Monday, December 24, 2007

Are We There Yet?

As I get older, I realize that I am somehow reverting back to my childhood in one way or another. Most recently I've become more and more intolerant of long car rides, and I try to avoid them at all costs. I just don't like being in the car! To be honest, I never really have, ever since I was a little girl, but I have vivid memories of the dreaded two-hour (!!) drive to the countryside where we would go camping with my grandparents. Today, of course, a two-hour trip seems like nothing, but it certainly creeped by in the backseat of that beastly hot car, my thighs clinging to the burning material of the seats (not leather, but not plastic -- pleather?!). Even when I drove my own car in Washington, DC, I didn't really enjoy it -- the only part I liked was turning up my favorite music and singing along. But most of the time I was just in a big hurry to get to where I was going, from point A to point B. Which I guess explains the fact that I've never had any particular affinity for cars of any kind, and that I could honestly care less if I never drove again. Unfortunately, I imagine I'm probably not going to be able to get around the need to drive at some point, especially if we end up leaving la région parisienne... A possibility, but not yet a certainty.

Saturday my boyfriend and I took a train from Paris to Le Havre to meet his father, and thankfully we spent the night at his house before hitting the road at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. We drove with his father down to Besançon, where my boy's younger sister and her little family lives. I slept for the first few hours, but had a heck of a time getting into a comfortable position in the backseat. Again, memories from childhood... I know I was lucky to not have to take the wheel, to be honest, because I don't even think I could have handled it. I still haven't prepared for the permis de conduire here, and I know it's something that will eventually be unavoidable. But in the meantime, I just try to be patient when the drive is long and sleep the time away... When lunchtime hit, my boyfriend and his father were both inspired: they decided to make a detour to Vézélay, a village in the Burgundy region with a stunning basilica at the top of a steep hill. I had already been there once before, but was more than happy to visit again -- after a stop for lunch, of course! We were lucky enough to fall on a really nice local bistrot-restaurant called Le Voutenay on the small départémental leading to Vézélay, in a tiny town called Voutenay-sur-Cure. After a brief mix-up in which we managed to find ourselves seated at the gastronomic side of the restaurant, we glanced at the menu, realized our mistake -- and quickly rectified it!

After settling into our seats in a small, simple room on the other side of the restaurant (the "bistrot" side, as they called it), we chose our dishes and were chatting quietly when we noticed that one of the women at the table next to ours had gotten up to open up the curtains in order to allow some sun into the room, which was admittedly a bit dark. Apparently the waitress forewarned her to be careful, but alas -- a bit too late! As the curtain rod tumbled to the floor, the woman quickly jumped out of the way. My boyfriend's father jumped up to give her a hand, and the scene soon became comedic: as the lady climbed up onto a chair to put the curtain rod back in place, Jacques held onto the chair for her to stabilize it. The curtain rod started falling again, and just as it looked like the woman might fall herself, Jacques took hold of her around the waist and helped her lift the rod back into place... My boyfriend and I glanced at each other, our mouths open, a bit speechless at Jacques' bravado and spontaneity. My boyfriend couldn't imagine doing the same thing if he had been in his father's position, and he attributed it to the fact that his father was a doctor and wasn't uncomfortable about grabbing a perfect stranger like that, even if he thought it was to give her a hand (mind you, I don't think she would have fallen -- she wasn't really in danger, but Jacques just did what he thought was right in the moment). But there there was definitely an impetuous element to his gesture. And we all tried to laugh off the moment of discomfort... (It seriously felt like a scene from a sitcom.)

Of course, the woman's husband had been absent during the early part of the incident, as he must have gone off to the bathroom. And he showed up right at the critical moment, when Jacques was giving his wife a hand -- so to speak! He didn't look too pleased, but his wife kept joking about it, brushing things off and saying she felt "flattered" by Jacques' attention and assistance... And ironically, she was American! My boyfriend leaned over and told me to chat with her (something he often does in situations like this) and I felt a bit awkward, particularly after the curtain rod incident. So he asked her where she was from, and we did end up talking for a few minutes about our origins, how long we had been living in France, etc... But I didn't want to drag on the conversation and figured it was best to allow everyone to enjoy their meal. The funny thing is, the subject kept coming back up while we were eating, and my boyfriend and his father persisted in talking about it, while I kept trying to change the subject. "What are you planning on getting for dessert?" I must have asked at least a half a dozen times... The woman's husband then decided he wanted to make an example of me, kind of the "ignorant American just arriving in France," I guess, and he proceeded to ask me if I knew what he was eating... I guess he was trying to be funny, or friendly, or something, but I don't really like those kinds of things, particularly coming from a complete stranger. I would have thought he would have known better, after being married to an American fo 40 years! He went on to say that it was "tête de veau" and implied, with his tone of voice, that it was something he knew an American would never eat. I just brushed it off, said I had chosen duck myself, and told him to enjoy his meal. But underneath I was boiling...

Well, after that déjeuner mouvementé, we drove on to Vézélay, walked up the hill to visit the basilica, and then walked back down to the car. We didn't linger for very long, as it was pretty chilly outside (to say the least!) and we were all anxious to arrive in Besançon. I thought the second half of the trip would be much shorter, but unfortunately I didn't end up sleeping much at all, and we didn't make it to his sister's house until nearly 8:00. I didn't realize they lived right across the street from the village church, which was a nice touch -- I love hearing church bells chime throughout the day!

We've been having a nice, quiet Christmas together, and I've taken a few photos, which I hope to eventually post here on the blog (I've also baked a ton of cookies!). But the next few days are going to be hectic, as my boyfriend and I are taking a train back up to Paris tomorrow morning, and then I will be flying to the U.S. on Thursday to visit my family for New Year's. So I may be "out of commission", so to speak, for a few weeks... Then again, I just realized that this is my first post in almost three weeks anyway, so I guess that's nothing new! I'm going to do my best to become a more consistent blogger in 2008 -- we'll see how long I stick to that resolution.

And on that note, I shall leave you, all my dear friends throughout the blogosphere, and wish you a very Merry Christmas (If you celebrate, of course! Happy holidays to everyone in any case!)... See you in the New Year!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Event-Filled Week(s)

Sometimes these days I can't seem to keep up with things, but then there are other times, in the middle of the day, when I feel like I'm not doing nearly enough -- the irony of our time, I guess... I know that as the holidays approach time is only going to fly by faster, and the end of the month always hits me before I even realize it, with a pile of holidays cards still sitting on my desk patiently waiting to be stamped and sent. This year I'm determined to at least send out my cards to the U.S. by the 15th, holding onto my French cartes de voeux until the New Year -- one of the advantages of the French holiday traditions being that cards are sent in the New Year, and that custom holds that you have until the end of the month of January to get them out to one and all. Of course, in the past I've taken full advantage of this extended deadline, sending out some of my American cards down to the wire (using the French system as an excuse!), but I'd like to improve my card-sending skills, and avoid this procrastination that I appear to have ingrained in me.

Last week I unexpectedly attended several events that turned out to be wonderful experiences, ones I will not soon forget, and I have to admit that it is nice to have these kinds of appointments on my calendar at this time of year, when I'm inclined to get a bit of the cafard if I spend too much time at home alone. The curse of all expats, I guess! On Monday I crossed the Seine for a book-signing at Shakespeare & Co. -- Jeanette Winterson read from her latest book, The Stone Gods, and I couldn't resist picking up several books from her backlist as well, for myself and a few friends. I only just discovered her writing, I have to admit, thanks to dear Lauren, of course, who is my favorite source of wonderful literary (and cultural) inspiration these days. I'm looking forward to plunging into her writing over the holidays, when I'll have some time off from the daily grind and will be able to (finally!) throw myself into a few good novels. For some reason recently I've been having a really hard time reading for pleasure, a pastime that I've always taken for granted. I don't know if it's just the distractions of every day life or other preoccupations that are taking up too much space in my mind, but in any case I'm impatient to dive back into a good book again. I've also been disappointed by a few recent reads, and I have to admit that I count on a good book to pull me in fairly quickly in order to stick it out until the end... Perhaps I'm a bit too impatient and demanding, but I've reached a point now where I've decided that there are simply too many books waiting on my bedside table to be read, and I'm not about to waste my reading time forcing myself to enjoy a book that just doesn't do it for me. Basta -- life is simply too short, and I'm no longer reading out of obligation after all! Although sometimes I wonder if I may have missed my calling...

Winterson's reading was spectacular, by the way -- she was so dramatic and passionate when reading from her text, and she even went so far as to say that she practices a bit beforehand, that it's the least she can do, given the fact that we go out of our way to come to see her read. She really got into it, and climbed up on the table in the back of the shop so that we could all have a clear view of her throughout the reading. When I had her sign my books afterwards, I even picked up a copy of her children's book, The King of Capri, illustrated by Jane Ray -- when I saw it sitting there, tantalizingly, on the table, I knew I had to add it to my growing collection of children's books at home. It's a lovely fairy tale, with all the best elements: gorgeous, colorful illustrations, a story with a moral, and some appealing characters, including a little Italian cat.

Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend an excellent SCBWI France event held at the home of one of the organization's members in the 17th, where Uri Shulevitz spoke about his work for more than two hours (!!). He answered questions and went into great detail about his inspiration, his favorite forms of media when illustrating, his influences and even his most current work, which is to be published in early 2008. I was fascinated and couldn't help taking notes during the discussion, and I left the event feeling uplifted and inspired, convinced that I will soon apply my own inspiration to some drawings once again, and hopefully soon. Mr. Shulevitz's talk focused on the "invisible picture" in a drawing, as he called it, or the empty spaces in between two objects that ties them together, that unify a drawing and bring it to life. He emphasized that the "third picture" inside of a drawing is one that in fact you cannot necessarily see but that is only visible in your mind and is therefore stimulated by the story itself. In that sense, he explained, the meaning of a series of pictures in a story is often beyond the story itself and is made up of the elements that are underlying the story. The bigger picture, in fact, "needs to be fed by what's underneath."

Another point Mr. Shulevitz made during his talk that stayed with me is the importance of making a moment as specific as possible in a picture book in order to make the story itself more universal -- hence, a universal story can be made more personal and even more appealing. I was thrilled to be able to purchase a copy of one of his most famous books, Snow, which won the Caldecott Honor in 1999 and is magical in its use of spare text with enchanting, evocative and incredibly detailed watercolor images. All in all, I had a really wonderful evening, and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the event, including the delicious meal, the captivating presentation and discussion, and, of course, the company!

Tonight I'm off to attend another book-signing, once again at Shakespeare & Co., so I can pick up a few more copies of Clotilde's wonderful first cookbook. I already have a copy of my own, of course, that I got back in the spring when it was first published (fairly stained and a bit beat-up around the edges!), but I'd like to bring one home to my mom for Christmas, and possibly another for one of my closest friends in the States as well. Here's hoping I can get to the bookshop early enough for a good seat, and that I'll be able to get my hot little hands on several copies of her book! It's always a pleasure to hear Clotilde speak about her cooking and her writing, and her success is such an inspiration. This is one extremely multi-talented, warm, engaging and creative gal -- I have to admit that her blog is responsible for my motivation to finally get cracking in the kitchen. So I know this evening is going to be a particularly memorable event as well! I can hardly wait...