Monday, March 30, 2015

Pausing in the Place des Vosges - Paris

Paris can impress, even on the best of days.

I needed to find the eye in the storm of the energy swirling around me and to get reacquainted with her under the best of circumstances. I had to connais cette ville, ça va, respire...I used to live here, I am no stranger.

But the truth of it was that I was also quite nervous about meeting my friend. Taking that leap from virtual to real makes my heart pound even if it is someone that I know I will adore ("but will they feel the same about me?" I always wonder). I am shy.

And so I bought my metro tickets while still on the TGV in order to directly hop on the 1 after weaving my way through the madness of the Gare de Lyon. In only three stops, I had arrived at the Saint Paul Station. I turned down the rue Saint-Antoine and tucked myself under the arches of the Place des Vosges.

Voila. An old friend was right in front of me and I sank into the closest bench with a sigh of relief.

It has always been one of my very favorite endroits à Paris. The architecture of the Palais du Louvre is magnificent but so grand as to be overwhelming - that was the point. I think that Henri IV had a far better scheme in building this royal residence, even if he did not live there. I wonder what it could have been like for the court if he had. How they would be able to keep an eye on each other from across the square, what intrigues would be laid out under the vaulted arches. And how lovely it must have looked at night with the hundreds of bougies burning in the multi-paned windows. I can almost hear the click click of 17th century satin shoes sashaying across le parquet...

My reveries were rudely interrupted. It was the lunch break for the nearby college and a group of ten young ados started boisterously competing for a game that might well have been called "impress the tourists." It wasn't the only time in the day when I would be surprised by French teenagers acting surprisingly...American. How time passes. Or does it? I looked at the scene in front of me, changing and unchanged from when I first visited so many years ago with my family - when the Marais neighborhood in which it resides was still quite scruffy around the edges - and then yet again when I moved to France to live with Remi in 2001.

How different it was because how different I was as I projected my dreams upon the landscape. Nearly fourteen years ago, I would take the metro directly here as well from our apartment in the suburbs to sit and ponder - despite the enormity of my Love for Remi - the adventure that I had thrown myself into by moving to a foreign country where I had no words, none in French at least, to describe the complexity of what I was feeling. Within the confines of that square, neither too big nor too small and soothingly symmetrical, I felt protected and halted in what at times resembled a free fall into the unknown.

And in 2015? I became so still as to no longer be of interest to the young men jumping from bench to bench until I blended into black and white, a part the scenery. Once so calmed, I took stock and realized that I was contented as well as reassured. My sole agenda was simply to enjoy with something approaching an ironic distance...sans l'amertume. No bitterness or confusion, none at all. My life is elsewhere now and I have the words. I gathered myself around me, tight like a cloak not an armor and with a silent merci let the gate swish shut as I left the Place, moving swiftly on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Little and Big, part two

I have been taking photographs of the blooms everyday. I currently have "510 items" in the Magnolia Tree 2015 folder, many of which I haven't even opened yet. For just the active looking at beauty within the multifold leaves is my meditation and it does me good. Well, that and I am never disappointed, no matter the weather or time of day. Beauty is most certainly found and ample for the taking. Not to mention that time is of the essence as the weather forecast has warned that the Mistral winds will rise today to scatter the blooms into a forgotten pink snow. I can hear it rising outside my window and know that like the seasons, soon I will have to wait for another year to see this particular example of exceptionnelle.

Yesterday, the sun was glorious and created rosy shadows on the leaves. I hoisted Remi's telephoto lens (it is heavy) and pushed it roaming through the tree searching for something to take shape. I have to scrunch my left eye shut to grasp for focus in the viewfinder and when I pull away, it is watery from the effort. So I wasn't entirely sure of the fluttering that I had sensed in the fuzzy zone. But yet with a blink and a further twist of the lens I could see a baby bird taking a bath in the gouttière or water-pipe on our neighbor's roof across the way.

I know this little guy. He is a mésange or chickadee and of all of the others in his flock, he seems to prefer our garden, especially the magnolia tree. Perhaps he feels safe there, hidden without hiding. Or maybe he is just still too young to fly farther. 

He took such delight in his bath. In he would plunge and spray the water over his back with outstretched wings. Then he would jump back up to the rim, tap the each side of his beak against the metal with a sniff, give a hearty shake, fluff out his feathers and repeat. In, bathe, tap, shake, fluff.

He seemed vachement content...or quite "chuffed" as my English and Australian friends would say. Such a simple act but an important understanding for this baby bird. How we learn through doing and how we learn through what we feel. My delight was total in watching him. My heart was brimming. Yours would have been too, I am sure of it. It is why I am sharing this other example of little bursting into big. Although, the more that I write about that, the clearer it is to me that they are two sides of the same coin.

Mais hélas, the birds are not alone up on the rooftops of this village. Les chats - of which there are far, far too many in so small an area - are quite confident that they rule above as much as below and slink along the tiles with the confidence of John Robie. I even know one who likes to sit and watch the sunset. That is all well and good but I photographed this fine fellow mere seconds after following my twittering friend. You may be extremely handsome, Mr. Bowie Eyes but stay away from my peeps, I mean it!

Similar to that expansive rocket burst of the magnolia and zooming from little into big that crowds the magnolia's branches is that hypnotic waltz of back and time. By happenstance or maybe as the random not random gift of the baby bird, I stumbled upon this song, "Your Silent Face" by New Order in my itunes list. It once meant so much to me and I find that it still does. Just the same, only I am different. I think.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

I have been listening to the song on repeat. Just as in dreams, my recent dreams, the past and the present (and maybe the future?) are looping the loop until they come together full circle in a picture as experiential as if it is trying to teach me something. In, bathe, shake, repeat. Or at least that is how it is these days. 

I nod at you, to the bird and the blooms and at all that is Hope-filled like Spring.

More of Paris soon...

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Palais Royal - Paris

It had been years and years since I last was in Paris.

And I honestly can't remember the last time I was able to wander quietly on my own, just to see and dream...

Perhaps just before leaving for Provence nearly ten years ago?

And so, last Thursday, as I only had a few hours to tick off the clock, I didn't waste time.

I visited my favorite areas on the right bank wisely, as if investing in the memories that they would provide until who knows when, again.

And of course that included walking through the arches of the Palais Royal in the 1st Arrondissement - that little jewel box in the very heart of Paris, that just might be the heart of Paris for it pumps out an oxygen that makes us all breathe...

...that undefinable perfume...

...of something like Beauty, Romance, Elegance, Art and Time...blended so carefully that only the best within you knows that it is spelled P. A. R. I. S. 

And so what was I doing there you ask? 

Well, I was there to see a beautiful blonde. Yes, that is the very one above. Some of you might recognize her as Ellie or Eleanor A. O'Connell Decret who writes at Have Some Decorum. I have mentioned her to you before. She is, quite frankly, one of the most amazing women that I have ever met. It was a stunning experience in the best possible sense and one that meant so much to me on a personal level that I want to keep that gift for myself. I know that you will understand. But I do have to give the credit to someone who is also so very exceptional, my friend Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, known to many as La Contessa at The Vintage Contessa. It was her idea that I meet Ellie as a surprise and she made it happen entirely. I can never thank you enough, Elizabeth.

Today is Ellie's birthday. She emanates many of the ingredients of that same enchanting perfume as found in the Palais Royal, where I paced with excitement only a few minutes before arriving at her door. As with her lovely portrait here, there is no black and white for this one, just a blaze of color.

Happy Birthday, Ellie! Keep fighting the good fight, you are loved by many all over the world...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A prayer for Tanna in Vanuatu

My thoughts are far from Provence today. They are on the other side of the world, actually, hovering with worry over the island of Tanna in the archipelago of Vanuatu.

Perhaps you have read about the damage that Tropical Cyclone Pam has wrecked on Vanuatu, a country made up of 83 islands in the far reaches of the Pacific. It was a level 5 cyclone - the highest - and has widely been declared one of the worst, if not the worst, such tropical cyclone to have passed through this area. As we have more and more such natural disasters occurring, the news is always "sad" to discover but when you know the land and their people involved, well, it takes on a level of importance far beyond what is "the news."

Photo ©Remi Benali

It was in 2004 - at about this time of year actually - when we landed on Tanna after having flown from New Caledonia and then to Port Vila, the capitol of Vanuatu. We were spending a month on assignment in this corner of the world and I was intrigued by Tanna - initially as it is home to the world's most accessible active volcano and then due to curiosity about one tribe on the island whose chief had, in 1963, decided to turn his back on modernity and return to the traditional ways of his ancestors.

We came across several members of the tribe from Yakel during a moment when they were far from their home base high in the Middle Bush. Remi, as always, effortlessly made the initial contact and photographed the men, who were wearing only the traditional nambas or penis sheaths, while ripping coconuts open with their teeth. I couldn't help but think back to the fact that the last known act of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in 1970, not so long ago. It was an impressive beginning...

Photo ©Remi Benali

...and yet we were warmed by their kindness and welcoming attitude immediately.

Bob was born in the same year as Remi and so called him, "My Brother," while proudly putting an arm around his shoulder. That is him, smiling, sitting behind Remi on the left. Henry Fire is on the right.

When I remarked how much I liked one of the songs that they would sing, he decided to teach it to me through repetition. He was very patient and would correct me over and over - as he was in the midst of doing above. By the end, I could sing it to them without the mistakes that would make them fall into fits of laughter. And I still remember it now.

As a surprise, Henry Fire gathered all of the members of Yakel village together to dance the song for us. The ground shook hard under pounding feet as the men stomped in a circle and the women and girls jumped up high, swishing in their grass skirts as they went. To thank them, it felt like a proper exchange was in order and so, as the light turned into gold, I gathered my courage, stood and sang "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, which has always been one of my favorites. They seemed genuinely touched and pleased. I even merited a nod from Chief Johnson Kowia himself. He passed away a few years after our visit (he is the white bearded man to the right of Remi) at an estimated 108 years of age. In our age of Globalization, I am still so moved by the courage of his choice for his people.


On one of our last days on Tanna, we made the pilgrimage to Mount Yasur and our friends wanted to come with us. For them, the volcano is beyond sacred, it is the heart and source of everything on the island. Before making the easy ascent (one can drive up to 150 meters or yards of the crater), we had a picnic on the black ash plain. I wrote in my photo album that is was "the most exotic meal ever" even though we supped on Spam and Velveeta cheese (you take what you can get this far out in the Pacific).  I remember Remi asking Henry Fire what he thought of the cheese in particular as it was the first time that he had tasted it and his making a polite but distinct frown. And it is true, that was a far cry from the sweet potato and taro root stew that they had made for us in Yakel.

Photo ©Remi Benali

We arrived to the crater's edge at sundown. The men paid their respects and then let us alone to stare down into the center of the earth, churning, churning. Fire bombs and lava would spurt overhead so closely that we would gasp. Remi and I were both completely mesmerized and at some point after a full moon had risen, two of the men came up to lead us away.

Photo ©Remi Benali

When we arrived on the island, we surveyed the damage from another heavy cyclone, Ivy, I think it was, that had passed the month before. Nearly all of the structures there are built from woven fronds and wood, save for a few in concrete in the main village. They had all been smacked flat by winds. Nothing was left. The vast majority of the population on Tanna survive from subsistence farming. That too had been destroyed. The beaches were lined with broken coral that had been churned up from the bottom of the ocean.

The winds from Tropical Cyclone Pam reached 300 km per hour or 185 miles per hour and it is believed that Tanna was hardest hit. I try to imagine what it must have been like in Yakel. Where did they go? How could they protect themselves? In the far more secure capitol of Port Vila, the rescue teams have described scenes of "like a war zone." According to the New York Times, an initial report from a pilot that had flown to Tanna said that none of the traditional houses were standing and half of the concrete structures were damaged. All of the crops were gone, giving the population roughly a weeks worth of food on the trees and vegetables before they rot. "After that there is no food, water or shelter," responded a local official with Unicef.

I began the article that I wrote for the French magazine Grands Reportages about Tanna with a legend that it is believed that the entire world came from the belly of the Mount Yasur volcano. How I hope that our friends are alive and safe and that the volcano is indeed making the world anew everyday.


Several appeals have been set up if you can and would like to help:

Sending wishes of Hope, Strength, Health and Safety to all that have been touched by the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Pam...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Little and Big

The Mairie or town hall must have given the order to go ahead, that it was time. And so this morning, I crossed paths with the cranky elderly man in his bent baseball cap, crouched low over the steering wheel of the tractor as it mowed down Winter's fields. He ignores everyone while driving, so I know that it is not only me. Perhaps he is intent on not bumping up against forgotten things and cornering the green. The dogs sniffed and practically skipped with brisk newness just as they do after a bath. Something so simple can invite such joy.

They were only slight less enthusiastic on this evening's walk. As I batted away minuscule insects, so tiny as to be imaginary if not for their nuisance, the dogs let their noses do the walking and I let myself be pulled behind. We walked until the sun flipped backwards and it was time to return. In drawing nearer to the lawns exit, I heard a peal of laughter and looked up to see that Ben and Kipling were not the only ones to take delight in the shear shorn grass. A Father and his little Daughter rolled on it together as their new puppy (I know them, they are neighbors) danced around them with tiny yips. Both then laid down with their legs up in the air. All was silent with a pause until they both broke out giggling. From the same position, he raised her up on his feet until she was soaring like an airplane. Then, he stood above her and the whole world seemed to yawn between little and big. How I remembered in that blink of an eye what it was like to be so small compared to the adults that were as tall as buildings.

But I averted my eyes and told the dogs, "Allez, on rentre" for it is rare in France to see someone acting so privately in public and pour rien au monde did I want to burst their sweet soap-bubble of a newfound Spring awakening.

Passez un Bon Weekend tout le monde...

Pour écouter:

Et un grand remerciement à mes lecteurs et lectrices en France aussi...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The first bloom of Spring

I gasped in mid-sentence. I couldn't help myself. 

I had been chatting casually with my Mom, pacing in my room as I am want to do...

...when out of the corner of my eye, I spied...

...that the first Magnolia bud had bloomed...

...and brought with it beribboned Spring.

Since then I have watched and waited, day into the last light... spy each beacon firing up one after the next... an unapologetic arbiter of Hope. 

Not the kind with feathers...but those flying on paper wings.

I lift my head upwards, reaching towards Beauty and finding it so comfortingly, right in my own backyard. With a nudge towards l'olivier, our lone olive tree, I whisper, "Come on, it's your turn."

Today's post is my contribution to our International Bloggers Party. This month's theme included the option of discussing "how flowers bring us inspiration." Thank Goodness the Magnolia bloomed as otherwise I would have simply written, "How do they not?" As it is, I have taken hundreds of photographs of said tree to date and the fireworks have only just begun.

To read the other takes on this theme which include fashion and "flower power" please click: here.

With all of my Best from Provence,

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Kipling's Second Anniversary

"Are they buddies now? Because they look like they are." I paused before replying to my Sister's question, "Kiiiind of." But I thought about it afterwards as well as the iphone photo that I had sent her. Certainly, they were practically snuggled up together in it. Could my long held wishes be finally coming true? 

It has been two years since we adopted Kipling. And amazingly - at least to me - his relationship to Remi and I as well as with our other dog Ben is still evolving. Two years is a long time and we certainly have had some surprising setbacks since moving to this tiny village as it has brought out in Kipling an even more aggressive attitude towards outsiders (dogs, cats and humans included) that we had seen in Arles. We have had some harrowing moments, I will admit. But gentle Ben, ever the ambassador of Good Hearts, has been utterly determined to reassure Kip and to teach him the one factor to being "a happy and healthy" dog that has been missing from the list: to play. I have seen it over and over these past few months, Ben will shake his toys in Kipling's face and do everything within his ken to initiate a bit of rough and tumble. And Ben is the farthest thing from a rough and tumble dog! He is clearly doing it out of love and concern for his companion.

Remi has been telling me that it is starting to catch on but I wanted to have so some sort of photographic proof before talking about this with you all. So imagine my delight upon re-entering the courtyard the other day (luckily with camera in hand) to find Ben pointedly staring at me as if to say, "Watch this!" 

Ben barely knows how to fake growl - bless his heart - but apparently it is enough to get Kipling worked up into a round of whoofs and whoos. 

And then, it began. Ben pulled his signature move of throwing the front half of his body down to the ground while Kipling shook his head with joy (something he picked up from Ben) and excitement.

I wish you could know how incredibly happy these photos make me. 

For Remi was right. Kip clearly has a few moves of his own. Such as sitting on your opponent...

...and something that he has done to me: gently gnawing on my arm as if to chase away fleas! Gnar, gnar, gnar, gnar...

Can you see Ben looking up at me during a pause in the action? He is clearly so proud of himself. As he should be.

And so, it is a start. It has been fascinating to see how these two adult male dogs inform each other - Kipling encouraging Ben to be more of a "guy guy" and Ben coaching Kip to be more trusting. And I am sure that this evolution isn't over yet...

...but one thing that I do know is that I am glad that you are here Kip.
We love you, crazy rascal! Petit fripouille!

Kipling's story is quite something and for all of the new folks here (Thank you!), you might want to take a look at:

Sending out wishes of Love, Health and Safety for all of our four-legged friends around the world.
What would our lives be like without them?