Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Wind

It blows, it howls, it prepares to lift my heavy stone house from its foundation. It tosses leaves by the hundreds into the pool and dries out every plant in the garden. It keeps me awake at night, softening only a wee bit in the morning. It drowns the songs of my morning bird chorus, and drives dust under the door and through the cracks around the windows. Pollen, dust, leaves, fluff, all are swirling in the air. My rose bush is shorn of her petals and many another flower is buttoned up shut. Only the pink oleander is coming into bloom, sturdy on its firm branches.

My head aches when I awake, my mind is sluggish and disturbed. Small children are anxious and cry for no reason. Even Filou stays nervously by my side rather than roll in the dirt with his friend Saline.

It's been four days now. Four days of hot sun. Four days of fierce winds. Good for the vineyards, though it renders clay soil stone hard. Good for the olive groves, up to a point. Not good for the beekeeper. With the moisture of the morning dew so quickly swiped away by the hot breeze, the bees stay inside, or visit my pool.

It is the Mistral. A wind that blows at any time all year long. A north wind that can reach up to 120 km / hour, as clocked from the top of the Mount Ventoux. It bends trees to the south, and twists the locals a bit too. It is the glory and the bane of living in Provence.

They say tomorrow it will calm its anger and leave us a moment of peace. I would like to hear my birds again.

Starting in a Business in France

I spent two and a half hours at a meeting with the agency called Actif Conseil in Avignon the other day. The goal was to have the route to opening a business in France clarified and outlined for me and a number of other potential small business owners (all women by the way, interesting, hm?). Yes, I've run a business for over ten years in France alongside Erick, but... it was rather complicated in its structure, and I wasn't involved in the accounting, or in paying the taxes, and now it is time I understand how things function in this not a truly capitalist-bent country.

Despite checking on google maps ahead of time, it took me a moment to find the office -- a tiny plaque on a discreet door with no parking in front, and much dominated by the bakery to the left and the car repair garage to the right. I did quite a bit of bit of backing and forthing on a major street before finding said office, and then going back outside to move my car across the street to the supermarket parking lot. I then trotted up the stairs to join the others waiting for the presentation to begin.

First off, be prepared. Be enthusiastic. Have the will to go forth. This is harder than you might imagine as enthusiastic is conflated with naive in French culture, and nay-sayers are always more numerous than supporters. Then, send out surveys and get to know your competitors, do "études du marché" and see if your idea resonates.

All the classic advice was there: identify your client base, get to know them, give them a name, a job, number of kids, etc., and find out where they live, what their salary is, and how they spend their discretionary income. Figure out your pricing structure and your placement on the market taking into account traditional mark ups, your expenses, etc., but also your competitors' range of prices.

Have an idea of how you will market -- web sites are simply shop windows our young presenter reminded us. They are not a marketing device in and of themselves, you have to send people to it via your business card, ads in magazines, and ideally, word of mouth. This is not new to anyone who's attempted to run a business or read Money magazine, etc., but it was to many seated around the table.

We were a group of seven women of varying ages and origins: a quite silent Indian woman in the group, a young Magrébine, a very vocal woman of about 50, and three more around my age, 40-45. Before us was a dynamic young man and his powerpoint presentation. He ad-libbed here and there as this is what he does everyday. He puts people on the path (or removes them) to creating small businesses.

In France, the generous socialist system is slowing trying to re-direct itself to assisting people not just to get a basic minimum wage job, but to choose other options, such as creating a business, or taking over an existing one. When I did my mini-bilan de compétences which tested my basic skills, aptitude, and experiences, it was clear to the woman in charge that I had the profile to run my own business (this is reassuring, non?)

* sociability -- I like people (though I'm not necessarily therapist material), but I take great pleasure in my clients and artisans
* organization and figures -- I can handle these competently, but don't ask me to be your accountant
* movement -- I'm not someone who sits at a desk all day, thus my love of hikes, outings, dancing, etc.,
* artistic -- I'm not an artist myself, but I admire others who are, and surround myself with beauty, taste, pleasure
* intellect -- I'm not an astro-physicist in his laboratory, but I crave stimulation and the chance to learn
* management -- I can multi-task, direct others, delegate, orchestrate complicated schedules, etc.,

Thus, with these test results in hand, the local unemployment office is helping me (for free of course) put together the necessary materials to go forth, and/or directing me to the appropriate agencies.

I've a list of people to call and meet -- the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (where I'll speak with a tourism specialist) the Chamber of Agriculture (as so much of what I do involves agricultural producers), etc.,

There is not a SBA here (Small Business Association) as in the US, but there are privately run, publicly funded entities present to help you put together the business proposal and find matching start-up funding with minimal to zero interest rates. Various organizations are willing to loan sums from 3,000-10,000 Euros for start-up capital. However, they are not there to replace having a bank as a business partner. They recognize that it is easier for a bank to make a loan for a tangible object such as a car or the business offices, but far more rare for a bank to fill the start-up coffers.

And all these various sources of assistance are available to the unemployed of over six months. Fascinating, hm?

As the two and a half hour presentation continued, our young man presented us the various legal structures statut juridique, that we might choose for our business. They each have their virtues and vices. The most classic might be a micro-entreprise. For this you are your business and all that you possess is held as collateral to it. This is very scary to a Frenchman. Imagine losing your house if you've over-borrowed, etc? However, this is also the structure that most artisans have by necessity, be they bakers, woodworkers, or hairdressers.

Another option is more akin to a corporation. It involves multiple partners, and creates a non-personal legal entity run by you and your colleagues. In this case, the person(s) starting the business must decide upon a salary, and pay the necessary social charges, etc., out of the salary and the business capitol. However, in this situation, your personal effects (car, house, etc.,) are protected in case of a financial collapse. The first is a SARL (a minimum of two associates), the second is the EURL (which can be just one person). For these, a charter of sorts outlining the business, its goals, responsibilities, how it is structured, etc., is required as are yearly board meetings, and announcements of such. Lots more paper work. An accountant is a very good idea.

For the micro-entreprise you can opt to pay taxes and charges on your direct income after deductions, VAT taxes etc.,; or you can opt for what is called an abatement by which you pay on 50% of your gross income or 71% of your gross income (the former if you offer a service, the latter if you are selling a product). For this situation, you neither charge nor deduct the VAT tax.

Once you decide on the legal structure, you need to understand your social charges' rates (for unemployment insurance, retirement, health insurance, maternity insurance, etc.,) and how often you need to pay them. This is referred to as the régimes des cotisations sociales. You can be salaried, or a travailleur non-salarié, or a micro-social.

If you opt for the last option, it works with an abatement as well, meaning, you pay from 12 to 21.3% of your gross income monthly to the State for your charges.

To complicate things further, if you are a merchant, or typical small business owner, you calculate 45.05% of your net income as social charges.

A first year business can pay a base fee of 3300E for the charges, no matter the income.

The French are all excited by a new legal structure called the auto-entreprise. It's supposed to be simpler to put into effect, allow you to combine two incomes (a salary during the day, and your small business effort on the weekend for instance which used to be outlawed), and to calculate by percentage what you are to pay each month. Thus the months you earn nothing, you pay nothing (which is not the case in the traditional micro-entreprise structure).

Our young man didn't like this one too much as too many people have surged towards starting businesses without his most essential advice on how to do so. He regaled us with figures and facts on the success and failure of businesses in France, and how entities such as his can dramatically change these. But in general, this new structure is being greeted with much suspicion by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other official institutions that feel un-connected to this new idea that might just encourage people to act on impulse. God forbid, right?

I left the meeting with lots of notes, a bit better informed, but also rather confused. I once thought I was a smart woman... France and its many complicated laws can quickly humble you. However, it is reassuring to know that all sorts of simulated programs exist on the computer to test your business ideas, figure out what level of taxes, charges, etc., you'll be paying, and what possible financial help you might be in a position to obtain. This I find most interesting, and essential. So, perhaps next fall when the summer is over, the kids back in school and life a bit more under control (though is it ever?).

Onward and upward.

I too once lived in Paris...

Reading the very funny list of what he might miss in Paris by David Lebovitz on his self-titled blog reminded me that yes, I too once made an attempt to fit into the Parisian way of life. I swished down the street in elegant attire. I spoke in a clipped Parisian accent. I cultivated "euhs" in my speech. I licked the shop windows lusting (ever so discreetly) after the chic (or not so) clothing inside. I walked and walked and walked and walked -- I'm not a fan of the metro-- and had the most gorgeous jambes while I lived there. I drank my coffee black and serré. I spent my spare evenings wandering the corridors of some of the world's most splendid museums, and I had my spot as a regular at my favorite brasserie (where they still remember me thirteen years later).

I most competently sought out obscure addresses with my handy Paris guide that should be replicated by every city in the world, particularly Tokyo where I believe the buildings are numbered chronologically... In thirty minutes I could arrive at nearly any destination (if I took public transport, preferably the bus).

I was pretty darned proud of myself when I took my friend's portfolios of model wanabees to the major agencies (Elite, etc.,) where I'd set up interviews carefully ahead of time. I felt elegant and well-received, and yes I was proud they were impressed by my French and my demeanor. Hey, what girl wouldn't want to feel pretty and respected at a top modeling agency? All your worst nightmares could be confirmed, or not, in such a place.

I learned to talk and argue and defend my point of view. I learned to flirt and to handle relatively aggressive male attention. But, I never learned to adjust to Parisian sidewalk behavior.

I've a theory that in Manhattan, we all walk quickly, but it's a socially agreed upon choreography of avoiding slamming into fellow pedestrians. It's a dance of running, dodging, jumping, swirling. And never, but never have I collided with a fellow pedestrian in NYC, even when I've been deep in conversation with a friend and relatively clueless to the world striding past. However, in Paris, more than once, walking abreast of a girlfriend (speaking in French mind you), I was slammed in the outside shoulder, and I mean slammed. It was frightening, shocking, disturbing, and more than a bit of, "what the????" I mean, was I taking up too much sidewalk or what?

Yes, I can move quickly, and be impatient, but I'm not rude. I value being considerate... which is a bit out of place in Paris, though not always. If you are not polite and say Bonjour Monsieur, or Madame, or Mademoiselle, you will not get good service and you will most definitely be in the position of the rude and boorish one.

Meeting students at my graduate program, finding certain interesting, I tried to propose an out-of-class get-together. "No, I already have friends, I don't have time for anyone else." Oh... that's an interesting point of view.

At work at the Centre National de la Photo, and later with the photo book editor Robert Delpire, I worked hard and did extra. Fine. But I also answered the phone with a full "Centre National de la Photo, puis je vous aider?" and my boss looked at me like I was crazy. The standard response to a phone call from who knows who? (world-famous Henri Cartier Bresson, a minister, a student, a Swedish colleague) "Oui." And you leave the caller to explain his mission, and then pass him onto someone else, not necessarily with an explanation or introduction, so it's up to him/her to explain him/herself all over again.

Paris was a world where I experienced being alone. After my rich social life in super friendly Seattle, and the member of the family work life in Japan, here I was on my own. I was able to call friends of friends occasionally, and be invited to a nice dinner in someone's home: "Bonjour, je m'appelle Madeleine. Je vous appelle de la part de Mme. D. Brodin, elle m'a donné votre numéro et.... Je suis actuellement étudiante à Paris... etc., etc.," But, it was very very difficult to find friends. So, I took to my evening habits of walking everywhere. I went to two dance classes a week (and briefly dated my Antonio Banderas look alike teacher, which was fun if brief), to my brasserie on the Ile St. Louis on the weekend, and to museums during their evening hours. I worked and I studied. I took in the amazing array of films, old and new, in the hundreds of cinémas in Paris. I picked up a copy of the Paris Spectacle every week for 2F and checked out the phenomenal art exhibitions and the numerous galleries and museums or free Sunday church concerts. I explored flea markets and took walking tours as outlined in the Guide Routard.

It was a time to look at works of art at my leisure, with ideas swirling in my head unshared, un-compared. It was a time to admire buildings, people, dogs, parks, skylines, in my own way and at my own pace. It was a curious and unusual for me. I'm terribly social, as many in my world will agree, and yet, I don't shy from being alone. It is often a preference, and vastly superior to being tugged along at another's pace on occasion.

I wasn't yet an adamant foodie, but I certainly enjoyed good food. A fellow dancer in class was married to the dairy shop owner in rue Daguerre, and from here I purchased yummy cheeses, fresh butter, artisanal crème fraîche and discovered the currant rolls from Poilane (in 1995 mind you, a bit ahead of the craze to follow). I sated my sweet tooth on tarts and éclairs et réligieuses till I could walk past a pastry shop and no longer drool -- that took a couple of months, but now, I know they're there, and when I need one, I can have one. It is no longer necessary to throw myself upon their mercy to satisfy the sweet cravings of a little girl whose mother was careful to raise her with few to no desserts in the house.

I walked down Rue Mouffetard, shopping along the way for a slice of pâté, some runny cheese and a gorgeous fresh peach or two for lunch. And I discovered La Maison du Chocolat nearby my office by Étoile. One, two, perhaps three amazing ganâche filled chocolates? I didn't dare get myself a whole box. But you're perfectly welcome to purchase chocolates by the gram, and carefully saying, Bonjour Madame, and Merci Madame, and ça sera tout Madame, goes a long way to a polite-if not warm-welcome.

I think as a young American female (I was 27 at the time), what was most frustrating was being hit on and followed way too often by strange men. Okay, I'm told it is to flatter us. That men feel it necessary to do this to stroke our egos. That actually, you should start worrying when this stops! But, as someone who likes to lie on a lovely green lawn (in between the visits of the Luxembourg Gardens' Lawn Guards) with a good book in her hands soaking up the unusual and sincerely welcome sunshine of a late Parisian spring... well, it's damn annoying to have a somewhat normal looking young man start talking to you, and then, ask you to come watch him jerk off in the bushes. Good Lord, is that what a gentle "please leave me alone" gets you? So I learned to be brusk and never to say a word, never to make eye contact. They did not exist, they were beneath my notice, and thus, I could have some level of peace.

On the flip side, when working the Photo Art Fair in Paris, I would greet potential clients as they walked into our booth to look more closely at the photos. I'll never forget the man who looked at me, startled, and said, "on se connait?" Ah, no, I don't know you sir, I'm simply a pathetically naive and friendly American who says hello to people who walk into her space....

Yes, I had ups, and downs. It's a gorgeous city. I love knowing it well, I love visiting, I loved my charming apartments, my studies, my free student entries to museums, theatres, the opera, dance, and so much more. What an incredible time in my life. Though oddly, I came to Paris via Seattle and Kobe Japan, not directly from NY. Had I done the latter, I might have fit in better.

Would I live there full time? After moving to Provence? I think not. But that's another story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Projects Accomplished (with help)

When the household projects get a bit much for poor ol' me, helpers come in all shapes in sizes. A nearly twelve year old boy can be cajoled (or coerced) to facing down the buzzing wasps and helping to mop out a pool. A herd of five (from seven to seventeen) can be promised ice cream and strawberries, in exchange for breaking down large branches of dead fig tree. A friend can be recompensed with a good meal, wine and coffee in exchange for helping put up mosquito netting in the bedroom windows, and rebuilding the garden fence. And thank goodness, my plumber is a friend, aka guardian angel, who comes when called. My bathroom is still in the planning stages, but at least the kitchen counter and sink are quickly nearing completion.

I Miss My Au Pairs

Throughout my childhood my mother waxed poetic about the numerous French au pairs she'd had to help her when we were little. There was Jocelyne whom my brother wanted to marry at the age of two. And Francine who could sew Vogue patterns and had gorgeous long legs. Mom first shared the secret of her third pregnancy (me) with her. These girls apparently doted on us, and as I absorbed the stories, were absolutely lovely and all good. So, when I found my life rather out of control with the growing business of the cooking school and a small toddler to care for, I immediately considered the solution of an au pair. I didn't have family nearby, and didn't know Erick's aunt well enough to consider asking her to care for Leo.

Erick wasn’t too sure. A stranger in the house? No one else nearby had chosen this solution. However, they nearly all had mamies (grandmas), which I did not. So, I persuaded him that it wasn't normal that I was sick nearly monthly; and that, with the sleep deprivation plus the house responsibilities, I'd never be able to get the business off the ground if I didn't have help. Perhaps if I didn't have my father's sleep needs (8-10 hours), I wouldn't be in such need, but... Best accept this fact and proceed forth to a solution.

So, I sent out word by email to friends, family and cooking clients to let them know that I was looking for a good-humored, helpful, Francophile young woman to help with my toddler, dishes and house-work. Amazingly, Carrie, a marvelous, hard-working, gracious, funny, and adept French speaker answered my call and came across the ocean from the Mid-Western United States to help.

From the day of her arrival I leaned upon her heavily. I had months of sleep to catch up on, and gratefully would pass Leo to her waiting arms and then go back to sleep – firmly closing the two doors to my bed room so I’d hear no cries, squeeks or burps. As with many a new mother, I could sleep through the local garbage trucks, but not through my child’s peep.

Carrie was a godsend. Discreet, up-beat, adept at using humor to move the stubborn Leo around town—oh, you don’t want to walk? Ok, let’s just sit and watch the world pass us by. Just tell me when you’re ready…

With her there I was able to get myself back together, advance on projects, and improve my nightly cooking offerings. Having another adult to cook for helped me keep to meal rhythms, and knowing I was no longer on dish duty I was able to cook more inventively. Carrie was there for our first expanded Provençal cooking programs. She got to know the guests and proved an enormous help with set up, serving, dishes, and occasionally interpreting when I left the room. Can I say again that she was a godsend?

Carrie was also tall and skinny. I felt a need to nourish her. So for her benefit, I worked on my broccoli and cauliflower au gratin, my béchamel sauces, and other richer dishes. She loved food and enjoyed working alongside us in the kitchen. She even returned to France a few years after her stint with us and often assisted during our cooking classes.

But, at the end of the summer, it was time for her to go home. And so, another girl was hired. She lasted two weeks. And so another came over from England. She lasted one week. So I gave up for that year and asked Marie, my neighbor who ran the Laundromat if she would help me. From that point, I settled into a daily routine of awakening, feeding and dropping Leo off at the laundromat every morning, picking him back up for lunch. On days with cooking classes Marie kept Leo all day, bringing him home with her for lunch, etc.,

This was a nice arrangement, but, not the ideal one. So, when a client suggested her step-daughter, I jumped at the chance. Shortly after, the lovely and gracious dancer-writer from a prestigious New England private university arrived. More beautiful than Helen of lore, Betsy had cascades of thick gold hair down her back, the longest and thickest eye-lashes ever, and a swishing gait as she ever so gracefully took Leo to the park every day. Betsy wanted time to write, and to learn French (she spoke none upon her arrival). Helping her with these two desires was an easy exchange. Gentle and calm, she quickly earned Leo's affection as well as the attention of many young men in town. Numerous mothers of eligible men suggested they take out Betsy, and I encouraged her to accept. “After all, if it’s their mothers that set them up, they’ll treat you correctly, and what a good opportunity to practice your French.” So a bit doubtful, but laughing at the justice of the observations, Betsy went out with these various young men, and safely made her way back home without incident.

Betsy had been a vegetarian before her arrival in our home. But to prepare, she'd eaten a juicy hamburger back home before coming -- it made her sick. However, undeterred, she enjoyed everything we served, and became a fan of our gardian d'agneau with white wine, green olives and potatoes. A favorite dish that she subsequently made up in Paris where she chose to continue her studies for a time. I still remember seeing a little belly form on her previously ballerina figure, and teasing her (gently) about this. Nice to know what you have to offer is appreciated!

From Leo's 18 months to his eleventh birthday, I hired au pairs. Not many stayed longer than six months, even the best of them. They weathered 9/11 with me, and the build up to war in Iraq. They were there for Jonas’ birth (Carrie is his honorary godmother), and as the business grew and developed. They were there when Erick worked non-stop on the bed and breakfast and I took the clients all over Provence. I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Some were amazing, hard-working, delightful, good-humored, generous of spirit and infinitely bright and capable. Others were stubborn and unpredictable. One had her valium pills with her (she didn’t last long). Another took pride in arguing ferociously and declaring herself under-appreciated and under-paid, as well as taking a strange pleasure in speaking bad French to Jonas.

But then there was Penelope, with whom perfect moments were lived. We shared so much, the children, good food, outings to visit the hat-maker, outings to the beekeeper (Penelope briefly dated her stone-carving elder son), yoga, test hikes (for my then new program of Hiking and Feasting). She adored fun and quirky clothes. Gift giving was a treat -- at times a found object from the flea market, at times a flouncy pink top from Monoprix. Creative, generous, funny, sincere. The build up to the Iraq war frightened us all, and so she left early to be with her family. However, as with Carrie, we are still close and I treasure the innumerable gifts she gave me in her presence and assistance.

There was bubbly and delightful, super-competent Laura whom the children adored. She had Jonas completely under control. Evening after evening she'd bring him down clean and in pjs for his good night kiss before putting him to bed (we were in the kitchen or the dining area with clients -- it was a very busy year!). There was ever-good humored and mellow Ashley, Jonas' favorite. Leo greeted her by running to her and hugging her with his head pressed against her bare belly (the year of hipster pants, belly-button rings and short tops). She was in heaven with all the good food, Erick's cold-smoked salmon "à volonté" and the fun guys she met at the Irish Pub. (my English party-girl).

And last, but definitely not least, Hayley. My last au pair. All the way over from Australia, thanks to a couple who had briefly stayed in our b&b. She is perhaps the one I over-worked the least, who had the most time to enjoy Provence herself, and who was thus freer to help me as she could. She had the freedom to go to capoeira four nights a week, and to accept offers for weekends away in Switzerland and Spain. But I could count on her completely when she was with me. -- She epitomized what I'd grown to understand all along, that my au pairs were happiest when they were able to build a life of their own outside our house and family. They needed their own friends and social life, be it by joining a drumming group, going to French class, finding a boyfriend (not necessarily my favorite solution... but one that has to be accepted and adjusted to when it comes up, however obnoxious that may sound on my part) or learning capoeira.

The boyfriend thing is hard in that sleep-deprived and distracted is not the state of mind a mother ideally chooses for a young woman who has an hour's drive on dangerous roads to her sons' school. That they need to live their lives, and that that includes finding love where it is offered, I cannot debate. I was living with my first boyfriend at the age of 18 in my university dorm room. Thus I try not to be a hypocrite, and recognize the need to juggle, to understand, to adapt, and to adjust on both parts.

As I settled into my house in Avignon, and stopped returning to Arles every weekend, Hayley was there. As I worked on the garden, so did Hayley. She weeded right along side me, planted crocuses with Jonas, went running down our dirt paths, roller bladed with Leo, helped repaint the floors (a yearly task before the summer rentals), scrubbed the pool with me (ah, t'would have been nice to have her with me this year!). I could count on her to cope calmly with any crisis and manage tons of driving. Her first two months she spent nearly alone in Avignon with my boys while I worked non-stop in Arles. And never did I hear a complaint.

Hayley was also there when I first started seeing my vintner. She laughed with me at my comments, my reactions. She encouraged me in fun ways. We would sit out in the sun, painting our toe nails and chatting in a wonderfully girly way. We did an Ayurvedic cleanse together, each there to support the other and keep it up for the full month. I know she'd love to see my rose bushes now, and the vegetable garden well planted. She'd be beside me plucking the strawberries from the patch, removing the snails and laying wood ash beneath the leaves. She'd be amazed by the height of the butterfly trees, and sad at the death of the fig tree.

I--we-- asked a tremendous amount of these young women, barely finished with their studies. For some, I could give back sufficiently in kind to make their hard labor worthwhile, or at least give it some sense. For others, I was simply the taskmaster who expected way too much. The years the business was developing, and taking more and more of our time, plus our choice to put Leo into the Rudolf Steiner school -– an hour’s drive away--placed way too much responsibility and sheer hours of work on the shoulders of these young woman (and one young man). Those who managed were, as I was well aware, heroic. And, unfortunately, there were those who quit, who complained, who became disagreeable. Ironically, more than a few have asked me to write recommendations for their future jobs, graduate school applications and more. And this I've done with great pleasure, emphasizing their strengths under pressure, their willingness and ability to juggle many tasks, and to adapt to a house-hold and culture not their own.

And now, on my own, with three more children under my roof to boot, I miss the companionship almost more than the assistance that they offered me so freely. An American in France, in small towns of the South, it took me a long time to find my French friends. And, friendships that you make as an adult, at least for me, don't necessarily have the open context of being silly, girly and frivolous that friendships from high school or college would permit. So I regressed with pleasure with my girls, enjoying their Anglo-saxon openness and spontaneity. I enjoyed their presence and their complicity. I appreciated immensely being able to count on them. I also enjoyed teaching them, showing them Provence, stimulating their political curiosity and interest. We went on hikes together, they accompanied me on visits, we biked and explored, shared personal frustrations. And yes, they were aware of the cracks in my marriage before many another. They learned to love my children, for which I am ever grateful. It was rarely just a job, and they were rarely just an employee. I was lucky, very lucky, to have girls who were okay with that arrangement. It is never easy asking another to help you with one of the most important aspects of your life. And, it is a big deal to shoulder that responsibility. Thank you again.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chronos Time or Kairos Time?

In my second session with the women's group at CIBC we had an open discussion lightly guided by a psychologist. He brought up the concept of Chronos Time and Kairos Time:

Chronos refers to the Greek god who ate his children, father to Zeus. When we live on Chronos time we have a sensation of never having enough, checking through lists, running through errands, dashing from one place to another, never a moment to appreciate our surroundings, our loved ones, or to breathe and take stock. It is an endless sense of movement rushing us through this existence. We're chasing after life, but it keeps escaping our grasp;

And, Kairos Time, linked to the writings of Aristotle. Kairos is the time of the moment, a chance to tussle the hair of our loved one. From it we have the word opportunity, and the concept of seizing the moment (Carpus Diem). Kairos time is enjoyed, lived, savored. Kairos is the time that creates memories, that enriches. Kairos time is what an aged person will remember, even while forgetting what he had for breakfast ... all those glimpses of childhood, the fabulous boat rides, that trip to Disneyland, swimming under the Pont du Gard, sending paper helicopters off the Tour Eiffel, the first sweet peas off the vine.

According to the psychologist, women are the bearers of Chronos time. We keep time for the family, we organize, orchestrate, get all the necessary tasks done, check off the lists, help with the homework, keep the household fed, keep the washing machine and dishwasher going, dust, and repeat. In all the rush, the daily rhythms, we can lose all sense of enjoyment, and time for ourselves.

I can honestly say that yes, during the intense years of the businesses, when the kids were little and things were at times rather hairy, I lived in the rush of getting everything done. However, I must confess that I'm an adept at Kairos, and I'm working to go further in this direction. Even when life was at its most crazy, I relished the rich conversations and personalities of my clients. I felt privileged to be with such interesting people, and to have the chance to take them to visit my special artisan friends. I loved having the "excuse" of working to be able to visit my baker, or take a gorgeous hike along Mediterranean cliffs. I was fully aware that I'd somehow created something wonderful and as often as I could, I would sit back and just enjoy and be grateful.

When Jonas was a baby, smiling, sociable "gracieux" as they say here, Erick was at peace with this babe who so resembles him in his arms, dear and much loved Penelope was our au pair, Leo was proud to be the elder, and, well, I felt bathed in rays of happiness, and knew that I was living some "perfect moments."

Much of this year I've been trying to find that ideal balance between getting things done, being "on top" of all my responsibilities, my financial situation, the numerous and necessary meetings with the lawyer, the notary, social security, family services, doctors, etc., and taking the time to be grateful, to enjoy my boys, to read books together, pick our strawberries, hug my friends, bake my bread-- each time a new loaf comes out I eye it with delight and a touch of gourmandise. This may be because my recipe is completely "au pif", that is, I just eyeball it. Ditto the timing. As such, each loaf is a minor miracle. Though I must say, they've all been damned good this past while.

And so, I make my lists, and I try to make my way through them. I take stock of the house, and once a week put it to rights. I eye my garden, and take time to remove weeds, weave the roses onto the climbing wires and harvest some strawberries. I choose a day in the week and try to group all outdoor rendezvous into it, moving from one to the next, remembering that the more pleasant you are, the more pleasant the person in front of you, no matter their stress level. And in the evenings, even if I was all harassed and stressed getting dinner on the table while Leo and Jonas were in the midst of slaughtering each other at my feet, I'll try to notice Jonas' improved table manners, Leo's more adventuresome eating, and delight in the lively conversation that flows amongst my five young folk.

I know I'm lucky. Thank you universe, and/or a deity of choice.

Sailing on the Mediterranean

Martine and I had decided to spend Thursday, Ascension day, either hiking or... something fun and outdoors. We don't get to see each other that often, despite our closeness, and I jumped at the chance. Tuesday, when we were able to find a moment to confirm plans, she told me that a friend had a boat and we were both invited to spend Thursday with him, sailing on the Mediterranean.

I was raised in a family that loves boats, sail boats in particular. My mother's sailed on our small lake in Northern Michigan all her life. She taught my father to sail, and he took to it with a passion, purchasing a sail boat to moor in front of our home on Long Island Sound in NY, which he then hooked up to a trailer, and brought to MIchigan every summer. So, I've been crew, handled the jib and the tiller, and been a happy sunfish sailor most of my life. Being that this was a shared passion of my parents, they somehow came across sailing friends with relative regularity to sail on Lake Michigan and when traveling in Europe. One memorable sail of my teen years was off the cost of Antibes, on the Côte d'Azur. I was staying with a family, working on my French in the little hilltown of Biot behind Antibes. They took me along on a friend's boat for a day sail on the Mediterranean. The water was crystal clear, the sun high in the sky, the breeze relatively strong, and the jagged rocks and cliffs spectacular. We anchored between some rocky islands at lunchtime, where we leapt off the boat to swim in the sea. I still remember a passenger on a neighboring boat, a girl-woman with the most beautiful body, and only a tiny triangle and two strings to cover her modesty. Yes, a self-conscious teenager aware that her hips were a bit generous, etc., I did notice when a particularly perfect female was in view.

However, since I've lived in Provence, the only boats I've been on have been a kayak (going down the Gardon river under the Pont du Gard -- I'm not complaining!) and an old-time fishing boat chug-chugging on the Rhône with the kids from our teen courses. Somehow, I never did get onto a sailing vessel in the all the years I lived in Arles. Till yesterday, I'd not been back on a sail boat, and certainly not on the sea just a half hour to the south.

Martine and her friend Bernard changed all that. We set out early and headed to Le Grau-du-Roi and the port right beside it, Port Camargue. To get there we went past the steep ramparts of Aigues Mortes (built between 1244-1254), keeping the stone walls to our left and the canal to the sea dug by King Louis the IX (aka St. Louis) to access the sea just a few kilometers to the south on our right. Between the ramparts and the city are the salt marshes of La Baleine salt, and the Listel vin de sables wineries. From Arles it is an hour's drive, from Vauvert thirty minutes.

Le Grau-du-Roi is a vacation residence/port on Mediterranean equidistant to Nîmes and Montpellier. It is the beach place for the city-folk, not too far, but just enough, with many, many rental and purchasable apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s -- with that highly stylized poured concrete architecture in sorbet colors that would look perfect in a James Bond film... or even late Elvis. It may have once been a simple fishing village. However, what you see now was put there by politicians and urban planners, and with a vengeance. JP's parents met and fell in love there. Many a family outing was enjoyed on the beaches and strolling along the boardwalk. Later his father purchased an apartment there, which the family later sold. Numerous friends of his still have their little spot in the sun there. And, come high-summer, wonderful beach-side restaurants set up camp to cater to us city-folk in need of a late summer sunset over the sea, barefoot walks in the sand, a glass of crisp summer wine, and perhaps an evening of Salsa dancing.

We went straight out to the port, parked the car and brought our things to Bernard's little wonder. The boat has the standard two sails, a wheel rather than a tiller, and cabins afore and aft. You could sleep 6 bodies very tightly in it, fix a few meals, and if necessary, use the head (though the preferred spot to relieve oneself is apparently in the sea, off the back of the boat). Before we could set off, Bernard set to work getting the motor up and running. He'd brought a starter and a battery, so this happily didn't take too long. He then put on his wet suit, duck-taped a snorkel to a garden hose, which he then attached to an aquarium oxygen pump, and he jumped into the water to scrape off the barnacles and mussels incrusted on the helix behind. Boat people do need to be skilled in an array of tasks, creative problem solving on the top of the list.

It took a couple of hours for all to be set, and then, off we went, maneuvering rather awkwardly with the small motor, the tub-shape of the boat, and many another day-tripper alongside with the same plan in mind. At last, we were out of the harbor and Martine proved herself a very experienced sailor, jumping up to raise the mainsail and jib, hooking pulling, tying off, and such as necessary till we were fully a'sail. She'd spent over a year working on a large boat on the Mediterranean, around the coast-line of Corsica in her twenties. And it all came back to her. She moved with ease and assuredness, and kept an eye on the wind, the state of the sails, and our fellow pleasure boats with the eyes of a pro. I'm afraid I took photos and admired her as she worked. All my sailing years are far in the distance at this point, and I was simply in a state of hesitation and observation.

With the sails up, we were able to break out lunch: my bread (with some nutty quinoa flakes in the mix... yum), local saucisson, JP's organic rosé wine, and Martine's salad of organic fava beans, pea pods, and carrots (all lightly cooked) with a sauce of tahini, soy sauce, olive oil, and a touch of water. Martine also brought along a delicious cherry mousse cake from the vocational high school where she is a social worker. Life could be worse, hm?

The weather was warm, lightly breezy (no major gusts, but that was ok), and gray. We were far from alone on the water, and had to keep a regular look-out under the jib for potential collisions. Conversation roamed all over, returning frequently to shop and work talk between Martine and Bernard (both social workers who work with troubled teens).

Myself, I chatted, ate, drank, photographed, and, sweetly cradled by the gentle waves and the solid tubbiness of the boat, lay down and napped for a time. Once you're on the water, sails up, and the sea beneath and all around you, you've no other choice but to slow down, take your time, listen, be, and perhaps recover from cleaning out your swimming pool, installing a kitchen counter, and entertaining five Canadians. Ahhhhhh.

What Grows in a Rock?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Outing to the Cévennes

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Off the west, and not particularly far, are the Cévennes hills. This part of France is riddled with small villages, teeny hamlets, groupings of stone homes perched on high, and one street towns edged by the Gardon River to one side, and stone cliffs to the other. House after house, with windows only on the wall facing the street.

This is a land rich in history. At the time of the Wars of Religion, many Protestant communities found a semblance of peace in these hard to reach areas. And more recently, the silk industry made of many of the towns, wealthy centers of the bourgeoisie. The remains of the mulberry trees dot the landscape, as do long three story stone buildings in which the silk worms were raised and where their spun silk was transformed into valuable threads for the clothes of Europeans far and wide.

The silk industry left behind tasteful and elegant architecture. The Protestant influence is far more durably felt in the discreet inhabitants, sturdy and self-reliant, minimalist in their needs, restrained in their demeanor. Red and dark gray stones, plentiful in the soil, are the material of choice for all the homes. The windows are small, the doors often quite old and hand-built.

The Cévennes, inexpensive and out of the way, was a haven of choice for the "soixante-huitards" or flower children as we'd call them in the US. The back to the country trend that swept up many a baby boomer in France helped re-populate the region with organic farmers, goatcheese makers, potters, alternative educators, active Green party members and others who prefer long hair, beards, natural childbirth, vegetarian diets and harem pants in ochre, preferably from India. These relatively new arrivals have enriched the social life immeasurably. To someone like myself that is. On the doors of the Mairie/Town hall you can find posters announcing hikes to discover medicinal plants, projects to build eco-conscious houses, pottery classes, and informational debates on the environment, the Green Party, the European Union projects and more.

To get there, we left Vauvert and drove towards Alès and then went straight west, winding our way up and up into the hills. The roads are tight and filled with curves. Rivers flow below, clear as a bell, tumbling over stones and sharp drop-offs. Driving fast is both impossible and terribly dangerous should you attempt to do so. So, simply take it easy, and wind your way to your chosen village and one of the many bed and breakfast in the area. Bring your hiking shoes along as every village has beautiful hikes branching off from it into the hills. Once away from the bustling cities of Nîmes and Avignon, revel in the slower pace and say hello to the grandfathers tending their kitchen gardens. Potatoes were the plant of choice in most of what I saw. A staple for the year to come.

A Birthday passed.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I turned 43 on the 13th of May. For once, my birthday was neither on a Friday (the day of my arrival on this earth) nor on Mother's day (American Mother's day that is, the French one is just around the corner). The last time this happened, it was actually quite a lovely day as I was with my mother, and Leo was with me. With her encouragement he wrote me an extraordinarily beautiful letter. I was in tears of joy and gratefulness. I think it is still my favorite gift ever.

However, when you're a single mom in your own home, and having a birthday, I've learned, your kids just don't know what to do about it. Last year, my awesome au pair Hayley orchestrated a party, a special gift, balloons, brownies, candles, the works. But this year, doing without home-based help, the day slipped by somewhat uneventfully. I had a lovely SMS in the morning from my vintner, and a couple of lovely emails from abroad, some facebook notes.

It's not really a big deal, but it's curious. Kids need to be guided, led to gift-giving, to celebrating another. They've been raised to have high expectations for their own birthdays (and for Christmas morning if you celebrate it). And, as a friend pointed out, it is quite likely that the wonderful birthday Hayley and the boys organized for me last year, is precisely why they did nothing this year. How do two little boys top that? and can they give a gift if they can't purchase it? The ever-present materialism of this world leads many a child to think that the only real gift is one that costs money. I truly do try to teach them otherwise, but it hasn't necessarily sunk in. Reading a book the week before about a little boy who offers his mother a bouquet of flowers and fresh-picked berries didn't apparently resonate. How do we convey that simply a hug and a wish for a lovely day, perhaps with a pretty hand-drawn card would be just dandy (telling them this ahead of time didn't work either...). Ah well.

Leo and I went out for a walk hand in hand before his sports' practice that evening, and as we did he explained to me that had he been able to, he would have made me a ring, perhaps at the iron forgery. I pointed out that rings are rarely in iron, more often in silver or gold. And he said he would paint it blue.

Voila, my gift in all its beautiful imagery. And, in all the fields around us, poppies are blooming like crazy. Thank you world.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

From Paris to Provence - Lingual Shifts

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I went to school in Paris, and lived there for two years. Six months into my studies, I went to Arles for a summer internship, met Erick, and from that point on, though I worked in Paris, I spent my weekends 'dans le Sud.'

I arrived in Arles on the 22nd of June, the morning after the Fête de la Musique. I was a bit dazed by the warmth of the air, the good southern smells, and the light. When I'd spoken with the young man at the photo festival office about finding a place to stay here, I'd assumed from his accent that he was Italian. I was surprised to discover he was actually Marseillais.

My French was pretty good at this point. I'd been following a French graduate level program in Arts Management in Paris. I had followed courses about the structure of the Ministry of Culture, arts as an economic force, accounting for non-profits, psychology for future directors and producers, the history and structure of Radio France, where to find funds, etc., I was justifiably proud of my communication and comprehension abilities. But, as I was soon to learn, it had its limits and a time of humbling was just around the corner.

One day, not more than two weeks after my arrival, Erick invited some friends to join us for lunch. And, I got maybe half of what they were saying? What the.... How is it I can't follow these people? OK, at this point in my language development I still found it hard to be in large groups in a bar where everyone is talking at the same time and the ambient noise makes distinguishing what people say pretty near impossible. And, as I've noticed, I can lip read in English pretty well, but not in French (nor in Japanese). So noisy bars are places I simply give up on communicating beyond smiles, grimaces and sign language.

However, this was a quiet lunch with three friends. The kind of situation I was pretty good at. One spoke simply and I could follow him (he was from St. Rémy de Provence, just around the corner). I found Erick's accent lovely and very easy to understand. Yes, there were some 'gs' at the end of "juin" and "faim," there were some extra syllables in my name (in Paris, my name is pronounced ma dlen, in Provence, ma de lay ne), and Marseille was said in three (Mar say yuh). But the artist friend Pierre just barreled along and I swear, no more than 50% registered (a Marseillais pure souche as they say here, meaning approximatively with deep roots). And then that friend from the Pyrenees. Goodness, what language was he speaking?

Well, such a setback is simply a challenge to be accepted, n'est-ce pas? And so I set about learning the local dialect. Erick took me to the local library and selected a number of Marcel Pagnol movies for me. One by one I worked my way through them: La fille du Puisatier, La Femme du Boulanger, Manon de la Source, César, Fanny, Marius and a few others featuring Fernandel one of his fetish actors.

The first time I watched La fille du Puisatier, my comprehension stumbled completely when the father (played by Raimu) comes to fetch his daughter and is greeted by the woman who has taken her in -- a grand old biddy, heavy-set and ferociously acting the role of protective watch dog over a young woman wronged and her new baby. They went at it verbally (as the French will do, and even more so in the South), words flying, insults, anger, volleys of words filling the air space. I'm told that Raimu did a lot of improvising in these movies (if you don't know this actor, he is a cross between a classically trained actor of the great tragedies and Jackie Gleason). The local accent, the speed of speech, the sheer intensity of it all... I had to stop and start the VCR again and again to get simply the gist. It took over a year to actually understand the argument.

But I did, and what a proud moment it was. Slowly but surely the local accent and the speed of speech has become normal to me. Erick's accent is quite gentle, almost lulling, but Leo and Jonas' neighborhood nannies were quite "du pays" as are some of the market vendors, my baker and his father, and other friends who proudly hale from Marseille. I have to confess that when Leo once said to me "j'ai fang" I nearly bit my tongue. I corrected him to say "faim". But hearing Jonas' nannie say his name with three long syllables was no longer a surprise. There are even times when I'm on the phone to Paris, and the Parisian on the other end of the line thinks I'm from the South!

When you live here, you start pronouncing the 'es.' All last syllables get their due. Comme ça is said as 'co me sa.' Whereas in Paris it will be 'com sa.' And when saying the city name Arles, be sure to emphasize the A, the Re an the Le.

Over these past fifteen years this singing language has come to feel right to me, and the clipped tones of the Parisians, interspersed with "euh" sounds if not pretentious, then other. My own speech has taken on the lilt of extra syllables, fully pronounced "s's," but I draw the line at adding a "g" to my month of juin, or Leo's second name Augustin. Now, if I were to add the phrases "ma foi" or "peu cher" (this latter pronounced 'peu sher re' of course, then I would truly become a local.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Arriving in Paris -- Linguistically challenged.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

When I first arrived in France, I landed in Paris. This was the city I knew best in France, and the place where my French had gotten up to speed when I sojourned in a few families for six weeks during my 16th summer. This time I'd come to Paris to go to graduate school in Arts Management. I wanted a Master's Degree, but preferred the exoticism of getting it in a foreign country to contemplating an equivalent school in NYC or Boston. The travel bug had definitely not been worn out by my year in Japan. Au contraire!

When I arrive in a country where I have yet to master the language there is a certain rhythm to how things progress. The first time, when I was 16 (after four years of study), it took me two weeks of concentrated listening till the normal speed of language clicked, and I was able to follow it. At first, I had the sensation of hearing words I knew sprinkled like little islands of awareness in a sea of slurred gobbledygook. The next stepping stone was a delayed reaction. I would automatically say, "what?" and then two seconds later, I'd comprehend what I'd heard. Rather akin to a phone conversation with a built in time delay. This made for very dis-jointed conversations. I'd be listening intently, say what? then the person would start explaining and then I'd interrupt to say, no, no, I've understood. Next?

The two week point was critical. I awoke up one morning and click, what had felt like a train steam-rolling through my skull on a daily basis suddenly sounded normal. Now, As I write this, I also realize that I am well-known amongst friends and family for speaking quickly. I'm reassured that I don't garble my words nor mumble (a dear friend from high school was the most sincere mumbler I've ever known.. and yes, I can still understand her, and she me). But I do clip along at an impressive pace... in each of my three languages. I do try to slow down for friends who're not native speakers of my languages. Truly!

I am also known for being talkative, bavarde, garrulous, loquacious... as you choose. This is frequently out of my control (particularly after a very strong espresso). However, when I come to a new country. I close my mouth and I open my ears. Ahhh. I don't exactly blend into the background, but I do position myself to listen, over-hear, follow, participate discreetly in gatherings and conversations whirling about me. I did this with ease in Japan (and slept with phrases flowing like waves through my dreams), and I returned to this state in Paris. This period generally lasts about three months. At which point, I become more confident, more able, and words start to tumble from my mouth.

I arrived in Paris in early January, and had a couple of weeks to find an apartment and get settled before school started. I was still in Japanese mode -- quiet, patient, amenable, assuming that people in charge would actually wish to help you resolve problems, etc., I'd also adopted a language tic from Japan -- to begin a sentence but not to finish it. It is rude to complain or specifically attack someone and risky to say too much in general in Japan. As such, if you had an issue with someone and you wanted to convey that to a friend/colleague, you'd simply say, "Mmmm, that woman. . . mmm neeeh, so desune...." and they'd get the picture. No need to go into detail.

This is not the case in France. Complaining is an art, and arguing a necessary skill. I've since adapted, and can hold my own in a political discussion at the dinner table, but right off the boat, I was a neophyte to say the least, in a land where the mastery of the spoken word and well-organized thoughts to pummel your opponent into submission is frighteningly common. A run-in with the France Telecom during my first month in Paris would have lain me low had my co-renter not been with me. Was I up to living in this country?

The apartment I ended up moving into was already partially inhabited by a young German woman who was depressive and out of work, but familiar with the French/Parisian system. Her telephone was limited to only local calls, and I wished to be able to call my parents, friends, etc., in the US. So, we set out to change this. However, the telephone bill was still in the name of a prior renter who'd departed more than a year before. At the France Telecom offices we presented our dilemma: change the name of the line to mine, and permit international calls.

--No. Not possible.

--Oh? But...

--We need the signature of the person in whose name the line was put.

--She's gone.

--Then we will assign you a new number (not an idea my German co-renter was keen on).

And we went round and round. I sat there mutely while my co-renter became more and more aggressive and nearly attacked the France Telecom agent across the desk. They were battling fiercely with words flying through the air. Who would back down first? This was a test of wills, to hell with what was permitted, standard procedure etc., rules were made to be bent in any case. But whose authority would win out in the end?

Ten minutes later, we walked out with a new contract and all in order.

Whew! Stunned, even a bit sick to my stomach from the nastiness of the moment, I wondered when (or if ever) my French (and my person!) would be up to negotiating the French bureaucracy. I was caught in a moment of serious cultural dislocation. Perhaps if I'd come to Paris directly from New York, but spending years in friendly Seattle, and ever so polite Japan had shifted whatever New Yorker aggressiveness I might have had to weather the Parisian front. Onward and?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A quick yummy snack for the kids and me - Homemade Cereal bars

I miss granola bars. They're one of those rare items I purchase and bring back to France (along with organic crunchy peanut butter, Tazo black chai tea, and dried cherries). But hey, I've a house full of ingredients, all organic, virtuous, yummy, and with potential.

So, I got out the Kitchen Aid, and went through my cupboards, throwing things in. I used the basic measuring tool of a single cup and distant memories of chocolate chip oatmeal cookies from my childhood. With a bit of tweaking and creativity the results are yummy, healthful... but definitely calorie-filled! Not a dietetic option, but good for a hike and/or an after-school snack for starving, growing kids.

Start to finish (as long as you've got the ingredients on hand) is 25 minutes, with a nice chunk of that sitting down sipping my cup of chai while the oven bakes.

1 cup palm oil and/or butter or a combination of the two
1 cup almond butter
1 cup rapadura organic brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamum
2 eggs
2 cups 5 flake blend (oats/wheat/spelt/rice/barley)
1 cup quinoa flakes (or whatever you have on hand)
2/3 cup pumpkin seeds and/or sunflower seeds
1/2 cup flour (whole wheat or white as you prefer)
100 g. (3.5 -4 oz) chopped dark chocolate

Mix all this together, one by one. It will make a very thick paste. Spread it out and pat it down to a 1/2 inch height (1 cm or so). Bake at 175C/365F for 10-15 minutes or till it smells wonderful and is nicely browned and crunchy. Slice into bars immediately after removing from the oven. Serve with farm fresh milk, or soy milk, or water, or beer. As your heart desires!

In my household, this recipe barely makes enough to last an afternoon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Temptations of French Lingerie

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

OK, I'm getting rather far from the food theme here. But, since French women are known for being good cooks, staying thin, and enjoying being sexy, am I really? It took me awhile to get into French lingerie. Literally and figuratively. I was pretty much a cotton and Victoria's Secret basics kind of girl. Jockey for Her, etc., Basic, well made, comfortable. When I lived in Paris and went to dance class on a regular basis, I would goggle a bit at the super chic underwear of my fellow Parisian dancers -- magenta thongs, black lace, peacock blue satin... and this under leotards they were then going to sweat in?

But something happened when I turned 40. My body changed. My breasts got larger (which freaked me out just a bit), but my legs and torso didn't (could be all the yoga, but also living on lots of veggies, olive oil, fish...). I also had one of those Eureka realizations that this is as good as it's gonna get. From here on out, gravity will have an every greater say. So, I've never had the body of a model, but I'm curvy, mostly flat-bellied (depending on how much I binge on my bread and an evil and wonderful hazelnut spread by the Jean Hervé called Kokolo) and I enjoy what I have.

That same year Erick offered me a very lovely and no doubt expensive Aubade black brassiere with a little jewel in the middle. Hmmm when could I wear that? He quickly figured out that this gift pleased me far more than yet another heavy coffee table book, and followed suit over the next couple of occasions.

I like to watch people (mostly women, I must confess), observe their fashion choices, their sense of style and the grace (or lack there of) in their movement. I noticed that certain friends had their elegant button down shirts buttoned down to the cleavage, and that their lovely bras were definitely in view. Hm? No one seemed to think them cheap or slutty. Au contraire, they were elegant, classy and ever so alluring. Other lovely friends wore bras with little jewels on the straps, again, very much in view (but of course! if not to show it off, why wear it?). Just another little feminine detail.

Since the 1990s, we've been entertained, as a people and a culture, by a gorgeous ad campaign by the French lingerie company Aubade. Take a look at their chic web site and the history of their "leçons d'amour."

These images are photographed so spectacularly, no one could (or perhaps should) be offended. They are a celebration of beautiful women and the power of seduction. My children have now grown up with these on all the bus stops, in all the magazines, in calendars, post cards. It's just normal and beautiful.

So, I bit back my intimidation, and entered the lingerie stores in Arles. The first time I did this it was summer sale period. This made it a bit easier on the pocket book. All bras at 25-30E and all panties at 10-15E. The normal prices were more in the range of 45 - 105E for bras, and 25-55E for panties -- yes, that wee bit of string and stretchy lace costs more per ounce than either gold or black truffles.

I've a favorite store now, the Clin d'Oeil in Arles. I've gotten to know the woman who runs the store, to be able to chat with her about politics (what else?) breast size changes, the local economy, and so on. She seems to enjoy the infrequent visits from her American client, and I enjoy being known and accepted.

Here in Avignon, I admire, I photograph, I look wistfully. But, for the moment, with my pocket book much reduced this year, I've contented myself with my current wardrobe, and resisted further temptation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My first baby in Provence (a while back now)

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I became pregnant with Leo almost immediately after our August wedding. I stopped taking the pill and poof, within the week my body was changing. Mom’s discussion about the birds and bees, and the ease of getting pregnant in the family had held true. To confirm the pregnancy, and begin my official doctors’ visits I went to Erick’s doctor, the one I’d mistakenly tutoyed the year before, and with whom I’d never really felt at ease. But, when you’re new in town, who else do you go to? He had a very patronizing air, and when I said I’d come to get a pregnancy confirmation, he’d hurumphingly corrected me and stated he would test to see if I was pregnant. Bubbly and enthusiastic as ever, I declaimed that with my bigger and ever more sensitive breasts and my appetite going through the roof, I just knew I was pregnant. He simply looked at me condescendingly and went about his business, directing me to the examining table, and checking my uterus. And yes of course, I was pregnant.

I was still working in Paris at this time, but was in Arles regularly on the weekends. So I scheduled all my appointments with the hospital ob-gyn (all paid for by the French State) as well as the three sonograms on Saturdays. In the meantime, I stocked up on pregnancy books written for English and American audiences, and one in French to cover the bases. I took videos out of the local library on giving birth, birthing rooms, various options, new-born tests, etc., I dreamed of changing my profession to that of a mid-wife. I lived my pregnancy intensely, lovingly rubbing cream on my expanding stomach and breasts to limit the stretch marks, eating as healthfully as possible, walking, biking and doing expecting mothers’ yoga.

The scheduled visits at the hospital were frustrating. The doctor was monosyllabic, and not very informative. At the first scheduled sonogram I wanted to know everything, and couldn’t resist asking questions, pointing, interrogating… He maintained his reserved demeanor and answered sparingly – driving me completely crazy. Quickly, I realized I wouldn’t be putting together a list of ideal conditions for a personal birthing experience with this doctor. But, there was no alternative, and so gradually I came to terms with the fact that a hot tub/water birth wasn't going to happen. Nor would the option of a mid-wife at the house be possible either. I knew none, and it was clearly frowned upon in the milieu I'd so recently integrated.

At work, my co-workers smoked like chimneys. This had bothered me before, but hadn’t sent me fleeing. But now, I was so sensitive to the fumes, I began to hassle them and tease them, anything to limit the quantity of cigarettes being lit up around me. And my appetite! If lunch were late, I simply fainted. It was rather scary. A simple meal of salads and a sandwich was no longer enough. I needed a full bowl of soup with noodles alongside to fill my ravenous insides.

But there was no weepiness, no morning sickness, and my energy level was up. Beyond larger breasts, I wasn’t showing particularly, and was able to go about things in a relatively normal fashion.

When I hit my seventh month, I quit my job in Paris and moved full time to the South to be with Erick. Up to that time I’d maintained the weekly commute. Walking all over Paris had been great, but working alongside three non-stop smokers had been more than a little difficult. Finally, I settled in to live full time in Arles.

Shortly after Easter arrived, and with it a visit to Erick's family. Noisy and opinionated all, excepting his father, Pappie, who sat discreetly in a corner with his book. Rather out of my depth in this small over-furnished house filled by yelling Mediterranean folk, I sought refuge in the gentle presence of my father in law, and spent most of the day with him.

The next week, Pappie called and asked Erick to come and get him. I’d like to come live with you for a time if I may, he said. I willingly agreed. I’d had a very close relationship to my own grandfather, and found Pappie so dear, that I was more than willing to have him under our roof.

From that point on Pappie and I were often together as I nested to the utmost. I refinished furniture--having always loved working with wood--and there were a couple of pieces in Erick’s kitchen that could use a bit of brightening. So Pappie and I brought the table outside, sanded off the white paint and painted multiple layers of varnish to make it indestructible in its role as the kitchen/everything table. Then we began on the bottom of the hutch, and then on another hutch brought over by a friend.

Many a day I was out in the small street, sanding away with the hand-held power sander, in large men’s shorts over my huge belly, my hair in a pony tail, a dust mask over my nose and mouth. The neighbors, who’d barely ever seen me before, didn’t quite know what to make of me. The street was tiny, narrow, and the buzzing of the sander reverberated strongly. Truly we all lived on top of each other. I’d quickly realized that early in my first month with Erick; when romping in bed, no crying out, particularly if you have the windows open for a fresh night breeze. Later on I learned about the various whispers they’d exchanged about me. Was I German, Dutch, English? I am tall, fair-haired, huge in my pregnancy, anything but elegant, and sanding furniture noisily (though being careful of nap and meal times!).

Having grown up in a large suburb of New York City, I had a rather care-free attitude about what other people thought of me. I did my thing, stayed positive, said hello to passers-by. There I was, as foreign as could be, plopped into a Southern French city. Later I would come to know the twists and turns of the neighborhood cabals and grow more sensitive to them, but at this moment, I was living for my baby, my home, my family, happy in my new Provençal life.

At last one neighbor came up to me, a gift for my baby in her hands. It was Marie, who ran the Laundromat across the street. She hesitatingly offered her hand-made sweater and booties to me. My first baby-gift. I was truly touched. A first gesture towards me in my new life. Up to this point, I’d only met Erick's friends. No one had yet approached me for myself.

Leo was born early summer. I'd been able to go swimming pregnant and topless once before the birth (late May had been particularly mild that year). There was an hilarious moment of wishing to lie tummy down in the sand, and I'd needed to punch two large holes for my breasts, and dig out a ditch for my belly. And then the day arrived when the contractions began, growing stronger and stronger. Off to the hospital we went, where, for once, I was told that I wasn’t fat enough (being a large girl with strong thighs, I’d always felt large in this world of tiny Mediterranean women). Was I flattered? “Vous n’etes pas grosse” all seven syllables in the local accent – they pronounce the ‘e’s here. The nurse who received me gave me a suppository, a remarkably popular way of packaging medicines in France, and sent me home. I was back by evening and a couple of hours later, Leo arrived.

The birth went smoothly. Though not in a magical way. It had been medicalized down to the tiniest detail; monitors on my arm, my tummy, an IV in my wrist, flat on my back, legs in stirrups, with not particularly friendly people in white bustling about and measuring me, poking me, telling me not to be so loud. (Hey, isn't this the one time you're allowed to be loud as a woman? if not when giving birth, then when?!) But then Leo was there, placed on my breast, a nurse helping him grasp my nipple in his mouth for the very first time. Shortly after, I was wheeled to my own room, and left alone with my baby. Hard to believe they’d leave me alone with him like that… I’d rarely ever baby-sat newborns. Were they sure I knew what to do with this new little bundle?

As the week went by (yes, in France you still have a week in the maternity ward after giving birth) the rare nurse stopped by. The first two mornings brought the nurse who handled the baby’s first bath, and showed me how to then do so myself. When I dared take a shower (and leave Leo alone for 5 minutes, whereby he proceeded to cry), a nurse came running to see what was up. There were of course the conflicting recommendations of nursing on demand, or insisting on three-hour spans between feedings. But in general, I had the sense that my foreignness kept the nurses at bay. I spent the week peacefully, Leo on my chest, right by my heart at most times, reveling in my first born.

Pappie was in the hospital too. He’d been in for yearly exams for his diabetes, and came down to my room to hold his new grandson on his first day on this earth. My mother arrived shortly after. Friends came by to ogle and praise. I lived it all in a happy blur.

Once home, I lay upon my new mattress, the old foam mattress I’d shared with Erick till that point (which apparently had come from a back room at the photo festival offices) in the dustbin. I slept when Leo slept, nursed lying down as often as not. The heat outdoors was heavy and sleep-inducing. I let myself fall into the rhythms of my baby. For the moment, earning a living, jobs, etc., were the last things on my mind. I simply was, and this little baby was the center of my universe, precious, fragile, and completely dependent on me. Thank goodness I had a husband who could cook.

My Friend the Horse Whisperer

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Mireille is passionate about horses. She always has been. And unlike many little girls, this passion did not go away when she grew up. Not originally of the region (she comes from the Jura, near the Swiss border), she early adopted a Camarguais pony and trained it with the horse-whispering technique. They learned together. She has since translated a book from English (this technique is particularly popular and developed in the US and Australia, but rare on the continent) for the publishing house, Actes Sud on the subject and pursued a few workshops to deepen her skills.

The past five years have been at times horribly difficult for her (divorce, terrible financial straits, struggling to cope with her two kids very much on her own, finding a new job, struggling to manage on a very small salary...). But, manage she has, and with joy and love she has kept her passion for horses and this gentle technique a part of her life. I'm not sure she realized when she signed up her little Alexandra for riding classes ages ago, that the centre equestre where these classes take place would become a second home to her. But now, she counts the director amongst her closest friends, and Alexandra roams freely here, where they've become known to everyone.

She has been able to persuade the director to permit her to work with the "difficult" horses that no one else feels comfortable dealing with. The first had been badly broken, and bit. She worked gently and calmly with him, gaining his trust and then, when it was time, handed him back to his owner to train for riding in the club. In need of another horse to practice on, she noticed a large draw horse in a back prairie, and questioned the director of the centre. Oh him? Well, when we put the plow on him he went insane and destroyed numerous posts in the paddock. So we sent him to Uzes, to the experts, to be properly trained, and payed over 3000Euros to do so. But when he came back six months later, he was as skittish as ever, and we've been rather hesitant to try again, and truth to tell, we've not really had the time.

Hmmm she thought. Would you permit me to work with him? Well, sure, go right ahead.

It has been not quite a year now that she has worked to gain the trust of this horse, to exercise him, to work him on the lead, with the halter, to de-sensitize him to touch and the sound of crumpling plastic bags (this comes in handy when she uses one to remove the stinging flat horse flies that so bother him). Yesterday, for the first time, she ran with him in the paddock. But also, he did a very tight circle around her, completely "en liberté" with no lead holding him in. It was the horse's choice to come in closer to her, and you could see he truly wanted to go to her, but awaited her signal to come in for a pat and a caress. He keeps an eye on her at all times, focused on her no matter the sounds and activities (of three small children and myself) on the periphery.

She is working towards being able to re-introduce the horse, Nestor, to the plough and its harness. The little old man who owns the horse has been afraid to even come near him, but now, as he watches Mireille work, he is ever so tempted. However, he is also quite of the "old school" and as such is loath to admit that a woman can be so skilled (he'll never say it aloud, but in his eyes you can see a softening) with a horse. But he has also learned patience, and that the earlier efforts by himself and so-called experts had simply hurt an otherwise very capable animal. Mireille put him at ease suggesting that they begin the work with the plough when no one else is present at the centre. Thus, allowing them to go slowly, at their and Nestor's pace, and without the curious eyes of others looking on.

She tells me that she begins by requesting gently that the horse do as she'd like, she invites him forward, then she lets him know she'd like him to move forward, and then, that he is going to move forward. She never goes further, but will repeat these three levels again and again, like a mosquito, never letting up, till at last, he moves forward (or trots, or backs up, or moves sideways, or brings his head around... you name it). It is a lesson in constance and patience and keeping your calm. In a test of wills by force, Mireille couldn't win, but with patience and constance yes, the horse eventually wants to please her.

I've written before that this is a favorite technique for her kids too... And, I can tell you from experience, it works. And what a relief to yell less (no one's perfect), and have my boys do as I ask, and want to please me. Win/win.