November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving and extra maps

We decided to simplify my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, by celebrating one day early and by not inviting anyone. A huge success!  Somehow removing what little pressure there is associated with this day of days made it one of the best yet. We did invite a few, Linda and her two grown kids and Oscar's friend Tony (he represented the french indians to our american pilgrims). We cooked a large turkey breast and I stuck two large chicken legs on the sides so it even looked Rockwellian. I was surprised when I unwrapped the chicken legs, as the butcher had sold me two right legs, so my faux turkey looked as confused as possible with one leg trotting off in either direction.  Tasty if not ambidextrous!

Dried cranberry sauce (no fresh available)
Smashed potatoes
Pumpkin soup
Roasted roots
and a Pecan (walnut) pie
worth writing home about.

So I'm writing home...and wishing you were here to make it a real turkey event!

Against my rules, I have two shout outs, both gleaned from NPR:

A bunch of smart people got together a couple of years ago and started making "corrected maps" that show the "real world". Population maps, poverty maps, malaria maps, export & import maps, and below the very timely population corrected red state/blue state map. Warning, this kept me busy for an hour!
Click here for incredible maps   
The revised Electoral College map. CREDIT: Mark Newman/University of Michigan
This is a revised map, in which the size of the states has been altered to reflect each state's population, and therefore its election clout.

Another link; again a map. The Lincoln museum created an animated map/timeline of the civil war. It's an amazing 4 minute video with a timeline and a casualty counter for that war of wars.

November 21, 2008

Other worlds

A last minute opportunity that aligned with a school vacation sent us scrambling to the Mediterranean and onto a cruise ship for a whirlwind 11 day trip into deepest touristdumb!


The reality of  cruising was such an unreality, we checked our passports at the door and were issued plastic id cards that identified us as non-nationals, we were now “fun-ship citizens”.  Thank the stars that this cruise had an incredible itinerary including Italy, Greece and Turkey, for otherwise it was too domestic and too foreign at the same time. The crew was thoroughly of this world, European, Americas and Asian, and felt like they outnumbered the passengers who were mostly entirely Americans, with a smattering of Canadians, Europeans, and a few Australians. It felt like America on the high seas, far, however, from anything we’d call home.


We embarked with trepidation and fear, anticipation and suspicion, embarrassment and excitement. After 9 ports, as many hot tubs, 5000 calories per day, and the company of some 3200 fellow passengers, we disembarked pleased and plump with relief and sadness, already thinking about how hard it will be to return to more normal traveling of solitude and uncertainty, where adventure is replaced by comfort, and the search for sustenance becomes an absurd exercise in restraint.


We expected to enjoy the destinations, and we expected to tolerate the means. In fact the destinations took some tolerating (hordes) and the means (the ship) was too comfortable not to have an affair with. Cruising life, as the name connotes, is easy, one is fed,  pampered, entertained, fed some more, and gently rocked to sleep every night. There are foreign, exotic faces offering every hospitality at every turn. It is easy to be a gracious guest in such an environment, you have already paid for everything, and every gesture is given genuine and forgiving, without the mantle of tipping or interpreting motivations.


We have been spoiled, I don’t think I will easily get Oscar on another vacation that doesn’t include a “life-boat-drill”. Pat, who went along skeptically is already asking about European River cruises.   The problem is to maintain a ”traveler” attitude and not slip too far into the “tourist” column. There is something very ugly about the giant ship overtaking the quaint Greek seaport, the image of 30 tour busses lined up and 50 taxis trying to make their weeks wage on the “boatload” of tourists that haven’t learned a kalimera, or a yassas between them! The ports try hard not to be ruined by the influx and we try hard to find a backstreet experience. In Naples, we tumbled into a doll factory selling tiny orphaned terra cotta heads deemed too twisted to warrant a body, but finding a comfortable home on my mantle. In Mamaris we found a quiet neighborhood where, drawing stares, we fumbled our way through Turkish coffees and Baklavas. In Istanbul we found a small mosque with a hidden entry where we were quickly overtaken by a call to prayer. We quietly slid out the secret door and landed in the belt buckle district of old Istanbul. In Athens we found quiet streets wrapping around under the Acropolis, and in Rome we rode city busses making loops around the Coliseum late into the night. Being a “traveler” is work, but not being a “tourist” is even harder. How are you supposed to take the road less traveled when you approach something like the Grand Bazaar?


Despite the hordes, there were wonders of the world to absorb. The remains of the city of Ephesus was a singularity for me. I was able to open my eyes wide enough not only to imagine the Greek municipality as it was more then 2000 years ago, but to not see the tourists clamoring through it like ants checking off items from their personal bucket lists. It was such a marvelous excavation site, restored to a point where one could imagine togas on all the tourists and gods and goddesses in every niche. It is primarily a long street, perhaps a mile in length, that crossed an important Greek, then Roman, city. They have restored pieces along the pathway, a library, an amphitheater, homes, a water source, but the amazing thing for me was the sense of the street life that had been brought back, this was a street worn through centuries, and you could feel the life and the culture through your shoes, emanating from the stones that never lose their voices.


In Athens it was a one act play, I had been to Athens 25 years ago. I spent a short week there, contemplating the Acropolis as an architectural student might, which apparently meant more about bars and coffee shops as I never made it up to nor through the Propylaea and into the Acropolis itself. So for me it was a moment of completion, not a protection of the gods so much as a fulfillment of a purpose, and a nod to my grandfather who paid for the first trip only to be confounded by my missing the punch line. The Acropolis is such a punch line! It is a monument created ahead of it’s time, as much an homage to the minds that built it as to the gods that it called to. It is easy, scrambling over the rocks, to be transported so far, far away, to a different time where the world was even more confused about politics, commerce and voting rights than it is today.


The other ports of call were stellar, and only escape mention in the shadow of the ones above. There was a bit of “ruin burn-out” with so many prime examples on the tour. Pompeii was overwhelming in it’s size and condition, complete homes! Pisa’s basilica and tower, uplifting despite the tricks of gravity and the torrents of rain! The Pantheon in Rome has to be the finest way-old building in the world, it shows how little we have progressed in architecture over the eons.


It was a wonderful manner for our small team of three to vacation. Oscar quickly earned free range as a citizen of this small-country sized ship, coming and going as he pleased, bouncing between new friends, favorite crew, and familiar family. We all wandered about our giant floating living room of a vacation, snacking, being entertained and marveling at the worlds over the railings. Our last day on the ship was November 5th, we woke up to the moment where the election was called for our Barack Obama. The clouds spread, the sun shone through, and like in America, people were looking into your eyes again. Perhaps to determine whether we were sharing in the victory, or the defeat, but nonetheless in the eyes, and that was a palpable difference even on vacation! While perhaps more than 50% of the passengers were pulling for the wrong guy, I have since read that Barack has an approval rating in the 70’s, only two weeks after adding “elect” to his title. That is the first poll number I have been happy to read in this over polled universe. Therein is the mandate! The world entire seems to be embracing our Barack, it all made the perfect conclusion to a rarefied vacation.



Cruising is not for everyone, nor for anyone too often, but it is perhaps perfect for us, every 5 or so years! We found this one so inexpensive we couldn’t resist, I think it’ll be a while till another one comes along.


Interested in photos: click here


A moment to our transitory lives…. We lost a close friend this week, to a well fought cancer…. Tom stands as a hero to making one’s life a wonderful adventure…. His grace in these last few years will stay with me forever!....Today I’m appreciating absolutely everything….Thanks for reading.

September 20, 2008

Diminishing Returns

An Oscar tale

Our budding adolescent is in a balancing act I can only barely remember the flavor of. Not yet the man-child, he is between a boy who wants to be accompanied through life and an individual who wants to, at least, arrive alone. Pat and Oscar leave for school together most mornings and as is her role, she returns alone. The diminishing return is the duration to which they walk together.

First day….school yard
Second day….school gate
Third day…. within sight of school
Second week….buddies ring the bell and Oscar leaves with surrogates

There are mornings now where Oscar wakes up, gets dressed and is downstairs an hour before his parents. New behavior! (kinda cool!). He is striving for independence, but not all at once. Last month he put a DO NOT ENTER sign on his door, strangely in French, even though he was obviously talking to his American us. We tried to respect the sign, and him, and honor the right, but it wasn’t working, so I explained that we didn’t have the right to give such messages to each other, blah, blah, blah and that I would always knock, blah, blah, blah….but there wasn’t a room in our lives that was truly off limits to each other. Somehow that logic worked and we have moved on. We are very nervous that around each corner we are going to encounter a surly wild thing of an adolescent who roars his terrible roars and gnashes his terrible teeth so far he only rolls his terrible eyes, but the rest has gotta be out there. The tenderest moments are the moments before sleep and if I get up early enough to accompany the drowsy morning minutes, where sweetness trumps computer games and hugs are the currency of the realm.

What I do remember from age 10, is having a burning desire for a “best friend”. I remember Clyde, and Marco and then Jeff, Debbie, Tony, Denise, Tom and finally finding Pat. That need for a best friend runs very strong in our family. Oscar hasn’t owned it yet, but he is a very gregarious soul, very much in need of his relationships and very much wanting one to hang his coat upon, other than mum and dad, which is more like dropping your coat and knowing that they will pick it up before he does. I think it takes a huge amount of something (?) to be alone, some of us are better at it than others, like Oscar, I define myself through my relationships.

Parenting is such an unknown, if there had been Operating Instructions, I’m sure I would have left them in the box anyhow! The game of an only child is vastly different from the playing field both Pat and I grew up on. More of a balancing act of being there, but not too there, of being a team of three balanced with being a team of two (parents) with a goal of one. We are fortunate to have a balanced kid and the means to guide him.

Telling moments: when asked if he dreams in French or English, he responded that he didn’t know but that when he talks to his stuffed animal, he speaks in French. And now, while he wants some independence, he still walks past his bathroom in the middle of the night, across our room and finds the sleepy comfort of our cold tiled bathroom for a midnight pee.

He’s growing up fast…. still a puppy, but with big paws!
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September 2, 2008


Gross = 144 = Fat

Somehow I have always loved the idea of gross. It’s a funny number, it’s not ten, or 33.3, or even pi, its 144? A dozen dozen. And what’s a dozen? Why is there such a unit as twelve?It apparently comes from the French word for twelve, douze, and it seems it might have something to do with the number of lunar cycles per year, but mostly it’s a funny, if convenient, number, that has a grand part in our everyday lives. I recently had to explain to Oscar the concept of “a baker’s dozen” which makes so little sense in this land of boulangeries. Can you imagine growing up without doughnuts as an everyday part of your life!?

But I am off the point.

As magic as the number may be, the word gros, means fat in francaise, and I’m starting to notice some of it around here. It’s been a wonderful summer full of big meals and fois gras and even my doctor made the observation as he gave me a physical. I figure that it was an early call to action, but I have company. We spent a day at the town pool in the next town and I felt that the populace was putting it on! Fat French folks! This it seems is new, perhaps it was an ugly coincidence, perhaps it is too many crepes or not enough red wine, or more a reflection on Parisian tourists in the South of France?? Personally, I can eat more salads, but what will this culture, as a whole, be able to do? It’s a change, like so many, that indicate France going down the wrong path….next it’ll be the 35 hour work week! (oh wait, Sarkozy did away with that last month).

Someone famously spoke “let them eat cake” and see where it has gotten them!

Today was “rentree”, the word that means summer is over and it’s time to put the lawn furniture away and get back to work and school. All of France returned to the classroom today and for Oscar it was a milestone. He has entered sixieme, sixth grade in America, and it involves a new school on the other side of town. He will no longer have one teacher, but rather different teachers for each subject. He will have a class in English twice a week and Occitan, the language that preceded French in this part of France, and francaise, math, geo/history, plus a computer class and an art class.

He was nervous this morning, but came home a happy kid, which makes for happy parents.

Pat resumed her formal French studies today, and I continue to rebuild the front doors, beautiful walnut doors that had so much weather on the bottoms that I am changing out the wood on the lower fourth. Life returning to normal!?
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August 6, 2008


A vacation from a vacation must be, by definition, work, right?

Well here’s a work story. One day after the end of school, we packed our bags and headed east, joining family for our summer vacation in Croatia, Bosnia, Vienna and Hungary. The vacation was a mix of beaches and museums, old towns and new food. Lavender couches, cherry soup, foreign liquors and hot sun. As always, it was fabulous to be away and it’s great to be home!

The smooth stones of time and the pocked stones of conflict.
We are a land-based family. As probably so are you, but we seem to have a near aversion to water. We like our water in bottles and pipes. We are city poeple and are a wee bit out of our element when we change into our maillot de bains. It took us a few hours of watching the locals to figure out just how and where to swim, but once whetted…. we were happy as fish in a small pond. Our standard operating procedure, in an over-touristed town, is to wiggle through the masses and attempt to find the true experiences. Inevitably we discover we are not alone, sometimes surrounded by Lets-Go toting brethren, and hopefully by a few un-jaded locals.

Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of Croatia, is like an island, securely on the mainland but facing the clear Adriatic. Surrounded by medieval walls that once protected it from the sea which now frame it for the sea. Unfortunately it is a bit too much of a destination these days. The cruise ships have found it and populate it every day from sun-up to sun-set. The limestone streets first worn by Venetian traders, then by Karadzic’s bombs are now polished daily by thousands of cruise enthusiasts following bouncing umbrella’s from one Kodak moment to the next.

Dubrovnic as seen from the terrace of our apartment.

We tried to get through the must see moments of the town early in the morning, and then escape to the outskirts where we found small restaurants and “private” beaches to pass the hottest parts of the day with the locals. I like being "a local"; I try to impersonate the locals when I am a tourist and I have tried to be one in as many places as possible…. serial dwelling. There is so much to be said for being of a place. I remember when I had lived in California for 7 years, someone declared me a “local” as I had lived there longer than the average person. I had great pride in being a Californian, as I did in being a local of the French quarter in New Orleans, and now in Martel. The more touristed a town the quicker one can claim the title. The title for those in Dubrovnik comes with more stripes than most. The Serbian-Croatian war in the very recent 90’s reigned fear down upon the very heads of the locals, they were trapped within their own walls, stubbornly holding onto their lives and their heritage. We met a taxi driver that ran food up the hill to the defending soldiers when he was Oscar’s age. I don’t think I had ever met anyone who had been shot at!

Now the locals are in servitude to the tourists. It is almost all that remains of their economy, and the ages old relationship is on the surface there. They need us for 75% of their jobs, and we need them for everything we do there, except swimming. We found a café pinched between the sea and the town, it was clinging to the rocks, outside of the medieval walls. There was a place for drinks, and a place to swim in the surf, and in between the two there were spots carved out of the rocky beach with chairs and umbrellas and “privat” signs defending the spot. We were told by the café owner that “we could sit there but that it was an area for the locals”…and well???.... we sat. This would be akin to roping off a section of a public beach and saying that it is only for the people that live on the beach. No one owns the beach, right? This should be public and well, being able to spell “privat” does not entitle you to something which belongs to everyone. We were a massive group of 10 (don't try this at home), and while half of us were in the sea at any given time, we were still a massive group. One local fisherman came and happily shared the space with us for an hour, making small talk about the species of fish and such, but as the day grew late and the locals all started to appear, we were challenged by several children, who seemed to know only one word in English: “private”. Our new friend, the fisherman, chastised them for their rudeness, and encouraged us to hold our ground. The 12 year old sized kids promptly leapt from the stone cliffs next to our hideout. We thought this precipice was so high as to only provide a view, but they seemed quite used to flying the 40 or so feet into the clear blue sea. We had stood our ground, planted our flag, (sent the locals off a cliff) and so we could now leave pretending it was our choice to do so.

The event made me start thinking about being a local. Especially in an environment overwhelmed by tourists. The locals surrender so much, their lives are ruined/improved by the influx of others, and what can they hold onto? A café the tourists don’t (yet) know about? A shortcut through the crowds? The quietude of mornings? A private beach? I begrudge them these things, I search for them to create my own experience, these secrets that create a place. Search and Destroy: Tourism in the World. Fortunately, the world is large and many of these places are endowed with an incredible built or natural environment that will continue to bear the immense weight of us non-locals. The limestone streets will get even smoother, the surrounding mountain tops even more rugged and the coastlines will continue to meander, flashing their beautiful eyes at people like me.

When I am a foreign tourist, being the antithesis of local, I am finely tuned into the traveling brethren. I listen for English spoken here and am ready to make relationships where they don’t belong. Sitting at a cafe in Budapest, I am drawn to the next table of American or French voices, kindred spirits? long lost relatives? new best friends? Strangely, as stated above, I am in this new place to feel it, to be lost in it, to be as a local, but then my reflex is to make connections with others like me, other tourists! We share restaurant stories, museum ideas, transit passes, and the occasonal email address. Somehow making familiar connections in far away places grounds me. It’s not what I am looking for, but it’s often what I find. We cross oceans to find new experiences, then we cross the street to re-touch the familiar.

Surfing the world like an old man in the waves.
I sat on the edge of the storm-tossed Adriatic on our last day, watching a man in his 80’s (a local) being tossed against the rocks by the 3 meter waves. Amazingly he just floated there, rolling into the rocks and away, lightly pushing off of them with his feet when he drifted too close. He was so in his element, so unfazed by the danger and the power that moved him, I was fascinated. I imagine this old man probably grew up swimming in this cove, making waves in his youth and surfing them effortlessly now, floating through the tortured history of his city, the wars, the communist era, the tourists, and whatever is next. The waves pulled him back, up and forward again and again. I watched with the fascination of an accident or a miracle about to happen. As time passed, the old man left unscathed and before quitting the cove, I took his place in the waves to again experience something local. It was far more miracle than the hazard I thought I had been watching, the immense surf, and the unique form of the rocky coast held me gently. With the exception of the breaking waves from behind and the recoiling spray in front, it was like floating in a watery rocking chair that had been there for a thousand years! I can still close my eyes and go back there.

Bosnia and tortured civilizations

We left the hot beach weather to the swimmers and drove inland 3 hours to another world entirely, Bosnia. While Croatia had been christian for most of it's history, Bosnia was at the crossroads of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Austria-Hungarian empires and has an overlapping religious culture to show for it. Christian, Muslim and Orthodox continue to share the city, sometimes peacefully, and sometimes, as in the 1990's, not so peacefully, and even today they seem ready to forcibly protect their beliefs. It was an interesting sight to see an immense Christian cross dominating the hill above Mostar, a town that held at least a dozen mosques and minarets that we could see. We toured one of the mosques, built in the 16th century and we climbed it's minaret, from there we could see this ancient city and the rugged mountains around it. We were in the very center of Mostar and all around us we were looking at the desruction from a war 13 years ago like it could have been yesterday! Parts have been rebuilt but much remains awaiting attention. It was strange being a tourist in an area that had so recently been a war zone. The pain and suffering the people of this town had witnessed was hard to imagine even when seeing some of the damage, and now we were here sightseeing as if their lives were on display. We climbed, contemplated and crossed the famous bridge built in the 1500's that connected the two sides of the city and was then symbolically and strategically destroyed in the war. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was rebuilt after the war from stones recuperated from the floor of the river 100 feet below. It was a moving experience and another reminder of how fortunate we are to have been born in the time and place that we were...

Human Soup
After Mostar, we returned to the Croatia coast and spent another fabulous few days in the sun. Then, we returned to civilization. As I have said before, we are city mice and we had been away too long. We had several wonderful days in Vienna, full of museums, restaurants and window shopping. We toured buildings and even went to an outdoor music event, Peter and the Wolf, on a giant outdoor screen in front of the Rathause, Vienna’s Gothic city hall. Thousands of young Austrians eating dinner, drinking wine and watching a Russian version of the fable, followed by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas performing the Rites of Spring. It was a sublime moment, food framed by music framed by fable, framed by an incomparable setting, in a superlative city! An exclamation mark to our stay in Vienna, we left for Budapest the next day.

Budapest was a smorgasbord. It is a grand city, which suffered greatly under the attention and neglect of the Nazi regime and then the Soviets. Years and years of a crumbling society, punished by political winds and weak leaders in the face of crippling occupations. The architecture is grand and wonderful, varied and coherent. The buildings are mostly huge brick monsters with deep layers of plaster creating one interesting composition after another. Almost every building seems to occupy the entire block and possess at its core a grand courtyard with balconies all around creating exterior corridors.

Every surface is decorated with arches, or iron work, or murals, mostly falling apart, but still feeling alive and poised for resurrection. Every building seems a celebration, nothing seems to be background, all in competition for greatness. All together the city is tired and awaiting a rebirth, which somehow seems imminent.

Budapest has a thermal source, water bubbling forth at something short of boiling, which is shared by the cities many bath houses. There are two grand ones that remain, both palaces to the art of bathing. Hundreds of Budapesters share the flow with the tourists in a multitude of pools ranging from freezing to boiling and from quiet to raucous, aerobics classes, swimming classes, massages, and a 100 year old wave pool that is more like falling into a racing river full of warm bodies and fast moving water. Everyone is colliding and bouncing off of each other like so many fish in a simmering bouillabaisse! Incredible.

There is something very different about Eastern Europe, it is the origin of so much of America, and yet remains so exotic and pure. We are used to the diversity of America, our melting pot, while so many places in the world are so homogeneous that they are fascinating to us. We watch the people, we recognize ourselves in them, we soak in their environment and with luck, we return home different.

Love to all of you, Daniel Pat and Oscar

July 4, 2008

Maple Syrup

The nice thing about an only child is you can raise him on Maple Syrup. There’s nothing wrong with Log Cabin, I turned out alright, if you consider a penchant for fois gras and butter cream frosting healthy. But when there is just one mouth to feed, one can afford Maple Syrup.
Actually we can afford Oscar’s gourmand tendencies easily enough; he apparently has some sort of French speed governor built in. Unlike me, or most other kids, he hoards his goods. Oscar still has Halloween candy, he still has M&M’s his birthday party, and it took him all week to finish a tiramisu! I’m not sure where this comes from, it may be French…. it may be Californian…. it may be the child of stupid-thrifty parentage???? He continues to be happy with second hand clothing and penny candy, library books and adaptive reuse. Someday soon he may start insisting on new clothes, or a cell phone, but for now we are the blissful parents of a happy 10 year old.

Today is the last day of school for this Franco-American, suitably on Independence Day! Oscar is finished with primary school and starts at college next year, the confusing name for what America calls middle school. It’s a big deal here, a larger school and a new format. The college is here in town, walking distance from home and we are all excited about the change. He finished the year with excellent marks and a nice comment about his appetite for learning. We have seen some of the strange effects of his having skipped a grade, while he did well academically, he is the youngest and in some ways that comes apparent from time to time. The biggest problem was inserting himself into the older class and their lukewarm acceptance. Next year their class will be mixed with several other schools and we expect all these lines to blur further. The process has perhaps given him some important social skills.

Otherwise he is walking the line between sweet kid and surly adolescent, unsure on how to respect his parents and be a cool kid at the same time. I’m dreadfully afraid it’s karmic payback time and what the next few years could bring. Oscar is entering what were dark years in my childhood. Fortunately half of his genetic makeup comes from Pat so we should be alright.

Madame McBain was honored at the end of the school year. The other teachers gave her some gifts, the parents gave her a rounding ovation, and the kids were all appreciative and happy to try out their English hello’s. She shined and continues to do wonders for our status in this tiny town. Next year she hopes to get involved at the college and perhaps start an “English club”.

Every step we make gives us new entrees into the community here. After five years we are more comfortable with our status and able to speak more English with friends. Everyone speaks some English, it seems like many were waiting for us to establish some command of their language before they were comfortable enough to try ours. Every few weeks someone else talks to Pat about helping them with their English. Every new door gives us an entrée into another level of society here, Oscar’s school, Pat’s teaching, or my new door.

The door came out well, getting compliments, beckoning visitors and still slamming behind them. The arch is way out of level so the door is too, causing it to pick up speed as it closes… pending.

Summer starts for us today; we are off to the beach!

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June 28, 2008


The new front door is done! Well almost, we are still searching for the poignee, the door knob, which by means of a metal rod will operate the latch. There is a lock, and it has been oiled with used cooking oil (as the locals do it). Somehow in the photo it looks awfully low, but it's really high enough that it feels comfortable to walk through.

We are basking in the approving "chapeaus" from the neighboors, and the continued surprise from friends who never quite got the idea of the described "new door made from old floorboards". The wood is 100 year old Walnut, the frame is 1000 year old stone,..... PINCH ME!
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June 10, 2008

Tool Challenged

We are still working on the A is for Arch project.
Being thwarted at every turn with poor quality tools. Here's the deal, for some reason, France is awash in cheap Chinese tools.
There mustn't be any tariffs on imported tools, as there must be in America. In France one can actually buy power tools at the
grocery store, 8 euro grinders and drills and 30 euro demolition hammers and vacuums. These tools are not made very well, but they always come with a 1 year warranty which is about double the life of the average tool for a guy like me, so if you play your cards right you can string one cheap tool along for a long time. Now, cheap tools are not much fun to work with, I have always been a strong believer in quality tools, but I already own all these tools in California, and the French tools that would 'last a lifetime' won't function on the 110 volt American system so I have no desire to drop the big euros. The Europeans do make great tools, AEG, Bosch, Festool.... but those tools are twice the price of quality tools in the US. The core of the problem is that there are no tools in the middle range, just cheap and way expensive! So I buy the cheap tools and have already replaced them time and time again.

This week it was the Demolition Hammer, the small grinder (I cut the cord, oops!) the large grinder and then the table saw. Only the table saw is still under it's warranty, but when you return a tool or electronic device to a store here in France, they try to fix it! In America, they replace it and your only out the lost hours of standing in line at Home Depot, here they send it out for repair, and half of the time they actually repair it! The rest of the time, you just wait three to six weeks while they get HQ to authorize the replacement. It is so very frustrating to be mid project and so gravely tool-challenged.

But despite the stumbles the A is for Arch project moves forward. Here the door is in place (behind the plywood barrier that keeps the tourists from marching in). It is made of inch thick, 100 year old walnut boards recuperated from the attic floor, very pretty and VERY heavy. The challenge that awaits is how to hinge it, the stone arch is not plumb, I wonder if it ever was? I will start by hanging it tight to the arch and out of level and then try to compensate with offset hinges, it's just a theory but it should work. There is nothing like reopening a stone arch to create a buzz on the street, everyone wants to talk about it. Between the Chinese tools and the French tourists, we might get done by Christmas!
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May 29, 2008

A is for Arch

One might suppose to have started with a project like this, but we are closer to finishing with it. When we bought this house 3 years ago, we quickly realized that the stoned in arch should become the front door. We applied for permission to "re-open" the arch and it is now the last project on our building permit.

The arch was filled with 2 feet of stone 6 feet high and 7 feet wide, I'm figuring 7 tons, supported by the ache in my back and the sore spot on my hand from missing the chisel too many times. Strangely all the stones in the arch had been destroyed by repeated freezing, moisture settled into the stone and, over the centuries, the occasional deep freezes would split the stones into rubble which stayed intact, like so many things in medieval France, by gravity alone.

Tomorrow I will start rerouting the water main and then I can start rebuilding the doors.

May 24, 2008

New projects

We have started into one of our single largest
details, opening the new entrance onto the street. Three years we got permission to reopen the 13th century arch on the street.

In the 17th century (give or take a hundred years), they started taxing property
owners on the size and nature of the openings in their buildings. Openings = Wealth.
A street-arch meant business and the high tax led to the majority of the arches being filled in to avoid the taxes. Centuries later, with new tax methods, we are rediscovering our past, and reopening the arch. This Arch, long ago, was the interface between the merchant who owned our house and the customers in the streets.

For us it will become the front door and relegate the walnut doors I had made with my dad 3 years ago, to the "garage" doors they were meant to be. We are looking forward to finally taking this step. It involves re-routing the drain line, the water main, electrical switches, doorbells, mailbox, and about 2 tons of stone. Oscar was very excited to participate, tearing apart an old stone wall is lots of fun, he even wrote out a schedule:

practice guitar --- 10 minutes
Work - Work - Work!

The whole work/play thing is still unfolding. For me there is little difference (perhaps having to do only with whether I drink my wine during or after). My work is play, it is still what I want to do on my weekends and a sore back or smashed finger is the smudge on my apron that marks my accomplishment. For Oscar this is still forming. "Play" is a game, it comes in a box or employs a toy. When he is in his fort however that is "work", things are being made, mostly defensive structures for my eventual attack! but it's work. I remember well my father trying to instill a joy of such work in me. We would spend summers in the "family fort", an actual log cabin in the Connecticut woods. What I remember first is the lists he would make before he left for work. Only years later did I realize that he thought he was leaving a menu of fun things to do all day, at the time I saw it as an unrealistic challenge to my summer vacation!

You rebel against your parents
and then...... you become them.

Now I am trying to remember whatever was coursing through my ten year old mind and take heed. I want Oscar to find that Joy of Work, to find pleasure in craft but I'm not entirely certain of how to affect it.

We installed a marquis over our front door, a glass canopy to
keep the rain out. I used a piece of 1/2" tempered glass which appropriately disappears on
the exterior and does an amazing reappearing act every sunny day around 5 pm, with a shifting
prismatic effect that brings life to the white stone walls and anyone who happens into our home.
Somehow it's such a new-age touch in such an old place that it boggles the mind.

To un-boggle the mind, I wanted to share a radio program, This American Life, which is one of the most heralded programs on NPR, with a reputation for "stories about why everyone else is so interesting". I have been listening for 10 years and it just gets better. Last weeks (1 hour) program was a very entertaining, and illuminating set of stories that go a long way towards describing the boggling loan cum credit crisis story gripping the planet. This is easy listening! Funny, entertaining and like the shifting prism in our home, illuminating in a spectral manner!

Click HERE for the show and let me know if you like it.

May 18, 2008


I was noticing today how other people end a conversation, with a lilt, or crescendo. And as I thought about it I realized that I do as well, and that the French do just like the Americans, and the British! It's perhaps cross cultural, the desire to wrap it up, to make a definition, a verbal period (.). This seems even more keen at the end of a phone conversation, when we aren't in each others presence and the only body language we have is to speak faster and with a higher pitch, a crescendo, to indicate the conclusion.
Phone calls are difficult for me. While I can run on and on in person, on the phone there is a time element that doesn't exist otherwise and perhaps the silence is more difficult to endure. Some people can talk endlessly on the phone, or when they meet on the streets, but almost always there is this strange, up-tempo finish to every conversation. It makes me as uncomfortable as the silence. We have just gotten a webcam....I wonder if it'll make a difference?
It's all about the transitions, the beginnings and the endings. The first impressions and the last; did I shake hands with enough force? did I kiss the cheek with too much lip? did I seem earnest?
The transitions here in France are occupying much of our thoughts. The question of when to end this adventure, and why, is on our minds presently. Our original schedule was 5 years, which will come to pass in 3 weeks! Now we are planning on 3 more years so as to finish this house at a leisurely pace and transition Oscar back into the life of an American kid with the start of high school.
But these are all arbitrary milestones. We are looking for the rhyme to the plan, the force majeur for our trajectory. We are often asked by others why we want to return to the US?, why would we leave this lifestyle? and the answers are often foggy and distant... family, friends, work, zinfandel and certainly to live where things are more familiar! It remains as hard to imagine leaving as it does to imagine staying. We're wondering what will be our crescendo?
"Chateau Crescendo"?
Oscar and Daniel in front of the (ruined) stair tower
Meanwhile we wonder what would we do if we stayed? We came across a chateau that's for sale. OK more of a ruin of a chateau, but it's sort of like nature has already done the demolition work for us and now it's ready for us to come in and rebuild! The stone is in great condition and the building is full of wonderful architectural details (not to mention trees) that one doesn't find too often, even around here in this medieval land. We are only half serious about it but it has caused all sorts of other questions to bubble up around the subject of why, when and what if???
Large windows, three huge fireplaces, did I mention no floors? No roofs?
This would be the living room, with plenty of house plants.

Mother's day

We spent Mother's Day with friends in their vacation house in Les Cevennes, a national park region southeast of us by 5 hours. Incredibly remote, and incredibly beautiful! Oscar cooked a pasta carbonara dinner and made ginkgo leaf earrings to suitably decorate her for Mother's Day. She kept them in all day, and she climbed waterfalls, built forts, and earned her motherly stripes!

Spending four days with good friends in the middle of nowhere is a special opportunity. Once you remove the distractions we think are our lives, it is wonderful what you are left with. In our case it was mostly food and lot's of red wine!

We are back to basics now, Oscar back in school, Pat back to learning French and teaching English and Daniel playing with stones. Er, I mean working with stones. We are finally getting started on the entry at the street level, building walls, repointing stone, building doors, then we get to remove the stones from the arch on the street and reclaim the entry to this chateau!

Come help!

April 22, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Firstly and lastly, we are very glad to be home!

We took a road trip last week and while it started well it ended with a rain filled whimper.

We drove 6 hours towards the Mediterranean and arrived in Avignon to sunny skies and an adventure on a houseboat, the Peniche QI. It was fun and comfortable enough, but the water on the boat was not clean enough to drink, and by the time we were told, it was too late. Oscar and Daniel fell to the first bout of travellers sickness since we started travelling 5 years ago. The rest of the trip was a blur of hotel rooms turned infirmaries and few sights or meals in between. I'd complain, but who'd listen? We consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to get travellers sickness in the first place, we just want to get better!

The rain tried to dampen the adventure as well, there is flooding all around us as the water levels rise and the April showers continue. It is always nice to return home, to convalesce in ones own home. Martel is slowly winding up into the tiny tourist corner that it loves to be. Check out this short news program, in french, all about our town:,,3525224,00-marches-martel-dans-lot-.html#

And if you know the Famous-in-France song Sur le Pont de Avignon, then you will know there is something weird and magical about dancing on this famous bridge that used to connect the Pope to his Cardinals:
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March 30, 2008


3 years and counting. We have been working on our house since April 2005, sometimes really hard, but mostly at a slow and steady tortoisional pace. Some days we certainly feel like we have earned our callouses and compliments, others it seems more like we bounce from school vacation to school vacation, always trying to take advantage of our European adventure by traveling when we should be working. We should be traveling. Perhaps this confused raison d'etre explains why this project has taken 3 years deja'. But there is progress. We live in a home 90% complete and I think that might be a record for us. The last 10% are large things that an untrained eye would never notice, like the stoned in arch on the street that we will soon de-stone and create a new front door. This is the next project and has many components, I'm really looking forward to it and I'll try to drag it out through the spring and into the summer, if not the Autumn.

The milestone achieved on this third anniversary of the work is the plaster and it's close to our hearts. This week saw the conclusion of the plastering, the last coat of finish on the last wall! For years we have admired and talked about "Venetian plastering". We have tried various effects simulating the mottled finish but always avoided the gilded chalice itself as too difficult for non-Venetians to attempt. Then we happened upon Jerome. Jerome is a Frenchman, living in London, with family here in Martel and a reputation for high end plaster finishes. We became friends and he gave me the missing information to make the jump into the superflat plaster technique akin to venetian plaster, and a star was born! We got pretty good at the technique over the past year and couldn't stop. We gave away our paint and decided every available wall deserved this multi layered technique. Each successive wall turned out better than the previous and now I wonder what I can plaster next? Oscar's room sports a grass green wall and another cabernet colored, the bathroom has a stone colored plaster wall and the guest room a deep red. The master bedroom has one denim blue and another sea green wall and everything else is various warm shades of yellow. There is definitely too much yellow, but we are good at yellow, and it's a vast improvement over the past 20 years of painting everything Atrium White!

The technique:
Dry pigments
No sand paper
8" plastering spatula
Soap and oil finish

This method works on any material, we have used it on brick, Sheetrock, wood and even the 300 year old torchi (dirt) walls.
You mix dry plaster with a small amount of powdered tints
from Ocres de France and then mix, with an electric plaster mixing tool, enough water to achieve a peanut butter consistency. Apply 2 or 3 thick coats (1/8") of plaster, then 2 or 3 thin coats (1/64"). Between each coat of plaster you scrape the dried plaster smooth with an 8" plaster knife. In the beginning you are simply knocking down the high points, then by the end you are really grinding the smooth finish even smoother with each coat, scraping off any defects and then filling in any defects with the successive coats. The plaster knife needs to be maintained immaculately. Sharpen it between successive coats with a stone and an emery cloth and store it in your underwear drawer between coats! The sharp knife is the only thing that matters. Use a carbon steel knife, not a stainless steel knife, as they are too soft.

Once you have achieved an acceptably flat finish (think babies bottom) then you are ready for the soap and oil finish. This part is the magic. Each coat of plaster fades as it dries and looses any vibrancy present in the wet plaster, but the oil in the finish brings the color back and the soap creates a glossy finish that hardens over time.

45% Savon de Marseille hard soap (available online and at Williams Sonoma)
45% Linseed Oil
10% Water

Heat the above in a microwave then mix thoroughly (I use a handheld food processor but even vigorous shaking in a glass jar works)

It's magic because once in a while it doesn't work, and sometimes it makes a mess out of your microwave and sometimes Pat's soup tastes like soap, but persevere and it will find you.

This soap mixture is as well the consistency of stiff peanut butter, and applies even better if it is still warm. Use the same 8" plaster knife and apply in consistent semi-arch swirls.

Let it dry for a few days and buff with a clean lint free towel.

The finished product is sublime. Maybe it's peculiar, but I get goosebumps just typing about it! When I'm applying the multiple coats, truthfully, life sucks, it's hard and repetitive, I wear gloves and a wrist brace and drink heavily, but at the end of the week the "touch" of the finished product raises the tiny hairs on the back of my neck every time!

If you double-click on the photo above it will open larger and maybe you can see the finish. The picture is a detail of the very last wall, another Cabernet color, in the hallway outside of the bedrooms on the upper floor. The door to the bathroom is on the right and the door in the picture leads into Oscar's room with a transom window above it. The shiny wall on the right is the sheen of the plaster wall.

This is not Venetian plaster, more of Martelaise plaster, and if you come visit I'll teach you how to do it!

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March 23, 2008

A New View

A small project:

We have a huge grenier, or attic, on top of our house. It serves as a playground for Oscar and a rainy day workshop for Daniel as well as storage for the amazing amount of extra stuff we have already accumulated. It is an amazing place, incredibly open, the roofing system typical in a medieval town like ours is 100's years old beams, called charpentes (the root of the English word carpenter I suppose) and thousands of terra cotta tiles that simply hang onto the structure by grace of their weight and form. The tiles overlap like any shingle system, but their uneven forms creates spaces between each tile where the light leaks in, along with the wind and occasional wind driven snow. The daytime effect is like a starry night sky with spots of light everywhere, it's amazing, and dark. One of the strangest things has been these dark winter evenings when the kids play in the attic on a rainy evening and due to the open eaves and porous tile system, their giggling voices carry into the streets making the Martelaise wonder what kind of parents we Americans must be to let our children play outdoors in the rain. While all the time they are safe from the rain creating mazes of forts in the limits of the attic with only the sound betraying their presence.

Two years ago I bought a cast iron and glass skylight at an antique sale and have spent the intervening time thinking about how to install such a simple beast. This week, with the spare half a day and warming sunny skies waiting to get in, I started removing tiles, from the inside! After half an hour I had 20 tiles on the floor and a 2x3 foot hole in the roof. The rest was easier than could be expected and soon the new roof window was in and done.

No leaks!

Here's the view.... the added few meters of height let me look over the neighbors roof and see an uninterrupted countryside. It all makes me certain that I need to find a way to build out a room up there and maybe even construct a dormer to capitalize on the view. The church is on the left and the view is due South.

Please note that you can click on most of the photos in this blog and open them much larger.

Further, since I have started blogging instead of journaling, I am only periodically sending alerts to new material, so scroll down and click through to the older posts and see if you have missed anything. And try to subscribe so you get notified instantly to any new posts.

BY the way, our newly restored guest room is empty the month of August!

in fact September and October too!
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March 20, 2008

Youth is wasted on the young.

I’m not talking about Oscar, I am talking about my own wasted youth. The horse is still in the barn for him, mine is out to pasture. There is no blaming my poor choices on “youth” anymore. We wonder what part of this adventure in Europe will ever rise to the surface in Oscar?? Tangible stuff like, will he remember that he visited Strasbourg?, and less so (more so) will he remember the slow walk around an Alsatian townhouse and the mindless musing of his parents on the architectural idiosyncrasies and patterns of the art nouveau movement. What French patterns will be etched into Oscars being? When he longs for “home” what language will they be speaking there?


When we were twice Oscar’s age we spun through the same circles we spin through today, and I’m not certain we were ready for it even then. Those were the salad days of youth and we wandered around Europe with still other priorities, unable to spend more on a meal than on a place to sleep, weighing the value of entrance to a museum against a train ticket. In Strasbourg there were young adults in the town square, milling about holding small signs that said “colin gratuit” (free hugs). My French aunt took/gave a hearty hug and explained that this is a new thing in France and that it originated in America, unbeknownst to us. This is apparently an effort to share something positive, something easy, something of no and incredible value. An energy of youth, focused, and a wonderful lesson.

Older, wiser and with considerably greater baggage, our adventures now take us to new corners of France, or the old corners cast in a new light. We discovered a new Paris, with friends we lived among the Royals, in a rental apartment in the Palais Royal, one block from the Louvre in the 1st arrondisment, a treasure around each corner. Then we went on to Nancy to visit our ‘French Family’ Francine and Ann Marie, and the expanding cote francaise as we come to know the extended family. We toured Corbusier’s incredible church at Ronchamp, then the hillside villages along the “wine route” of Alsace and then back home and back to school. What gets remembered??? Fortunately Oscar comes up with gems, like “remember that funny door in Venice?” or “this is just like that street in Mont St Michel” just to prove he was paying attention. And like any child, when they seem otherwise engaged, there is always an ear open to what the grown-ups around him are saying, and it usually comes back to haunt us…. “well you said…” but it all makes for absorption and gives greater value to each kilometer and every new roadshow.


Every 6 years France holds local elections, so we got to watch if not participate in this spectacle. Martel has 1300 registered voters and 80% showed up to seat 15 town council members from the four political parties that are the strongest of the 18 parties (ranging from Workers' Struggle to Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions parties). Everyone gets to vote for their choice of 15 to run the town and the greater sub-county. Once the 15 are chosen they select among themselves who should be the Mayor. The four parties that fielded candidates could be summed up as the “leftists”, the “left of leftists”, “the very left” and the “too left”. This is a wonderful corner of France! Our mayor of 24 years was re-elected, along with the baker, the butcher’s wife, the realtor and the candle stick maker, local politics are wonderful and everyone genuinely expects change (sound familiar). We attended the vote count, along with about 200 locals, where the town officials read aloud every ballot and a tally is taken until victors were announced at 2 am. Everyone asked us if we voted for Hillary or Obama as we expressed frustration at being kept out of the Martel process (only EU citizens can vote and we are EU residents). The level of political knowledge and participation here is a thing of beauty, everyone seems informed and interested, everyone is an historian and a pundit, and there are no “un-decideds”. We had several friends running for office, some made it, most didn’t but it does make the process interesting, we will watch to see what happens next.
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