Sunday, January 31, 2010

Joyeux Anniversaire, Iris!

When I see this picture, I see why Iris described this event as "fireworks at our table"! Quelle fête! Iris celebrated her sixth birthday in grand style - she'd dearly wanted to go to our favorite restaurant for her birthday lunch and so we did, and those wonderful people surprised her (and us!) with this festive fireworks - and a full chorus "Joyeux Anniversaire" in French. The owner has three children of her own, all grown (the oldest working in Lausanne (the region where half of my mom's Swiss family lives!), the second in the restaurant and the third, 14, at the "college" in town) and they were all there (which is apparently a rare occasion) so there was lots of sibling warmth in the room. It was a day of intense emotions in many ways - the owner's gesture for Iris's birthday made us feel so welcome as to feel at home, as though this was exactly the place we were meant to be all along. At the same time, there were moments in the day when Iris really seemed to feel the impact of turning another year older - she talked about having to be a new person and being scared of forgetting who she was when she was five (which I interpret as her re-inventing herself, as we all feel compelled to, when living abroad). Difficult to speak of change and transcendence, and rivers that flow with different currents but are still the same rivers - but by the end of the day, Iris seemed to have settled into her "new" self.

The day started with Oliver and Eleanor wanting to decorate the downstairs and "surprise" Iris - here you see her emerging with her dad and discovering her siblings' festive decorations. Oliver was so completely into this part - he even used toilet paper to make streamers (it kind of is like crêpe paper, I guess). Iris was delighted.

We were all also pretty excited about her birthday present, which she had chosen the day before in Pontivy. Here you see the post-wrapping paper glee of re-discovery. We loooove the good people at Playmobil!

Why do I have an irresistible urge to shop at Ikea?

My chronology is all off for today (it was all a wonderful blur), but basically, we arose, decorated the downstairs, opened the present, played and played with it, went out to lunch, and then Iris got to choose our after lunch walk route - she loves walking up the main street in town and the promenade at the top of the hill. Here she is, all of 6, at the Place de la Resistance, which is entirely appropriate for my plucky and brave little girl. Of course there were reminiscences throughout the day of her birth and of her exploits on this earth thus far - kind of silly, but this is when her memories start, too. I love this calm, thoughtful look here.

And "Ta-daaa!" - here is Iris's birthday cake, Douceur et Fraîcheur - a light and gorgeous combination of a raspberry mousse with a lemon mousse - and yes, that's Iris reaching for a raspberry from the top of the cake upon which was written: "Joyeux Anniversaire, Iris, 6 ans." It was scrumptious and was another highlight of the day. :-)

So this was a great day - we celebrated wonderful Iris and being a kid; I put aside my anxieties for the day (will the children really learn French? do we speak too much English with them? am I really going to produce two book chapters, two new courses, and a conference paper? etc.) - ar-hum, I put aside my anxieties and reveled in all the possibilities that our kids make us see. Happy Birthday, sweet Iris.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Douceur et Fraîcheur (Pontivy Redux)

Saturday is definitely our gourmandise day - thoughts of good food permeate our morning as we set out for the open-air market, thriving even in January. Today was extra special, as Iris had an appointment with the boulangère to go choose her birthday cake. It's brilliant: there are little tarts on display that can be made to order as big birthday tarts.

There is a great French phrase, "l'embaras du choix" (as great as the English phrase, "the embarassment of riches") - definitely what Iris experienced. She chose a gorgeous tart entitled "Douceur et Fraîcheur" (Sweet and Fresh) - details tomorrow, when we'll eat it for her birthday!

In the meantime, she is getting to be quite the little connoiseuse of the baguette. "A nice parfume to the crust, clearly crispy, yum!" She was a great little helper at the market and helped me order our delicacies for the week with many a "merci" and a "s'il-vous-plait" - yea!

Et voici: the cheeses of the week. Starting with the lovely wedge of orange-coated cheese, we have a Port-Salut, a mild soft cheese whose bark is worse than its bite; then, Oliver's beloved "brebis" cheese - what he calls his "sheepishly shorne sheep cheese" (!); then, Iris insisted on this one, and boy was she right: a nice, wide slide of Morbier - we get it in the States, so I was reluctant at first; but of course, we don't get it like this in the States: much more pungent and strong, the bleu streak more pronounced. Yum!

Yes, those are geese and a goat you're seeing - a not three minutes from our house! Since we'd gotten up early, and since the little roasted chicken that Iris and I had bought was clearly going to stay nice and warm in its cozy bag, we took a walk before lunch into the upper reaches of the city behind us: a whole other world! This marvelous little city has surprises around every corner, and some of those corners themselves are surprises. This neighborhood had a lot of houses that reminded of the 1930s "Paquebot" style of architecture (Mac took some great shots of architectural features) - lots of planar surfaces softened by a rounded corner at key moments). And then, what appeared to be a huge manor house made of old stone - we wondered if the entire area hadn't belonged to it at some time - it still has an adjoining building (workers of the domain?) which has been transformed into apartments. Lovely mysteries!

And then it was off to Pontivy - the last time we'd been there was a Sunday (which had been ideal for storming the castle), but we were keen to see the city with a bit more life in it, as we knew it would have on a Saturday (especially today being the last day of the January sales). Isn't that wonderful? Another bustling town with its medieval heart still beating. Now we can't wait for the castle itself to open up (soon, soon). We walked about and window shopped (best French phrase ever: "lèche-vitrine" = window licking!), and saw the beautiful Notre-Dame in town and took note of all the street names being in both French and Breton.

Truth be told, we had another mission in Pontivy, two actually: we'd passed a really nice looking bookstore where we knew that we wanted to make our purchase of a book we've been wanting to read in honor of the house we're living in. We're now the proud owners of a Folio Classique edition ("texte integrale"!) of Les Trois Mousquetaires by Alexandre Dumas - the house being from the 17th century, we think it only right to steep ourselves in the glorious 17th century feats and deeds of d'Artagnan and his friends. The very first line of the novel blew me away, as it mentions "Meung, ou naquit l'auteur du Roman de la Rose" - !!! Promising, eh? Oh, but the picture: our main mission was to step into the wondrous toy store we'd seen and purchase a gift for Iris's birthday tomorrow. Being utterly unable to refuse her siblings the joy of a gift, we returned home to behold Oliver play with Legos (creatures from the lost city of Atlantis!), Eleanor with a Barbapapa family (I can't believe they still make those!!!), and Iris play with a little miniature doll (her big birthday gift comes tomorrow).

The kids were good and tired, so after they went to bed Mac and I had time to poke around on the web, as my interest had been peaked by the Michelin Guide's mention of "The Village of the Year 1000" in nearby Melrand - how much fun will that be? It opens back up on February 20th and we are going to be among the first in line! (There's also a 16th-century village that's been set up at Poul Fetan - all this puts Conner Prairie's 18th-19th century towns in a wonderful historical continuum). There's also a Post Card Museum (over 36,000 postcards of Brittany from yesteryear to yesterday!) which, in the way that only web sites can, led us to this astounding video of a popular Breton punk (yes, that's right) band - please tell me that nice lady is one of the musicians' mothers! :-) (Actually, this clip is quite cool, as halfway through it you'll get to hear Breton spoken). G'night!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Endive In!

I've always wondered why I see people buying not just one or two endives at the market on Saturday, but sometimes six or eight or even, once, twelve. (Endive - pronounced "en" + "dive" like you're going in the pool) I've always associated this slightly bitter herb (I checked, it really is an herb!) with fancy salads, that little extra on top that makes it delicious and unusual. So how much salad would you be making if you were buying twelve endives? Then I saw the picture of the endive gratin on the side of the Knorr Béchamel sauce container. Then I asked my dear Mom on Skype - and the look of delicious memories on her face let me know that I had to try this recipe. So, after a day of thinking through the difference between obtaining your moral education from mythological narrative vs. mythological allegory in the 16th century, I turned my thoughts to our endive gratin. It turns out to be one of the most fundamental of all quick at-home French dishes, so what I'm about to show you with such tremulous pride is really the equivalent of how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: it's fast, easy, delicious, and totally comforting.

These are all the ingredients you need. If I were a worthy human being, I would make my own béchamel sauce (butter, flour, milk, and a touch of nutmeg, salt and pepper) - but Knorr (yea, Swiss company!) does such a nice job of preparing a nice little carton that I went with their version. So, take your requisite number of endives, as many slices of ham as you have endives, your bechamel, and some grated cheese. Smart to have a baguette and an enormous brick of butter nearby to feed your curious kids as they come up to see what you're doing every three minutes.

Next, you boil your endives in salted water for 15 minutes.

It helps to do this on your stove whose original space might well have served as an enormous fireplace for cooking in the 17th century. Gives everything great flavor. :-)

Boiling the endives turns their tips this lovely shade of chartreuse. Let them sit for a minute, because you're about to take their warm little bodies and wrap each one in a slice of ham.

Having wrapped each endive in a slice of ham, you drizzle the béchamel sauce over them (ok you coat them in the béchamel), then sprinkle cheese all over the entire arrangement.

Bake for 20 minutes at 240Celsius (around 450Farenheit) so the cheese is all melty, the sauce is hot, the ham is slightly crispy, and the endives are truly tender. Serve it up! Avoid thinking that calling these "Elf Stockings" is going to make them appetizing to your children - it only made them suspicious about the fate of said Elf. They liked calling it a "gratin aux endives" much better.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One Month !

Incroyable mais vrai: we have been here a month! We celebrated the one-month anniversary of our arrival in multiple ways: Mac and I had a synthetic almost nostalgic view of things, wanting to talk of favorite moments and memories, the kids were having none of it - they live in the moment, and the moment was dedicated to a "degustation" (a tasting) of a lovely gift from dear friends, honey-flavored caramels in the form of bees. We'd been saving them to mark this special occasion, only realizing now how perfect they were since caramels are a big Breton treat.

The kids appreciated the sentiment! I really want to keep these moments of re-collection, when we all gather around the kitchen table at the end of the day. Now the kids bring their projects from school they want to continue at home (Iris's class will be building an igloo, so we have to start saving our milk cartons!), and we decide on dinner and whatever we're going to read after dinner (Ivy and Bean are giving Tintin a run for his money!). We tend to run hither and yon back in the States, and I just love the rhythms that have developed here. I swear the kids are more relaxed, too: they tell us so many details of their days, exchange advice on their French experiences, just seem so gleeful. So I asked them "What do you guys think it is that you're so happy when you come home from school? Is it just the fantastic lunch at school or is there something else?" And my dear Oliver answers, in all honesty: "We miss you guys. Plus, you're the only ones we can totally understand." From the mouths of babes! I'll take the love and the glee, no matter the reason. :-) So I guess that this means that when they can speak French with their little buddies at school and work out their igloo ideas with them, we'll (rightly) be chopped liver. Ah well, so it goes! But I bet we'll still gather around the kitchen table. :-)

Life is delicious! Mac and I are going to settle in for the awesome "policier" crime drama - "Alice Nevers: le juge est une femme" ("Law & Order" move over!) - à demain!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Still Discovering

Here is Eleanor in our newly discovered library, or, "mediatheque" as it is known here. She settled right in and pulled a book out (I wonder if the letters look any different to her? probably not) while Oliver oohed over the Asterix collection and Iris went for every pink book she saw. Interestingly, last night both Oliver and Iris really wanted to read: Oliver read his awesome Monstrology book from Santa Claus out loud to anyone who would listen and Iris kind of desperately wanted to read Dick and Jane - Ivy and Bean have proven to be a much better and more challenging read and she had them with her all day today. So the library seemed like the place to go. It's lovely! Bright colors, mats and places to settle in - about half the room is for kids: lots and lots of BD (Bandes Dessinées - Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke and the like), CDs, too, and about half for grown-ups: lots of novels, a Brittany section which looked really good, including some beautiful art history books (a great big book on Romanesque Art in Brittany - yipee!). There's nothing like getting a library card to make you feel like home!

Walking back from the library, we noted lots of markers on buildings we hadn't noticed before - more to report on later! We went to lunch to celebrate the one-month anniversary of our departure at a restaurant that Oliver really loves because of its nautical theme: the Crêperie de la Marine. The owner is incredibly nice to us, and indulgent of our silly questions. Here's Mac cutting up Iris's dessert crêpe which was filled with a jam of "nèfles" - he showed us the French dictionary definition, complete with picture and cool idiomatic phrase "Des nèfles!" which can roughly be translated as "Bupkis!" - nothing, not much, zip. Might need to start using it (although we never lack for anything around here!). A "nèfle," it turns out, is a "medlar" in English - never heard of it, but the English definition, as the French, recommend eating them when they're just past being ripe and thus a little soft. Yum!

Here's Eleanor reacting exuberantly to her first taste ever of cassis (black currant) ice cream - it is really flavorful and a deep, deep red. I don't know what Oliver and I are doing, but I'd just had a lemon tart, and was clearly feeling good! The owner also showed us an amazing book we can purchase at the Office of Tourism that has an 88-stop tour of the region - 88!!! It's called the Circuit of the Dragon, starts in nearby Ploermel and winds throughout the region - hmm, idea for long-term goal! As we were leaving, the owner asked us if we knew about the island further down the canal - truth be told, we'd never been down the canal away from the castle. Wonders awaited.

If you look in the depth of the picture, you'll see the tip of this little island where the river forks to encircle it. The castle is behind us now, and this stretch along the canal stretches, I do believe, for miles and miles. We saw other walkers, a couple, some runners - can you imagine what this path is going to be like when the trees bloom? It's already so gorgeous now - that tree-lined curve, the calmness of the water.

And then marvelously, inexplicably, a house, just one, on this surprising island (it's kind of a fingerling of land, much more oval than round). What is this house? Who lives there? By what marvelous circumstance did they come to live here? There are canal locks right near the house - was/is this the house of the canal lock keeper person? I'm sure there's a word for it. Ooo! the Breton Fairy Tale of the Day yesterday had the word "paludier" in it - that took some digging: it means "salt water marsh worker" - who knew? And what is that work? So much to learn still... This little house had all the markings of a house found by weary travelers in a fairy tale - down to the smoke coming out of the chimney indicating a warm fire inside. We didn't see anybody, just an enormous St. Bernard patrolling the little inner island bridge you see stretching to the right there. Mystery!

But tell me, who are these brave folks, kayaking down the canal? This picture was taken about an hour after the previous one (note the dramatic change in weather - clouds moved in, blocked the sun that had shone so brightly just a bit ago), and we were back at the Lists, clearly the kids' favorite spot to play, play, play. Three men and lots of kids were in those kayaks, paddling against the current (which looks pretty strong to us) - brave souls! I hope they all had a great big cup of hot chocolate when they were done - maybe at the house on the island!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

La Cohue

"Cohue" means commotion, bustling crowd, mayhem. Not what you're seeing here (but just wait until summer!) and yet in this very spot was the site of the medieval Cohue - what they called a most fascinating building. The building had two levels: the bottom level consisted of a covered hall that served as the marketplace (bustling, commotion, mayhem); the upper floor served as the justice hall (another kind of bustling, commotion, mayhem). Josselin's Cohue was not preserved, but that of Vannes was (and has become the museum of the town's history, in fact - for us to visit next time). However, Josselin kept the site of the Cohue intact - the same way that Vannes kept the site of its Lists intact (enshrining them as a parking lot). I love these ghost traces in towns (thank goodness for the work of the Monuments Historiques and its helpful signs everywhere!). It really doesn't take much to close your eyes and imagine the bustle - the town has kept the dimensions and the frame of the space; you just have to fill it in, and start wondering about this fascinating lay-out of space: commerce below, justice above.

Medieval urban planning seems so compact, derived from its logic of protection (think thick medieval city walls, the inevitable port-cullis, and heavy drawbridges) - but I must say that I stumble over the associations being made by this architecture: commerce and justice. Is this a grouping of secular endeavors? Both linked to the local feudal lord (who (or whose court) administered justice)? And let's keep in mind that in the Middle Ages (not necessarily especially in the Middle Ages, but nonetheless, noticeably in this culture) both commerce and justice were relative, not absolute values: they were at the discretion (some have said whim) of those in power (well, of course, many critics today will say that is still the case!). So there's something interesting here about the pragmatism of these two circumstantially determined culture values: commerce and justice - the pragmatism of their location, that is. In both Vannes and Josselin, the Cohue is in very close proximity to the Church - directly across the street in Vannes, and just behind where I was standing when I took that picture in Josselin. There are some great books out there on medieval urban design - time to read them!

Here is what the Cohue in Josselin used to look like - a nice cut-away lets you see the upstairs as well. It was taken down in the 18th century (sigh - the Enlightenment strikes again) because of its dilapidation - those wooden buildings don't wear very well. I can't help but think of Trajan's Forum here - that smooth, flowing layout: the open courtyard, the huge basilica (justice), the porticoes and libraries (one Greek, one Latin) framing his fantastic column, the temple, and the markets echoing the round exedrae of the courtyard. Oh, and the smart move of putting his Forum right next to that of Augustus. Actually, here's a wonderful plan from a university course. I think of urban design as a series of associations that create a kind of thesis about a city - it's very hard to do, since who gets to design a city from start to finish (Brasilia and, as Mac is reminding me, Chandigarh aside)? Cities grow organically, politically - it's the big powers that are able to create spaces for themselves. The churches remain in many towns - the cohues leave hazier traces. Good thing for the huge castle in Josselin, eh? :-)

We had our own cohue (as in bustling commotion, not quite mayhem) going tonight. There was this one wonderful moment (in that afterglow post-"pain et Nutella" and pre-dinner) when all of the following things were going on: Oliver was watching the opening scenes of his beloved Muppet Treasure Island; Iris was reading a book we discovered here called Ivy and Bean out loud; and Eleanor had heckled Mac into finding "We Will Rock You" (yes, by Queen - it's her favorite song of all time, no joke) on his computer. I looked at this little crew and just loved them so much: each with their passionate little project, each so telling of each kid's personality. Wonder what they would have been like in a medieval cohue market. :-)

Oh! There was one quick thing about Oliver and French that I forgot to note last night: his first kind of hybrid French-English joke: "What does a French cow say when it needs help?" "I don't know, Oliver, what does a French cow say when it needs help?" "Moo secours!" (instead of "Au secours" - very funny!).

A month ago, we were taking down our Christmas tree, sealing up our house, and packing our bags. Tonight, as Mac and I were doing the dishes, I noticed that each kid had settled into what has become their favorite spot.

Eleanor (inexplicably having taken off her turtleneck and thus only sporting her summer dress up top) loves the bucket chair by the window.

Iris, no surprise, has set up an elaborate space in the window seat using a blanket she couldn't resist at the Carrefour store, pillows, and various books and writing and drawing implements.

And Oliver in the club chair that Mac dreams of occupying, reading a book about monsters. By the time I took this picture, Eleanor had hopped up to find out what was going on - doesn't want to miss a thing.

The kids went to bed with no cohue - just lots of plans for tomorrow (Wednesdays = no school). For now, I'm going to read the dramatic conclusion to The Breton Wench...!

Monday, January 25, 2010


Welcome to the Luv Haws - this is where the Hazel Knight and Princess Wise will be living, once they are married. Their nuptials are the topic of the week on Iris's Thinking Bench. Other kids are now coming to sit down and Iris and I are telling them what the project is - they all have projects, too. Those little guys get right down to it when they get there in the morning - there are weaving projects, drawing, building, probably some motricity - all sorts of things.

This is the wedding itself - Iris says that she was inspired by Gina and Steve's wedding. There are the bride and groom at the top, and the people down below (you can only see their uniformly brown hair atop their pink chairs - the blue things on stems are enormous glasses of blueberry drink the guests will be enjoying soon). Interesting thing, this picture, since Iris sat in the front row - it's cool that she imagines the room looking like this. I think that there are rings being exchanged somewhere in there as well. Lucky Hazel Knight - he's marrying well!

Unbeknownst to us, today was the first day that we were able to see some language gelling with the children. There were all sorts of indications that It (language acquisition) is happening, and each one took my breath away: Eleanor understood everything I said to her about her day and her lunch (tuna salad appetizer, pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce with rice, cheese course and choice of banana or yogurt), answering entirely in English.

Iris got me three times: first in calling out "Au revoir" to her teacher, loud and clear and with ease (as though she's been doing it her whole life), as we were leaving; second by sing-songing "Je n'sais pas" Je n'sais pas" and I said "Oh! you've learned 'Je ne sais pas' - good job!" "No, mom," she replies "It's je n'sais pas" - this is some secret super trick that kids have about learning the language: she's not worried about what verb or word is being contracted - she just says it like it sounds: consequently, she sounds like a little French speaker. Mac totally took a mental note. The third moment came when I was filming a tiny video of each kid saying their favorite French phrase thus far: Eleanor had "pain et beurre" of course, and I thought that Iris would say something similar ("pain et Nutella" is a second favorite around here) - instead, she comes out with "Je suis la reine." - I am the queen. I didn't know that she knew how to say she was the queen! When did that happen??? I love this.

Oliver brought home his classwork notebook for the first time. Now here I am utterly stumped for multiple reasons: apparently, he's doing this work mostly independently and he seems to know what the words are, and he's using the totally cool French handwriting. How does he know what the words mean? He says he just does, although sometimes he can't translate them, they just sound right. I need a linguist here: what is this step when things start to sound right even before we know what they mean? It's utterly fascinating to me. Oliver also brought home his vocabulary book (this is the work that he is doing one-on-one with a tutor the school is providing to build up his vocabulary more quickly). So we got to meet this guy:

Oliver loves this guy. I kind of love this guy. He named all ten parts of this guy's frantic face. We've decided not to name this guy - "Bob" seems too ordinary. So we're sticking with "this guy," or, "ce mec." Eleanor said that it was no wonder he was yelling what with all of the "vocab bubble pins" sticking into him. :-) I just sat there this afternoon, as Oliver rattled off all of the words (with articles). Why, I ask myself, was I not able to do this at home in the States? When I see how easily this comes to him... All praise to parents who raise their kids bilingual - it's magical! Considering the kids have had 12 days of school, I thought that what we witnessed today was pretty amazing. Mac and I are starting to weave certain quotidian phrases in French into our conversation - perhaps we'll just keep building - miraculous every step of the way.

All this prompts thoughts of education in the Middle Ages - of all that little princes and princesses were taught and how. Much less hands on, I would guess (although we've lost probably most of the material culture of childhood for this period) - but texts were highly interactive: read, performed, illuminated, problematic. Did one start with the funny marginalia of a Book of Hours, then progress to Bible stories, then to the Roman de la Rose? Louise had not one but two illumianted copies of Ovid's Heroïdes in her manuscript collection - were those to be memorized? cherished as objects? They are very puzzling texts, these letters from abandoned women and the men who wronged them - when does pleasure in ethical dilemmas begin? and what do we learn from that challenge? Well, for now, I know what Eleanor had for lunch, that Iris is the queen, and that Oliver is a vocabulary machine - and that is plenty.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Imaginary Landscapes

The big build-up all day long had been for the film Kérity, la maison des contes, and it was well worth the building up. It was an exquisitely drawn and told story of a little boy who saves fairy tales. It had a beautiful conceit: fairy tales must be renewed by a protector who reads and utters the magic phrase "Ce n'est pas parce que c'est inventé que ça n'existe pas!" ("It's not because something is made up that it isn't true" or "Just because something is made up doesn't mean it doesn't exist"). 7-year old Nathaniel finds himself the unlikely protector of the books (he much preferred to be read to and consequently doesn't read), but teams up with plucky Alice from Alice in Wonderland to try to read the phrase in time. If they fail, "all the world's children will only be told stories that are true." They have all sorts of adventures and at the last second (our kids were on the edge of their seats) they make it, and the film ends with fairy tales being read at children's bedsides all over the world, in multiple languages. It was just marvelous - a celebration of the imagination. There's even a great humanitarian line about "the one thing that all people have in common are dreams." The graphic style was really interesting: flat drawings with rich textures, and the characters from the books in classic cartoon format. The music was haunting and beautiful (you start to look for that in French kids' films). Everything was possible in this film - a portrait of the imagination and the imaginary.

And Kérity, it turns out, is in Brittany! First the facts, then the musings. Kérity is an old town in Western Brittany (Côtes d'Armor) - it first appears in charters in the 12th century (as Keriti or Quérity) and continues on its own until 1960 when it is incorporated into nearby Paimpol. It has the Abbey of Beauport right nearby, which appears to be a beautiful ruin (first built in the early 13th century, then added on to, but now without a roof over the nave). Hmmm, idea for the winter vacation coming up in 3 weeks!

What I'm increasingly aware of is the role that Brittany plays in framing the concept of the imaginary in French culture. This is just one children's movies, yes, but I see this in other films, too (Un Long Dimance de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement), for example) - the landscapes of Brittany (especially those wind-tossed, sea-swept, rock-hewn ones of the northern coasts) are an instantly recognizable frame of "something wonderful and slightly unsettling is about to happen." It's a rich and well-known iconography (for we could speak of Gauguin's 19th-century yearning for the imaginary in Pont-Aven), and I marvel at how powerfully and instantly evocative it is of the imaginary, the fantastic, the possible. It's a very romantic view of the region, I realize, but I am just as interested in the lasting power of that view as in the ways that it is communicated (stories of impossible hope in war, adventures of fairy tales coming to life). Telling the kids the Breton Fairy Tale of the day every morning at breakfast has clearly had an impact, too - opened me up to this iconography and yearning of Brittany - the anthology I'm reading from now speaks of a massive oral tradition project in the late 19th-century, as anthropologists and folklorists went from town to town writing down the stories of the last little old ladies. I catch glimpses here and there of story-telling sessions. In fact, the web site of the Kérity film invites teachers to bring a story-teller to their classroom. Evocative landscapes are often coupled with oral traditions.

Which leads me to wonder about American landscapes of the imaginary. What are the landscapes in America in which anything could happen? In which rules and expectations are habitually suspended in order to learn about or be reminded of something magical and good about the human condition? Perhaps the west (Brokeback Mountain being the most recent tale of impossible love); I also think of stories set in Appalachia (Cold Mountain types of stories). Does every country, every culture have a part of "its" geography that it recognizes and returns to as a landscape of the imagination? Are there commonalities: vertiginous heights? rocky isolation? I think of the wonderful happenstance that brought us to Brittany in the first place: a lucky break on the internet, a warm welcome, a picture that moved our imagination (we didn't know anything about Brittany before coming here). Landscape of the imaginary.

We returned to our now familiar landscape of the imaginary: the Lists on the other side of the river. I asked Oliver where he wanted to go to run around a bit (he read gobs of Harry Potter today while Mac and Iris walked all around the town (and saw everything from geese and goats to families in motorcycles in sidecars - they also went into the church, as Iris wanted to pray for her grandfather and our across-the-street neighbor here - this piety on the part of my daughter is an entirely new thing and will need to be further explored!) (Eleanor and I played all sorts of silly games while Oliver read - she had my legs completely "bandaged" in pages we'd colored in from her princess coloring book - wonderful and weird!) - so, I asked Oliver where he might want to go and he mused a bit and said, "The Lists, of course." These little guys now find it a habit to play in the shadow of 14th century ruins and the proximity of a 1000 year old castle. I especially like this shot because the shadows of their stick swords cast a perfect "X" - a movie moment of the imagination!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Go Fish Go! (Guéhenno and Vannes)

Before the details of our first non-medieval adventure, the cheeses of the week, this time collected by Mac at the market (bravo, Mac!). From the right we have a lovely, surprisingly creamy Comté, it starts out as a hard cheese and then just melts in your mouth; next, a good, strong Camembert; and lastly, lurking in the background to the left is the invasive, ever spreading Époisses, it's from Burgundy and wants you to know it's traveled far to come here - so love it! We love it.

Ok, I lied: it wasn't a totally non-medieval adventure day. Oliver said "I knew you couldn't quit any time you wanted!" (a phrase they've picked up from us and which we all love). Indeed, taking a slightly different route to Vannes, we could go through a small town named Guéhenno, whose cemetery houses a 16th-century Calvary. It was our first one (and we are ready to become serious Calvary pursuers) and it was incredible: all of the Stations of the Cross gathered in one composition that resembles a tableau vivant - all of the figures are mid-motion yet poised. I wish that I could show every detail: the terrific Christ on the Cross with Mary and John; the very energetic two thieves; the truly surprising sleeping Jesse at the foot of the cross; then, all of the main characters of the Passion cycle: down to Veronica holding her veil bearing the imprint of Christ's face. The column you're seeing in the foreground depicts all of the instruments of Christ's Passion (the Arma Christi: the nails, the hammer, the sponge of vinegar, the lance, etc.) all topped by Peter's rooster. The ensemble was heavily restored (it was destroyed in 1794, I have to think in the wake of the French Revolution) in the 19th century and some of the stylistic details are more 19th century than medieval, but the iconography and composition are there, and really provide a sense of the medieval theatricality of such a piece as this. So interesting that most of the crosses in the cemetery face the Calvary - a kind of dialogue.

Threading our way down to Vannes, we passed through a little town called St.-Jean-Brévelay. It doesn't show up in any guide books and there were no signs indicating anything, but is that a megalith I see nestled outside the crossing of the Church? I don't see people raising one in the Christian period; and the labor of moving those stones is extreme. So, could the church have been built around it? I'd certainly like to think so - how cool a decision would that be?

And so we made it to the Aquarium in Vannes! Skirted the old city (which I pined for just a little bit) and pressed onwards down down down towards the sea - really, here, an inlet called the Golfe du Morbihan. During the summer, the entire 2km stretch must be lined with people and ice cream vendors; for us, it was calm and grey and rainy: perfect. We had the place almost to ourselves, save a few other families and two older Dutch couples. The aquarium has these excellent little high chairs on wheels for little ones to sit in and be at eye-level with the exhibits. Eleanor lasted about 5 minutes in hers, but enjoyed every last one!

Iris did some talking with a fish - we love these guys with their enormous high foreheads and their teeny tiny mouths. Iris is convinced that she can telepathically communicate with fish - she says that when she thinks for them to swim up, they swim up; when down, down they go. Here she is, speaking their language.

Oliver was completely enthralled. He's been on a big ocean and pirate kick ever since we saw the port of Vannes last week-end (thus why we found ourselves watching Muppet Treasure Island last night), and so today was a total dream come true. His favorite French sealife word was "langoustine" - it is fun to say - try it! :-) They had all sorts of wonderful creatures here: jellyfish, turtles, exquisite tropical fish (one bunch with no eyes - they don't need them in the dark caves where they live!). And the tanks really were at kid level, so lots of interaction, talking, musing, and telepathic communication.

The most famous inhabitant of the Vannes Aquarium has to be this crocodile. Found in the sewers of Paris (yes!) in 1984, the crocodile comes from the Nile (but how?) and was brought to Vannes rather than killed. By keeping the temperature low, they were able to keep her (for she turned out to be a she) growth low - so now, this enormous beast is small by comparison with her compatriots. I wonder if the Paris sewer decorations give her a sense of home, or if she's just puzzled by it all. The best part? they named the crocodile "Eleanor." The Vannes crocodile is officially another namesake of Eleanor's (after Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor Roosevelt) - especially when she's in a dangerous mood!

And really, what better way to end a splendid visit to the aquarium than with an ice cream in winter? Even in the dead of winter, you can get a coffee here - granted, it's from those instant cappucino machines, but it was worth it to drink that stuff just to remember the countless coffees drunk from those machines at the Bibliothèque Nationale! We headed on home with Eleanor cranky after falling asleep and waking up (Eleanor the Crocodile!) - she demanded that I sing her favorite song, but wouldn't tell me what it was. Imagine my surprise as I desperately scrolled through my kiddie songbook repertoire, and was praised by Eleanor for finally singing what she'd wanted me to sing: "The Oscar Mayer Bologna" song. !!!!!

I'd bought fish at the market this morning (my first time) and so we had it for dinner - a feast!