Saturday, December 31, 2005

tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc

what are you doing new year’s?

What am I ever doing: eating, drinking, taking photos, grinning, thinking, spinning back ‘n forth back ‘n forth, writing.

what are your new year’s resolves?

I suppose I should eat less, drink less, take more or fewer photos – depending whom I’m with, spin less, write more, grin more… Oh, I don’t know. Leave me alone.

what was the most memorable moment of 2005?

You’re asking about good moments? Because I had three significant ones and they happened in spring, summer and fall. I guess last winter was sort of a dry spell moment-wise.

What do you hope for in 2006?

Fewer rotten tomatoes in this world, more patience within me in dealing with the rotten tomatoes in my own back yard.

How will you improve Ocean in the year ahead?

Take writing lessons? C’mon, I try. Okay, I’ll try harder.

Any parting words for 2005?

Yeah. I had the year of years. Nothing happened as planned. I survived. To everyone’s survival and to positive outcomes. Especially to you, readers. I favor the chosen few who read Ocean. For you I wish music within and pristine silence of moon-drenched fields all around.

Happy New Year.

where are you going, where are you going, will you take me with you?

Where am I heading on this next-to-last-day in December?

No, Oscar, I am not having an existential moment. This is a very real query.

A hint:

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with lots of cheese and a holiday twinkle

Anyone who has ever lived in Chicago will answer: what the hell, that’s a deep dish Lou Malnati’s pizza. Are you in Chicago or did you order on-line?

I am indeed in Chicago and will be here for the next few days. My family follows me to Madison and so it is only just and proper and good that I should follow them here for the New Year’s celebration. We like our habits, external pressures and legal proceedings notwithstanding. For us, there is only one right way to flip that last calendar page and that way is to sit together at a table and eat and drink and make fun of life as we have known it in the year that just passed.

Driving to Chicago in something that vacillates between a snowstorm and a downpour, I realize that this stretch of road is rapidly becoming either a journey toward heaven or hell. The blinding slush storm is breathtakingly beautiful in a fantastically terrifying sort of way.

Squeezed together in a zippy blue car, with suitcases and parcels piled around us, the three of us sing. Loudly. It is what we do on road trips. There’s some harmony, there’s even some recognition of lyrics. True, I would not know a correct lyric from the flag pledge, but I listen hard and follow an eight of a beat behind.

As the rain/snow swirls and trucks speed past and spray us with extra barrels of freezing wetness, I keep my ex’s car in the rear view mirror (as he wants to follow close behind), and we speed forward into the unknown. Oh, alright, not really The Unknown. I know my way around these parts. Still, it is, on this stormy day, a blind journey, to the notes of Journey and Paisley and Williams, and at the end of the day there is this fantastic Chicago style pizza. I live a good life.

Friday, December 30, 2005

pink drinks and white nights

There we were, last night, the Sad Liberals, coming together in the old neighborhood, skirting in our discussions the real troubles of the world, preferring to focus on developments in our own homes and spaces, because, really, it’s too hard to replay the news stories that one hears each day, too hard to remember how close it came to being a different set of stories that November 2nd.

When I left the old neighborhood this past summer to live downtown, I am sure in those blocks I left behind images of a person driven by wild chaos: those last months were all about frantic cooking, ranting, packing and yes, cosmo drinking. A mad fury, needed to get me from one place to the next.

So I am handed a gift last night, something for the tree, but something I decided to put up on my loft refrigerator.

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A nostalgic prod into days when I made cosmos that were too strong, where I hardly saw the pink in them, where what I said did not matter just as long as I said it forcefully, where evenings rolled into mornings on the strength of a calendar pushing one day into the next.

Of course, friends know better than to say that I have settled down into a steady pace now. I’m up late, up early, up all ours of the night. Agitated by the wealth of bright things that happen each day, I need less sleep. Markers of chaos then, of great sanguinity now.

Late last night I drove home on one of those bright winter nights were you need no headlights to see what’s ahead. Deer tracks, visible on both sides of the road, white fields, tinted with blue light, serene calm outside, pounding music inside my own space. That pretty much describes my movements now – both the serenity and the pounding music within.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

not to be catty...

My friends have cats. That’s not the worst of it: it seems that most of the bloggers listed at the side here have cats. So anything I say about cats is bound to elicit strong thoughts and feelings in the vast majority of readers.

My attitude toward cats has been that they are best left to their devices. Preferably in a barn where they can chase mice and in that way participate in the race for the survival of the stronger species. Though I love birds so I have issues with cats there.

But every once in a while there will come a cat that I do like. No, not the cute little kitten, such as the one I took in as a grad student. That one clawed at my face to get me out of bed before noon – a horrible and spiteful little act. No grad student I ever knew got up before noon. I had to, because of The Cat.

I’m thinking that I like my friend Ed’s cat, Isis. (His other cat -- what can I say… barn life for you as far as I’m concerned.)

But I see that Isis has rights, many rights, ones that any number of people can only dream of. The type of rights I generally associate with the US Constitution. For him it’s all about liberty and the pursuit of happiness with a lot of freedom to participate in commerce thrown in: of the food-transporting kind. Except that he doesn’t have to transport it very far as there are bowls of cat food everywhere. Ed tells me that this is the way it must be with two cats around. Otherwise they fight. Granted. My sister and I always had separate bowls of soup and cereal.

Typically I let Ed know that I am dropping by his sheep shed. But last night his phone was endlessly busy and so I showed up unannounced. Isis obviously had not been told that I was about to usurp his dominant position and hold on the household and so he was out and about, doing his cat thing. Smugly, I entered the sheep shed. The hour is mine, I'm thinking.

Not true. Within minutes Isis, his cat instincts finely set to detect possible usurpers, was back at the shed.

And so I have become accustomed to devoting the first hour of a visit to basically kissing up to Isis. It’s the only way to buy an hour or two of freedom from cat interference into pretty much anything – from sipping wine and munching chocolate to resting with a good book, or what have you. (The cat rejects the wine I bring over, thinking probably that anything of indifferent vintage is not worthy of him, but he sniffs the French chocolate appreciatively. Thanks Isis.)

Okay, so Isis I like. But convince me that other cats out there, the ones that jump all over your fine chocolates and your friend’s lap at awkward times are to be admired and adored. What other beast has such privileges? Fish stay in their tanks, dogs stay in their kennels or get the basement treatment when guests come. Cats? Cats set the agenda. And owners sheepishly acquiesce. That includes sheep shed-living owners.

But I do like Isis.

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Larry, the other one, watching the dusk roll in. and me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

three points

The fog ate everyone up. But how do you explain the emptiness of the apartment hallways? All public spaces in my loft building are empty.

Celebrate! I am credit card debt free. As of 10:10 a.m. this morning.

My daughters suggested a pedicure. Never ever, not at any time in the past has anyone except for me come anywhere close to my toe nails with utensils and brushes. Awesome, especially the sugar exfoliant massage.

That’s all. Nothing more to share for today.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

fishing alone

I am in court first thing this morning. A foggy day, a wet kind of day. On the bench, my favorite judge. Memories of past trials before her, remembering her compassion, her wisdom.

We’re wrapping things up now, we gather our papers. The opposing counsel comes up, we shake hands. As she turns to leave, she tosses this over her shoulder: you are a great writer – she tells me. I am putting on my coat. I stop. Writer? My last published law review piece was on the impact of the court system on indigent mothers who neglect their children. Surely she is not referring to that. I can barely remember what I wrote there. I have so little patience for most law review articles.

And your photos – outstanding! – she continues. Oh! Ocean! You are referring to my blog! The judge looks up. Blog? Tell me, how can I find it?

Suddenly I remember that my last blog post was about a sheep shed. My favorite judge is about to read a post about sheep shed. And éclairs. And French chefs with cute derriers. My mind races over recent posts. I remember, with relief, editing out an expletive at the last minute. “Hell” is tame. The previously inserted word was not.

We walk out the court building, my ex and I. We talk about the attorneys, about their reading of Ocean. He drops me off at the lake. I want to walk among the fishermen who are out there in great numbers.

Are you cold? I ask one. No, not at all. We have enclosures.

They sit and wait. Mostly, they sit with their own thoughts.

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fishing, alone

A few days ago, one fell through the ice. Within minutes they pulled him out. He went out too far.
Oh, so there are others, always there are others.

How many do you catch?
On a good day, 200.
You eat them all?
The limit is 25, we can only keep 25. The fishing is good here, I travel all the way from Fort Atkinson just to fish here.

A long drive to sit alone.

A big grin covers his face. It’s worth it. But then, ice fishermen are an interesting lot. Sit with me and you can watch.

I’m not dressed for it so I walk back to the loft. But I have been drawn to the sight of these people every day now, for weeks. I’ll look for you next time -- I tell him. He sets up his post and throws down a line and waits.

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pulling your own lot

Monday, December 26, 2005

a sheepish invitation

I have known Ed since the middle of October. I have fed him bowls of soup, he has helped fix mixers and VCRs at the loft, we have traveled to France together. But I had never set foot in his place until today. Why? Because he lives in a sheep shed and he has always had this line: one look at my sheep shed and you’ll quit being my friend.

As if I would not be friends with someone who lives so… humbly.

Shockingly, I received an e-invite today. Come on over. I’ve cleaned the place up. Me: can I bring my camera?

I rushed. After all, he could change his mind.

Ed lives a mere 9.5 minutes away from me. I live in the epicenter of downtown Madison. Yet, when you approach his shed, you lose the city and suddenly find yourself in the deep countryside. He likes it that way.

I walk up to his shed, noticing the attachment to a dilapidated barn. The shed is slanted. At the lower end Ed, at 6 foot 4, barely clears the ceiling.

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I open the door. He is polishing floors. He does not notice I am there. His cats stare at me. Who the hell are you? If a cat can glare with distrust and suspicion, then these guys are glaring. I give them time and space. It is like that with cats and children of another.

Ed designs machines. Predictably, there are machines and tools in odd places. Okay, I am cool with that. My work space intrudes into my living space. So does his. Only it looks more bold and daring to see high tech machines next to the comfy reading chair. It's not a set straight out of Pottery Barn.

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Outside, I am shown where the sheep once moved from the barn to the shed. His sheep shed. Obviously not while he has been inhabiting it. Still, it gives one pause.

I want to be honest. The sheep shed has track lighting. It has a better shower situation than any number of b& b’s we stayed in while in France. I mean, it may not be classy, but it’s no shed that any sheep I know have ever inhabited.

Still, it is a conversation stopper. And where does your friend live – I am asked. In a sheep shed – is my honest reply. After that, it becomes all about the weather.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

merrily we roll along

Rerun performances: same baked treats for breakfast, same squash soup with goat cheese dumplings, same Cornish hens, same chocolate-orange yule log. We are a family that repeats itself.

All this talk about people staying up late to wrap presents? Hmmm. Me, I just get up before the rest (lofters sleep late) and spend an hour playing on the computer. Merrily. Eventually I get to putting ribbons on boxes. Selectively. Weirdly shaped boxes don’t get ribbons. What for, who’ll even notice? I bake, then I wake. It all works.

What did I enjoy putting underneath the tree? I have to give credit to Jenny’s inspiration: origami papers to make wild animals and a set of paint-by-numbers cards. I warned the recipients that it worked best if you had a potent beverage next to the paints .

Afternoon activity: each year it’s the same. A several hour discussion as to which movie we should see late, after dinner. Endless reviews are presented, three agree, the fourth vetoes, and then we start again.

Christmas. What is it about this day for people like me? Each hour evokes the mood of the same hour last year and the year before. On this one day change is not welcome. Just today, repetition is bliss.

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secretly, last minute

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an ornament hiding in the ribbon box

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new latte mugs, Bourges cookies

Saturday, December 24, 2005

it’s Christmas eve, spot, we’ve got lots to do…

So goes the opening line of a kids’ book. Then, in fewer than 100 words, a story unfolds. It’s not a high-drama thing. Spot bumps a few ornaments and the (single?) mommy dog gently scolds him before telling him good night. The next day they find a bone or some such conventional doggie toy and all is well.

I probably haven’t done a great job of convincing anyone here of how evocative this little story is but believe me, it became a favorite in this house – for building on a feeling of warmth and eagerness that so often accompanies this night before Christmas. (Or you can go the poem route. Same thing.)

[Of course, I’m remembering reality here on Ocean. I just read a few blogs where family members were sick for the holidays, and we wont even go to the more troubled corners of the globe which, at last count, outnumber households of peace, of love, of joy.]

This evening of great music and beautiful colors, of foods and friendship and love has had its share of bumps even in households where all should be calm and all should be bright, such as this one. Some eight years ago I distinctly remember wanting to take the gift ribbon so that I could tie it tightly around someone’s neck until they squirmed. And this morning I woke everyone with a growl. I can’t get your goddamn VCR to work and so if you want to watch your goddamn favorite video later today you can goddamn get yourself someone else to fix the goddamn machine! This blasphemy on Christmas Eve day no less. [Thanks Ed. Everyone should have a friend who can fix goddamn machines on short notice.]

It’s because of all this range of bad impulses and frustrations that surface at the slightest provocation that New Year’s resolutions become so attractive – sort of like the idea of dieting after a pastry indulgence. I’ll be good tomorrow.

For me this day is special. I dig deeply within my cluttered soul to make it so with a determination and insistence that comes from no religion but from knowing that I can and should do better. An unexpected visit (Oscar and B., thank you), a moment at the window watching the fog hide the Capitol, Christmas Eve dinner as it has been eaten since as students we first ate it in Scotland decades ago – fondue, with daughters at our elbows now, with laughter, always with laughter and love.

Happy holidays, happy days, gentle loving days to y’all.

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Christmas Eve on the lake: a gathering of friends

Friday, December 23, 2005

in the matter of the tree, part 3

So it’s beautiful. But then, it always is.

1966: I set out in the cold, snow-covered, dismally poor Polish countryside, in search of a tree. I am staying with my grandparents in their village home and I am determined.

I find a small tree, ask a farmer to help me bring it home, where we make paper ornaments, my sister and I, adding them to the dozen glass ones we had kept from years ago. The entire project takes great effort. Most likely, more effort than is expanded by my Polish Christian friends who also have trees that year. For me, the tree has no religious symbolism at all. But it is beautiful and I want my childhood sugarplums even as my (parental-sibling) family is already beginning to unravel – a process that would continue even to this day.

2005: There is a gift under this tree, delivered earlier today by my summer real estate agent. It is somehow fitting that the first gift (one gift) should be from her. A Wisconsin girl, she brought a Wisconsin cheese and a Wisconsin wine. She sat down, looked around and said: this loft fits you. It is how I imagine apartments in Chicago look. A Midwestern girl, she thinks within a Midwestern orbit.

1999: When my daughters go off to college, the tree project is always accomplished on the day after Thanksgiving. They want time with the pine scent, with the colors and lights, with the feeling of sugarplums dancing before them. By Christmas week, when they next see the tree, the branches are turned down, brittle with the weeks of waiting for the daughters to return. I mist the needles with water, I check the base to make sure it is drinking and still it becomes dry, significantly so by Christmas Day.

I was thinking this year that I do not want my limbs to turn down, brittle from sitting quietly and waiting for my daughters to return home for a visit. When they come I should be fresh and peppy, having myself returned from somewhere just in time to greet them.

2005: With each year the daughters take on more of the project. Now, in their adulthood, they do it all. No, wait, we unwrap the toilet paper from each ornament and lay it on the table for them to pick up and place on the tree.

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No one is hungry this year during tee trimming, possibly because it follows dinner. Or is it because so much is different this year?

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I am the only one who has grown used to the loft. I have lived here now for four months. It feels like home. How does it feel to my daughters? Their dad?

When the tree first went up, earlier this week, it offered an intense scent. Unmistakable and pervasive, it alerted you to its presence. By now, the tree has adjusted. You could say it is part of the loft – it no longer feels strange to see it here and the fragrance blends into the smells of cooking and the freshness of its lofty environment.

Maybe this year’s Christmas tree project was the toughest after all. Or maybe what we are trying to do here at the loft as everyone gathers for the holiday is actually quite simple. Maybe the enduring nature of this project, which has survived our reshuffling, their moving out, my moving as well, maybe all this is why our tree this year is especially tall, beautiful.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

in the matter of the tree, part 2

I wake up knowing that the day is now longer. We are moving toward summer.

And still the tree remains untrimmed.

[One year, I imagine that we will wake up on December 25th and decide that there just wasn’t the time or the will to trim the tree (even though tree decorating remains at the top of our list of pleasurable holiday rituals). And the tree will remain there, in its beautiful, pristine splendor, naked, without ornamentation that one year. There’s beauty in that as well.]

We intended to go through our splendid evening of tree trimming last night. But the day took another direction.

Suddenly, as everyone rushes to get things done, my pace has slackened. I have my daughter here, at my side and the movement through a day becomes very different. More protracted, leisurely. We have things to do, tasks, chores, all of it and yet our inclination is to linger. For no reason, we detour to look at antiques and embroidered pillows, we sip lattes at length and watch calm moms handle toddlers’ spills of frothy milk. Outside on Monroe Street, we pause just to look at how stunning a stream of cars can be against a receding winter sun, framed by the bare branches of Madison’s numerous trees.

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At home, I want to bake something. One does not come back from ten days of pastry-gawking in France without wanting to do at least the simplest pastry (an eclair) right here, filled with the familiar rich crème patisserie (chocolate this time).

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And as we drive to the airport late in the day to pick up daughter number two, it becomes clear that tree trimming will not take place on this solstice night. It cannot be rushed. These hours have to be taken as they present themselves. And they are presenting themselves very slowly, deliciously. Dare I say it? Christmas may just have to wait.

Or not. A new plan is hatched: tonight. The tree gets dressed tonight. I think.

to be continued

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

in the matter of the tree

Before leaving for France, I bought a Christmas tree for the loft. It was no small matter, if you forgive the wording here: the instructions were that it should tower.

Ed, with his rusty truck where mice have taken to nesting and myself, out searching for a big tree. It took two days until, indeed, one was found.

The tree rested on the truck for the weeks I was away. Monday, first thing, while the crows slept and the sparrows dozed, the tree was brought into the loft. Up it went, reaching for the ceiling, the 30 foot ceiling, up up (okay, maybe not to the top, but pretty darn high).

Secured, positioned, ready for the arrival of three people who, together with me, have decorated a tree every year since time began.

First person arrives. She looks critically at it and pronounces it magnificent. But in the wrong place.

Second person arrives and says “not bad” and notes that the position could stand adjustment.

Third person about to arrive. First two people have given excellent advice. The entire loft is rearranged. The tree is pushed against the brick wall. It kind of rocked and wobbled in protest, but it survived the transport from point A to point B.

Tonight, the trimming begins.

Let it be noted that of equal importance is the food that you eat while you trim. Bubbly drinks and festive nibbles.

So, on this day I'm dreamily raising my glass (of cranberry grape juice at this point) to the tree, the wonderful tree that brings people and food together.

To be continued.

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wobbling heights

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

weighty thoughts

Yesterday, Tonya wrote about a dinner party discussion she had where she posed the question “which would you prefer: to be invisible or to have the ability to fly?” I got all serious on her. Because I really don’t want either.

I was telling this to my daughter who is home for the holidays and she asked if not flying or invisibility, which super power would I like to lay a claim on?

Can it be a talent? I want an extraordinary talent. Can I have that? – I asked her.
She sighed in the way that people do when you are not cooperating with them and generally being difficult.

Typically, when people play this game, they refer to super hero powers of the “read minds,” “instant transport,” “strength,” “cause things to freeze or burn,” that kind of thing.

I don’t want any of those
, I told her.

You don’t want instant transport? So that you don’t have to waste hours getting yourself from one place to another?

No. If getting there is interminable, then the arrival is more rewarding. If it’s cold outside, then entering a warm room is more pleasurable. Besides, where is the exercise in instant transport?

Pick another then. Surely there is something you could live with. Fly, read minds, twist metal, you can pick one, can't you? It's just a game.

No. I want none of it. Patience. Can I ask for an inhuman dose of it?

The universal conclusion has to be that I’m not good at playing games. I cause trouble and make people gather up their belongings and go home prematurely. Okay, fine. I have myself a New Year’s Resolution. Less stick in the mud, more go with the flow.

Monday, December 19, 2005

from Madison: my Oscar speech

I’m feeling grateful. The trip was such a boost for me, but the boost came not only from being in France. It also came from those who hovered and helped. And there were many:

* Every trip I have ever taken in the last 20 years has had three people tracking my moves and, when the technology evolved to permit it, sending peppy emails. It means tons to me, guys. Thank you.

* And speaking of emails, my students are used to a 5 minute email turn around. There is hardly a minute in the day when I am not connected. Except when I travel. Sorry. It took me sometimes hours to answer your Qs. You are so patient. Now I’m back to 5 minutes, okay?

* On this trip there was Ed: my travel companion with almost as strong a personality as mine. Thanks for not taking that train to visit friends in Nottingham the day I punched too hard. Oh, and thank you for looking at the maps so carefully that when we got lost, it was almost always my fault. Almost. That return to Yvoy? I really was right. I took the correct turn on the round-about. And thanks for loving the food so much. And for ending each day with a smile.

* The chefs at both Cheval Blancs: dang blasted, you guys rock! And chef Michel – your office clutter (and your derriere) was adorable.

* The Air France agents who handed out Valrhona chocolates at CDG airport. This year I had access to the business lounge. There I am pampered and spoiled with champagne, croissants, cookies, baguettes, you name it. But the masses upstairs get nothing. This time everyone at the gate got champagne and Valrhona chocolates. How nice.

* Oh, all the French waiters. I want to kiss your professional faces – you are so great at what you do. My heroes.

* The older woman in Blere who decided she wanted to guide my car out of a tight spot. Her gesturing and waving me forward was precious. I will not forget it soon.

* The commenters, all of you, thank you. There are times when I wonder how sane I am typing away at 4 in the morning, bugging locals for Internet access, conniving ways of dialing up if all else fails. I mean really, you have to wonder. Then. I hear from you and I know you’re reading and it makes it less nutty to be testing the patience of all those around me. Thank you for your words, your encouragement, your time.

~~ from your very humbled Ocean author

Sunday, December 18, 2005

from france: final fireworks

Yesterday -- the last day. Morning spent walking through the rich countryside of central France; the afternoon -- in an ostensibly sleepy cathedral town that was not so sleepy on the last shopping Saturday before Christmas. Dinner at le Cheval Blanc. And it’s over. This morning we head back for Madison.

Here it is, a final burst of fireworks from a day that had it all:

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is this any way to start the day?

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Yvoy le Marron: village chat

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he gets around (but why not through the chimney?)

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la vraie campagne (the real countryside)

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the sun comes out

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the ducks play

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forest light

Later, in Bourges:

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here as well

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first stop: pastries of course

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dare I order the big one?

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no, two small ones will do (Ed shares)

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crowds come out on this last Saturday before Christmas

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but at dusk, in the shadows of the cathedral...

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it's not all about shopping -- a Christmas fair: colorful scarves, beautiful voices

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at the fair: a dreamer

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hot stuff

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on stilts: working the crowds

And back at the Auberge du Cheval Blanc:

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the best meat dish of the trip: terrine with onion confiture

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scaling back: only 4 this time

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the best rendition of that oozing chocolate indulgence

Saturday, December 17, 2005

from the vallée de la loire: from this valley they say we are (maybe) going

Friday morning. Gray skies, one packed suitcase, one duffle bag, time to leave Le Cheval Blanc and slowly head back.

The plan is to spend one more night in the valley of the Loire, but closer to Paris. Then, one last night in Paris and we head back (on Sunday) to snow-encrusted Wisconsin.

How long will you be working on your post?
Give me another minute…

Two hours later I look up with my most beguiling smile. I’m done.

In the meanwhile, Ed has gone exploring the small town of Blere, where we have settled in for the past three days. Ed, the same person who has kept France at arm’s length for a few days, has now discovered two places and he wants to share.

A chocolate shop and a motorcycle store.

The first is easy. A dozen of this, a dozen of that – purchases for people back home.

Why a motorbike shop? You have to understand Ed to know the answer to that. Suffice it to say that when we pass through parking lots in front of famous sights, my eyes wander to the architecture while his remain longingly transfixed on an R100RT model of the BMW bike wedged in some obsolete corner of the lot.

Ask the shop keeper what you need to ride a motorbike here.
Say what? Why would I want to ride a motorbike here?
How else are you going to zip between villages the summer you spend holed up in France writing your book?

Monsieur at the shop is tres charming. Keep it below 45 kph and you don’t even need a license, he beams.

There you have it. Your solution to the excessive fuel consumption and expense associates with renting cars in Europe.
And when is it that you think I am going to do this?
Knowing you, once you get going on an idea – it’s a done deal.


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I see this, btw, ...

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...around every corner

Finally, we leave. We drive toward Yvay le Marron. It's a small village, with a population of maybe 100, not to be found on any map that I have. I picked it from my “restaurants with rooms” book, randomly, with an eye toward being closer to Sancerre.

[What’s so great about Sancerre? It’s not a tourist destination. It is pretty alright, all perched on a hill top, with fields of grapes, like skirt folds, cascading down on all sides. But it’s not as if there is some great monument or sight there. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that if a French friend (living in Wisconsin) tells me “I have this cousin, he owns 35 hectares of vineyards and produces a lovely little Sancerre wine” you can be sure I will say “oui” to an invitation to stop by and visit him and his lovely wife, right there amidst all those Sauvignon grapes.]

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on the way we come across a market. with many snails and oysters and cheeses and, well, French stuff.

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fresh and honest

How long have we been driving to this Yvay place?
Close to two hours.
Where the hell is it already?
Ask a mechanic at a gas station. I cannot direct you to a place that is not on the map.
Why a gas station? You think those who are mechanically inclined know everything? I’ll ask the first person we pass.

We have these kinds of conversations often, Ed and I. Point, counterpoint. Another round. And another. Today each fizzles into nothing. We are returning home soon, No need for either of us to win rounds. These are the final hours of jostling and prancing.

Let it be known that the first person we passed had the right answer. Yvay le Marron. A village in the middle of nowhere. With three stores and a restaurant called Auberge le Cheval Blanc, with rooms for overnight guests. [Yes, I do stay in places with names that are not Le Cheval Blanc. Okay, maybe not this time, but truly, I have chosen inns with other names.]

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from the outside, looking le Cheval Blanc

It is late afternoon. The drizzle is constant now. Le Cheval Blanc is charming. The prospect of driving another 100 kms on winding country roads to get to Sancerre and then turn around and drive through the dark back again is less than appealing.

But we do it. Already on this day we have paused for motorcycles, chocolate shops and provincial markets.Why would I not add a winery to the list of quintessentially French things?

Off we go.

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trees in misty fields

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well now. what have we here. would you believe me if I told you that one of the herdsmen kissed me while I got out to take photos and that he had wine on his breath and a wide grin and everyone laughed, including Ed?

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clip and burn: shaping the Sancerre sauvignon stalks all winter long

Andre Vatan -- that’s the name of the domaine. We find it, finally, caves and all. Andre’s wife greets us and spends the rest of the afternoon talking to us about their wines.

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an older "cave" of the Vatan Domain

We taste last year’s Sancerre and I give Ed one of those “I’d do you this favor for you if you needed it; wont you carry six bottles for me on the plane?” glances. I know what he’s thinking: she has her suitcase, her computer, her purse, her camera, her other six-pack of Loire wines, a picture that she bought that does not roll up and a bag full of food treats for her year ahead. What the hell is she thinking? He shrugs his shoulders, nods his head in a total I don’t get her way. He has one duffle bag. That’s it. [You have to pick your traveling companions carefully. A person who travels with only one duffle bag has his virtues.]

The drive back is an adventure. The drizzle is steady. The road curves and dips. We lose our way once, I forget to turn down my brights more than once. Eventually there is a sign: Yvoy le Marron 3 km. We are there.

Monsieur le chef Bruno is younger than monsieur le chef Michel of the past three nights. He is more adventurous. A risk taker. The food is creative and spirited. The butter content is down by about 85%. Not everything works perfectly. The crustacean trilogy is one third great, two thirds okay. But when it works, it sings. The fish main course is a wonder and the millefeuilles pastry dances.

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fish in two sauces, risotto, tomatoes

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yes, five cheeses on my plate

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a napoleon, decorated

After dinner a new plan is hatched. Why leave the valley, why go back to Paris, why do any of it? Another night here and on Sunday morning we can hustle back to the airport. You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Le Cheval Blanc is a quiet little gem. We’ll give it another day.