mardi 31 mars 2009

Fish kisses


That's one of my four fish friends. The survivors. If I talk to them in their fishcan [trans.: a trashcan containing fish, rocks and plants], they will come to look at me. If I put the tip of my finger to the surface of the water, they will come and see if it isn't something to eat. This does not frighten me. They are not barracudas. It kind of tickles. A little bit of a suction effect. Like a kiss. A fish kiss. I haven't offered my own lips yet. The ends of my hair would get wet, and Baccarat might bump into me and send me headfirst onto the reefs below, scaring the few wits she possesses right out of Rapide, not to mention the fish.

Rapide has, by the way, been doing wonderfully since the vet operated to remove the cyst from her left tear duct almost two weeks ago. It's amazing. When he first saw her a couple years ago, he said that it looked like she had an inverted lower eyelid on the right side. It was true. You always saw the inside of the lower eye, sort of droopy and red. It seemed a bit of a shame for such a noble dog. It ran a lot, too.

Then, he noticed the cyst back in January.

"How long has she had that?" he asked in French.

"Je ne sais pas. Depuis toujours, ou longtemps au moins." I couldn't recall it not having been there, but I couldn't be certain either, and, besides, he notices everything. Wouldn't he have said something before?

"On devrait l'enlever," he said. I visualized myself writing more checks and Audouin sighing heavily over our pet budget. He's starting to wish he had gone to veterinary school and not medical school.

Let's check the earliest photos, taken in September 2006, just after we brought them home.

Oh. Hm. Not much there, is there? Maybe a tiny little something, if you look really close. Now I have to go through all the hundreds of photos to see when it first really showed up. It must have been very progressive because I look really closely at these dogs, a camera lens practically glued to my own eyes.

When she came out of the vet's clinic the day she had it removed, she was a wreck.

"Elle est terrorisée," said the vet, as she crashed into the door frame with her lampshade thing around the head and jumped back in fright. I barely recognized her, all scrunched up and shaking, her head swaying this way and that, trying to see to her side and figure out why she didn't make it around corners anymore without a jolt to her head.

"Je vois ça."

The lampshade thing protecting her stitches lasted all of 3 1/2 days. It was supposed to make it through 14 and be removed along with the stitches on the 15th. On the 5th, however, I was carrying it in my hand into the vet's office. The assistant took one look at it, glanced at Rapide, and asked, "How long has she had that off?" in French.

"Depuis avant hier soir."

"Et elle a toujours ses pointes de sutures?" I nodded.

"Elle ne les a pas touché, mais elle ne supporte pas cette espèce d'abat-jour." She nodded, looking doubtfully at Rapide. The vet laughed when we walked through his door.

"Elle a fait exprès," I said to him. At least not in the beginning, but after running into enough pillars and posts, corners and doorframes and seeing that it was breaking, she started in on it with energy and application, batting it with her huge paws until it tore clean to the collar, and when a second tear formed at the peripheral edge, she went at that one until I found her the previous morning with the thing bent back over her shoulders, a large section missing.

It was pointless to leave it on her. I watched to see if she'd go for the stitches, but she did nothing but gloat at her own accomplishment.

"Ben, si elle ne les touche pas, on peut le laisser tomber."

"Je pense," I said, "qu'on n'a pas de choix. C'est elle qui décide."

Upon examination, her eye was perfect, her stitches intact.

"Elle a ouvert son oeil quand?"

"Son oeil ne fut jamais fermé," I said. "Vous avez du très bien réussi. C'est ouvert et clair depuis que je la cherchai à la clinique l'autre jour, vous savez." Which reminded me that we had also noticed, or I had, anyway, that the droopy, red lower lid on the other side had disappeared right along with the removal of the cyst, and the eye teared less. I explained it to him, asking, "Est-ce que le cyst fut réponsable pour l'autre oeil?" He looked up from her eye and right at me.

"Non, pas de tout."

"C'est drôle. Ce fut immédiat, et ses deux yeux semblent mieux." Maybe he is on the verge of a veternarial opthamological discovery. He has a specialty in this area. I did not, however, insist. Let him discover for himself. I'll bet you dollars to dozens that he'll be on the look-out now for the same with other dogs presenting the same symptoms and condition.

The cyst in protective fluid that went off for testing in Toulouse appears to have been benign, since we have had no news of it. Tant mieux.

So, the camellia.

The sick Camellia japonica

The camellia bush. I tremble.

My husband came home from work last evening just as I had let myself out the lower gate to take the dogs for a walk. I opened the large sliding gate for him to park his motorcycle. He got down, have me a kiss hello from inside his helmet and I cast my eyes down somewhere beside the rear wheel of the bike.

"Tu vas te fâcher contre moi."

"Pour qoui?"

"Parce que," my volume lowering defensively, mumbling, "j'ai oublié, en fin, je n'ai pas pensé à temps d'aller à la boulangerie chercher de pain, ni de vin."

"Comment? Je n'ai pas entendu." I grimaced. I hate having to say I didn't go get the baguette and wine before the stores closed.

"J'ai dit qu'avec le changement horaire, il faisait plus clair plus long et je ne me suis pas rendu compte qu'il fut déjà si tard, alors j'ai raté la boulangerie. Et le vin."

"Ah, il n'y a aucune importance. J'ai pensé que tu allais dire que le camélia est mort. Je l'ai vu ce matin. Ca -- ça c'est grave. Tu n'as pas de montre pour voir l'heure?" Actually, no. I haven't had a watch for awhile and I sort of avoid going to the store when I don't feel like it. I had both my cell phone and my laptp right next to me or in front of me. I could have checked the time.

"Il n'est pas mort. Je suis allée le voir aussi. Il a l'aire d'être mort, mais il ne l'est pas." Not yet. He looked as far from convinced and reassured as I have ever seen him look. Plants die. They die of all kinds of things. Sometimes you notice in time, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you can save them, and sometimes you can't. You replace them when you can't. Audouin does not choose to accept, nor to forgive.

It's stressful being the resident gardener around here.

"Je vais m'en occuper demain. Je te le promets. Il se peut que c'est juste le choc d'être rempoté."

So, I did.

It could be anyone of several things:
  1. Root rot. Phytophthora cinnamomi Rands. Hm. Somewhat complicated to determine the causality. But, I did use sterile potting soil.
  2. Dieback. I don't think so. I don't see the telltale signs. Thank heavens.
  3. A case of the planting soil drying up and becoming hydrophobic, meaning that when you water the plant, the water just runs right through the planting soil, which is no longer able to absorb it, hence, the roots can't get the water you are offering and the plant dies of thirst. Soil doesn't look that way. I have done that often enough to know what that looks like now.
  4. Not enough water for other reasons. Neglect comes to mind. No chance with my husband's feelings about this particular plant. His ex probably gave it to him. [Die plant, die!]
  5. Too much water. Overattention and fear of being yelled at by one's husband come to mind.
  6. Too much fertilizer (engrais), or the wrong kind. Liquid fertilizers, it turns out, are too potent for camelias. They prefer long-release [Oh my! The frogs just started to make such a racket!] fertilizers, the granular forms. I used the only one I had available when I replanted it -- in acidic soil for camelias --, a liquid fertilizer that might not have been weak enough that I added to the water in the watering can. Oh oh.
  7. Rootbound. Not in this case. I gave it a bigger pot.
  8. Concrete pot, leaching lime into the soil and causing alkaline conditions. Nope. Nice terra cotta pot.
  9. Transplant shock. This is what I suspect.
  10. Leaf galls. Nope. Not life-threatening.
  11. Sooty mold. Yah. Not life-threatening. Will treat.
  12. Lichens. "Lichen are not organisms that damage camellia; instead they show up when the camellia (or some other plant/tree) is stressed for another reason. It is, thus, an indicator of a problem rather than a cause. Determine if the camellia soil is kept wet too long such that the roots are developing root rot." This is a back to the drawing board problem.
  13. Virus variegation. Not my problem.
  14. Root-knot nematodes. I'm getting bored.

I think our Camellia japonica has transplant shock. It had to be pulled up from the entry courtyard for the work on the house in August, and I couldn't respect any needs it might have had in terms of timing and weather. According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, the best time to transplant a camellia is:
"before they bloom in spring, but a second option is when they start their new season of vegetative growth right after flowering, usually February to May for camellias. Transplanting young plants is easy, but older plants can be difficult. If you're thinking of moving an older plant, you may want to consider heavy pruning instead."
It sat in a pot, large enough to hold the root ball that I could dig up, a sad affair at best because the acidic soil-loving camellia and hydrangeas planted in the entry courtyard where stuck into the existing, lime-ridden chalky dirt. They were fairly scrawny, with the exception of one hydrangea that nearly killed me to dig out, with large main roots.

Audouin and I had carried that one together down to my new hydrangea border in the bottom garden, back behind the pool, and I did everything I could to take as much of the root system along intact. It wasn't much, and all the dirt fell off the roots. I had prepared a brand new bed with acidic soil, and I did my best to distribute it's roots in the new soil with care, watering profusely and tying the plant back to hold it in place. Of course, I should have cut it back significantly before transplanting it, but it was in its height of flowering glory, and I couldn't bring myself to do it.

It wilted some, but as it's flowers died, I cut them off, taking a good deal of the supporting stems, and the plant picked up a bit. Now, coming out of the winter, there is a good deal of healthy new growth at the base of the plant, and buds everywhere. I need to cut it back now to insure full, bushy growth, rather than a spindly plant.

As for the camellia, though, I didn't know where I wanted to put it. It needed more friends, and Audouin wanted to put it somewhere where it would be easily seen an enjoyed. If it were up to him, the entire garden would be right in front of the door to the house. The rest of it -- well, what would the rest of it be mon chéri? Tu veux un grand jardin, mais tu te plains que tu ne passes jamais dans la plupart du jardin pour pouvoir profiter de ses plantes.

I am under the obligation to plant lovely things throughout the garden, or suffer the criticism of neglecting it.

Il va falloir que tu aprennes de prendre le temps pour y errer. [Excuse me, he barely speaks English.]

And, so, there it sat while I wrestled with these problems in my head. I wanted to get it two more Camellia japonica plants and put them all down by the pool, where there are already azaleas and a rhododendron, ferns -- acid-loving plants. He wanted it in a pot in the front courtyard. It sat.

"Je suis sur que les racines ont gelées."

"Non." Maybe.

"Tu dois vraiment faire quelque chose."

"Oui." Yes.

I emptied a large terracotta pot of a dead pine, rinsed it out and set to work filling it with acidic planting soil for azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias, placed the camellia in its hole and watered copiously, adding a liquid fertilizer to the water in the can in the correct proportion. It still might have been too strong for a camellia, though. If this is the case, the problem will pass as the plant is watered over time. I hesitated to remove all the old dirt from among its roots, even though it was the gloppy, chalky crap mostly. It was still holding its minor root system. I hoped that the new dirt around its edges, broken into it, would make up for it. I added (I think) root stimulator and set it where the morning sun would not burn its fragile leaves.

It slowly withered.

Then, it appeared to be dying.

Finally, it looked outright dead.

And, having looked into the affair, I conclude that it may have root rot and it is likely suffering from transplant shock. In the case of root rot, I have to dig up the roots and check to see if they are brown, and if they are, improve the soil conditions. Possibly apply a fungicide to the soil. This would surprise me, since I did what is needed to avoid it. I worry about checking for it, since if it is transplant shock, it would prefer to be left alone.

The best option might be to follow the advice of trimming it back, cutting each leaf in half, adding some sugar to the water and doing what I can to make sure the soil is draining well, including setting the pot on a bed of gravel to make sure that the water seeping from the soil in the pot is not saturating the ground below and preventing it from being able to drain fully. If the root tips are sitting in overly moist soil, the roots will rot.

Wish me well. I will win big marriage points if I carry the day with this camellia!

lundi 30 mars 2009

Spring skiing aux Portes du Soleil, Euphoria gracias!

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii

I love Euphorbia characias. It sounds like Euphoria gracias! Thanks for immense bliss, ecstasy, elation, exhilaration, jubilation, exaltation, exultation and glee!

I bought these two Euphorbia characias plants last year and stuck them in amongst the overpowering mint alongside the steps to the second terrace last year. They weren't much to behold. I bought them wilted and on sale at Florosny at the end of the season just because I wanted some of this plant, but having no specific intention for it [trans.: no plan worked out requiring them]. Just plant them, let them establish themselves somewhere suited to them, and figure the rest out later.

Is it later yet?

So, I accompanied Audouin to les Gets, part of Les Portes du Soleil ski resorts some 20 kilometers north of Chamonix as the crow flies, but not as the car drives, last week. We returned last evening. We'll take our car next time.

What an odessy.

We left the hotel to return to Paris yesterday with friends on the trip with us -- colleagues of my husband's from his hospital -- at 9:30 am in the rental car one of them had gotten in desperation, fearful that there wouldn't be a navette to Morzine, where the conference was actually taking place, and from where the bus to the train station in Thonon-les-Bains was leaving at 3 pm, and arrived home to two very happy dogs, two cats trying to appear indifferent, and one very pleasingly pleased son at 11 pm. If you only count our departure from 3 pm, that was still at least 8 hours. It takes about 6 1/2 by car, traveling at the speeds of an adult with a full driver's license.

We had had navette issues in les Gets - Morzine since we arrived Wednesday night. So, Wednesday night's one was there, diligently waiting for us at the conference center in Morzine to deliver us to our hotel in les Gets 7 kilometers away, when we got off the bus that had met us at the TGV in Bellegarde sometime after 11 pm, but it seemed to be the last one on which we could count, at least when we'd need one. As it was, our companion on the bus ride Wednesday night from the train station in Bellegarde to Morzine was only gradually recovering in Audouin's company from his foul mood, the product of having been deposited by the 4 pm TGV from Paris in Bellegarde only to discover that there was no bus to Morzine there to meet his train, and -- the salt in the wound -- he was the only conference participant on that train. The next bus hired by the conference planners to take those of us arriving from the Paris area to Morzine was to meet our TGV, 3 hours later.

You have to actually travel to Bellegarde to formulate a concept of just how bleak this news is, and just how aggravated you would be, were you he.

The train station in Bellegarde sur Valserine is a step below ours in Mantes la Jolie. There is not even a kiosk selling newspapers and magazines, candy and gum. Nothing. There is only a ceramic-tiled tunnel connecting the several platforms, disgorging the passengers not continuing all the way to Geneva in a miniscule vestibule at the parking lot, where a closed hotel café showed how much Bellegarde cares to welcome its arriving visitors and own.

Actually, let's hope there is no relationship whatsoever between the availabilty of hospitality and Bellegarde's interest in seeing people travel there.

There might have been benches upon which to sit. There was a cart selling sandwiches, and Antoine counted the numbers of each of the three types available for sale -- jambon et beure, jambon et fromage, et fromage -- until there were no sandwiches, or no passengers to whom to sell them, left. About 15, he concluded.

"J'ai failli faire demi-tour pour rentrer aussitôt."

"Jusqu'à Paris?" I asked, amazed. Audouin had told me that he is somewhat impetuous, mais sacré bleu!


He had called our contact for the conference organization and explained the situation. Full of apologies, she suggested that he take a cab. The company that had invited my husband's group would reimburse him. He thanked her, refused politely and sat down to think. He'd checked on a taxi from Bellegarde to Morzine... 300 or 350 euros would do it, and this being France, he was shocked, amazed, scandalized and refused to pass such a bill along to the company paying our way. Somehow, he summoned the calm and the resources to withstand 3 hours waiting as night fell in a drizzly Bellegarde evening.

This unpropitious beginning summed up our transportation woes for the remainder of our stay in the Haute Savoie sans voiture, ending with our missing several possible hours of skiing on our last day, yesterday -- for which we had acquired passes -- for fear that we'd never get to Morzine and our bus, only to hear from the conference director that we could have had a navette to bring us at any of the times we had needed one.


"Mais vous ne le saviez pas?" she exclaimed, dans un état d'étonnement.

"Mais non."

"Thierry vous n'a rien dit?" she asked, full of wonder and amazement. Thierry was the maître d'hôtel at our hotel, said to be worth the distance from Morzine for it's quality, as well as the more charming nature of les Gets, certainly smaller than Morzine these days, anyway.

"Non, Thierry nous a dit qu'on pouvait vous appeler, sans préciser que vous l'avez informé depuis ces derniers 12 ans qu'il n'a que de nous appeler l'une des navettes du congrès." It appears that the succession of front desk attendants at La Marmotte over the last 12 years that the conference has housed people in this hotel has caused a failure to communicate the precious information that their guests attending the Conference of Fetal Medicine are to be transported between the hotel and Morzine at times other than before breakfast has scarcely begun to be served and after lunch time and corresponding with their needs and convenience, within -- of course -- reason.

"Comprenez," she sought to make herself clear, "on a eu une dame une année qui a fait appeler une navette du spa dans son hôtel pour l'amener à Morzine dans une demi heure, et ça -- ça, vous comprenez, on ne peut pas gérer, mais de vous amener à l'hôtel pour vous changer pour le dîner et vous ramener à Morzine ou vous descendre pour prendre le car à la gare c'est tout à fait autre chose!"

Ah bon. It seemed that Thierry had indeed failed to communicate to his reception staff this most critical information, but worse, we let her know, he seems to have forgotten after all these years himself, for we had asked him, and he seemed to be convinced that there would be one navette and one navette only, and this would entirely prevent us from profitting from our final day.

"Il n'y a même pas une navette du village qui circule entre les Gets et Morzine?"

"Peut-être à 13 heures, Madame, mais il est dimanche et je ne sais pas si l'information est toujours bonne pour le dimanche." It was difficult to comprehend that this charming maître d'hôtel, who has directed service at La Marmotte these last 7 or 8 years, was neither familiar with the schedule of buses between les Gets and Morzine, nor offering to check his information to be certain to better inform us and be of service, either to us or to Madame Bidas, but such was the evident case.

"Vous pouvez appeler Madame Bidas," he offered, with great concern and attention, "J'ai son numéro à la réception."

"Non, c'est très gentil," I said. And très insufficient, I thought.

It couldn't possibly be a tremendous hypocrisy because our group was largely Moroccan, Lebanese and Benini doctors possessing French citizenship, could it?

Let us hope not. This seemed to enter no one else's mind, so let it leave my own. He had been so very attentive, and charming.

Our transportation woes were only completed by not only having spent from 10 am to noon, sitting in the emptying lobby to the conference, as the various manufacturers of diagnostic equipment, tampons and gel douche for "sensitive areas" representatives packed their brochures and equipment, loaded their vehicles and left us more and more to ourselves, while we waited for a pizza lunch we'd as happily skipped to ski had we known that we could have had a navette later in the day to make the 3 pm bus to Thonon, but by learning once we finally made it to Thonon that our change in TGV reservations had not been confirmed. We did not have seats on the train. No one had bothered to confirm that the travel agency had actually made the change once the organizers informed our group's inviting company representative that there was no bus planned to take people to our station -- Bellegarde again -- for the return trip to Paris, but only to Thonon-les-Bains.

So much for our first class seats. And, we'll just need to get remimbursed. Oh, remind me to tell you sometime of the attempted and of the successful theft on the RER C we witnessed, on our way to get the car in Viroflay from Gare de Lyon. Oh, yeah, and then there were the gendarmes' cars blocking the entry to the bit of road along the Seine in Méricourt as we neared home.

"Ca doit pour les gens qui viennent se garer et boire plus loin."

"Je sais, je les vois --" I started to say "when I walk the dogs in the evening," but I thought better of it. He'd already asked me not to walk the dogs alone after dark even there, along the Seine in our tiny villages. Yet, on the RER C he had said, "This doesn't happen in Mousseaux."

"Non, Ils ont seulment essayé de voler notre voiture, et ils ont réussi à voler les roues de la voitures des voisins dans la rue devant chez eux," I offered.

The trip? For all that, we had a wonderful time. I could see Grands Montets, imagining Argentière nestled at its feet, and Mont Blanc with the peaks behind le Brévent and La Flégère across the Vallée Blanche on the side where I stood, from the top of Ranfouilly, and as much as I wished that we were there, this was skiing that suited my husband better, with reds that are more like the blues of Chamonix, and he was so happy to be able to take me there that I was only to happy to sacrifice the challenge of the trails and see him actually enjoy himself on them, rather than in the banks along their sides, ski tips pointing akimbo.

And, upon our return, a garden offering the first tulip bloom, still more saxifragia flowers, and the opening of the Euphorbia ones. Now, to figure out how to -- and if I can -- save the camelia. It's looking really bad.

Oh, God, I forgot to get bread at the boulangérie, and it's too late. I always do this in the first days of the end of daylight savings time. It's too light out for it to be time for the stores to close. I spent the whole afternoon (finally) reading Dreams From My Father. Anyone who has read it already understands why it's the best excuse for forgetting to go to the boulangérie, alongside sunlight still bright on the garden outside the windows after 7 pm this far north.

What am I going to tell my husband? I can't pull out that worn explanation that I was tricked by the longer day to think it was earlier... Um, je me suis habituée de sortir en restaurant?

I'm in trouble now.

C'mon, dogs, lets go for a walk. It's still light out.

mardi 24 mars 2009

An angry star

Mont St. Victoire

After the oatmeal's gone, you get up.

You get up after the oatmeal's finished because you have gotten up, made your oatmeal while feeding the dogs, and then taken it up to bed where you will read. You do this sometimes.

Today it didn't last long, that further moment under the duvet -- only a single chapter of Mansfield Park; today I had to do the things I had to do, and it started with making a decision to go to the funeral of the son of friends of my husband's from back when they were all university students in Paris. He knew them through their sisters before they married, back when they all got married. My husband had his first child, a son, and they had theirs, also a son, a year later.


Thursday, they will bury Rémy in the hills of Provence, where -- his father told us before we followed his son out of the church in Boulogne-Billancourt -- he could run for hours and hours in the hills he loved, but he ended his life last week beneath a train, somewhere near Paris.

"C'est tôt d'enterrer les enfants de nos amis," said a dear one, joining us alongside the hearse after the mass. I watched his parents and sisters at the head of Rémy's coffin. His mother looked up, then, and met my eyes, and she offered me a smile full of kindness that made me feel like everything would be alright.


She offered me the smile, which I returned.

Did she see Audouin next to me, Franck behind us? Did she know who I was?

He was, I am told, suffering from schizophrenia. He found drugs and alcohol young.

I admired their dignity. I wondered if I could do the same, for my son, for all of our friends and family.

"Comment font-ils ça, voir leur fils partir et rester si sereins, dignes?" I asked my husband.

"Ils ont -- une très grande fois. Ils sont croyants --" he seemed to seek further reason, and he stopped. It was enough. He is not. I am uncertain.

Maybe we both are.

I typed to a friend when I arrived home, "It makes me feel blessed. I don't use that word often." I saw Matthew is typing.

"Then that would suggest that they are damned," came his reply. I understood.

"And since they are not," I typed, "let me consider myself fortunate."

Near the Mont St. Victoire lies the beautiful village of St. Rémy-de-Provence. I wondered if this was from where his name came, for this village.

Van Gogh and Cézanne painted here.

Van Gogh sent himself into an asylum in St. Rémy, where he painted in a frenzy, 150 canvasses -- including Starry Night -- in a year. In the 70 days before he killed himself, he painted another 70 in a second period of intense creative activity, the anguish of his own mental illness.

Picasso lived nearby, in the shadows of the Mont St. Victoire.

Soon, Rémy will rest somewhere in the hills somewhere not far away.


If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrows rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetimes argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
How fragile we are how fragile we are

lundi 23 mars 2009

Today, in the garden

the Saxifragia blooms

ps: saxifragia can grow on toits végétaux

Spring arrived, and the temperatures fell. 10° C this afternoon, partly overcast now, after some rather unexpected sunshine. Audouin pointed out as we drove home from the gym on Saturday morning that it is always this way; our spring comes in the month of March, and as soon as spring officially arrives, the weather craps out.

He's right.

"J'espère -- sans fond de raison, seulement l'espoir -- que le fait qu'on a eu un vrai hiver voudrait [note the use of the conditional tense here] dire qu'on va avoir un vrai été."

"Moi aussi." I resolved to appreciate the day, for as long as the blue skies beyond the brilliant yellow forsythia branches hold. Not long. That evening, having a dinner in the 15th arrondisement, we were all dressed to take a car, and I had a crisis of faith in our ability to find a parking space and arrive before desert.

"Il y a surement un parking dans le coin, non?" It's a lot to say that there is certainly a parking garage near her house (excuse me, that's how we talk here in Moosesucks, I meant building), more to say that it will be open when we'd need to recuperate the car after midnight. I have begged on interphones to be let in to get my car after closing at as early as 11 pm in parking garages in the 15th. The worst is that the interphones at McDonald's drive-thrus are nothing next to the clarity of communication with the (usually) immigrant (no offense intended; I am one) attendent on the other end of the line. Incomprehensible, and they get cranky about it! We decided to take the motorcycle, which turned out to be a very bad choice, apart from allowing 5 minutes of conversation upon our arrival. It's cool to arrive by motorcycle.

I knew that the chin strap on my helmet was too loose, but I thought it would be alright. As soon as we hit the highway, one hand was employed in pulling down on it under my chin to keep my helmet more or less in place. My eyes watered. It felt like I was receiving a particularly aggressive acupuncture treatment on my left cheek, and as though my head were being stretched up into the sky, pulled right off my shoulders. I could feel the tendons strained all the way down into my chest.

I bore up until I spied the first sign for the exit for the rest stop at Morainvilliers, and pointed in a very decided manner from the fast lane so that Audouin would understand that he was to get over and off there, in 2 km. 500 meters later, I repeated the gesture at the next sign. He signalled, shifted right and slipped into the exit lane. Relief. Pure and immediate relief.

"Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" he asked. I never ask to stop.

"Mon casque. C'est pas assez serré, et il tire péniblement." That's when he explained that the problem with the windshield forced him to set it at its lowest position. It was creating turbulence I had never felt behind him. I couldn't even keep my lips closed. At least there was a reason. We struggled with my chin strap, which afforded some relief when we took off again, but I also had to ride with my head stuck out past his, turned like an Egyptian. The turbulence is less when you are not directly behind the pilot.

It was hell.

Home was worse. Far, far worse because to add insult to injury, the temperature had dropped from 8° to 2° C, or just above freezing, at speeds of up to 160 km per hour. My toes warmed up sometime around dawn. So much for not taking time to put on my thermal socks. Never, ever again will I be too hurried not to go retrieve them.

I felt fluish today. We leave for Morzine - Avoriaz Wednesday evening. I cannot be sick. I cannot be sick.

Yesterday was Audouin's birthday. His parents came to celebrate his advanced age (désolée, mon chéri!) and the most extraordinary thing happened.

I made him a fondant au chocolat to serve with a crème anglaise and chantilly (nicer than "whipped cream"), and then it occured to me that I might not have place on the cake for 54 candles, and one for good luck. Sam went and got the camera and joined me at the kitchen counter, where I listened to the conversation and crammed candles from the bowl of once- and twice-used birthday cake candles onto every centimeter square of cake surface available.

At least lighting them should be a cinch, I figured. There were so many they'd autocombust from the heat of those lit close by. At last, there wasn't the possibility of another and I started to light them. Sam took a match and helped finish. We didn't need a flash for the photo, although it occurred to me that we might need les pompiers.

I sang "Happy Birthday", lustily, in English, my in-laws joining in bravely, adding their French voices to my heartfelt song. The French love to sing "Happy Birthday" in English. It's the one bit of English they know.

Audouin tried to look brave, faced with such a lusty display of birthday fire, and puffing up his chest, he exhaled forcefully, achieving the exhaustion of a little more than half the candles and the dispersion of as much as half the powered sugar on the cake, disappearing behind a cloud of smoke and powdered sugar, while he took another breath to attack and Sam clicked away.

"Bon, je suppose que je peux compter les bougies en les enlevant maintenant," and I did, counting two by two. We got to about 38, and Audouin and his parents remarked that it looked like it might be pretty close to 54. I continued.

"40, 42, 44, 46... 48... 50 -- oh!" There was the silence of wonderment all around the table, and one after another face looked up at me in disbelief: 4 candles remained on the cake, next to the one I had gone to get for good luck. Everyone started to laugh at once.

"C'est pas possible."

"Mais ça alors là, je suis vraiment impressionné," dit Audouin, rising to take hold of my head and give me a kiss of recognition and gratitude from across the table, as I blushed in something resembling delight and pride for something undeserving of the latter.

How I did that, I will never know. That I did that, I will forever be grateful for a magic moment.

vendredi 20 mars 2009

Eideh shoma mobarak!


That Iran and the USA can step forward together in mutual respect and allow both of our countries to show and to share their true greatness in friendship and cooperation, but most especially Iran, who by its own acts and deeds, and by the response of the USA and the west to those, has drawn shadow over the magnificence of its people, culture, civilization and history; that it might be known, appreciated and celebrated by Americans, as well as all people in the world.

I know that there is much behind this for which we are responsible in the west and that we have our part to do, as well, to live more justly in the world we all inhabit, but no one is without sin here, and law imbued with universal human values -- not religious law -- must be the rule under which we all live as children of Adam.

The president has extended the hand withheld but not without understanding; his message is full of carefully communicated messages, as Paul Reynolds, World affairs correspondent BBC News website lays them out, one by one -- all of which being perfectly clear to anyone familiar with the conflict, and most certainly to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran --, in his article "What Obama's Message to Iran Means", concluding:

He also looks to a future "where you and all your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security...". "All" the neighbours include Israel, of course.

There is a very ambitious agenda here. The process suggests direct talks if that is what Iran wants.

Let's start with a Nowruz haft-sin table and aim to make it a really big one, big enough for enemies and friends to come together --
Happy Nowruz: Cooking with Children to Celebrate the Persian New Year by Najmieh Batmanglij.

I'm going to get my scissors to cut the parsley. Who will join me?




is there really any question where this flower got its name?

Heat. That's what it takes to burn green wood, especially a great quantity of green wood. Two treetops of green wood, to be precise.

I knew it, but I was trying to take the lazy way out. Just stick scrunched up paper into the great mass of bio and try to make it burn. Nope. Sheets of paper and envelopes sans fenêtres don't provide enough calories to make the kind of energy I needed. Not even packing boxes from IKEA, as well as they burn. I needed real heat and a lot of it, sustained. I'd need to build a real fire.

I have learned, although many years after leaving the Girl Scouts, badly disappointed by the quality of the time spent with them, that a big fire needs to start with a little fire that burns hot and steady, and to which you add additional material for it to consume. This fire should find itself at the center of the pile, which must never exceed its force, smothering it or overwhelming it. Having been beautiful all week, with not a drop of rain since I don't remember when, it was time to stop being lazy and go burn not only the linden treetops, but the rest of the stuff I had cut last year and never burned, as well as the drying reed roots we had pulled from the fish-pond-in-a-basin and left lying all over the top terrace.

I went up to the attic for some packing boxes, grabbed a little paper from the recycling and a box of matches and headed down the stairs, followed by Baccarat. I had taken Rapide to the vet earlier to have the cyst removed from her left tear duct. Baccarat was not herself. A quieter version of Baccarat. Baccarat in the doldrums. Then, I picked out a few choice pieces of old, dry wood and gathered up some dried out weeds from the ground around the burning pile, made a little pile, stuffed one sheet of scrunched up paper in under it and lit a match, holding it to the paper. A flame crept up, caught the dry weeds, spread to the dry twigs and I was ready to lay a small log from the pile behind me on my fledging fire. More dried weeds and twigs, and the fire grew. I chanced a second log, slightly larger. It continued to burn. Taking a chance, I picked out a slender linden tree shoot from the pile and broke it into three and laid it on the fire. It didn't sputter out. I added another, and a third, breaking each one into shorter lengths to keep the fire concentrated on the heat of its center.

They burned. It was good to go, and I needed to remove my sweater already, there in the full sunshine and heat of my growing fire. The temperature climbed to at least 18° C, without the heat of my fire. Our vet was in surgery, operating on Rapide's eye. My husband was in the OR at the infertility clinic in Poissy, inserting embryos into welcoming wombs, and I, the former, once-and-always architect, was breaking linden branches with my bare hands and boots, making a fire.

I kept on picking out linden branches, breaking each one, the larger ones under my booted foot, into short lengths, as the church bells rang 10, and 11 and, eventually noon with all the glory of midday. One treetop was nearly burned through, and my shirt and jeans were soaked through. It was hot as hell. Several times, my hand felt what a sirloin on the grill feels when it got to hot. Once, I thought I had no more eyelashes on my left eye.

My hair was stiff with sweat by the time the second treetop was burned, and it was time to start retrieving everything from the top terrace, rake the twigs and dried oak leaves from last fall, fallen all around my burning pile, and scoop up as much of the damp leaves and grass from the old burning pile, sitting next to my fantastically hot new one, as would burn.

It all burned. Every bit of it as Baccarat lay under the protection of a fir tree's lowest branches and watched the progress. The world must have felt distinctly heavier from all that released phlogiston yesterday.

Meanwhile, poor Rapide. Life sucks with a lampshade around your head. She can't get through doors or negotiate corners or steps without banging her lampshade into everything.

Last night, I took her out to relieve herself. Both dogs having finished, we started in, Baccarat on her leash next to me, and Rapide -- where was she? I waited, and then I traced my steps back. I couldn't see her beyond the BMW, which is back, almost as good as new. There she was, sitting at the corner of the building.

"Rapide? Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? Viens." Nothing. She wouldn't move. She just looked at me.

"Rapide? Mais viens. Allez." Nope. "Allez, Bacs, on va voir ce qui se passe." I walked up to her, and she didn't turn to head back for any additional relief still needed. She just sat there.

"Rapide, allez, viens avec moi." She had never done this. Not once in two and a half years. What was the problem? Why wouldn't she come? Then, it dawned on me. She must have banged that damn lampshade into the corner more than once and decided she'd had it. I took hold of her collar, laced through the base of the lampshade -- there to protect the stitches and her eye --, and coaxed her forward. "Je te guiderai. Ca va aller."

The poor thing.

This morning, there was a pile of plaster on the floor at the doorway from the living room to the entry. I found it sweeping.

"C'est quoi ça?" asked Audouin.

"De plâtre."

"Oui, je sais, mais qu'est-ce que ça fait là?" Good question. What was that pile of plaster doing on floor? "Ca vient d'où?"

"Le mur?"

"Oui, je sais, mais comment ça qu'il y a autant de plâtre parterre?" Another good question. Why was there so much plaster on the floor? The answer to that came to me when I watched Rapide try to follow me into the petit salon later. Her lampshade crashing into the doorway and scraping along the old, damp plaster that was supposed to be removed and replaced in the interior part of the contract that will never be, not now.

Poor Rapide!

If she'll hold still, I am thinking of painting it like a big Osteospermum flower. Just imagine that with Rapide's face in the center of the petals.

Only 12° C today. It was about 18° C, according to Audouin's motorcycle, yesterday at about noon. There was a frost last night. We're not quite done with winter, yet.

mercredi 18 mars 2009

Frogs redux, a reprieve

At 4 pm

I went to Florosny and I saw Tony. I had already stopped to talk to Bernardo on my way in, and he told me that "le petit aux lunettes" was gone, too, like Victor.

"Ca fait combien de temps depuis vous avez appris que Victor est parti?"

"Oh, un bon moment déjà. C'est Victor que me l'a dit lui-même, juste avant Noël, un peu avant son départ."

And now the little one with glasses is gone, too. Thierry.

"Qui l'a remplaçé?"


"Alors," demandai-je, "qui aiguisera mes outils?" My garden tools all need sharpening, and I already wore out two brand new chainsaw chains on the linden trees.

"L'atelier est fermé." If the shop is closed, then who will sharpen my tools, I asked.

"De Paul, à Arnouville."



"Jusqu'à Arnouville? J'irai voir Victor aux Alluets le Roi! Ils doivent le faire là-bas."

"Et vous, ça va?"

"La pression tombe sur nous, ceux qui reste, de tout faire." It's always like that. The best and the less good have left, fewer remain, and they have to try to do what it took everyone to do before. Before he left, Victor told us that the store is one of five or so, owned by the same people, and it has been losing money these last three years. It won't get any better if they keep losing their best people because they won't pay them. What will be left to us if they close? Truffaut. Delbard.

Non, merci. These stores are huge, impersonal garden centers. You'd have to wait until you smell bad should you suffer a heart attack in the middle of the store and die for want of assistance. You can forget the kind of advice and service from which I have benefitted, and which was the only thing that helped me spend the money I have -- and I have spent money, ask Audouin -- in their store. I have not spent a single centime to date in Delbard or Truffaut.

I asked him not to leave and headed off to the aquatic garden area.

There were the preformed basins at something over 100 euros for the smallest. It seemed a little absurd to buy that. I'd have no use after the basin rescue and repair project. Looking up, I caught Tony's eye, which lit up with a smile of welcome. Ah, spring. He was talking to a customer, but I get so much attention in the store that I couldn't bring myself to walk over and take more. Knowing I'd find nothing else that would suit my objective, I turned to wander and look a little more.

"Bonjour!" Tony. I turned and saw his outstretched hand and held out my own. "Mais, comment ça que vous ne me dites pas bonjour?" I laughed.

"On m'accord tellement de temps ici que je ne voulais pas vous déranger quand vous étiez avec une autre cliente," I explained.

"Mais non!" he objected, and I explained my mission.

"Un bac c'est ce qu'il vous faut. Quelque chose de laquelle les grenouilles ne peuvent sauter, mais pas cher." He took me over to see the same giant green plastic garbage cans I had seen at Gamm Vert yesterday. I nodded. I'd have to catch the frogs with a net to get them in there. More necessary psychological violence. They are water collectors. You can use the water you collect in them to fill your watering can. A good idea anyway, but we talked the situation over, and he talked me out of buying anything for now.

"Il est sensé de faire un grand beau tout le reste de la semaine. Ce que vous faites c'est de laisser le terrain autour du bassin secher encore 2 ou 3 jours, et puis, remplir le bassin jusqu'au bord. S'il il fuit jamais plus qu'à un certain niveau, vous savez forcément que la fuite, qui peut être toute petite, une micro-fissure même, se trouve au dessus de ce niveau. Alors, creuser tout au tour du bassin pour voir où le terrain est le plus humide, et normalement, la fuite serait là. Cherchez là. Si necéssaire, laissez baisser un peu le niveau d'eau, et si vous ne voyez toujours rien, nettoyer bien l'endroit pour mieux voir les fissures présentes."

"Si ça marche, vous pensez que ce ne vaut pas la peine de vider complètement le bassin?"

"Non. Il y a des pâtes spéciales pour ce genre de réparation dans des endroits précis."

"Les grenouilles vous en remercieraient si ça marche," we laughed to think of these potentially very relieved frogs, their perfect little ecosystem left intact for their well-being. "Alors, peut-être j'attendrai quelques jours pour le bac."

"Oui. Ce n'est pas la peine de dépenser de l'argent inutilement." He's right, and besides, he knows that good advice and help mean that I will be back to spend that money and more on other things I really want or need, and probably that giant water collector, to help me take advantage of the rain water to water my plants. "Tenez-moi au courant," he smiled and nodded au revoir.

Now, I wait to let the sun dry out the ground all around the basin, and then I fill it to the top, crawl around on my hands and knees, looking for any signs of water flow, and if I don't see any, which I never have, I start digging the dirst away from the old fountain's wall all around it, to see if any area is particularly wet. If the ground is saturated in a certain area, that's where the leak is, and we can try to discover its exact location and size, let the water drain, clean the area and apply a product to repair the leak.

Merci, Tony, for the encouragement to do what I figured I should, and taking the time to listen to our problem and think it through with me.

Wish me luck.

Update 7 pm: Audouin thinks we have to empty it. Sigh.

Update 3/19/09 10 am: He also positively insists that he heard them back in late February on a very warm day, and that they went back to sleep. I haven't heard them croak so much as once since. Delerium. It was the antibiotics, the pain and the lack of sleep and food. I'm sure of it.

Chut! Elles y sont the frogs!

A frog friend appears!

It isn't really occasion for an exclamation point, since they do appear each spring and spend the entire year living in this fish-pond-in-a-fountain, following the rhythm of their froggy lives, but I get so excited when I spot them for the first time each season. It's so reassuring.

Something we haven't scrouxed up.

I peddled back from a session with my trainer at the gym (16 km each way), collected the mail from the mailbox in the gate (Dreams of My Father arrived from the UK for the April 2 Barnard Book Club meeting) and stowed my bike in front of the kitchen window. Turning toward the basin, my eye caught movement and I heard a Plop! Then, there it was, another frog body, stretched out in mid-air, leaping from a clump of reed roots near the water's surface into the water, Plop!

They're out!

I crept around the side of the old fountain basin, toward the favorite spot in the moss below the bird bath sort of thing that Audouin left to make a fountain element for the fish, but we can't use it because the pump is too strong and it sounds more like Niagara Falls in the middle of the terrace. Our guests ask for us to turn it on and then tire very quickly of raising their voices to be heard over the falling water. There was a bright, golden-coppery glint in the sun behind the dried reeds. A frog!

How to tell you how this very simple and minor thing makes me feel on another 15° C already brilliant spring-like day, the sound of the tractor down in the field below turning over row after row of soil, preparing it for planting and the boats plying their way up and down the Seine, still visible while the trees present their buds?

I advanced as soundlessly as possible, although that probably wasn't necessary. This is the place in the old fountain where they feel safe, no matter what is going on around them. As long as they are here, sometimes a little pile of coppery and green bodies soaking up the sun on their bed of soft emerald-green moss, they think we can't see them, even as we gaze at one another. Or, they appear to gaze back at me.

Look carefully in the photo above. Can you see it? There, in the middle of the almost triangle in the center of the photo, just above the green patch of moss, there is a spot of coppery-brown, there, to the left, the two golden bulgy frog eyes.

I talked to him.

"Salut, toi. Je te vois. N'aies pas peur... n'aies pas peur. C'est moi. C'est moi."

Then, I looked over to the left of the bird bath thing, where the frogs that lept back into the water before were, and what did I see? A large, green frog, suspended in the water, holding a clump of reed roots with his front -- what do frogs have? paws? Ses pattes avants. Sam managed to make my camera's on/off button work again magically in Chamonix, so I didn't even have to reset it and miss the moment. I got him before he saw me and dove back into the safety of the roots.

He's there, looking at me, just below the little ball the neighbor's son tossed into the water the other day. Go ahead, click on the photo so that you can see it larger. He's right below the little ball, floating in the water, just to the right and below a little bit of light colored reed, sticking up out of the water. See his two little eye bulges?

"Hey, frog! Salut!" I said, not very loudly, but friendly enough, I hoped.

Shploof... he was gone.

Oooh, they are really not going to like my tearing out their home. I am going to have to invest in the costly basin I found online and pray that they figure out to hop over into it as I move their ecosystem over. If we really didn't have to repair the leak, I wouldn't do this. What's worse, the leak stops at a certain level above where the waterline presently is located, but I know that it can get worse, and we already can't see where the leak is located.

I think Florosny sells the preformed basins, too. I'll head over there in a little while. They're open again after lunch now. If not, I'll just order one online and wait for it to be delivered. I know, that would make you very happy, frogs, but...

If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twer well
It were done quickly: If th' Assassination
Could trammel vp the Consequence, and catch
With his surcease, Successe: that but this blow
Might be the be all, and the end all.

Although I think both the frogs and I would prefer
There were no Assassination in the basin,
No Consequences save those that are happiest,
No surcease for there to be Successe, but -- yea --
That this blow to the crack in the olde fountain
Be the be all, and the end all, for all time,
So that they may continue to live in peace,
As long as peace there yet be for us all.

mardi 17 mars 2009

The frogs are awake!

Frog in the sprinkler
July 2006

Poor frogs.

I heard one in the grass in the old stone sink Audouin put in the fountain. I did.

I had just come up in exasperation from the burning pile, where nothing much burned and there is oh so much to burn, and I stopped by the fish-pond-in-a-fountain. I listened. I looked.

I heard.

Rustle. Rustle.

I saw.

Gentle movement in the grass just beyond the favorite mossy spot in the sun.

"I know you're there. Good morning, frogs." They speak English. They are trilingual. Some might not even speak French, having been born since my residency. Come to think of it, no one actually talked to them before my arrival, so they probably don't speak French, any of them.

The croaking that Audouin was sure that he heard two or three weeks ago from up in his sick bed was almost certainly his own voice, echoing in his feverish head.

They're going to hate what's coming. Hate it.

Imagine, giant rakes coming to tear out the trees and shrubs all around you, where you are trying to hide by a corner of your house. Then, the air that you breathe being sucked out from around you and drained away to just where, you know not. In this case, the rest of the reeds being yanked, torn out and the water siphoned off to a children's swimming pool placed next to the basin, where, eventually, some of the plants and rocks to be saved will make their way, and the frogs are hoped to find refuge.

It's a gorgeous day, by the way. 16° celcius, clear skies and the entire week is supposed to be as nice. Someone once suggested -- Hi, Tracy! If you still check in here from time to time, if I haven't bored you to tears and departure -- that I record the daily temperatures with each post.

It was a really good idea, and I regret not doing it because I could swear that the garden is a bit early this year, despite the extreme -- for Moosesucks -- winter.

Maybe I'll start now.

16° C

lundi 16 mars 2009

Vous aimez Piranesi?

Butterflies in the bergenia

Thank you, world, for giving me reason to want to charge my camera batteries and get outdoors.

Thank you, Joaquim, for not showing up, and letting me enjoy this in peace.

Thank you, Audouin, for leaving my motorcycle here today. Now I have to use it or feel guilty when I'd really like to have time to garden, ride my bike to the gym and work-out, develop the terrace plans, write in my blog, take pictures of plants, and take a motorcycle ride around the countryside.

Thank you -- to whomever is responsible -- for giving me all these choices. That would be the Greek chorus of my life, and me and my muses. And Audouin.

Yesterday, I gardened. I have left my beautiful Echinacea purpurea plants -- "Kim's Knee High" and "Double Pink" -- to suffer through the coldest winter in a very long time in their pots in the entry courtyard. If you don't plant echinacea in its sunny locaction, you're supposed to do it the courtesy of planting it in a northern exposure to keep it in a holding pattern. Nowhere does it say, "Leave it in its nursery pots to freeze to death in a damp, icy corner of your garden."


I scratched up the soil in a couple places in the top and second terrace borders, dug out as much mint as I possibly could from the lower ones -- if you think you don't have a green thumb, may I suggest that you start with mint? You'll either be so delighted with your success that you'll move onto lilies, or be frightened away forever by its invasive tendency --, and plopped them into the sun-warmed soil, watered and watched.

The last part is useless. I have other things to do besides conduct a vigil by my echinacea.

I am praying that it is resilient and forgiving. That their roots have not been frozen beyond all hope of producing shoots and gracing me with their gorgeous flowers later this summer.

They were supposed to have been planted with the Eric Tabarly roses and a bunch of other stuff in the south-facing border against the house, but we all -- who have been reading along here -- know that the house was not finished in time to plant in November.

Nor in December.

Not even now, in March.

I am actually pulling out more of what I have planted, more still of what was planted before my arrival, and getting ready to think this out again for the hundredth time. Sure, the garden improved, but I was so unprepared.

The garage and the flood zone, toiture végétale
and Piranesi

Saturday morning, I went to the mairie and had the great good luck to find the mayor and my favorite adjoint mayor both in, along with the new secretary, who to my immense relief is really, really nice. When it was announced a few short months ago that the secretary would be leaving, I nearly hyperventilated. She was so friendly and accomodating, and you just never know what you'll get the next time. Well, it seems we got lucky.

I needed a copy of our plot plan to understand what was going on with the dimensions I was getting every time I went out and measured to draw the top terrace plan, which made no sense, and appears not to still. I forgot that I had it in the file for the purchase of the house. Just as well, I needed to see the mayor, anyway.

And, it's always good to stop in and chat with the local powers that be. Especially in a village this size where rumors spread like forest fires and nearly everyone has an opinion about everything and everyone else.

Our recent experiences with the contractor having been complicated and horrible enough, I wanted to at least do the garage part of our vision a little better. We'd need a building permit, and I had also read at the time they announced the leave-taking of our town hall secretary that building permits would now be decided by the CAMY, or the Communauté d'agglomération de Mantes-en-Yvelines. Never mind. It's the grouping of many of the villages around Mantes-la-Jolie with Mantes to produce a larger political and administrative entity, of which Moosesucks chose to be a part, while our neighbors across the boucle declined, preferring to group themselves with Bonnières sur Seine. I was worried that this would complicate things and make the permit more difficult and time-consuming to obtain.

Oh yee of little faith.

The mayor assurred me that this is not the case, "En fait, c'est mieux. C'est plus rapide et plus directe car avant, c'était le DDE (a government agency) qui décidait, et maintenant, c'est le CAMY directement." Oh. The adjoint mayor -- the Obama supporter -- asked, "C'est pareil aux States, ou différent?" I explained how it works in the States in 20 words or fewer, so as not to bore the poor man to death. I need his good graces.

"Et, en ce moment, il faut combien de temps pour un permis?"

"Un mois, à peu près, n'est-ce pas, Cécile?" he turned toward the new secretary. She nodded her agreement and turned to smile at me. This was going very well!

"Ah, c'est super car on a vraiment besoin du garage qui mon mari veut construire depuis si longtemps." If anyone knows we need it, it's the mairie. They see us juggling our vehicles and trying to keep them safe and out of everyone's way. Parking is a major issue in our little village, built when ox carts negotiated its thoroughfares and people actually walked in the street.

"Voulez le construire où," asked our mayor.

"En bas, derrière le grand portail conçu à cet effet." Why else install a large, automatic sliding gate, as our predecessors had done, if you don't intend to have a garage to protect the vehicles behind it? Easy, you learn that you can't build such a thing because the nonconstructible floodplain line is located well behind that gate, up about at the level of your second terrace. That's why.

The mayor went in search of the floodplain map and showed me the line drawn in red magic marker.

"Oh. Est-ce qu'il y a la possibilité de construire quelque chose de tout?" Like an open hangar to at least provide minimal shelter from the elements? He went and got the building regulations book and started to read. Not really.

I was crestfallen. As much for Audouin as for me. More.

The boat. He needs a shop in which to work on restoring it so that it looks more like this one, not the same model Molinari , but similar, and less like it does presently. This has been his dream. He wants to be able to launch it in the Seine and drive us up and down. I see us in -- oh, Corsica.

I must have looked as disappointed as I felt because I could see the mayor softening.

"On a vraiment besoin de quelque chose. Tous ces véhicules," my voice was starting to trail off into hopelessness, "Les motos, le bateau, et," I cringed, "les voitures. On nous les donne." I tried to look as apologetic as possible.

"Quelque sorte d'appentis?" I suggested meekly. Not that a lean-to was what we had in mind, but if it's good enough for 3 freezing high school kids on a winter survival expedition, it had to be better than nothing for our motorcycles at least. My mind was racing through the various possibilities we had already considered, anywhere else, and there were no feasible ones. Not one. Maybe the motorcycles in the garage up on the street -- a tight fit, for certain --, but then where would the dryer go, and the bicycles, and the garden products, and the tools?

"Ca nous arrangerait que vous construisiez quelque chose, avec les appartements en face, vous n'aurez plus le droit de vous garer dans l'impasse." They are putting three public housing units in the old school that used to be the mairie back when our house still had a large carriage door on the street and the yard behind, and windows on the street side, before it had the little addition Joaquim says they aren't going to cover in chaux unless we give up some contract items. The way it looks in the enlarged post card view from the turn of the century (the previous one) I found the other day in the mairie. Never would I thought I would regret their closing the school 3 years ago.

He and the adjoint mayor looked thoughtful. I stayed quiet.

"On fermera les yeux. La seule chose est si un voisin s'en plaint." I looket over at our neighbor, the adjoint mayor.

"Et le voici, notre voisin. Et qu'est-ce vous en dites?"

"Je vous donne mon accord."

Marché conclu. I could have some kind of open shed. I took that for the consolation it was and bid my adieus, waving, as I walked back up the street, to the village's newest oldest lovers, Yvette, my friend with three teeth, two goats, and one dog and one cat, the one who lives in the caravan the cantonnier helped her to obtain to replace the hodge-podge trailer-shed affair that burnt to the ground Christmas a year ago, along with the last remaining photos of her deceased husband in her possession, and her new love. The husband might be up in the cemetery and his photos reduced to phlogoston, but she has a new man to warm her nights.

Nearly home, I saw my neighbor, the one who is renovating the house they bought from the daughter of the old man who lost his wife a few years ago and then died himself two or three back. I could only imagine what this young couple with a toddler faced when they moved in. I have since seen what he is doing in detail. We two can (and do) talk for hours and hours. It was destiny that placed him in his passage door just as I walked by, feeling victorious that I had managed to get a lean-to accord from the unofficial negotiations with the local heads of state.

I saw the new baby, two weeks and two days old. I saw the progress in the bathroom, and looking out the window, he pointed to the new roof over between the two higher parts of the rear of the house, containing the bathrooms, in one of which we were standing. The one with the bathtub and sink. The other would have the toilet and stuff. He has replaced the undulating fiberglass roofing with asphalt tiles, "C'est là où je vais installer un toit végétale."

"Toit végétale?" I couldn't pretend to look like I knew what that was. He took me downstairs to show me online, and I felt a jolt of electricity run through me, creative juices beginning to stream. I nearly jumped off the couch.

"Mais c'est parfait! Si je ne peux faire qu'un appentis, imaginez une structure tout en bois, peinte en noir, très foncé, des lattes en bois entre les poteaux pour protéger contre le mauvais temps, et un grand toit plat, qui ne se voit presque pas, ni du chemin, ni d'en haut, tellement ça disparaitrait dans le paysaye!" A roof covered with low plants, softening the effect of the quantity of roof we'd need to shelter as many of our vehicles as possible. His eyes sparkled with delight, triumphal delight, while his wife watched as we sparked ideas, like two wizards of bricolage and architecture, playing with our magic wands. The baby had gone back to sleep, and the older boy was playing at the coffee table between us.

"Je pourrais même le marier avec la pergole de vignes de raisins, la cour "découpée" de la structure des écrans, des "trous" dans le toit au-dessus, même un atelier cloisonné à l'intériuere -- "

I don't think either of us could smile any more broadly. He put a book of scientific architectural structural method from the Renaissance into my hands, "Je l'ai acheté dans un brocante. J'achète pleins de bouquins comme ça," he explained. "Vous aimez Piranesi?"

Oui, j'aime beaucoup Piranesi.

"J'aime beaucoup les dessins de Piranesi."

I have a neighbor who works in something to do with electricity, who in converting the motorcycle he bought to ride around and take photos to a Bobber, loves Piranesi's architectural renderings and prefers nothing to researching innovative and ecologic building techniques on the Internet.

I can almost be happy in Moosesucks.

I'm going to check on my echinea.

jeudi 12 mars 2009


A demonstration of manly prowess

Oh, how to understand these things?

Okay, so it doesn't really work, not if you pronounce "eaux" like the French do -- "oh" --, but it was still funny and really did monté la morale (mine) to find the following email correspondence between two American, progressive, intelligent, funny lawyers in my inbox when I finally turned on my laptop today (I have been stowing it away more and more, to recover more of life, like I discovered was possible in Chamonix with WiFi in the hotel salon only):

First lawyer: French contract work.

Second lawyer:
So, the contractor is trying to screaux them?

If only you knew how often he talks about sex. Yesterday's exchange was particularly low-brow and uncalled for, especially for a man capable of reciting Cyrano and mixing pretty wonderful colors in paint and chaux.

I sometimes wonder what he does with his days, since whenever he comes here, he mostly talks, and when he picks up the phone to take on an issue, it is interminable. Ask Audouin. He knows now, too.

If all of his contracts are anything like this one, then it's clear that he spends his days running around spinning his web, rather than applying what he knows, which would be, needless to say, a far superior use of his time, but, having interested himself in the problem of removing the reeds from the old fountain and contemplating the presence of the fâcheuse water in the fish-pond-in-a-fountain, there followed this prélude to the latest clearing of the clouds of incomprehension:

Joaquim: What we need is to drill a hole in the side to drain it.

Long-suffering client: But look how thick the fountain wall is, you'd need a really long bit.

Joaquim: Oh, they come in quite long lengths, like this [he opened his palms, facing one another, to indicate something approximating the width of the fountain wall]. Even this [moving his hands farther apart with the unmistakable grin of a male thinking of his own desired plumbing].

LS client: Oh, no! Don't get started on that. Georges, stop him now before he really gets going. [Georges turns from where he is squatting at the corner of the house, chiseling away the old concrete sidewalk from the base of the house. They didn't think to bring the wondrous jack hammer. We both approach Georges, Joaquim trying to get him in on the act, I trying to distract him and get Georges to do better.]

Georges: What, cousin?

Joaquim: I was telling her that masonry bits come in quite long lengths --

Georges: Yes, that's true. [C'mon, Georges, surely you can do better than that to get him to stop.]

Joaquim: And I told her that they make them this [he opened his hands again in that gesture immature males of the species use to indicate male endowment of the non financial type] long. [He could barely contain his mirth].

LS client: Georges, really, stop him.

Joaquim: I'm not even the worst or the fastest to talk about sex. [He wasn't going to be stopped. He never is once he gets going on one of his favorite topics. My contractor, for God's sake. You're not in the United States anymore.] You know [undecipherable]? When he was in New York, [undecipherable] gave an interview [something about film, directing] --

LS client: [Nearly to herself] Oh, Roman, Roman Polanski. Right.

Joaquim: And he said how necessary sex was to him, orgies. It emptied him, let him get rid of his excess energy, distraction, get down to concentrate properly on his work. [No such]

LS client: [Weakly, walking away] Victor Hugo. Like Victor Hugo. [Anything to stay on an historic, intellectual and literary plain].

Why, God? Why?

Just think of all the layers of inappropriateness, deception or ineptitude, disappointment and dissimulation. It boggles the mind.

When I need to raise my flagging spirits by thinking something somewhat uncharitable (but true), I let my thoughts return to what Sam says anytime we see someone in an ad or on TV who resembles nothing more than a Cro-magnon, "Mom, doesn't he sort of remind you of -- what's the name of our contractor?"

[Sigh of near contentment. I love Youtube.]

I've been thinking. It would be more like "scroux", as in, "So, the contractor is trying to scroux them?"

mercredi 11 mars 2009

Au moins il y a de soleil

The base of the house

When did I say it? Or, how many times did I say it? I know I said it here, but the actual words, the ones that say Oh, we'll get the work done, but it will be less for more, they must be in another post, of which there are 50.

We will get it done, but done will be a renegotiation of the meaning of "done", and it will be less for more, but don't worry, it isn't we who will lose. No. It's the contractors who have already lost. That's what Joaquim says.

"Je vais te monter la morale," he said. Go for it, raise my spirits. I kept right on bringing the heel of my Wellies down on the sidewalk, where Georges was sitting in the sun with his back to the wall of the neighbor's garage just a few feet away, clumps of dirt and grass falling away from the tread in the rubber soles.

I laughed with precious little mirth, looking at the bits of wet dirt and grass while Joaquim danced next to me, trying to get into my line of site. You see, he refuses that you be angry with him. He's right and he's good. The bad guy did this to us, and we're all suffering now, but no one as much as he and his workers.

"Je vais te monter la morale. Tu sais comment? Tu sais?" No, but I was going to hear it. "Parce qu'aucun artisan n'aurait pu faire ce que j'ai fait ici pour ce que vous avez payé. Si on appelle n'importe quel expert, il vous dirait que vous nous devez d'argent."

"Non!" popped out of my mouth. No one could tell us that we owed him more money. We had signed a contract, written with a verbal understanding of what those nearly worthless words meant; we owed them no more than we had paid. But, that wasn't what he meant.

"Si, ce qu'on a déjà fait vaut deux fois le prix que vous aurez payé." Figuratively, it could be argued that we "owed" him any additional amount within certain difficult to establish boundaries, having to do with margins of profit.

"Ce que vous voulez c'est plus d'argent."

"Mais non! Je ne veux pas plus d'argent. On élimine quelques postes et vous aurez l'essentiel --"

"Ou nous payons plus cher pour tout avoir. Vous ne voulez pas forcément plus d'argent, mais de prendre les sommes contractées attribuées aux autres postes et les mettre dans l'essentiel du projet: le ravalement." He nodded; I had gotten it. He didn't necessarily want more money; he wants to spend less time on the job for the total of the contract, and we can decide what we'll give up to get the most important to us. Less is more.

"J'en ai déjà parlé avec mon mari. Très bien, vous ne faites pas la petite maison, et vous faites la chaux sur la partie plus récente de la maison." That's where it all began today. I finally understood that he really did not intend to apply the chaux to the newer part of the house.

This had gone through several phases of comprehension. The first, which was that it would be stripped to the structure, just like the older part of the house. The second, which was that this was not actually possible -- I had misunderstood the intention -- because it is not plaster but cement, and that the cement would receive a hydrofuge treatment to prevent the cement from absorbing more water, and then be covered with the natural stucco (chaux). I had asked if it really were possible to simply apply the chaux directly on the cement base, and he had said that it was. I remember that conversation, proof of my understanding, perfectly.

The third was today's interpretation of what he had intended that I understand and believed that both my husband and I had fully grasped back at the time of our first "coming to terms", namely, that he would be applying only a chaux-based patina to the newer part of the house so that it would be the same color as the rest of it, but would not have the same actual appearance.

"Vous n'allez pas appliquer la chaux sur cette partie de la maison?"

"Mais non. Je vous l'ai expliqué quand on a parlé de la couleur de la maison," and he went on to tell me precisely when he had told us and how.

"Non, vous avez dit que vous allez appliquer une patine partout, tout autour de la maison pour que les différences en couleur d'un support à un autre soient minimisées, mais vous avez très clairement dit que vous allez appliquer la chaux par dessus du ciment. Je me souviens car je m'étonnais, et je vous ai posé des questions très précises. Alors, c'est un liquide la patine?"

"Oui, à la base de chaux."

"Mais c'est un liquide, comme l'eau, et pas de chaux?"


"Alors, cela donne la couleur mais pas l'aspect de chaux, comme partout sur la reste de la maison?"

"Oui. Ca n'aura pas le même aspect." We arrive, at long last, at mutual understanding, and I didn't like it. In fact, I nearly lost it. I did my very best to stay calm. I have already broken every rule I followed in practice in the States because nothing was respected, and there is no such thing, really, as residential architecture here. There is the tyrany of the trades.

Of course, I was right that he had said that he would not be removing the surface treatment on that part of the house because (first (bad) reason) it was cement, not stucco like the rest of the house, and so it was part of the structure of the wall, and then (second (more justifiable) reason) it was not damaged, and (real reason) the contract sum was too small to pay them adequately for the time they'd have to spend on it, so they were whittling away parts of the work assumed in the contract to stop the flood of financial damage to themselves they are claiming to suffer because he wouldn't now be basically saying that they will do it, if we drop some of the other work from the contract but maintain the contract sum, were it not a finnagle from the begining.

It's about money.

Georges and José, he says, haven't received salary for 2 months. They are living, he nodded toward Georges, on credit. You are merely not receiving some of your "toys", he said.

"Nous ne sommes pas des gâtés," I retorted, flaring back up. We are not spoiled, and these are not toys. This is a real and very important, long-anticipated and saved-for renovation of our home.

My husband works 13 hour days at the hospital, I shot back, which are not counted in his salary calculations, and he works nights on duty that are paid a song, and, sometimes -- like the Saturday afternoon that he'll do this week -- not at all. The work might have been underestimated, it might not be enough to cover their salaries, but we did not do the estimate nor write the contract, they did, or Eric did, but Joaquim allowed us to make a first and a second payment against it. If it weren't enough, and he knew it, then he should have refused the contract. He should have, in other words, called Eric out for what he was in the story, and said that we needed to start all over again, regardless of having a bank loan approved based on it.

"C'est l'histoire typique. On l'entend tout le temps. On sousestime le contrat pour démander plus d'argent plus tard." I looked up from the clumps of wet grass and dirt and straight into his eyes. It's a form of blackmail. Sign 'em up cheap, then tell them it cost more than expected and they'll have to pay more to get it done.

Here, he took umbrage. This was not the case, he argued. He had not underestimated the job to get us to sign, figuring he'd get it later. Eric had written a load of garbage on the contract, he insisted again, which he never saw until it was already signed, the loan for it approved, and I, the smiling client, was waiting for him to show and get going on the work.

"Ca c'est moi," he said. I was kicking the sole of my Wellies against the railing on the other side of the street now, listening. "Je suppose que je n'aime pas dire des choses comme ça contre les gens, j'essaye de l'éviter --"

"Et, comme ça, vous occasionnez encore plus de problèmes pour tout le monde. Personne n'aime dire les choses désagréables. Tout le monde est maintenant déçu, frustré, perdant. Ce projet aurait pu être un vrai plaisir pour nous tous, mais il laissera toujours un mauvais goût dans la bouche de chacun d'entre nous."

"Sauf vous. Vous n'aurez pas perdu. Vous aurez gagné une très belle préstation pour votre maison, mais nous aurons perdu d'argent."

"Vous auriez du dire depuis le début que vous n'avez pas fait le devis, que le coût du projet fut réellement plus élevé que la somme du contrat, et que vous ne etiez pas dans la capacité d'honorer le contrat car, quoi qu'il y en soit, nous n'aurons pas tout ce qui fut promis dans le contrat, qui est depuis un certain temps à la poubelle, figurativement, j'entends. J'ai su depuis longtemps que vous nous ameniez ici. C'était une evidence." I saw Georges smile, despite himself, because he knew. We all knew that we knew. It's a terrible business.

It won't be just the application of the chaux on the "petite maison" that will go in order to get the entire house done properly. Why, I asked him, would I ever have come to him, put up with all of this, gone through all the samples if we had only ever intended to redo some parts of the house? Why would he even have ever taken the care that he had had we not intended to do the whole thing? It was obvious. He knew it, and he knew that I did.

For ages, I had been saying that there was a reason that the work on the chaux had stopped short of the newer part. It was the arm twister. One explanation is the one Joaquim preferred that I understand: that it would never be done like the rest of the house. But, the other one is the true one: we both knew that there was no question but that it had to be for the work to be a success, and that if he were to do it, he would need more money, or not to do other pieces of the contract. That is why it was left along with the other pieces of the contract: for the final negotiation of what we drop to get it the way it must be.

Bad guy? I don't know. Maybe Eric is. Maybe you are only an accidental bad buy.

Bad method? Yeah. How much more would it take to get it all, Joaquim? Should we give it to you? Or, should we find someone else, or do it ourselves?

Better method? Be up front. Say what things cost and for how much you'll do them, and then get them done.

"Au moins il y a de soleil," said Georges, a smile forming on his lips. I think sometimes that he would do things differently, if he had a say. I hope so, anyway. I like Georges. It was a sort of peace-offering.

"Celui-là, il se contente du soleil," said Joaquim.

"Au moins il y a de soleil, Georges," I nodded back. I am determined to take it. What else can I do?

Call a lawyer.