhere.

The pros of staying in the old city (which in Split is everything within the walls of Diocletian’s place) is you get the place all to yourselves in the evenings when the tour groups have departed. The con is finding your hotel once you find the old city. And as we recently learned, medieval villages and roman palaces were not built for driving.

I decide this is a good place to abandon the car along with everything in it. I clamor out and immediately become entranced by some shiny object at a nearby market stall flanking the old city wall. Mom and Dad are calling me, but I am hypnotized by the bright shiny object. Must watch bright shiny object. Cannot get back in car. Will see you later at hotel. Must. watch. shiny. object.

While they’re watching the shiny object, I vanish behind the gates and into another world. Inside the walls, it’s like a fairy kingdom. Modern life coexists with 1800 year old ruins. Ice cream every two steps, . Blue water and sky peaking in through roman gates. Amazing ruins intermingled with fabulous boutiques!

There’s something about the old town waterfront that reminds me of Nice. The palm lined promenade. An air of grandeur tainted with a whiff of seediness. The ferry docks are right next to the harbor and the walls of the Palace, so the view is a more romantic if you blur your eyes a little bit.

At night the lighting in the old town is dramatic and some group is playing classical music near the entrance of the Palace. It’s not the least bit crowded. I can’t remember the last time I cursed a German. Since we’re staying inside the walls of the old city, we can ignore the rest of Split. We’re taking a ferry to the Island of Hvar tomorrow morning.

Try as I might, I’m not finding the angst here. I’m starting to wonder if I should do something to induce it, just to get it over with. But that wouldn’t be in keeping with my new “let life happen” philosophy and decide against it. I’m sure the meltdown will happen in it’s own good time.

Right now I’m perfectly happy sitting on the waterfront with my ice cream cone looking at a calm sea under a cloudless sky.

plitvice in prada

Today we hike Plitvice Lakes.   We rise with the roosters (and the ants), and join some French tourists in the make-due shed for breakfast. Thanks to my new knowledge of the French language, I’m able to pantomime fluently with them about news and politics.

We get to the entrance of the lake pretty early. It’s not crowded yet and we float through to a place where we can see narrow walkways leading down to a milky teal blue lakes (think Peruvian opal) connected by a series of waterfalls. It’s here on this stunning outlook we experience our first moments of doubt. Well, three of us do.   I wonder how long of a hike it is? Do we have to do the whole thing? Are there places we can escape? What if we fall down the narrow footpath? I feel dizzy. What if I can’t get back up? Why don’t I own a pair of shoes designed for this sort of activity?  My mother wonders if there are bathrooms along the way and how clean are they.   I’m not sure what Katherine is thinking.   Her game face is on, but I see a flicker of concern in her eyes.   My dad is thinking “let’s get the show on the road, maybe we can break some record hiking around the lakes!!!!”I’m wearing pair of “Prada Sport” shoes. I got them 8 years ago at a Barney’s sale and never took them out of their box, because I never had an appropriate event to wear them. This is the trip my Prada Sport’s were made for. Rugged yet elegant with a small amount of athletic activity. Shoes you can wear “hiking” or to a restaurant. Up until now I always figured the word “sport” written clearly on the label indicated that the shoes would take care of anything that involved moving my feet. Which may be true As long as my feet aren’t touching the ground. Maybe “sport” in Italian means crappily made. All I know is the damn shoes didn’t even make it to Plitvice without busting a seam. And so far, the only job they’ve had to do is to look elegant. But maybe these “sport” shoes were designed to hold up better on steep rocky paths than in some café. I can only hope.

Plitvice lakes is more magnificent from the side of the lakes than above them. At the first waterfall I notice that my shoes are beginning to resemble the Flinstones’ car. My mother notices that there are a lot of flies. Katherine notices a tiny welt on her arm. My dad is consulting the map and has the entire 10 mile hike charted out. If we walk that way, we see lake number 4 and the falls, but miss three from the northern angle. So we should really take the 14 mile route so we can get every vantage point. He might as well be speaking Croatian.

We’ve been walking for over an hour. All this pristine beauty is starting to get to me. My Pradas are shredded. I don’t know how much more I can take. And really, how can the next lake be more beautiful than this lake? When can we stop walking, knowing we’ve experienced the optimal beauty of Plitvice Lakes without an unnecessary expenditure of energy? And honestly, if the next lake really is more beautiful than this lake, it would probably kill us all because I’m sure God never intended anyone to see anything that beautiful without being dead first. Okay, I’m getting a little convoluted in my thinking, but I’m desperate.

The problem is, I don’t want to be the first one to back down and neither does Katherine or mom. I can see the weary resolve in their lumbering gait. I grasp at straws hoping to force someone else’s hand. Mom, how’s that bladder holding out? Dad, how’s that pacemaker? Boy this would be a terrible place for it to conk out. Nothing. We trudge towards beautiful lake number five.   Well, three of us trudge.   Dad hikes briskly, occassionally stopping and looking back at us expectantly.

There must be something I can do to stop this madness. I frantically rummage through my brain for something new to try.

A large unfamiliar flying insect solves the problem for me by landing on Katherine’s face.  A moan echoes through the forest, bouncing from lake to lake. Katherine flails frantically at her face and starts running in the direction from whence we came.   And she’s moving fast.   We have no choice but to follow her.

God, I love nature.

 

it’s 53 o’clock and the bell tolls for me

Lake Bled is timeless. Both figuratively and literally.

It’s a small crystal blue lake flanked by mountains, forest and tiny villages. A little island floats in the middle of Lake Bled. A stone stairway leads to the Spire of the Church of the Assumption which all emerges from the trees like some fairy tale.

Apparently, artifacts found on the island indicate that it’s been a holy sight for millennia and the destination of many pilgrimages. The church there today was built in 15th-17th century on 10th century remains.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when the church bells ring. I know, because I started paying attention when I noticed that they sound out at really strange times and intervals that don’t make sense in this time-space continuum.

They say that God has his own time for everything, so maybe that’s the answer. Or maybe He just doesn’t want us to sleep in too late or take afternoon naps. As I recall He seems to be a proponent of the work ethic.

Usually you can tell it’s lunchtime about an hour and a half after the bells indicate

it’s 26 o’clock. Maybe the bell ringer has an alcohol problem. Maybe he (or she, I don’t want to be sexist here) is a cross between Quasimodo(Quasimoda?) and Otis on the Andy Griffith show and the residents put up with him because (s)he’s a deformed drunk.

It’s not like Lake Bled is swarming with tourists. If Americans are any indication, nobody’s heard of the place. I think we’re the only ones. I’ve heard British accents, German and Japanese in the hotel, but that’s about it. Every now and then, a tour bus drives by (which Katherine and I immediately flip the bird, because we think packaged tourism is evil). But packaged tourists rarely spend the night at places like Bled (not enough shopping). So nobody seems to complain about the strange bells of the church.

There’s not a lot to do at Lake Bled, the scenery is the main lure. You can take the three hour walk around the lake, check out the monastery perched on the cliffs, wander through the tiny villages and feed the ducks on the lake. Or just perch on your balcony, read a book or take a nap (until about 30 o’clock when the bells start ringing again).

After an hour wander through the picturesque, tiny village, we begin to feel a little peckish. We spend about three hours hemming and hawing over which restaurant would be the appropriate dining experience. We come up with a range of excuse, including: “no, they have a tourist menu”, “no, I don’t understand the menu”, “they serve Pepsi, how unauthentic” and my personal favorite, “we can’t eat here, I see a fly hovering around the porchlight”.

We finally stagger into a Taverna type place with an outside deck. By this time, we’re too weak to act upon any of our rampant second thoughts (ie: “That waiter just gave me a weird look,” “this diet coke tastes funny,” “there’s a fly hovering around the deck light”)

Following a fervent prayer that none of the meat is horse, we enjoy a delicious mixed grill lunch. We might have enjoyed it more if we knew exactly what was in the “mix”.

After lunch, our stamina is up and we decide to row to the church and investigate the mysterious church bells for ourselves.

It’s about 200 meters to the island, but to non-sports people like us, it seems like the Atlantic. My father bravely rows, while Katherine and I dip our fingers in the blue waters, marvel at the fact that even at the deepest point we can see the bottom and enjoy views of the Karavanke Mountain Range and Mala Osojinica Forest that flank the lake. My mother gasps, groans and clucks with every splash and rock of the boat, which makes the noise pretty much persistant.

We scramble out of the boat and climb the stairs to the plaza where the church perches. We walk around the island to enjoy a 360 view of the lake before we enter the church to meet our maker (or at least the person ringing the bells). It’s empty.

I see a rope, but for some reason think it’s one of those emergency cords in hotel bathrooms only to be pulled if one has a bathing emergency so I steer clear. My dad, ever the explorer, boldly yanks it and low and behold, the bells ring out over the lake. He seems to enjoy the sense of power and keeps yanking.

So now we know the answer to the age-old question, “for whom the bell tolls?” Obviously, for anyone who wants to give it a good pull.

I practically have to wrestle my dad down to get him to relinquish the rope. I’ve got to say, bell ringing is not as easy as it looks. Maybe I’m exhausted by the vicarious rowing, but I have to put my whole weight into the effort before I get the bell going. But when I do, it’s hard to stop. We all have a turn.

At about 54 O’clock, we’ve had enough and tumble back into the rowboat, empowered by the experience. And who wouldn’t feel empowered accomplishing something that an hour earlier you thought a deformed drunk could do?

Dad rows energetically, mom clucks with renewed vigor and I stand up at the rowboat helm and shout “I’m the king of the world!” for all of Lake Bled to hear while Katherine heartily recoils in shame and horror.

Once we stop the boat from rocking, we hurry back to the hotel for our 55:30 nap.

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fete de la cocagne — the mystery continues


Today is the first day of the Auvers”Fete de la Cocagne,” a two day event full of something in recognition of something.

I ask Carole et Jerome what this whole cocagnes thing is all about.   They bicker good-naturedly in French for a moment before admitting they’re not sure..   It’s just  a big nuisance as far as they’re concerned.   Kind of like a parade to a New Yorker, I guess.

According to my good friend, Google, Cocagne either has something to do with an ideal life of indulgence  or being cockney.     A commenter on my previous post (thanks, Sirius),  did some research and found that it has something to do with a life of pleasure.    Or climbing  a greased pole.  I’m going to go with ideal life of indulgent pleasure.

The festivities start with some sort of presentation on the stage in front of the Hotel de Ville.      Women with parasols, long dresses and Miss America type sashes that read “Cocagne”. The men on stage are wearing bow ties and hats, I assume from the same time period. They seem to be giving each other awards.  Perhaps for winning the greased pole climbing contest?

A series of rock bands perform–really bad ones that are only slightly better than Courtney Love.    Sausages, pommes frites and beer are sold in the parking lot and the construction site has become a lovely street bistro serving grilled meat, veggies, beer wine and ice cream. The carousel is moving and the children on it screech with excitement.

Knowing that the real fete doesn’t start until tomorrow, I go inside. But soon, I’m drawn back out by a band that’s actually quite good for a French band (no offense to the French, but they suck at Rock and Roll, and Jerome will back me up on this).  Oncle Oedipe, is the name, and I can only assume the reason I’ve never heard of them before is either because they’re French or because none of the members are particularly “hot” looking.

Young girls are dancing and screaming like groupies with clothes on,    I’m mesmerized by a little blond boy about four or five who is totally rocking out as his mother feeds him cotton candy like a Roman slave feeding a fidgety Roman Emperor grapes.    Seriously, this kid has moves.   Even the way he grabs at the cotton candy as his mother lowers it towards his mouth is completely in time with the music done done with a rhythmic flourish.   No doubt about it, the kid is  a rock star.

After Oncle Oedipe finishes their set, I take a stroll and discover that Van Gogh Park has been transformed into a petting zoo with rabbits, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys and two huge unpenned bulls standing by the far wall. Children make animal sounds (I assume they’re animal sounds, they bear no resemblance to the sound American livestock makes), trying to draw the smaller creatures out from their tiny pens.

The goats are petrified, the donkey is accommodating and the pig obliviously snuffles in the dirt for imaginary truffles.   The bulls recline like Odalisque in a shady corner.

Judging by the pamphlets, fliers and posters, the real action doesn’t start until tomorrow. Perhaps then I’ll figure out what this cocagnes thing is all about. I fall asleep with visions of glaces et boissons dancing in my head.

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the big city (pontoise)

up the hillThe first time I visited Pontoise was last December. It was a brief trip–really only a stopover between Paris and Auvers. At the time, it seemd like a tiny little town, not much bigger than Auvers. maybe because it was New Years eve and everything was closed.

The second time I visited Pontoise was yesterday, and what a difference six months and a little direct sunlight can make.

rampartsApproaching from the train, my first view is the ancient rampart walls topped by old homes. But as the train draws nearer to the station, I see the walls are covered with graffiti. Since it’s in French, words I don’t understand, I think maybe it’s nice graffiti, welcoming visitors. The large modern ugly apartment complexes and throngs of teenagers in their uniforms of baggy dungarees with the crotches down the their knees (isn’t that passé?) indicate otherwise.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before, but the train station is huge, with many different tracks and trains all headed for different destinations.

Lordy, this is a thriving metropolis. Well, at least compared to Auvers.

Unlike Auvers, Pontoise has changed dramatically from the time the Impressionists painted it. The path up the hill that Pissarro painted is now a road lined with restaurants, salon d’ongles (nail salons), drug stores, travel agencies bakeries, boucheries, wine stores, everything except a Starbucks. Where do these people go for coffee? Do they (horrified gasp) make it themselves?

oisepissarro12

There are still narrow stone streets and old shuttered houses, but also a lot of newer, apartment buildings that take away the sweet old town effect. As I hike up the hill, my first beggars since I left Manhattan approach me, asking for money in French. I shrug and answer “je ne comprends pas”. There are advantages to being a dumb American after all. The other advantage is not understanding what they’re muttering under their breath as I pass them.

musee-pissarro-pontoiseAfter spending an hour or so in the Pissarro museum, I emerge famished. The streets are lined with bistros, restaurants, tea shops, sandwich stands, Chinese restaurants and sidewalk cafes and I’m frozen with indecision. Too…many…options. I wander the streets, utterly confused and finally decide on a quaint little tea shop when I almost faint with hunger in front of it.

As I stagger in, I notice the name of the place has the word “artisinal” in it so I figure it has to be good. It’s a combination café, tea and coffee store that also sells ceramic tea ware, fine chocolates and other gourmet goodies. It could easily be in Greenwich Village, except instead of college kids with pierced extremities, there’s a cute little old lady behind the cash register and another cute little older lady serving. I’m feeling younger and more energetic already. The menu is a choice of tarts and quiches with a salad compose. I‘m thrilled to understand what every quiche is made of. I order the chevre and tomato quiche and a citron presse (maintenant s’il vous plait, j’ai soif!) from the younger little old lady who scoots into the backroom.tomatotart

A relatively young woman enters the shop, looking much more stylish than anyone I’ve seen in Pontoise. She’s looking at all the items on sale and buying some coffee while she chats to the little old lady behind the counter. I hate her.

The little old lady notices I don’t have a drink and asks if I want one. I respond with “j’ai already ordered”. The old lady looks confused and the young woman translates “j’ai commander”. She then tells me her boyfriend is American. Her English is better than mine. I ask her where her boyfriend is from and it turns out he’s from New York City. He’s a theater director and is working in Paris. I ask if he misses New York and she tells me that he not only finds it an increasingly hard place for him to think, but that the rest of the population doesn’t do seem to do much thinking either. I love her and her boyfriend.

All in all, it was a lovely lunch. I bid them all farewell and head back into the street. After I’ve climbed every hill, explored the ramparts and the river below, I head back to the train station. I’m not sure which track to take or which train and a nice woman points out the Auvers train waiting on the tracks below. I run down and hurl myself into one of the back cars, next to two teenage boys who despite being sprawled out over the seats, look very nervous and not at all happy I’m there. They seem to be doing something they don’t want me to see.

Naturally, I’m curious and peer over to see what they’re up to. One of the boy’s hands are shaking as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and starts mixing the tobacco with something and re-rolls it, putting the filter back on. They light up and I smell the marijuana smoke in the air. I wonder why they’re smoking it in the train if they’re so nervous…wouldn’t a bathroom have been better? Or maybe behind some bushes?

Almost immediately after they finish the joint two really cute police officers enter the car. The boys sit up straight and look innocent. My heart is racing. I think to myself, well, now they’ve done it. Somebody’s in big, big trouble. I sure hope they don’t think that pot smell is my fault. Can you get arrested for breathing in second hand pot smoke? The officers proceed to enforce the law—they tell me to take my feet off the seat. I act very guilty and answer with “merci, non, bonjour” and take my feet off the seat. They continue their patrol and the boys return to their slouched positions.

Obviously I’m going to have to read up on French law.

triumph!

danger mort

It’s another lovely day and there’s no excuse to put off fullfilling yesterday’s mission. Today I’m taking the the train to L’isle Adam. Yes, I know it’s fraught with perils, but I must go.

This time, I’m prepared. I have less coffee, more yogurt and a banana. I study a map.

At precisely 10 AM, I tuck the bottled water into my bag and hit the driveway, full stride. Until I remember that I forgot my keys. I go back inside to find them. Desdemona greets me at the door, all full of expectation so I play with her for a bit. When she seems bored with me, I go to check on Denzel, and start to leave again… until I realize I still haven’t found the keys. As a rule, I try to put them on the furnace knob by the front door everytime I get back from somewhere. ‘Try’ being the key word. I finally find them in the refrigerator on top of the yogurt I bought earlier and head out again. This time I make it as far as the gate until it occurs to me that I may have left the internet connection on. I run back to check. It’s off; maybe I’m not as senile as I think.

I return to the front door which I’d left slightly ajar. But as I close it, I unwillingly begin entertaining my newest big fear: that Desdemona has slipped out the door, darted into the street in pursuit of a bird and…I can’t even continue. I call her and get no answer. I scan the yard, no kitty. I search the house calling her, first gently, but rising in pitch as I get more hysterical. By the time I find her on top of an armoire in the closet, I’m sweaty and my voice is raw and shaky. She looks at me like I’m insane. Phew. I double check that Denzel is still under the sheets and head out again. But when I get to the gate I can’t find my keys.

parmainI get to the train station, (probably 200 yeards from the house) at noon. A man sits behind a big glass wall. His voice booms through a speaker. “Bonjour madam.” Oh … my … God…I have to buy a ticket…in French. I prepare for the usual rush of blood to my brain. Only this time it doesn’t happen. I buy the ticket in French and even understand when he tells me the train is coming in ten minutes.

On the train, I watch the scenery closely trying to figure out exactly where I walked yesterday. Turns out it was the Valmondois, not Butry church bell that rang me into retreat. Valmondois is the first stop on a 7 minute train ride from Auvers. The next stop is another seven minutes away: Parmain/L’isle Adam. I’m tempted to go on to Champagne sur Oise because I like the name, but I also like the looks of this stop and don’t want to press my luck. So I get off. If I turn right, I’ll be in Parmain and if I turn left I’ll be in L’isle Adam.

footbridgeL’isle Adam is a small island in the middle of the Oise. I’d say it’s about one narrow square mile (a rectangular mile?). It’s green with trees that are much taller and lusher than the ones in Auvers. I think the Barbizon forest starts somewhere near here.

The houses are mostly old, beautifully maintained and shaded. It’s very peaceful, quaint as hell and the people seem extraordinarily friendly.

This town is full of little stores, restaurants, parks and great outlooks (Le Plage, the beach I’d read about is the pits—a huge sandbox with a big pool).

downtownI’m drawn to the center of town, which is always the church. Across the street from the church, I discover the answer to my prayers. A big outdoor market with all sorts of dry goods type stuff and a covered food market full of fresh produce, fish, meat, cheeses, baked goods, Asian delicacies…an array that makes Whole Foods look like Gristedes. I am so in awe (and lust) for all this food, I forget to become nervous when speaking to the people behind the counter. I get a beet salad, a half pound of gruyere (which I’ll never be able to prounounce no matter how drunk I deliam), two apples, two oranges, two spring rolls a loaf of bread and a really weird but tasty vietnamese dessert made of crushed peanuts and coconut wrapped in something sweet and doughy that the guy said was plus meillieux than the beignet ananas. All for under five Euro. And I bought everything in French with minimal blushing or stammering. It makes me want to dance around singing nyah, nyah nyah nyah…to whom, I’m not sure.goosey

I wander around the island for awhile. I have some bread and cheese at a shady spot overlooking l’Oise. And wander some more. I feel oddly relaxed and peaceful. In fact, when I come upon two swans (geese?), one building a nest around where she sits, I watch a full five minutes before even THINKING about bird flu.

When I return to Auvers at about 4:00 some of the people in town smile, wave and say bonjour to me. I inhale the scented air and think to myself “Damn, this is good!” I feel like in the beginning of the Mary Tyler Moore show, I should throw my beret triumphantly into the air to the chorus “you’re gonna make it after all.”

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This too, shall pass.

 

the road to butry

road to butryI wake up to blue skies. At least in the literal sense. Like the birds, I’m atwitter.

I said I was going to walk to Pontoise on the first sunny day, but something pulls me in the opposite direction.

This is actually a test to see how far a city girl like me can walk without the stimuli of millions of things to covet in store windows.

I can barely make it a store-free block without extreme boredom in Manhattan, so I fear that the all the natural beauty (not available for purchase) will be less than I can bear.

I prepare with a good, hearty breakfast, which for me is coffee and yogurt. I get dressed, making sure to wear something mildly becoming in case some handsome, age appropriate vintner happens to be strolling as well. By 10:30AM, I’m off.

I practice French as I walk…mostly the r rolling thing, as I’ve decided that’s the key. I mutter to myself “ Merchkkkci…merchkkkci. Bonjourchkk….Bonjourchkkk. S’il vous plait, ou se trouve un slurpee?”

Once I exit the outskirts of Auvers, I start to panic. How will I get back? What if I can’t get back and collapse of dehydration? It’s very sunny. I better go back to the house to prevent skin cancer. I will die if I don’t turn back now. I have had similar sensations leaving the island of Manhattan for Queens. But that was Queens, for godsake. This is somewhere between Auvers and Butry Sur Oise.

ivy house

Bravely I continue into unfamiliar territory. It looks sort of like Auvers, but it’s not. I see nothing familiar. Sure, there are trees, flowers, cute old shuttered houses, hills, but they aren’t the same trees or flowers or houses or hills. I didn’t even bring any ID if I get hit by a truck. But as I keep walking I get lulled by the ever chirping birds. And the smell of flowers in the air. Everyone’s garden is blooming and every house has its own perfume. I’m starting to feel pretty good. But isn’t that how lost hikers feel right before they die?

A church bell chimes 11 times. Jeez, it feels like lunchtime, at least.

I continue practicing French as I continue onward.

Bonjourchkkk. Aidez moi s’il vous plait, monsieurchkkk. J’habille en Auvers. Prennez moi ca s’il vous plait. Je suis…lost. J’ai soif. Merchkkkci.

I keep telling myself to turn back, but I trudge onward as I’m sure there’s some lovely boutique just around the next bend.

No boutiques, just more stone houses, beautiful gardens, greenery and a million perfumes. Man, they should bottle these scents. And sell them at the boutique that’s got to be around the next corner.

I’ll tell you why the French are slimmer than Americans—they have to be. Their roads and sidewalks are so narrow, a mere 10 pounds overweight could render one immobile. I’m thin and still find myself walking sideways a lot, my back hunched up against a hedge or fence.

I smile at each passing bike rider in case they’re cute, while chanting my mantra to myself: Bonjourchkkk. Aidez moi s’il vous plait, monsieurchkkk. J’habille en Auvers. Prennez moi ca s’il vous plait. Je suis…lost. J’ai soif. Merchkkkci.

I’m now in the center of town. It’s so cute I can’t stand it. Tiny old stone buildings with brightly colored shutters on a narrow stone road that winds through. But there’s not one little store or restaurant open. And I am weak and faint from thirst and famine. The church bell strikes noon. I must flee back to Auvers. I must buy a quiche…or something.

I think next time I go wandering, I’ll check out L’Isle Adam, a town or two further. It’s supposed to be a lovely old town with a great beach…on a river. And little stores. This I have to see.

But maybe next time, I’ll take the train.

la maison

house first glance

Enough about me. Let me tell you about the house. It could be described as a small house, but to a poor New Yorker, it’s huge.

It’s on a small street off the town square, across from the Hotel de Ville, which I believe is the mayor’s office. Van Gogh painted a picture of the building in his final days. But there wasn’t much in this town he didn’t paint in his last 70 days here.

I saw this house for first time in the winter. It seemed like a cozy place, full of family memories. But what makes this house is the yard and the light and the sky, all of which I didn’t notice in winter.

There’s a huge lawn out back surrounded by all kinds of plants that are about to blossom any day now—peony, delphinium, wisteria, phlox, pansies, roses, hydraenga…The lilacs are in full bloom and the air really is scented with them. There’s a bench and a table in the center, which may be one of the most perfect places to sit in the world.

There are two sheds, one near the house which holds gardening stuff. The shed at the far end of the house is huge, open, supported by huge wood ivy covered columns. It’s basically a huge open soaring space. There’s a ping pong table in it and some old furniture as well as a lot of stuff like books, lawn chairs, cushions…I guess part of it can also be used as a garage of sorts, The space could easily make four New York City apartments (two apartments on two stories) It may actually be as big as the house.

Like many of the old houses in the region, it’s tall and skinny. On the first floor is a good sized kitchen with eating area (huuuuuuuuuuuuuge by NYC standards), a living room and a large bathroom with a shower. On the second floor is two bedrooms and a bathroom. The third floor is sort of a converted attic, with a main room with a desk and two beds (plus a trundle bed or two), and another bedroom.

This house has been in the Ledoux family for generations. Martine’s sister (Henri’s mother) was born here. I think their mother’s mother was born down the street (her father, or grandfather was the town pharmacist) The family is now scattered in Seattle, Italy, Los Angeles, Paris…, but photographs of family reunions, marriages and family moments are all over the place.

desdemona at home

I’m already starting to have warm memories of Karen’s wedding. And everytime I see the picture of the grandfather and the young boy who died in his teens, I get a little teary. The truth is, I think I’ve adopted the grandfather as my own, since I was always a little afraid of the one I had.

I hope they don’t mind my borrowing their grandpa along with the rest of their house.

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