Friday, May 31, 2013

Bathed in Music

One of the last things we did in Paris was one of the things that will remain for the longest in my memory.

We went to hear an organ concert at the Church of St. Eustache. (Interesting note: The church was named after a Roman general. He and his family were burned after converting to Christianity. I’d love to find out more about that story—can you imagine that happening to a Roman general?!)

The organ at St. Eustache is the largest in France—8,000 pipes. And the church is enormous, not quite the size of Notre Dame, but big and very tall. I must admit that I’m a little partial to organ music because my grandfather was an organist, a very good one who played the organ in a huge stone church in the Netherlands.

In any case, the massive stone church is an important part of the beauty. Organs were meant to be heard in that context. Everything else is a shadow as similar as a lamp is to the sun. Imagine it’s dark outside, the rain is falling, and the church is lit by hundreds of candles. Then the music begins. In a huge stone church, the sound is captured. It bounces off the walls, echoing back and forth as more music comes from the pipes. And the listener is bathed in music—it’s around you and under you and in you. It almost seems to have no source, it just exists.

When the bass pipes grumble, it's like giant redwoods are humming. And when the pipes in the upper registers sing, it’s as if butterflies have been given a voice. Somehow in the transcendence that is organ music, the mute speak.

Here are some of the 8000 pipes.

Sadly, this is foreshortened, so you don't get a sense of the size. But you can see what the candles were like.

Cal during the concert. I have no idea why the windows look so bright--it was dark outside.

Me after the concert.

If you want to find out about Screwing Up Time book swag, click here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writer's Imagination Gone Crazy

When we were in Paris, we visited lots of cathedrals. My husband Cal knew about the architecture and explained it all to me. “This is Gothic—see the vaulting. This is late Gothic… This is Renaissance.” Interestingly, every church we visited had signs up warning us not to leave any bags unattended and telling us to notify someone immediately if we see an unattended bag. (It was just like the airport warnings.) So there must be some concern about terrorism in the old churches.

Neither Cal nor I gave the warnings a second thought. Until Sacre Coeur. We’d climbed all the stairs, toured the church, and were beginning to go down Montmarte, when a man nearly ran over us and another couple from behind. He jumped the fence, rustled around in the bushes, came back over the fence (without his huge bag!), and ran away.

Cal and I looked at each other. I said to the other couple, “Did he just hide his bag in the bushes and run away?” They nodded vigorously and said, “Yes.”

At that point, I wondered how long we had until the explosion. Clearly, it was a big bomb. Was there time to notify anyone? What would the blast radius be? Could we run fast enough?

Then, the other couple said, “That guy was an illegal souvenir vendor. The cops are cracking down and he doesn’t have a license. So he ditched his stuff and will come back to get it later when the cops are gone.”

Right. What can I say? Writer’s imagination gone crazy.

Here we are in front of Sacre Coeur.

Here are the stairs where the guy jumped the fence and hid his bag of souvenirs.

Sharing a kiss at Sacre Coeur. When Ariel saw this, she said, "After 25 years of marriage you guys can't kiss without smashing your noses?" In our defense--we were too busy trying to get the photo to worry about our noses.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gargoyles and Me

I loved Notre Dame. It was stunning. I could include dozens of photos (don't worry I won't). But one of my favorite parts was climbing the stairs to the roof. The ancient stairs with grooves worn in the stone by thousands of feet over the nearly 1000 years the cathedral has existed. (I love heights, and we climbed up to the top of every monument we could. Cal deserves a medal because heights make him uncomfortable, but he went up every staircase with me--even the Eiffel Tower).

After the spiral stairs, I was with the gargoyles.

Yes, there is much Parisian gnashing of teeth about the tall black building ruining the skyline. I think the gargoyle and his ilk are patiently contemplating its destruction--they figure they've lasted nearly a millennium and they don't think the black tower will.

I brought home a small gargoyle who now watches over my desk and sticks out his tongue at me. I love it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Really, I'm Not French

We are back from Paris (we had a marvelous time--even better than I'd hoped), and I thought I’d share some of the things that happened while we were there.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that the last six months I’ve been working on French to try and revive my 25+ year old language capability. So, I was nervous, but good to go.

After we arrived in Paris at 6am, we left our luggage at our apartment (our official check-in was at 10am) and wandered the streets and markets. We found a patisserie and decided to buy a baguette, etc. In any case, the proprietress was obviously not in a mood to deal with tourists and I took too long explaining to Cal what the various pastry-like creations were.  She was impatient and rude. I was flustered.

So I made the decision that from then on, Cal could speak in English to everyone since they spoke English anyway. Then, we discovered unintended consequences.

We’d go to Metro information. Cal would ask for directions to the Metro headed toward Sevres-Babylone, Les Halles, St. Michel, etc. The person at the information booth would raise an eyebrow, literally turn a cold shoulder to Cal, and speak to me in rapid fire French. I would say, “Merci” or ask for clarification. As this happened over and over, I asked Calvin, “Why are they doing this?” Cal blinked and said, “Because you look just like them, so they assume you are Parisian.” I thought about it. Yeah, a lot of them did look like me. They had the same narrow build, same dark, straight hair, the same shadows under their eyes (which stubbornly resist makeup), and as Cal pointed out they dressed just like I did—in black with a scarf.

Then, Cal said, “You are now the official talker. I’m kind of tired of getting the you-loathsome-American,-why-are-you-foisting-yourself-on-us-and-not-allowing-your-wife-to-speak-to-us look.” I had to admit that was the look he was getting.

So I began talking. People were very nice and helpful. Though occasionally when I spoke I got the you-are-the-confirmation-of-my-beliefs-that-emigration-is-evil-as-it-turns-French-speakers-into-language-barbarians. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t my fault as my French ancestors left 400 years ago for the Netherlands.

Sometimes, people gave me an incredulous look and said, “You speek Ing-gleese?” Even when we were leaving France yesterday, an inspector looked at my American passport and spoke to me in machine gun French. I wasn’t sure whether she said, “So you have decided to leave your mother country? Or, has any terrorist given you a package to take on board the aircraft?” Since the answer and its implication were clearly important, I said, “Uh…” Finally, she switched to English and I was allowed to leave the country.

Yesterday, I streamed an episode of Grimm and a character was speaking French. I whispered to Cal, “His accent isn’t very good.” Yep, Paris rubbed off on me.

This was our first day when we went shopping.

The RER train on the way to Versailles.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Eating With Victor Hugo

Cal and I went to a restaurant called Le Grand Vefour to celebrate our anniversary. The food was fantastic and the ambiance amazing. Le Grand Vefour has been a restaurant since 1784. It was a hot spot for writers, politicians, and those spreading sedition (obviously not mutually exclusive categories). Napoleon, Sartre, et al. had their own tables. We ate at Victor Hugo's table. Napoleon had a different table.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Some Pictures of Paris

As you know, we're in Paris. We're having a wonderful time!

Hopefully, I'll be posting again the middle of next week, but here are some photos in the meantime.

Cal and I in the gardens at Versailles.

One of the rooms in Versailles.

Notre Dame with my friend the gargoyle.

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, right around the corner from our apartment.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Paris, Day One

We are on our way to Paris…I can’t believe I’ve written that and that the words are true. 

Cal’s been planning it for over a year—you can check out his hard work in the photo below. He’s read every guidebook there is—note the three guidebooks. And see those notecards? Each day’s plans are written on individual notecards, that way the days can be shuffled if there’s inclement weather. Beside the itinerary, each notecard includes directions via walking or the Metro. (Or train stops if we decide against the Metro.) And alternate routes—you know, in case there’s a traffic jam or a strike or a zombie apocalypse and the road to the Louvre is blocked with dead bodies.

Notice the maps. One is covered in a plastic sheath—in case it rains. The other has each day’s route mapped out in red pencil. Possible lunch and dinner restaurants, which have been thoroughly vetted  are marked as well. (The red folder contains prices, menus and reviews of each restaurant, cafĂ©, and market.) Can you say obsessive?

Not included in the photo is Cal’s MP3 player, which has MP3 audio files that narrate each of the Paris sightseeing walks we go on. We’re bringing along an audio splitter and two sets of earbuds. So we’ll be walking the streets of Paris holding hands, listening to an audio. And, you know, if one of us comes home with a leg in a cast, it’ll be because we didn’t hear the honking taxi. But hey, it’ll be romantic.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Everything's Funny at 5 AM

At 5 am, our alarm went off. I wished I could turn it off. But Cal and I are getting up early as part of my I-don’t-want-to-get-a-migraine-in-Paris plan. I get migraines from flashing lights (read movie theaters and television), weird barometric pressure changes, and sleep disturbances. Since Paris is a six hour time difference and we’re arriving in Paris at midnight our time—6 am Paris time, I’m guessing my body will register that as a sleep cycle disturbance.

So the alarm went off. Normally, classical music plays since the clock radio is set to the classical station. (I know, very old tech. I’ve had this clock since high school.) And we hear Bach, Mozart, et al. But at 5 am things are different. 5 am is opera hour.

At 5 am, some throaty German woman (it was German not Italian) greeted me. She sang this minor, discordant music. I wanted to turn it off, but then I’d never have gotten up. It was painful. Finally, Cal began to translate.

Cal (in a mournful voice): Oh, I am so sad. You uncaring dirtbag. Why, oh why, did you leave me? I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I am so very, very sad.

Cal’s voice took on an edge, mimicking the singer’s: I am angry. I didn’t deserve this. I will burn down your house.

At this point, I begin to giggle. After all, everything’s funny at 5 am.

The singer’s voice turns nasty. Cal’s translates: Not only will I burn your house down. I will kill you. Yes, that’s what I will do.

The song ends. The announcer comes on and says, “That was composer (some obscure German name) and his composition “Princess Lullaby.”

That was a German lullaby? Hmm. You know, that explains a lot.

File:Opera singer by Alfred Schmidt.jpg
Public domain art, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


This morning I went to get our dog Jezebel and give her breakfast. (She sleeps in the boys’ bedroom.) When I opened the door, I was assaulted by a horrid smell—though “horrid” barely scratches the surface of humidity + closed doors + really sick dog. I have no doubt Jez tried to wake the boys up when she knew she was getting sick. But they’re 16 and 18—and nothing wakes them. I’m convinced a mariachi band playing in the center of their room wouldn’t cause them to twitch. I’ve even found my 18 year old sitting up sound asleep because he was reading when he fell asleep and didn’t move during the intervening 8 hours.

In any case, even though my eyes were watering, I saw well enough to notice that Jez greeted me with her I’m-so-ashamed-I-wish-I-could-fix-this sad Labrador retriever eyes. I wished she could too. But she couldn’t. So I turned to the next best thing. My husband.

It was 6 am and he was already working at his desk, but I said, “Uh, the dog puked and had diarrhea during the night…” Cal stood up, gathered a trash bag, paper towels, and cleaned the floor. Then, he mopped it with bleach and soapy water. And me? Wimp that I am…I held the flashlight—though turning on the light probably would not have woken the boys from late adolescence-induced slumber—because, you know, I had to try to “help.”

Now I know what you’re thinking, Cal is working hard to get serious “good husband” points before we go to Paris. And he did. I told him so.

I’ve always said I’d rather have a husband who’d clean up vomit without complaining than one who’d make big romantic gestures. Apparently, I got both. Hmm…I wonder if he’s up for defrosting the freezer on his day-off. That’s the next nasty chore on my to-do list.

No photos today because…well, yuck.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I'm Not Buying Leather

Photo by Benh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One week from today.

It’s finally here. One week from today, my husband Calvin and I will be flying to Paris to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Cal announced the trip to me as my Christmas gift (you can read the whole story here).

My job since December has been to re-learn French. At one point in my life, I was fluent-ish. But after 25 years of non-use, I could conjugate non-irregular verbs, but not much more. So I found an online French program. Last week, I completed the course. However, my concern is that instead of making me fluent, it’s made me dangerous. I know just enough to get totally lost/confused/insulting.

In the back of my head are the stories my friends have told me. A friend who gave a lecture in theology and used the wrong noun gender and ended up speaking about pantyhose (though that was Spanish). Or the friend who was explaining when she and her husband were going to have children—let’s just say that what was supposed to be a matter-of-fact answer ended up being a bit too intimate. Or the friend who was trying to explain that her children were twins and ended up telling someone she had two chicken eggs (that was in Japanese). Or even the friend of mine who grew up speaking French and English and sometimes gets the words “tong” and “thong” confused. She always gets nervous when serving salad to guests. And I make my own mistakes, my husband tells me that I still misuse some English prepositions—Dutch has some prepositions that are the same in sound, but they don’t mean the same thing in English.

Of course if I get really stymied in French, I can always say, “Parlez-vous anglais ou nĂ©erlandais?” On the other hand, the Dutch I speak is old almost Victorian—it uses thee and thou. (Dutch underwent some modernization in the ’70s, long after my mom and her parents emigrated.) So when I speak Dutch, everyone thinks I’m “so cute.” Not exactly what I’m going for, but communication is communication. And if worse comes to worst, I can always say, “Est-ce que c’est vrai cuir?” (Is this real leather?) Why a language program would bother to teach this is beyond me. I’ve never needed to ask this in English, so why in French? Then again, You’ve Got Mail taught me: “People do really stupid things in foreign countries…They buy leather jackets for much more than they're worth. But they don't fall in love with fascist dictators.” But I have no plans to buy a leather jacket or fall in love with a fascist dictator. 

BTW, Luke and Ariel graduated this Saturday. Here are some photos.

Here is my chemist and my mathematician.

Here are some of the 3000 graduates.

Friday, May 3, 2013

If It's Spring, It Means Thermostat Wars.

This morning the temperature is in the 50s (13 C for European readers). By afternoon, the temperature will be in the mid to high 70s (24 C). This is the way of spring in the South. I love it. My kids…not so much. Here’s a typical spring day.

Early morning. My children get up. Shivering. I have left the windows open all night to get the house cool and bring in fresh air. (I’m a big believer is fresh air. My kids are big believers in keeping the house shut up—they point to the fine layer of pollen coating everything. I hand them a dust rag and remind them that they aren’t allergic to pollen.)

The children protest. Some do it audibly. Another wears a robe. And another… Let’s just say that I found myself saying, “Turn off the gas fireplace now!”

By late afternoon, the windows are sealed up. The temperature in the house has risen. My children have changed clothes. And they are protesting the heat. There are cries of “turn on the air conditioning.” I give them a cold stare and say, “Absolutely not.” I remind them that in an hour or two, I’ll open the windows and cool air will flood the house. There is grumbling and gnashing of teeth. Protests begin. A male protester takes off his shirt. Apparently, it is “the only way I can survive the heat.” A male sibling follows suit. They say to their sister, “Don’t you wish you could do this?” The sister rolls her eyes.

Late evening comes, the windows have been open for a couple of hours. The house feels blissful. I walk into the living room. The fireplace is on. A child is sitting in front of it, warming his back. I order a child to “turn off the fireplace!”

The current rumor is that mom is too cheap to use the air conditioner. Yep, it’s true. I’m cheap. They can add that to their exit interview.

(BTW, if you don’t remember exit interviews, click here.)

File:Honeywell thermostat.jpg
Photo by Vincent de Groot, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Purse Buying

The other day, I realized that I had to buy a new black purse. My old one is coming apart at the seams. Bits of stiff wire are sticking out. But this is a problem because I hate shopping.

But, hey, that’s why Amazon exists. So people like me can purse shop from home. I pulled up Amazon and typed in “purses” and hit enter. Then, I discovered that Amazon carries 76,802 different purses. Really.

I don’t have time to look at 100 purses left alone 760 times that number. So I tossed in limiters like black, zippered, women’s, etc. (I had no idea you could buy “man purses.”) Then, I began looking through pages. And pages. And pages. Boy, there are a lot of ugly purses in the world. Rooster purses with heads and tail feathers. Purses with faces of saints. There was even a “wolf beater” purse, which had a picture of a snarling wolf with blood stain teeth and red leather bows on it. Though it may be appropriate for a Goth party, it’s not what I wanted. Not something I’d even dreamt was possible, even in a nightmare.

Eventually, I found regular purses. Except some didn’t have a shoulder strap. Others were the size of carry-on suitcases. Still others had reviews that said, “Don’t buy this—it’s a piece of junk.”

So, I kept looking. I did find some that I liked. But they were too small, only a lipstick tube or a credit card would fit inside. I need space for a wallet, cell phone, migraine medicine (just in case), two red pens and small notebook (you never know when a great idea might hit), and space for a Kindle. (Not completely necessary, but nice if possible. Having a Kindle available helps when I’m at the grocery store and a cashier and customer decide to “visit.” I’m a transplant to the South, so “visiting” seems like a huge waste of time to me. But here it’s done, and having a Kindle keeps me from saying, “Uh, excuse me, let’s move it along.”) Oops, digression. Sorry.

 And because of all those purse needs, I don’t really want a grocery sack of a purse. Purses should have organization compartments. I shouldn’t have to paw through my purse looking for the cellphone. There should be a pocket for it. And for my pens, notebook, migraine meds, etc. No doubt, you see my problem. I’m way too picky.

Eventually, I found a purse. It’s perfect in every way. Lots of pockets, proper size, shoulder strap, black, good reviews. Except it’s kind of ugly. But not as ugly as the wolf beater purse. So I guess I can live with it. 

Here's a photo of the wolf beater purse. Okay, it's kind of cute in a weird sort of way.

Iron Fist tote bag