Saturday, May 22, 2010

Au revoir Paris

View from our hotel
View from our hotel with "Sacre Coeur" in the background
Through the glass in a Paris cafe
Can't go home without one of these
"Burghers of Calais" at the Rodin Museum

We'll be home soon! Here are a few photographs from our sunny, warm visit to the Rodin Museum, a cafe, and the Eiffel tower.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Saga of the French toll road

Aix-en-Provence to Paris

The story ends well because as I write we’re catapulting to Paris on the TGV (Train avec Grand Vitesse) (Train with great speed). As I wrote in my May 17 post “every traveler knows that carefree is a kind of complacency that is blind.”

Last night before our departure we carefully plotted our course from Aix to Avignon, consulted Google and peacefully fell asleep. This morning about 15 kilometres into our 56 kilometres drive we make a big, French toll road boobo because we exited. We were looking for gas and misunderstanding the signs we found ourselves on the toll road to Marseilles. On any American freeway correcting this mistake would have felt like a sunny day: circle around, go over the overpass and get back on the freeway. Not so in France. The entrance to a French toll road is monumental and feels like crossing a border into a DMZ. Even on a good day I am apprehensive and rattled by the formality and lock step rigidity of the process.

At the toll booth we were more than mildly confused and pressed the button for help. The phantom in the dark glass closet spits rapid fire French, and finally barks, “Payee, payee, payee.“ (Pay!) We threw enough coins into the basket until he sweetly said, “Merci, bonne journee!“ (Thanks and have a good day.) As we entered the freeway my gut said, “wrong”: Marseilles is south and we want to go north. We took the next exit and left the DMZ.

We tried this road, that road, looked at the map, applied logic, raised our voices. Nothing worked.

We saw a gendarme (policeman) who had pulled over a motorist to give him a ticket, and stopped to ask for help. They were arguing, but I used the magic phrase of formal politeness that almost always softens the French aloofness: “Excusez-moi de vous deranger Madame or Monsieur, mais j’ai une question” (Excuse me for bothering you Sir or Madame, but I have a question) He turned, smiled, gave me the directions I needed, and I had a good look at his cute derriere in his form fitting royal blue pants, but Zut alors! (s--t) my logic was not French toll road logic.

What looked like an interchange on the map was not, and we had a train to catch in Avignon. Defeated, we turned around and headed back to Aix to start over. That’s when our luck changed, the skies opened up, and BINGO we saw a sign to the toll road to Avignon on a round about, and we were back in the game.

We had about 40 kilometres of relief until our Google directions to the TGV train station took over, and we entered Avignon city traffic. I was sure we’d missed our turn because our directions from Google were seldom accurate. I wanted to throw up. Then we saw the TGV sign, and cheered. Our last hurtle was finding the rental car return and that required circling the station like a hawk with the scent of prey, driving down cul-de-sacs, finding someone to give us directions, and finally seeing the green sign that said “Car Rental Returns” in minuscule type on a small green sign.

I will forever be thankful for all the convenient exits on American freeways, and take advantage of all the beautiful rest stops, and would I ever drive again in France? Bien sur! (of course)

Cezanne Route

Mt. St. Victorie from Tholonet


Cezanne, sometimes called the Father of Modern Art, was a local Aix-en-Provence boy who lived and painted with the silhouette of Mt. St. Victoire either on the horizon when he was in town or in his backyard when he was at his studio in the countryside. We saw it as we drove into the city from the west, from our hotel room we could see most of it by going to edge of our terrace and leaning out, and we drove a portion of the Cezanne route to get a closer view.

It’s an unremarkable, but dominant chunk of rock, and seeing the mountain it is easier to understand how he structured the overlapping gray facets of rocks to create his view of solidarity.

He did the same thing with his still life paintings with a tablecloth like mountain underneath the apples, oranges, wine bottles, pastries, and baskets he loved. Although he painted from nature he imposed his structure on nature, and that elegantly simple reversal forever changed the way artists saw the 2-dimensional plane of their canvas.

It was Picasso who took the baton from Cezanne, and ran back to his studio to develop cubism. I find it interesting that very few of Cezanne’s paintings are here at the central museum in Aix, and the ones that are are minor. The city father’s didn’t much care for his work when he lived here, and I’ve read that most of them still don’t.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

La Prochaine Sortie (The Next Exit)

Aix-en-Provence, France

We’ve been waiting for this day!? Oh Mon Dieu, the drive to Aix; two women and a rented Citroen with “Picasso” blazoned on its red paint. Under threatening skies, spitting rain, and two Michelin maps larger than me we got in the car and started the engine.

Driving in France is like speaking the language: only the rules, nuance, and idioms can make you understood. In our car there is no “P“ for park because stopping the engine automatically puts it in “P“, “N” starts the car, but only with the foot on the brake, and “A” indicates the automatic transmission that the car must be in to move forward. Mary and I often confuse verb tenses when we try to speak French and trying to go in reverse in “Monsieur Picasso Rouge (red)” is the same. Every time we put the car in reverse the wind shield is sprayed with fluid and simultaneously the wipers go on at a rapid, frantic pace. At first we were startled, then dumbfounded, and finally thrown into laughing fits every time it happened. We aren’t fluent, but we get by.

On American freeways you see signs that lead you to the exit: the first proclamation is at two miles, and the polite countdown begins until you are a quarter of a mile away. On French toll roads “La Procahine Sortie” means the next exit, but because "next" isn’t a way to mark miles you can grow old and forgetful getting to it.

I am happy to say that we made it to the small town of Boit to see the Leger museum, drove out of town, got back on the freeway to Antibe and negotiated city center traffic during the lunch rush hour. We went to Antibe to see the Picasso museum, but we failed to find it. After many circles around the city center we said, “the hell with it”, found the toll road and continued after a rest stop to refuel ourselves with a thin whisper of a tuna sandwich and bottles of water. With the specific driving directions and photos of the intersections to our hotel from Google maps, Voila!. We arrived at the hotel by 2:30.

Oh, we are proud of ourselves!

Fragments of Late Afternoon Light in Provence

We discovered the church in St. Paul as the sun was going down and the light was falling in from the upper windows on the thick, cool, dark Romanesque walls. There was Renaissance music floating in the background, and a solitary woman sweeping and cleaning the trays underneath the votive candles. Her scraping tool against the metal made a harsh counterpoint to the music.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Sun in France Stays Mainly in the South!

St. Paul and Vence in Provence
Advertisement for rotisserie chicken in Provence

St. Paul in the Provence region of France

A stellar, warm day spent in St. Paul and Vence that are two Medieval hill towns in southern France. St. Paul is touristy but Vence is a typical and traditional French village. The walls and surfaces of the architecture sing with age and history, and I long to live in them and with them. The Matisse Chapel in Vence is a quiet masterpiece of the master of the line. The 14 stations of the cross are simple and profound. No photographs allowed so I can't back up my claim.

Tonight we ate dinner as the sun was going down near the ramparts of St. Paul, and I ate a veloute of cauliflower with citron and black sesame seeds that was light enough to fly.
St. Paul in Provence

A Brancusi sculpture at the Foundation Maeght in St. Paul
Toledo, Spain, the home of El Greco

Tonight dinner as the sun was going down near the ramparts of St. Paul I ate a veloute of cauliflower with citron and black sesame seeds that would make an angel fly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Red Picasso Van and Two Women

We arrived in Nice, France after a two hour, delayed, flight. We left Madrid and our hotel that was surrounded by blue/black, neon green stripped police, and the comings and goings of black Mercedes with politicians from Central America and Europe. The sun was shining, and the Icelandic ash cloud stayed out of our way. We were carefree and thought we'd be at our hotel outside Nice by noon. But as every traveler knows that kind of complacency is blind.

After asking a few questions in our rudimentary French we got on the bus that took us to "Europcar". There we rented a red, Citroen van named "Picasso", and headed out into the unknown frontier of French highways. Pablo was the only automatic on the lot, but we're learning to be happy with our arranged marriage.

Our goal was the town of St. Paul and the La Colombe d' Or (the Golden column) hotel. We figured out how to turn on the motor, both with and without windshield wipers and spray, how to put it in gear, and away we went.

On the surface we both were skeptical, but underneath we were as scared, confused, and disoriented as the bull in the ring in Madrid. We missed the turn on the first "round about", and returned to the airport for round two. We did not collect $200, but made the right turn and found ourselves on our way. I do not say "found" lightly however, because the roads on the paper maps look like 2-dimensional spaghetti that even this hard core navigator couldn't quite decipher. With the two larger than life Michelin maps on my lap for security, off hand directions in French from the Europcar guy, a quick guide to the French language, and a lot of adrenaline I focused on the road signs while Mary deftly changed lanes and cussed.

We overshot our goal and found ourselves on a narrow, winding road surrounded by forests. Up and down and around we went, and at one point we begrudgingly pulled outside our lane to make room for a bicyclist. Little did we know that we would meet him at the top of the hill where we found a turn out, and he directed back down the hill to our hotel. Merci, monsieur!

La Colombe d'Or is a famous hotel because of its art collection. Artists like Picasso and Leger came in the 1920's because the hotel owners would accept works of art as payment for their stay. If their walls weren't so full of art I would have tried to continue the tradition.

We had a typical French meal: spring radishes to dip in anchovy paste (my favorite- oh la la), greens in vinagrette, a main course of osso bucco, a selection of cheeses, and creme brulee with orange flavored grappe. Today has been like one of Picasso's cubist masterpieces: different points of views and time frames that can only form a complete composition by merging and dissecting with one another.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. Isidro Festival

Young girl in traditional dress
Her sweet face
Posted by PicasaAdults in traditional dress

Sunny Sunday in Madrid

Children playing on "Venus"
A hillside of potato chips

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Festivals and Presidents

Today is the Festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. Madrilenos are out in full force. Children young and old walking arm in arm with their parents, eating ice cream, and city workers are preparing the city for a long night of dancing in the streets. I'm torn. Maybe I'll go out, but there is lots of drama at our hotel that also has my attention. Presidents and Prime Ministers from 10 nations including France, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil are meeting on Monday at the Inter-Continental where we're staying. Yesterday the strong men arrived; drivers and body guards in black, and today the levels of police presence on the streets and surrounding this building make me feel like we're in siege instead of staying in a hotel that is hosting a meeting of heads of state. Protecting world leaders looks like a lot of hurry up and wait to me. Maybe it's like the bull fight we saw last night.....a slow ritual dance that I know nothing about.

I want to write more about the bullfight, but I can't just yet. Mary and I went because we wanted to experience this contest that has such a long history in Spanish culture. I've read that the queen of Spain hates it, her husband, the king likes it, and their daughter likes it, too! Barcelona has just banned it, but last night the bullring was filled with nearly 25,000 people.

Visual Madrid

Bull Fight at Ventas Bullring
Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia
Mary buying art from a young Chinese artist
"Venus" at Plaza de Colon
Hail storm

Friday, May 14, 2010



A short two hour flight from Paris, and we’ve changed languages, cuisines, and architectural styles, but not weather. For most of our trip it has been cloudy, unseasonably cold, rainy, and sometimes my bones are chilled like they are in middle February in the Northwest. As we left the Prado today we were pelted with hail!

My friend Carma (we met at an artist’s residency in Mojacar in 2005) lives in Madrid, and we met her for dinner on our first night in the city. We walked through the historic areas of the city center and even though it was a chilly evening we participated in the “paseo” (evening stroll) stopping for tapas (smoked anchovy inside a pungent dark green pickle) and a superb meal of suckling pig. The walls and floors of the tapas bar and the restaurant were covered with tiles decorated in colorful Islamic patterns reminding me that the Arabs conquered the Iberian peninsula early in the 8th century, and stayed for another 300 years.

My Spanish is limited to greetings and farewells, counting (to 10 only), thank you, and please. My tongue and throat refuse to move in the same direction so I can’t make the characteristic Spanish “r” sound, but I like listening to the lilt and rhythm of the language.

I saw the El Greco’s today at the Prado, and I love his painterly distinction between heaven and earth . It’s not the clear horizon line of the Midwest earth and sky, but a mystical blurry edge support by a cast of flame-like characters who sit and don’t sit in an ephemeral space. I think El Greco will have to make an entrance into my “Heartland” series. The Prado has a “star” list of works of art and boasts major collections by the Spanish painters Goya, Velazquez. I feel very comfortable in this museum, and the new wing is a stunning airy addition filled with glass and light.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More Pictures from Paris

St. Chapelle, interior
St. Chapelle, interior
Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral

Pictures from Paris

So close and yet so far away!
Two "Winged Victories"
For more convenient access to the kitchen the Italians cut a door into Leonardo's "Last Supper", and the French have cut a window into the side of the Louvre.
Louvre and the glass pyramid that covers the subterranean entrance.

Monet's "Waterlilies" at l'Orangerie

Monday, May 10, 2010

Un Jour Magnifique (A magnificent day)


Cher Mes Amis (Dear Friends),
My travel legs are underneath me, and today was tres magnifique (awesome). I decided to jump in the water Francais (French), and I began swimming in the language. Roughly and excitedly translated: I had a very full conversation in French with an antique book seller, and she said, “C‘est parfait.” (It‘s perfect) to a couple of my responses, a Frenchman on the street smiled at me when I said, “Pardon“ (excuse me) at the right moment, and I was able to ask for an envelope for my postcards and tell the clerk that it was so very French that I just had to have one. He laughed!

However, a lot of my experiences are also like David Sedaris’ when he writes: “I wind up exhausting the listener before I even get to the verb.”

We had an excellent meal at “Benoit”, and this time we were not “shunted into English speakers’ Siberia in the back room” (Zagat guide). Mary is "la cuisine" guide, and she, too is "parfait".

It continues to be rainy and cold.

I have had emotional, teary experiences in these last days: a concert at St. Chapelle and remembering my first visit there as a 21-year old, the "Hommage to Jerome Robbins" where I cried when the dancers and the narrative of their bodies made me love my husband even more, and the opera we saw on Sunday (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) because it was a “tour de force” (heroic effort!) with its “super titles” in French that required me to see, read, and understand the story over the course of a three hour performance. I didn't get to first base, but I hit the ball and stayed in the game. That's worth a few sniffles and a tissue or two!

A bientot (until tomorrow)

Sunday, May 9, 2010



It thrills me that the famous and historic Pont Neuf (The Ninth Bridge) is the landmark to our apartment. A short walk across it with the extra benefit of a view of the Seine River below, and I’m happy. The streets are narrow and filled with people, and although brushing up against them is part of the experience, I'm uncomfortable with it. The French are handsome people, and the children are beautiful and very animated.

Last night we went to the Opera Garnier to see “Hommage to Jerome Robbins” (of Westside Story fame), and it was the best dance performance I’ve ever seen. The dancing was sublime, poetic, and inventive. The sets were minimal as were the costumes, and the contrast between them and an ornate opera hall built in the mid 1800’s couldn’t have been larger. Arriving home late, we feasted on pate de canard (goose liver paste) and a glass of wine. The thick slice of it was covered in a thick, slightly yellow gelee (gelatin) and the pate is a subtle swirl of the opalescent ochres and pinks I see in the sunsets when we’re on the boat on the Columbia River.

On the book shelf in our apartment I found a book titled “French or Foe” by Polly Platt, and it is helping me understand the French in new ways. Much has been written about their “no smile public face” that many Americans take for coldness. She offers this tip, and I’m going to try it today with a waiter. She advises that you remember that the French are respectful and proper, but that you can change the “no smile zone” to friendliness if you know these 10 magic words: “Excusez-moi de vous deranger, Madame (or Monsieur), mais j’ai un problem.” (Excuse me madame or sir, but I have a problem.)

It continues to be cold, sometimes rainy, and partly cloudy. The city is clean, quite easy to navigate, and we walk almost everywhere.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Past Lessons


Reminders of my past French lessons, teachers, and earlier travels in France surround me as I walked through the Tuileries, visited the Louvre, and passed the book sellers along the Seine. Just picking up the museum plan at the Louvre, and noting the “Vous etes ici,” (You are here.) on the “Rez-de-Chaussee” takes me instantly back to my seventh grade French class. When our French teacher Miss Pokorny told us that that is the name of the first floor in a French building, and that the next floor up is the first floor I knew I was not only learning how to pronounce French words and learning a different kind of math, but I was also being introduced to a culture that didn’t think like me. She advised us to put that information in our berets so that when we visited France we would not be embarrassed by getting off the elevator on the wrong floor, and I just want to say, “Merci, Mademoiselle Pokorny.”

However, I don’t remember Miss Pokorny telling us about French public bathrooms. I do have great stories about using them in 1970 when I visited Europe for the first time, and the bathroom at the restaurant last night was only a slight update from those days: a tiny closet for both genders, introduced by two small urinals so close together that I breathed a great sigh of relief that they weren’t being used, and a toilet not very high or very far removed from the typical “hole in the floor” that I first encountered as 21-year old college student. Traveling in the 1970’s I grew to like the pudding bodied women with the thick falling down brown stockings who you paid to pee, and I missed them today when I used the public bathrooms near Notre Dame. Instead I was served by a post 9-11 official in a dark blue regulation jacket who collected tips in a sawed off green plastic container, but I was strangely comforted when I used the same bright, pink, harsh toilet paper of long ago.

Today we walked in the Tuileries, visited the l’Orangerie Museum, and tried to comprehend the Louvre. There was a Cultural Ministry Strike so only part of the l’Orangerie was opened, and luckily they found enough museum personnel to staff the two exhibition halls of Monet’s “Water Lilies”. I stood for a long time in those spaces with his monumentally sized sweeps of poetically cropped trees, flowers, water and reflections painted with his characteristic late Impressionistic grandeur.

Standing next to the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre I felt like an ant marching - marching down, to the ground, to get out, of the rain. The place is an ant farm. With museum guides and plan information folders in our hands that act like our DNA, we know how to form lines and walk one by one or two by two up the same steps that millions of other visitors (ants) have trod with the same goal: marveling at the collections of ancient antiquities and clustering in front of world famous masterpieces. I’m not sure I believe in these big art institutions, but I go nonetheless. I think the antics of us visitors may be more interesting than the art!

Thursday, May 6, 2010



I’m always confounded, confused, and amused about how I enter a metal container with fixed wings, sit down, eat dinner, sleep, eat breakfast and Voila! …’s 12 hours later and I descend from the jet into a different country and my only cultural transition is the French spoken by the flight attendants and the French labels on the packaged food. We took a cab into the city and I knew I had arrived in Paris when the mansard roofs became more dominant than the industrial areas and concrete suburbs. No other city looks like this, and no other people walk and talk into each other like the French do.

Quickly I remember to count one with a thumb up instead of an index finger, order water with or without gas, enter the lavabos or toilette with both men and women, girls going to the left, boys to the right and exiting to a sharedd sink, bread is served in a basket and broken on the table instead of a bread plate, and greetings are formal and expected: “Bonsoir Madame” (:Good Evening Madame“, as you enter the restaurant)

Walking in our neighborhood (6th Arrodisment) near St. Germain, le Pont Neuf (bridge from the Middle Ages that crosses the Seine River that runs through Paris), Le Sorbonne (a university that began about 1200 in the late Middle Ages), and Notre Dame Cathedral an example of classic Gothic architecture built in the 1300’s) requires me to remember how to navigate narrow European sidewalks filled with pedestrians, motorcycles.

Our apartment has a jetted shower, and I have the luxury of using it before I put my jet lagged body to bed. It is a perfect day! A jet brought me to the “City of Lights” and a jetted shower will soothe away what the metal container hath wrought and bring me a night of well earned sleep.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Final Departure

San Francisco International Airport

If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One's destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.

-Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronoymus Bosch

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cardinal Points

San Francisco

Horizon Air boards en plein air (in the open air), and as I stood at the top of the stairs leading to the airplane I smiled into the wind and looked in all four directions and said, “Je suis pret de partir.” ( I am ready to go.) As I entered the plane I said, “Bienvenu!” (Welcome) to myself, and I departed and entered at the same moment.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


May 2, 2010
Longview, WA

Translated literally from the French the title of my blog means "Good-bye", but as an interjection it means: safe journey! safe trip! godspeed! The meaning of those two simple words reminds me of the Irish toast: "May the road rise with you and the wind be ever at your back." With a Celtic/Franco cheer I say, "Let the journey begin!"

I am traveling with my friend Mary, and we have been friends since we were six years old. I am grateful to have such a steadfast, loyal companion at home and on the road.

Stay tuned!

Bon Voyage!