Saturday, December 06, 2014


[fair disclosure: a very long post!]

In the early morning, it emerges - out of darkness, this place of French royalty. Again I have music in my head. All morning long. It seems so fitting! Listen along, if you want (Ton Koopman's J.S. Bach and the Magnificat).

Out my morning window:

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Breakfast. Timing it so that I'm done by 9:30.

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Cross the street and I am there.

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Through the gates...

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It turns out I'm not the first, but the second. The group before me is Russian and they want to inspect everything, so it's easy to pass them.

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And to have the entire Fontainebleau Chateau to myself. (Are you playing the music?!)

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(did the womenfolk sit and chat here?)

It is the only chateau to have been inhabited by all of France's kings -- from the 12th century until the 19th. Such magnificence! Really, such lavish opulence! No more words. Just look:

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(she slept here)

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(his throne)

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(he slept here)

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(the chapel)

And the gardens -- always beautiful, I'm sure, but for me, winter is such a good match -- that somewhat somber complement to the seriousness of this whole enterprise!

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(the entirety)

And look how stunning their winter selection of blooms is (we couldn't do this in Wisconsin, but here, these will survive even a stiff frost):

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That's my morning.

At noon, I have an appointment at "La Petite Reine." I walk briskly...

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...past tempting shops (they are serious about their pastries here!)...

France December-3-2.jpg the little store where there is a velo (a bike) waiting for me. I'm renting a bike: it's the only way I can imagine seeing the Fontainebleau Forest -- such a vast place, with so many trails!

Madame smiles when I sheepishly ask for a helmet. I'm sure she's thinking -- these Americans! They want to protect themselves from everything! (I do not bother saying that I crashed some ten years ago and the helmet saved my head.)

It's a mountain bike and I'm a bit surprised at that. The terrain here is flat, no? Off I go! I have a destination -- through the woods and into the next village -- Barbizon. Have you heard of it? It was once a hot spot for painters: the preimpressionists lived and painted there ("the Barbizon School") and the Impressionist giants came to visit as well.

It's cool outside, but not too bad. Maybe low forties. I do miss my gloves, but otherwise, pedaling is a good way to forget about winter. And just as promised, there is an occasional wisp of blue sky. The rains stayed mainly on the southern plains!

Forest photos. Of course.

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The path to Barbizon is supposed to be easy and not too long -- maybe half a dozen miles.

I lose it instantly. I don't know why. It's their fault!

I'm huffing on sandy terrain that seems pretty steep to me. I almost have to get off and push.

But after several turns and guesses, eventually I hit gold -- a nicely paved path and one that miraculously leads in the direction of the painters' village.

No, this landscape is not flat. Not at all! Take a look:

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So beautiful!

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On a good trail, it's manageable, even for me. (On one incline, I pass some hikers and as I puff my way to the top, they shout out the familiar encouragement here -- courage! courage! It reminds me of the days Ed and I biked through Provence many years back. Courage! Allez, allez! Go!

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Finally in Barbizon.

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I locate the place where I want to pause for a late lunch -- La Creperie Barjole.

I eat in the overflow outdoor space, but it's shielded and well heated. The French share my feelings about heat and AC: in the winter, their spaces are warm, in the summer, they are never over-cooled.

I order a galette (a savory buckwheat crepe) with cheese, tomato and an egg and it is just exactly what I need.

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At the table across from me, madame and monsieur finish a somewhat more copious lunch, one likely to be their main meal. They are from these parts and they watch me with mild amusement because I am so enthusiastic about everything that is brought to my table. (I am just really happy that I found my way here in the end.) As they finish their last cheese course, monsieur leans back and starts humming. And then the hum becomes a song and madame joins in, recalling some melody that they shared.

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He smiles, I smile, she smiles. And then, oddly, he hums "Tom Dooley." I comment -- une chanson Americane. He admits it. I sing along. And so here we are in Barbizon, eating lunch and singing an Appalachian ballad. He asks me about the lyrics but before I struggle to recall them all, she reminds him that they can find it on the Internet later.

I finish a dessert crepe -- with a favorite combination of mine: honey and lemon.

And then their grown daughter (I'm guessing here) shows up and they fuss over her and I finish my noisette (macchiato in America) and get back to the task of returning to Fontainebleau.

The sun peaks out with greater certainty now and I am sure I will get to town before dusk.

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Which is a good thing.

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In Fontainebleau again, where there is a weekend, preholiday buzz in the air.

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Let's talk about some contrasts. But before we go there, let's get in the mood. I walk toward the center of town. My hotel proprietors suggested two places for dinner -- informal ones (you only have to look at me to know that's what I want). I want to check the menus. Oh, wait! A store is open! With delicacies! Let me look inside.

Would madame like a glass of champagne? Say what? Have I stumbled upon some opening night of something? No? Well then sure!

I must now make a purchase. No problem! These!

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I walk out, continuing my search for the two eateries. One them should be right here. Hmmm...

[insert title: know when to make a joke:]

Excuse me Monsieur, do you know where I can find the Hotel Napoleon? There's a restaurant right next to it...
Yes, of course. But... do you have a car?
(worried) No....
Good! It's 20 meters up the street!

[..and when not to make a joke:]

Settling in with the menu now at the Grand Cafe. The proprietor comes over. Do you know what you want?
Is your homemade foie gras good?
(boom!) Madame. It is not. (pause. sigh.) If you want, you can get some cheese and crackers next door. Here, we cook.

I order the foie gras and scallops, each prepared perfectly.

And now -- would you like to return to a very controversial Ocean topic, from way back in... October? Okay! Let's talk about French children and food!

Enter a family. Two young kids and parents. Locals. They didn't dress up. The little girl (maybe 9 yrs old) is in a pink sweat shirt that says New York City Gym. New York (and variants thereof ) is the most popular shirt logo in Europe. Everything is New York this and New York that.

The kids don't even sit down. they go straight to the bathroom to wash their hands. They know the drill.

The proprietor, the same one who would not stoop low enough to address my questioning of his foie gras asks the little girl if she will be drinking wine. She smiles daintily and says no. He asks -- sure? She smiles again and shakes her head. He whisks her wine glass away.

The whole family (the boy is maybe 6) is preoccupied with the menu. The dad teaches the boy to read a word. They go back to menu studying. They order.

So what do you think? The kids picked the frogs legs? The grilled endive? The veal kidney? No! They chose hamburgers and french fries! We have so corrupted the French palate! Oh, but wait! Did I tell you about the table with the beautiful young women?

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Three out of four also chose hamburgers and French fires!

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It's the food of the young. None of the "past 30" crowd around me is ordering hamburgers and fries.

And speaking of the juxtaposition between young and not young -- here's an older mother and adult son. They are not having fun. At all. Perhaps he told her he wont be home for lunch tomorrow and she is processing.

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The  family with the two little kids joins pinkies and recites some funny words together before diving into the food. I like that! It's special! It's their own! It reminds each and everyone that they are together and that life, or at least the next half hour of life, surely is good.

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And it is. It really is.

The full moon shines brightly over Fontainebleau tonight. I hope it does over you as well.

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