First Impressions of Provence

September 29, 2012

Bob & I are getting used to driving in France. Despite vague memories of the roundabouts and unique road signage from my trip in 1984 with my mother & sister, when we first drove the rental car yesterday (a VW Polo very similar to our VW Golf except stick shift which Bob hadn’t driven in years), I was freaking out while trying to provide directions to Bob using the Google map on his iPhone. Bob still managed to park in a city garage in Avignon by going down and back up 6 narrow, winding levels–no exaggeration!

After dropping off our luggage at our rental apartment just north of the city, we drove to St. Remy and then over the hills to Les Baux. St. Remy feels like many other old French towns, quaint and picturesque with narrow cobblestone streets, drawing heavily on its famous connections with Van Gogh and a few of his fellow Impressionists of the 19th century. Les Baux offers a totally different experience. A walled city high on an ancient limestone hill, it appears to have successfully achieved a balance between preserving its history while serving as a home to a small but vigorous artistic community.

The countryside in Provence reminds me very much of the northern Willamette Valley, complete with vineyards, orchards, and fields. The big difference is the sprinkling of Roman ruins–bridges, fortified city walls (such as here in Avignon–the wall encircles the old city) and other stone edifices. Actually, there are a few other differences such as the numerous medieval cities tucked here and there, and the relatively uniform residential architecture. The small housing developments typically feature clean, rectangular lines with muted oranges, beiges, and cream-colored stucco walls and orange tile roofs. I felt the presence everywhere of the Mediterranean to the south.

I also felt the influence of Northern Africa as we enjoyed a fantastic Tunisian couscous lunch with two of Bob’s business acquaintances–both from Tunisia. One man, Khalid, lives in Tunis with his wife and two children, but due to the unstable situation in his country, is planning to resettle his family in Dubai, thriving capital of the United Arab Emirates. Both Khalid and his university friend and colleague, Hatem, are PhD plant scientists and research professors focusing on ways to increase the yield of grains and other crops to meet ever-growing global food demand.

We had a fascinating discussion about the economic and political environment of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. We also talked about the presidential election in the U.S. They, like other people we’ve met in France, sincerely admire Obama. They see him as a wonderful role model for others around the world. Of course, we couldn’t agree more with them!

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First Impressions of Paris

Friday, September 21, 2012. After landing an hour early at Charles DeGaulle Airport, we took the RER B to the Chatelet train station where we transferred to the Metro line 1 in the direction of Vincennes (east-west line).

Emerging from the Metro at St. Paul station in Le Marais, I was overcome with joy upon seeing the streets of Paris again. I blinked at the brightness of the day as we transitioned from the darkness of the underground station to the cacophony of sounds and plethora of street signs on the busy Rue de Rivoli. As we were figuring out which direction to take to our apartment, the first French kindness occurred: a middle-aged man stepped up and graciously pointed in the direction of Rue Caron, only two blocks away.

As we rounded the corner to Rue Caron, a lovely young French woman greeted us–Julie Ka–the apartment owner. Julie and her husband Francois & their two young boys (ages 4 & 4 months) live on the third level of an old building just above our one-bedroom apartment. Julie escorted us up the creaky wooden winding staircase to her apartment where we left our luggage for a few hours until the apartment was cleaned. She pointed out the sweet little plaza below her living room windows, where we promptly went for our first petite dejeuner, complete with croissants and sliced baguette with butter and jam, along with the quintessential lattes. French super carbs are delicious!

While waiting for our apartment to be ready, we took our first walk around the Marais, following the walking tour contained in the National Geographic traveler book, “Paris”. I tried to absorb all the sights–the old buildings juxtaposed with small shops chock-a-block with goods of every sort, to the ever-captivating French whose dress seems casual and completely trendy and beautiful at the same time.

As the afternoon wore on, the cirrus clouds above heralded a fall rainstorm, complete with chilly winds and light rain. I quickly realized I had brought the wrong wardrobe–all summer tops and shorts, with only jeans, a light jacket and a sweatshirt. Of course, I landed upon the perfect solution: shopping in Paris! Well then, what greater place in the world to shop? Every street holds its treasure trove of shops, whether designer fashion, less expensive knock-offs, or vintage specials.

As the rain drops fell, we picked up our pace to reach the Paris opera house on the Bastille plaza where I purchased two tickets for Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) this Monday evening, September 24th. What a thrill to attend my first opera in Paris! I can hardly wait.

Sunday, September 23rd

After having a blissful warm and sunny Sunday today when we visited the Pompidou museum, it suddenly started raining a few minutes ago. Perfect timing, now that we’re safely ensconced in our little apartment, too tired to go one step further!

We spent a total of 4 hours in the Pompidou (broken up by having lunch across the plaza) taking in the fantastic Modern Art collection on the 4th & 5th floors. I truly loved it. It is filled with art from the 20th century. So many, many paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Bonnard, Gaicometti, Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, Duchamps, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Madigliani, Rothko, and even Jackson Pollock (he’s from Cody, Wyoming!).

While waiting for lunch, we struck up a conversation with a lovely blonde woman from Ireland who now lives in Copenhagen. We shared our mutual distaste for the Parisian smokers–mostly young people–who create trails of smoke outside the cafe, driving away people like us. Our new friend proudly pointed out that Ireland had banned smoking in all pubs & public places about 8 years ago. She said nobody expected the ban to last, that the Irish wouldn’t change their behavior but they did. She commented ruefully that this young generation of Frenchmen were clinging to smoking, like the Irish a behavior that would have to change.

This led to my mentioning Michelle Obama and her drive to steer young people to a more healthful lifestyle. She resonated with Michelle’s contributions and revealed her ardor for Michelle & Barack. She had watched all the main speakers at the Democratic Convention, including Michelle, Clinton, Julian Castro (Mayor of San Antonio), and Barack. Her comments on the differences among the speakers were very insightful–saying that Michelle’s speech was perfect–so eloquent and emotional it brought her to tears. “Barack’s wasn’t quite as good, but he was being more cautious about appearing too hopeful this time, not wanting to overstate his case.” And so forth. She was definitely as tuned into American presidential politics as anyone in the States!


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“Jo,” a chapter in Part I of my novel, Hardpan

The wind came from Line Creek Canyon without warning, leaving only a pretense of soil in its wake. The locals called it hardpan: soil so hard even sagebrush couldn’t grow in it.

Kurt and Jo leaned together to stay upright. The afternoon winds roared easterly from the canyon past their ranch house on the bank of the Clarks Fork River. The faded white two-story frame house stood in stubborn isolation on the silty riverbank. Persistent winds and unforgiving sun had ravaged the coats of white paint applied over the years.

“What do you think?” He pressed her for an answer. Their moving truck was still full of furniture and boxes.

She tucked her sleeveless white cotton shirt into her dusty blue pedal pushers, struggling to keep her clothes intact as the wind gusted around her. Strands of her reddish blonde hair blew across her face, sticking to her lips. She brushed the hair away and licked back and forth across her lips to make the wetness stick.

Find the complete chapter here: Chapter 2: Jo

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“Meal Ticket to Survival” — a chapter from my novel, Hardpan (WGA #1571253)

Linda peeked at the icy windowpane from under a pile of covers. “Sissy! Let’s go downstairs. It’s freezing up here.”

Jean squirmed on her side of the bed. “Okay. I’ve got to go potty.”

Clad in flannel pajamas and cotton socks, the two girls slid across the smooth pine planks toward the stairwell, skidding to a halt outside David’s room.

Linda cracked his door open. “You awake?”

“Go away. I need more sleep.” He moaned from beneath the mountain of army blankets. “Dad and I were up half the night watching the ewes.”

“Did they drop any lambs?”

“No. Not one! Dad says they’re ready, but nothing happened.”

A shaft of sunlight from the frosty north window crossed his bed.

“Oh my gosh, David. You’ve got snow on your bed,” Linda said. “It looks like powdered sugar!”

He poked his head above the covers and swept his finger across the thin layer of snow, licking it like a lollipop. “Wind must of blasted the snow through the cracks in the window frame. Those ewes and lambs are better off than I am!”

The girls giggled. Jean scooted to his bedside and tugged at his arm. “Come downstairs with us. You’re awake now.”

“Alright. You two get going. I’ll follow.”

They trailed each other down the narrow staircase to the kitchen. A wave of warm air welcomed them as they burst into the room. Their father had stoked the big coal furnace in the living room with extra coal before going to bed. He had expected outside temperatures could drop to twenty degrees below zero with the wind chill. Once in a while, they lucked out when a Chinook wind blew in and raised the outside temperatures by fifty degrees within a few hours.

Linda opened the door to their parents’ bedroom. “Dad! Mom! Are you awake?”

“Now we are,” Kurt said. “Good morning, Seagulls.”

David pushed in front of his two sisters. “’Morning, Dad.”

Kurt blinked. “Thought you’d sleep in, son.”

David shrugged. “I don’t need much sleep. Besides, it’s too cold up there.”

“Yeah. It’s freezing upstairs, Daddy. David’s bed is covered with snow!” Jean said.

“Well, that’s not too surprising. David and I could barely stand upright when we walked back from the lambing shed last night. The snow was blasting us sideways.”

“Yeah. It pummeled my face.”

“Did you know your dad found twin lambs after you went to bed?” Jo winked at Kurt. “Right, honey?”

“Really, Dad? After all that time we watched them?” David’s low tone gave away his disappointment.

“Yep! You kids should go check on those lambs. Make sure their mother’s tending them.”

“Bundle up! It’s below zero out there,” Jo warned.

When the children were out of the house, Jo hugged Kurt.

“Thanks for going along with me on that, honey. We could use a little more sleep.”

He chuckled. “You never know. They may find a lamb or two.”

*      *      *

Jo and Kurt could hear the children return from the lambing shed. They were breathless from running across the frozen ground outside.

”We found the twins,” Linda squealed. “But one looks dead. It’s stiff as a board. The mother didn’t finish licking it.”

“Yep. Only one alive, Dad,” David said.

Jo shoved the covers back. “Kurt!”

Kurt reached for his Levis. “Lambing season has started kids! You’d better go with me, son. Sounds like the stoves may be low on coal.”

The stoves at either end of the lambing shed kept the newborn lambs from freezing to death during winter storms. Even in their dugout below the river bluff, it took only minutes for a newborn lamb’s slimy skin to freeze in the frigid air before the ewe could lick him off.

All day long, ewes were dropping their lambs faster than Kurt and David could move them from the holding pen above ground to the lambing shed below the bluff. The shed, a low-lying structure dug into the riverbank with weathered plank walls along the sides and a slanted sheet metal roof, provided protection from winter blizzards during lambing season that stretched from early February into March.

The ewes were bred to deliver late winter so the lambs could go to early market in the fall. Like other ranchers in the Clark Valley, Kurt had to weigh the risks of lambing during the bitter cold winter months versus the advantages of being able to hit the market early for better prices.

When Kurt returned to the house in the late afternoon, traces of snow lined his thick eyebrows. His nose and cheeks were reddened from the cold. A baby lamb draped over his right arm, its spindly legs dangling mid-air. He placed it in the cardboard box set up next to the wood stove in the kitchen. Linda had layered the box with newspapers and some straw from the barn.

“Here you go, Jo. A bummer. He’s weak; needs some warm milk. We lost the ewe in the outside pen before we could get her to the shed. She fell from her own weight, big belly and all, shaking from the wind chill. We got her lamb out but couldn’t save her. It’s damned cold out there.”

Jo sighed. She had heard stories from the neighbors about how bummer lambs were either rejected by their mother because she was too weak, or orphaned when the ewe died during delivery. They had to take quick action to save the bummer.

“David and I cut the cord and wrapped him in that big terry cloth towel of yours and took him straight to the shed.”

“Poor thing! I’ll get a bottle ready.” She filled a glass bottle with milk from the fridge and put it in a saucepan of hot water on the wood stove.

Jo motioned to Linda as she stuck her spoon into her bowl of hot oatmeal at the kitchen table. “Get ready. I’m going to need your help. You can hold him still for me while I give him a shot. Vet’s orders.”

Linda squirmed. “Do I have to?” She hadn’t bargained on helping with the shot.

“Silly, girl. ‘Course you do.”

Linda held the lamb’s front legs while her mother injected his skinny rump. He bawled so loud Linda jerked, making the needle rip through the lamb’s skin. Linda shuddered and looked away.

“You’ve got to hold him still,” her mother ordered.

“I hate this!”

Jo plunged the needle in again, finishing the job.

“Okay. You can let go now.”

“But he’s shivering.”

“He’s just hungry. Here you go.” Jo handed her the tall slender glass bottle with the elongated black nipple. “Hold him under his belly so he can stand up while you feed him. Hold on tight or he’ll pull the nipple off.”

The lamb wobbled on his spindly legs, latched onto the nipple, and started sucking as Linda steadied herself. She held tight as the lamb rooted for milk, his little tail whirling as fast as he drank. He tugged at the nipple so hard it nearly came off the bottle.

“There isn’t a drop left!” Linda said. She patted the lamb on its head. “Good for you little fella. You were hungry!”

They kept the lamb indoors for another day of feedings, until he was strong enough to go back to the shed. Her father or David would have to drape the bummer with the skin from a lamb that had died during delivery so the ewe would recognize the scent of her dead lamb and accept the bummer as her own.

At times that winter there were three or four bummer lambs in cardboard boxes in the kitchen. It was their refuge from the winter storm blasts and their meal ticket to survival.

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