Wednesday, 26 June 2013


I landed in Chicago last night, after 98 days abroad. Thoughts of my Dad, my reasons for this trip, all that has transpired in the last few seasons drifted across my mind. Connecting with my French heritage was a strong motivation, and I finally made contact with my French relatives last week.

My grandmother, grandfather, and ?


I had said I wanted a countryside experience, and between my favorite hosts and my own family, I got quite the spread. Life at Domaine Gaury bordered on luxury, while life in Fleurfontaine is rural poor.

My great-grandfather, his second wife, and ?

I'm having a hard time knowing what to say. I am thankful I got to meet my cousins, Céline and Sévèrine, and their father, Roland. I had been, quite frankly, terrified at the prospect; both because when they've called me in the past I have been absolutely unable to comprehend their rural dialect, and because they'd sent pictures... So I had an inkling what I was in for.

My grandfather Eugène

They live in a small village, maybe 100 people, outside a bigger small village, and only about 20 minutes from Chartres. Roland is retired from being a painter, and both Céline and Sévèrine are unemployed. I have no idea how much the French government provides its non-working citizens; unlike the U.S., I think it might actually be enough to live on, albeit a very plain existence. They shared a typical lunch of bread, cheese, cured meat, scrambled eggs, and thoroughly cooked canned peas and carrots with me. But life looked grim.

My grandmother Suzanne, center

Aside from doing a little work in the vegetable garden out back, knitting or cross-stitch, and now taking a hospitalized aunt's two dogs on a daily walk, they have not much else to do. At least the TV wasn't on when I was there; we spent most of the day in the tiny kitchen reviewing black-and-white photographs and family documents -- they have done significant genealogical research, thanks to the Paris Archives. Roland showed me his voluminous stamp collection, which reminded me of my Dad's penchant for collecting.

Roland with (some of) his stamps


One of the reasons it took me so long to make contact with the family was that the phone numbers I'd had didn't work. When I asked why they'd changed numbers, it turns out they'd been subjected to relentless crank calls. It makes me sad to think that kind of thing still happens, especially because I've met them, and they're decent people. And even if distantly, my people.

Sévèrine, me, Céline

To end on a positive note: I'm glad I had three months to practice my French before this day! I actually managed to keep up in conversation. So proud of myself :-)


Friday, 21 June 2013

Lovely Chartres

I was welcomed Tuesday evening by Rachel, a young schoolteacher and tri-lingual interpreter, for three nights in Chartres. Wednesday afternoon we wandered downtown and toured the amazing cathedral, one of the first sites recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

Chartres Cathédral

Built in less than 50 years on the site of at least 5 prior cathedral, la Cathédral Notre Dame de Chartres has 176 stained glass windows Renovations have been made to clean its interior and exterior: What a dramatic difference in the color of the stone!

That color difference isn't just shadow...


Downhill from the cathedral are sculpted gardens and the old city along the river, with the remains of an original wall surrounding the city, la Porte Guillaume (William's Door).

Gardens below the cathedral
Dining delight
Ruins of Porte Guillaume
Trompe l'oeil fresco




I wanted to make dinner for Rachel, who had tests to grade, so we stopped at an authentic French produce marché (meaning I was immediately chastised for touching the zucchini!).

I was so impressed with the pride of the shopkeeper that I stopped in again on Thursday to buy oranges and chat some more. When he learned I was from the U.S., the merchant told me he is so excited to visit New York City in November -- the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It was inspiring to realize that the American Dream still motivates many an entrepreneurial spirit, although I think with his sense of purpose, this one would be a success no matter where.

Modest shopkeeper

For my last evening in Chartres, Rachel and I celebrated mutual successes: I had held my own in a day of conversation with my French family, and she had just received tenure at her school!

Weird and wrong...
Beurre salé caramel, glace vanille, crème fouettée. Ah!

Always the adventurer, I ordered a Bigoudène : andouille de Guéménée, pommes caramélisées, compote. Mon Dieu, I've never had sausage that smelled and tasted so bad -- Ugh!! Thankfully dessert was amazing, and after walking a bit Rachel and I took seats to watch Chartres en Lumières, a light show projected onto the cathedral façade. Wow!! Absolutely enchanting.



Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The pull of a place

In 2009 Jack and I drove from California, where we'd spent three years training in Alexander Technique, back home to the east coast. Our route involved several switchbacks in order to visit family: first to Pennsylvania and Delaware, then to Kentucky, then finally to Asheville.

Driving cross-country, in my experience, is an exercise in delirium. The monotony of the road, the discomfort of so-long sitting, the inevitable boredom with the stacks of CDs, books on tape, and conversation are hardly moderated by frequent stretch breaks, chair yoga, even the occasional hotel pool.

Appalachian vista

I remember distinctly that I was in a vague state of sleep in the passenger seat when it happened, each time: a strong pull compelled me to open my eyes, and realize we were crossing the Appalachian mountains. Three times I awoke this way, and was moved not only by the mountains' beauty but by the surge of energy I felt in their presence.

Left Bank neighborhood

A few days before embarking on this trip to France, I took a walk in the woods. A deliberate one, where I was conscious of sensing that mountain terrain under my feet while wondering out loud what the terrain of my ancestors would feel like. I haven't been everywhere in France of course, but I've been through (almost*) all the places my relatives have lived.

Ceiling,Église de Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet

Before leaving Paris in April, I walked to the cathedral where my great-great-grandparents were married -- noticing an unusual emotional sensitivity and appreciation for the surrounding neighborhood, but unawares until later that I had happened to walk past both of their family residences listed on the wedding certificate. You might remember, too, that in a Paris cemetery I was nudged out of a somnolent mood by the sudden appearance of a gravestone with my family name.

Well, it happened again today! A fierce head cold has been dogging me, and I was nearly passed out against the train window when I perked up at the approach of a little station. As I admired these particular trees and cottages, a woman in front of me repeated several times to her seat mate: "La Suze-sur-Sarthe." My grandmother's hometown! From my seat across the aisle I eyed the street I could see leading away from the station. I wish I'd gotten straight up and moved to the closer window, because when the train started up we crossed the river Sarthe and I could see a beautiful bridge and village. Oo la la! Thank goodness these places don't go away-- my most favorite thing about France is that it's been lived in, walked on, and farmed for so many generations -- and now I know I'll be back to stop in that little town, walk its avenues, listen for my grandmother's footsteps.

Bridge over the river Sarthe

* Thursday I plan to go to Saint Arnoult des Bois, to inquire about my relatives who (used to) live there. Wish me luck....


Friday, 14 June 2013

The funnest travel day yet!

Goodies from the train

After a sweet farewell to Kathleen, Yves and Domaine Gaury, I caught the first of three trains. The second one was 30 minutes late to start, and then stalled on the tracks, resulting in a 2-hour delay. But SNCF gave us all snack boxes for compensation (and I think I might get some reimbursement out of it!).

Gare de Montparnasse

At the Paris-Austerlitz train station I asked two chatting women for advice on my next connection, and not only did they point me in the right direction, but one gave me a pass for the necessary métro transfer! French people are so nice :-)

My train: doesn't it look like a dragon?!

On board the subway car, I met a woman traveler who had just completed a section of the pilgrimage route Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, near where I spent my first HelpExchange. Turns out she'd read the French novel I've been working through, a funny and touching story of intergenerational farm life. We caught our respective trains, and as I boarded my revised connection I asked a passenger if I could borrow her phone to tell my hosts of my delayed arrival time. Turns out her son and theirs attended school together! When I arrived at the station, I again saw the pilgrim and we conversed some more until I got picked up (my big green backpack is an excellent beacon).

Corinne's house

And now I'm in the Loire Valley! The weather is lovely though the mosquitoes are fierce. I'm staying with the family of my teaching colleague Corinne (who fed me homemade white pizza for dinner), attending her workshop this weekend, and looking forward to exploring this region's castles and wine.

Nice backyard! Overlooking the Loire river



Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Insight for the night

More Sarlat

What a good day this was. I have one more full day left at Domaine Gaury, and like last time, it's been a nonstop whirlwind of work and play. Yesterday we worked in the morning, sped through winding roads singing to the Flashdance soundtrack to grab lunch in Sarlat and see the old city before heading home to prep for a big barbeque with this week's guests. Dinner was fantastic as usual, with wine as well as conversation in Flemish, French, and English (with a favored Irish epithet) flowing freely. After the reasonable folks went to bed, the rest of us splashed around in the pool and jacuzzi until after midnight. Today we worked steadily, wrapping up a sunny and hot day with dinner and more pool time. Most everybody went to bed early, but I couldn't resist sitting out on the terrace watching the horizon slowly fade to dark and the stars come out, crickets and frogs and who knows what else chiming in to complete the scene.

Tonight at dinner, Kathleen asked me what I'm going to do when I return to the States. This certainly wasn't the first time this trip that I've been asked that question, and I did my best to respond. I expect to stay with a friend, I'd like to be teaching, maybe I'll get other work, there are people and places I'm looking forward to seeing. I'm eager for okra, home ferments, farmer's markets, sunsets on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I plan to dance, swim, hike, and re-connect with friends. But really, beyond that, I have no idea what I'll be doing! And isn't that the point? I wanted a future different from what appeared predictable before I took this journey. I didn't want what I could have imagined from where things were and how they'd been going. If I could've envisioned all that going in a pleasing direction, I would have done my best to stay the course. But it didn't seem possible, to get from where I was to anywhere besides more of the same.

Please, don't get me wrong: I'm saying this about me, about how and who I was. I'm not just pointing the finger at circumstances. I needed to change my internal landscape, to see myself in other lights, to practice being someone I'm just getting to know.

And while I've had a plethora of opportunities and environments over the last three months in which to choose new reactions, the trip ain't over yet! I feel like the chickpea in Rumi's poem: I need more time in the stewpot, to simmer and soften and be fit for sustenance. I looked up at the stars and asked if there was a better answer to Kathleen's question, and here's what I heard:

What's coming next is more than I can currently imagine.

Around the corner...

Of course! I don't know, and cannot know, what lay ahead. Ah. That's a relief. I don't have to think about it, or try to describe it. it's okay to not know; in fact, that's the best thing ever. I can just rest assured that it will be beyond my current imagining, and for that I am thankful.


Ceiling of Cathédral Saint-Étienne