Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lasy Day of Vacation

I was remiss in not showing you the cheese of the week yesterday - forgive me! In the bottom left is an "Hirel Fermier," a Breton cheese which turns out to be from a little town between Mont-Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo right on the coast - yum! I was in line behind two French people at the cheese stand and they had asked to try it and to my utter amazement they turned it down (who turns down any French cheese? a discriminating palate, I know, but wow, I could never turn down a French cheese) - I liked its smooth ever so slightly tangy flavor, and knew the kids would, so I got some. They've named it "Sally" (they name their favorite cheeses). Next to Sally going counter-clockwise is the other new cheese of the week, a Maroilles, a cheese that's been made since the 8th century (thanks you, monks!) and which received its Appellation Controlée in 1955 - very esteemed. Continuing counter-clockwise, you have what's left of a great Etivaz (the kids call it "Bob") and after that, I'm a little embarassed to tell you is a Muenster from the Carrefour supermarket (feel sheepish buying cheese at the supermarket when the fromagier goes to all the trouble of coming to the market, plus, his comes from small fromageries, etc.) - but guess what? it's still good!

So today was a small day - we're getting ready to go back to what we know in France: work and school. I think that you can call it a routine, although time to work and think is still enough of a novelty that I'm tremulous and excited. I have much that I want to do in these next 6 weeks before the next vacation (!) and am nervous about getting it done. But I also feel much refreshed (much, much refreshed) and so ready. I should make myself accountable and write down what I'm hoping for: 1) read much more much faster (always) through the French Renaissance bibliography I have, 2) flesh out the Prudence iconography conference talk to a book chapter on Louise's use of Prudence imagery, 3) write a chapter on Louise's interests in the Middle East via Jean Thenaud's voyage, 4) map out The Book (really? is there really a book in me? a very encouraging colleague said there was, so I really have to look - and believe) - if there is The Book, it seems to be about the imagery of moral and political virtues that Louise de Savoie wielded in her efforts to raise her son to be the heir apparent of the French throne (which he became), and to solidify her power in her service as Regent Queen (which she was, twice). I don't have my images picked out the way I would like to have them - there are many images, but which to prioritize, research further, etc.? The Prudence chapter will be rich in images (and hoorah, hoorah for the discovery of that tomb), but I need more for the other chapters, and I need to know what those are about. I've thought about having a chapter for each of the four virtues (Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence) - there are certainly images that correspond directly to some (Prudence) and by allusion to others (I could work with her Heroïdes manuscripts for Temperance, for instance). OK - all this and more (the moral education of princes and still and ever more general reading about Renaissance France to make that bridge from the Late Middle Ages viable) in the next six weeks. And the Women's Studies course on Feminist Utopias and rethinking the Art History survey (always), and the other little things that come up.

Hard to tell what the kids are feeling. The girls seem excited: Eleanor can't wait to take a nap at school (!), and Iris just loves school period. Oliver hasn't said much of anything, except that he doesn't like to get up early. He's still nervous about not speaking fluently ("What's the French word for "gruesome"?" he asks me - and he wanted an exact word, not an approximation; I think that that's part of it for him, is an anxiety about the French words not being exactly the right ones, not having the same meaning exactly. We'll see how we get him to relax about that - each language has its own unique gifts, words that don't translate ("je ne sais quoi" (!), or "Schadenfreude" for instance), or rather, words that you can explain better than translate - but most words translate, and Oliver will have to trust that. Or, better yet, stop translating altogether. This is what we're seeing Eleanor do. She has learned, smart little thing, that we turn to her much faster if she speaks in French - so, to get our attention now it's "Maman, regarde!" "Viens, Maman!" - works every single time. Iris still translates words, but has lots of expressions and gestures on automatic - she says "Ouais" for "oui" - sounds like the real deal! Up above, you see them getting through a particularly tense moment in Cinderella (en français!) - I think it's when the stepmother locks her up in the tower. Intense! Other than witnessing the demise of Disney heroines, our day was relatively calm - just getting ready for tomorrow in the back of minds, really.

We did have one really exciting moment, when Iris and I were out for a walk (she wanted to explain some of her "fact sheets" she's been writing - she had one on ant-eaters, mountain goats, and lice (there was an outbreak at school before the vacation, maybe that's the connection?). So we're out, and it's lovely and sunny if somewhat windy, and we get down to the canal, the river, and are stunned to see how swift and high it is - it's been raining, yes, but we didn't think it would add up to anything this high! Iris was immediately concerned for our dear new friends who have the house on the island and was devising all sorts of ways that they might escape (the path to their place was flooded over, but Mac assures us that there are other roads that are always passable for them). We were walking down and I happened to look back and gasped because all of a sudden (always!) there were this huge storm clouds, trailing rain after them, where, I swear to you, not 5 minutes ago, there had been bright blue sky! The Weather Channel ought to have a Brittany desk, I tell you - there is never one dull moment in weather here. So we ran home to tell Mac to run out here (he's a bit of a weather chaser) and he did, and captured this split-sky image which only tells a bit of the tale. But where we the canal is usually perfectly placid and calm, instead we had this.




No wonder the Duke built his castle up on the hill, eh?




Mac took off at about 3 p.m. to go see a screening of Avatar in a nearby town. I've spent an alarming amount of time thinking about that movie, having made it the springboard for the final exam in my "Monsters and Marvels in Medieval Art" class and was so, so happy that Mac could see it. He said the theater was absolutely packed, and that the movie was great. Yea! I'll refrain myself from launching into any kind of Avatar exposé at this point, as I want to get back to an early-to-bed routine, and return to The Three Musketeers (the vacation mode had me reading a Michael Crichton novel, which I relished!). A bientôt!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Océans (Malestroit)

Should the film Oceans come to your city, run (swim fast?) don't walk to go. It's lush and splendid and incredible and sobering. The bande annonce (trailer) alone gives you a good idea of the scope and magnitude of it all. You find yourself in a rich tradition of French nature documentary film-making (yes, you think of Jacques Cousteau), and then just go with it. The kids were completely enthralled, and I think of how many of these films which make their point about ecological conservation through the sheer beauty of the earth (think Happy Feet) they've seen growing up. Skyping with his little buddy tonight, Oliver emphatically said "We share the earth, we don't own it!" - his buddy absolutely agreed. They shot this film all over the planet, and the region of Brittany featured prominently within it (each of the departments were named, including ours, the Morbihan - yea!). I can't imagine how they got half their shots: just incredible sequences of dolphin runs and a group of whales all surging out of the water out of the same time. Reading The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch put into words a great deal of the awe of the sea: its relentlessness (nothing is ever at rest in it), its profound uncaring (tragedy after tragedy can unfold and still the tide never ceases), its precariousness and fragility despite all of that strength... In any case, I hope that you get to see the film - say hi to the mother walrus and her baby for me!

We saw the movie in the coolest movie theater ever, in nearby (half an hour) Malestroit. They had painted sets and old time shooting cameras and an old time digital protector, and painted walls that looked like the backdrop for a movie scene. Mac shot the kids in black and white here, but their puffy coats give them away as modern beings. Otherwise, you'd think it was 1940s in the cobbled streets of Paris. What a great movie theater - true "cinéphile" (film lover) set-up.

Some kind of super heavy rain has settled in and promises to stick around for a while, so we really should have gotten back in the car to go home when the film was over, but instead, we walked around the wonderful town square (Place Bouffay) where I was able to get some pictures of 15th century secular house decorations....




A pig with a spindle (Michael Camille had a terrific article about this image - insulting, territorial, I need to look it up again) and...





...a very worried bagpipe playing donkey (I would be, too, if I had that big, blue hungry dragon so close to me), and...





...a rather saucy hunter, sticking his tongue out either at his perfectly quiet neighbor on the house or, more disconcertingly, in the direction of the church on the square.



Iris was a very good sport about walking around and looking for these guys. There's more to revisit here - I know from that house in Ste.-Croix that this was a merchant's house whence wares were sold; the big stone slabs in front of the windows tells me so.


We gathered everyone for a coffee/hot chocolate in a café on the square and on the way picked up a little prize that Iris had been wanting for weeks - they're selling these little napping puppies now; truly unsettling, but she and Eleanor are beside themselves with joy at owning one (5 euros, thank goodness) and (no surprise), Iris has given it a schedule. And so we're winding down our amazing 2-week vacation. I must say that it went by fast, and that I'm turning to work with determination and not a little trepidation: we have 6 weeks until the next break and I'd like to have a lot of work "in hand" by then. 6 weeks sounds like a good long time, though - another go at All Things French in French for the kids, too!

Of course, one of the lasting images of vacation will be of Eleanor playing foozball on a rainy afternoon in a café in Malestroit, while the rest of us caught up on the England-Ireland rugby match. Long live the peace, love, time, and serendipity of vacation!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vive Nantes!

Huzzah! Hoorah! and three cheers for Nantes! a great city - a marvelous city - a city that has reinvented itself many, many times and has the history, pluck and acumen to prove it! The historical capital of Brittany (it was put into its own, separate department in the 1960s), it still pulls and projects the independence of the medieval dukedom that resisted French absorption/domination for so long. But there's be time for that, first: THE MACHINES! Here we are, some of us, in front of the famed Elephant, the star of the Machines. Most unfortunately, she (as our kids decided) was not taking any walks either Thursday or Friday due to high winds (it's 40' tall, so I must say that I appreciate the safety consideration!). They had her move her legs and spray out some steam, and that was enough to get the crowds cheering. Riding the Elephant will be our main motivation for returning - and return we will! In the meantime, we made some new friends:

The squid seems to be checking Iris out pretty thoroughly. Yikes! He and the other fantastic creatures on display (in what used to be a shipyards, but the shipyards around here closed down in the late 1980s - see what I mean by reinvention? The Machines are an enormous draw (260,000 visitors last year alone!) for the region) will all make up a three-storey carousel, with each storey being a different level of the ocean. I have a feeling this fellow will be pretty far down in the depths, yes?



What about this guy? YIKES! Twice as scary with Mac's sepia-tone effect!





After the Machines, we started riding the tram (Iris looooves public transportation) and getting to know the city just a little bit. One of our goals was the famous Passage Pommeraye, famous for itself (it's a 19th century passage between two streets that houses gorgeous shops - a kind of Cathedral of the People), and for being in Jacques Demy's wonderful film Lola which Mac and I saw last year, and loved and were haunted by (Demy is really odd, but always gets you right in the heart in the end, see Les Parapluies de Cherbourg to see what I mean) (actually, watch this 4-minute scene that starts at 4:15 and goes until minute 8:00 in this clip from Lola - after all the freneticism of the far that slow motion with that Bach towards the end makes no sense, but Mac and I must have replayed that look of pure joy and triumph the young girl gives the sailor as they're running a dozen times when we first saw it).

I should have more pictures here (the mussels feast (well, Mac had duck, but was just as happy!) that we had in the medieval quarter du Bouffay where our cozy hotel was; the glorious sun the next day; the excellent entrance into the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, over a drawbridge and an actual filled in moat),but I want to zero in on two really amazing rooms/images in this fine museum of the history of Nantes housed in the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (which has been through a great deal and has very little of it (furnishings, etc.) that says castle - instead the space has been beautifully redone to house this fantastic walk through 32 rooms that take you through Nantes' history from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day - as Iris asked "Why do so many people turn their castles into museum?" !!!). OK - so, image number one: these are prints, drawings, and account books from the slave trade that Nantes was a main hub for. There is a model of a slave ship here that reveals conditions for the slaves; there is a huge maquette of a sugar plantation (one of the big demands for slave labor); and then there are all of these bills of sales. As even the guide books will tell you, profit margins were often 200% - it was lucrative, meticulously recorded, and is now incredible on display. As our students Hallie and Matt (currently studying in Paris) astutely noted, there is no museum of the French Colonial experience and that this slave trade, in some ways, is an even more ominous page of history, makes the detailed attention paid to it that much more impressive. It's still hard to make sense of it all: buildings were often decorated with the majestic faces of Africans in full headdress, a romanticization (is that what it is?) of the very people sold as slaves. There's a really smart piece of museum trajectory timing in that you go through the slave trade room first, and then you go through the lifestyle of the rich merchant room - you get a keen and vivid sense of where the labor for such wealth came from.

These two gentlemen are amazing, aren't they? The Chinese merchant and the French merchant, both prow figures for commercial ships. Nantes' internationalism is far reaching - there's this sense of not just going out, but returning, and with marketable goods. There's orientalism here, yes, but the commerce, and the iconography of the commerce (look at that French merchant prow figure!) grounds it all in these pragmatics of business. It's a really interesting effect. The kids loved these guys. The room devoted to the Lu cookies (first known for their Petit Beurre cookies, but now universally loved for their Petits Ecoliers) was the site of much ecstasy.

We picnicked on benches near the moat of the castle and then just decided to see how far we could go in the afternoon. The kids blew us away: first, we went to the Museum of Natural History and they spent a surprising amount of time in the rock and mineral section - well, nothing surprising if you consider geodes like this one (I love that Iris applied a magnifying glass to it), and of course, I have a great colleague who has shown me the beauty and wonder of rocks. I just let them guide me around and we looked at all sorts of cool formations, and then an entire paleolithic sections (fossils, giant spider fossils, all sorts of things). Oliver was even taken by the "samples of wood" collection that lined the stairs going to the second floor!

Oliver's been talking a great deal about boars of late (I think that there's an Asterix connection there!), and so was thrilled to see this fine specimen all stuffed and ready to go. The second floor was astounding: clearly many of the specimens there were from the 19th century (I guess that I've spent my fair share of time in museums that have old wonder cabinet displays to recognize different periods of taxidermic fashions!), but they've been very well preserved, and now the entire population is housed in new cases with gorgeous lighting. The animals are aligned by scientific type (don't know about genus and species, but humans were definitely with apes) and all march in this great parade around the entire room: the kids found a platypus, a giant anteater, a snake skeleton, various and sundry deer creatures, a camel skeleton (no humps!), penguins, a sucker fish (ew!), eels, a hippopotamus skull (very impressive), a tufted pelican, and more and more and...



..an enormous whale skeleton! Mac took this wonderful shot despite having his usual afternoon adornment, a sleeping 35-pound Eleanor, on his shoulder. Most impressive (the whale and Mac!)


"This museum is worth its weight in gold!" said Oliver about the Musée Dobrée - we only saw the medieval stuff (hmmm) and did not get to the archaeology museum that is associated with this one (next time!). The medieval collection is wonderful quirky and fantastic - as I understand it (we were going somewhat quickly as our Nantes 24-hour Pass was about to run out and we still wanted to catch a tram - also included in the Pass), the museum houses Dobrée's collection, so it has that delicious challenge of following a collector's interests and tastes. This entire room devoted to medieval weaponry (check out the crossbow behind Oliver) was another man's collection, but the room showed his home when it was all bedecked with his bellicose beauties - swords, helmets, shields, maces and spears (oh my!). There were many terrific objects here:




The reliquary for the heart of Anne of Brittany - brave and true and Breton proud to the very end! It was quite incredible to be in this city so marked by her presence - many, many images in the history of Nantes museum that show her as protectress of all Bretons well into the 19th century.



Phyllis taking a ride on Aristotle - there's a shinier one in the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but I love this one: the great philosopher (who counseled his charge, Alexander the Great, to shun women only to be brought literally to his knees by none other than Alexander's girlfriend, Phyllis, who had overheard the philosopher's foolish advice) is even more animal-like than usual, his hands turning into the front paws of whatever poor beast of burden he's become. Great tale!




And this wonderful ass of a bespectacled teacher tormenting a poor student over a book which...







...completely cracked Oliver up.





It's getting late, so I won't go on here as much as I would like, but suffice it to say that the allegorical statue of Prudence at the head of Marguerite de Foix (Anne of Brittany's mother) on the incredible monument that Anne had built for her parents, blew my mind. Here he/she is, an old man looking back and a young woman looking forward (Prudence looks to both the past and the future before deciding on her course of action). Lots of great iconographic details (she's holding a compass with which to take the measure of things) and more - this will definitely figure in some of the work I'm doing on Prudence, as Anne de Bretagne had the monument built between 152-07 and Louise de Savoie had herself represented as Prudence in 1509 - incredibly contemporary figures, and I'd like to argue that Louise is referencing this monument in her own image (the iconography of the compass is unusual, not unique, but unusual enough that Louise using it in her own image is worthy of note). The kids were my heroes at this point - it was approaching 5 p.m. and boy had we had a long day, but they sat on a bench and talked while I snapped away. Of course, they were in this grand Flamboyant cathedral of Nantes - thank you, dear friend Althea, for pointing out the absurdity of that academic term - oy!

All this to say that we love Nantes and can't wait to go back and explore more. Jules Verne was squeezed out this time around, but dear Mac vows to finish 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and return triumphantly. Vive Nantes!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anticipation

Because we'd been planning on going to Nantes today, and because we delayed our departure by a day because of the orange-level weather warning, we were kind of on hold, and spent the day trying to shelter ourselves from the storm. We somehow managed to go outside during highly dramatic moments of the storm. The rest of the time, we spent reading books (a fresh haul from the library hard-won by Mac and Eleanor who left under a sunny sky and came back soaked and thoroughly whipped by the wind not 20 minutes later - the weather!), and just hanging out - Oliver and Iris built a carrot factory (I really don't know what it is with carrots and the kids these days, but there you go), and Mac plunged into the latest Asterix (La Zizanie - very uninspiringly translated as Asterix and the Roman Agent) which is hilarious. Sweet Eleanor tuned out for an afternoon nap, but Oliver and Iris were gripped. At some point, I will gather my thoughts as to why Asterix is so funny and write about it our here.

But for now, all is eager anticipation for Nantes. The Machines de l'Île are going to be astounding, amazing, unheard of, never before seen, not to be believed. They are part of the really smart renovation of the shipyards, which died out in the 1980s and, as far as I can tell, fulfill every Jules Verne fantasy anyone could ever have. They are fantastic creatures that move, and some of them (the 40' elephant we're hoping to ride, for instance) can hold people in their bellies or on their tops, and others will be part of an enormous fantasy carousel. Here's a video from their web site to give you a sense/a hint of what's to come:

Machines de l'Ile video:

Découvrez Les nouveautés de la Galerie des Machines de l'île de Nantes sur Culturebox !

Pretty spectacular, eh? Let the 19th century come alive!!! There's a kind of 19th century circus, Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum marvel aesthetic to it all. We'll also be able to visit the Galerie of animals.

The Jules Verne Museum is quite nearby (nice sound effect on the website, eh?) and we'll go there after the Machines. Mac is bravely reading all of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Oliver and Iris are greatly intrigued by submarines and giant crabs (understandable), so we're excited. I imagine that we'll be pretty beat by the time we make it back to the hotel, but I've also learned that the promise of the Simpsons in French at 6:30 p.m. can motivate even the most tired kid (lessons learned from Mont-Saint-Michel). :-)

The next day will be all about the Castle and Cathedral quarter. The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul was started really late in the history of cathedral building (1434) and it will be my first huge Flamboyant cathedral. The recent restoration really gives it a striking shiny whiteness - wow! Inside, there's the tomb monument of François II and Marguerite de Foix, the parents of Anne de Bretagne. Anne de Bretagne has always been poignant and interesting in my research: she was, in brief, Louise de Savoie's chief rival in the latter's quest for her son's ascension to the throne of France. Or rather, any male children of Anne de Bretagne were rivals to Louise's François. Anne de Bretagne (and one could, and people have, could go on for thousands of pages here) was an absolutely remarkable and heartbreaking woman who married two French kings (Charles VIII (1491) and Louis XII (1499)) - the four children she bore Charles VIII all died in infancy; of the eight children she bore Louis XII, only two daughters survived, Claude (who died when she was 25) and Renée. 12 children, and two survived - it's hard to imagine that kind of heartbreak; and then the political pressures of producing a male heir on top of it all (it was her father's lack of a male heir that, in brief, made the absorption of proud, independent Brittany into the Kingdom of France possible. You can see how badly France wanted Brittany, as it kept marrying its kings to Anne!) When Anne's last child, a boy, was born a stillbirth in 1513, Louise knew that the throne was François's (he had already been betrothed to Anne and Louis XII's daughter, Claude de France). It's an epic rivalry, and chilling in its own way - these women waiting for pregnancies that will determine history...

All this to say that Anne of Brittany build a beautiful tomb monument to her parents, François II and Marguerite de Foix. The element that especially intrigues me is the representation of the 4 Virtues (Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and (yea!) Prudence) - I was thrilled to find out that Prudence is at Marguerite's feet (any association of the complex virtue of Prudence with women is worthy of examination - it was (thanks to Aristotle) understood as a very masculine and political virtue, indeed, it was the very heart of politics) and has a very complicated double representation: a young woman with a mirror (the future) and an old man (the past) - Prudence has to look both to the future and the past in making her prudent decisions (it's this "two-faced" quality that will discredit the virtue as a moral virtue in the 17th and 18th centuries, when absolute truth, as opposed to pragmatic prudence, will be the moral and political goal/high ground). We'll see if I can get the kids excited enough about this for me to take gobs of pictures - can't wait!

Excitement will be readily available at the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany - it has a moat for starters (woo-hoo!) and lots of towers and cool rooms and is incredibly impressive. We'll finish here and there seem to be lovely gardens all around, so barring any more gale-force winds, we'll frolic and then head on home Friday afternoon!

I end tonight with this picture of my studious little Iris. At around 4 p.m., she decided that she absolutely had to go to the library - she was so insistent, and she asked in French (and we have this "rule" that if they ask in French, we can't say no - so far, it hasn't gotten us into too much trouble, but so far they've really only asked for "pain et Nutella" (bread and Nutella)!), so I couldn't say no. Out into the driving wind and rain we went: the wind and rain were pretty intense (I can't even imagine the coasts!), so much so that poor Iris, when approaching her favorite fountain, was thoroughly soaked by a gust that sprayed water from the surface of the fountain far outside its bounds and directly onto her!). Into the warm, cozy library we entered. I headed straight for the fairy-tales and legends section, but Iris herself was immediately drawn to the non-fiction section: science books, history books, machine books. I love discovering this little girl - I think that she differentiates herself from Oliver (who is all about fiction and legend all the time - e.g., a carrot factory!?!?) through her love of non-fiction and all things documentary. She pored over this book for a good hour, and even showed her Mamie a great picture of an anteater on Skype later that evening! Off to Nantes, then - see you on Friday evening!

The Olden Times and the Newen Times

Winter vacation continues apace, punctuated by real-world news about gasoline refinery strikes today (averted - whew!) and orange-level high winds and thunder storms tomorrow (heeded - yikes!). We found ourselves at the Lists (surprise!) at the kids' instigation - usually we're the ones to round them up and get them outside. They were just in great moods all day long, filled with projects and questions. The potential "pénurie de carburant" (lack of gas) strike fascinated them - I don't know that we explained it well at all, but at the end of the day Oliver and Iris had a whole scenario going in which they were workers in a carrot factory (don't ask) and "we're going to go on strike because we're being exploited" - Mac and I could barely contain our laughter (they were being totally serious).

The politics of this particular almost-strike were fascinating and intense: I wish that I understood better why and how Sarkozy's government got involved, but they did, and Total (the company in question) backed down and guaranteed no refinery closings for the next 5 years. There are a lot of double-binds here (and I mean here: Total's headquarters seem to be in Rennes!), including a surplus of refineries in France (Total is building new ones in China, the burgeoning market) and a resulting overproduction, in large part because consumers are using a lot less gasoline. So here, a clash of the drive for better ecology with that of the economic status quo. Not easy to figure out - apparently even America wouldn't be a market for the French surplus gasoline as even there, gas consumption is down (wow!).

There's no doubt we're relieved as, even though we could function very well without a car in town, we appreciate knowing that gas will be available. There were huge lines at all the gas stations yesterday and today in anticipation of the strike. We told the kids that, if the strike were to go on for even one week, we'd all find ourselves pretty close to back in the "olden times." This sparked something in Iris, and she ran around the room gathering objects, and then ran upstairs. When we were called up, we were ushered into her "Museum of the Olden Times and the Newen Times." She had set up all sorts of comparisons: one stuffed animal (a mountain goat) was an animal of the olden times, whereas the purple sea horse was an animal of the newen times; a wooden stick was olden times, a plastic arrow was newen times. My favorite was the spoon (olden) and fork (newen - complete with the information that Eleanor of Aquitaine had brought the fork back from the Byzantine court after the Second Crusade). It was thoroughly educational! But the sign on the door said "Pay to Git In" - she doesn't mess around my Iris!

There was even a booklet for sale at the Museum of the Olden Times and the Newen Times! I guess that she was paying more attention than I realized at the Village of the Year 1000 yesterday. The back cover (on the left) shows a woman of the olden times holding a bag with important things in it; the front cover (right) reads "Olubawt the Odin Tims" (All about the olden times) - "Ubawt, &, Hawsis in ar odin time haws" (About, &, houses in our olden time haws) - "Wrs and pikshsrs bi Iris" (words and pictures by Iris).

The interior (transcribed) reads: "How to make the house. U(se) stone foundations and wood log wood and then straw and interweave it. How to make the weapons. Sharpen a rock until it looks like an arrowhead or, take metal that they never used otherwise and tie it on a stick." And then three helpful drawings of a house, a stone weapon (I love "wapin" - whap!) and metal weapon. And a drawing of a house on the left. Woo-hoo! We all decided that the gift shop was excellent as well.

All this "olden times" talk did prompt several questions in discussion later between Mac and me: how far below the feudal and religious radar were those people in that forest village of around 1000 A.D.? Did they, like the inimitable characters in the unforgettable Monty Python scene from The Holy Grail, live in blessed ignorance of the fact that they had a king? Did they have knowledge and practice of Christianity that we would recognize as such today? Only one third of the site has been excavated, and no evidence of religious architecture yet, but...I need to reread some of Georges Duby's fantastically dry, thorough and ever wondrous agricultural history. How apart from the developing feudal world were our peasants of the year 1000? Maybe Iris could write a book (actually, now that I look at the Monty Python scene again, I see where the kids are getting their language about being exploited workers!!!) (we've watched The Holy Grail with the kids more times than I should recount, including the night before we went to the Village of the Year 1000 - great prep!).

I hope that there was a place in the village for the children to run around (Oliver's perfect running posture in this photo cracks me up, as does Iris's gusto in her pursuit of him). We'll be staying in tomorrow, as per the orange alert warning (they're saying wind gusts up to 110 km/h!) and thus delaying our trip to Nantes, going Thursday to Friday instead. Gives us more time to read up on this amazing city - Mac and I have been fans of the Edict of Nantes from way back... :-)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Village of the Year 1000!

We've been eagerly anticipating the seasonal opening of the Village of the Year 1000 (Le Village de l'An Mil) in nearby Melrand and were eager to be among the opening day crowd. It turns out we were the opening day crowd (I don't know what we're going to do when we actually have to share cultural sites with other visitors) and were thus able to be medieval villagers to our hearts' content. Let ye olde time fune beguine!

Everything about this site is cool. It's built around the vestiges of a medieval village founded around 980 and occupied until sometime in the 14th century (it's believed that the villagers then left for the fancier clime of a nearby big city). So one part of the site reveals low-lying foundations (the actual medieval stuff), only a third of which has been excavated (starting in 1902, then another season in 1977, and most recently in 1991). It was here that we picked up this little cat as our guide - he and Iris and Eleanor bonded for the rest of the visit. More on life with animals in the Middle Ages in a bit.

The majority of the site is a reconstruction of the village based on the evidence of the vestiges here. You get to walk all around, in the houses, along a path that draws a securing circle around the village. I like the word hamlet, too. There were many surprises here: at first Oliver asked if this was how Asterix and Obelix lived. Those guys were purported to be around in 50 B.C.E., and yet here, more than 1000 years later, things do look quite similar. It makes me marvel at the great leaps forward in terms of architecture and society starting in the 12th century.

A second marvel was the architecture itself. I will confess that part of the reason I love these building techniques so much is that they are so beautifully easy to understand, so very legible. No metal, just wooden pegs, and lots and lots of interweaving of wood and straw. Here, this terrific drawing shows you the elements built atop the stone foundations.

This shot of the ceiling of one of the houses shows you how much interweaving there is. It's all incredibly tight and sturdy, and I can tell you, doesn't let in a drop of rain. These houses were built in 1986 and are as water- and wind-tight as ever. There is an aesthetic here, it's alive and well in artist Patrick Daugherty's work (the video on the link is of a piece of his right here in France!); and I dearly want to hear from artist Alison Guinee how she sees the weaving structure: how the weaver's fingers might work to combine the tension and forces of weaving these natural forms.

This is the biggest house in the village and combines the two biggest surprises: the weaving and the animals. You can see the thick, almost furry, quality of the roofing, held up by interwoven wood. The space the roof covers is surprisingly large - good thing, too, as both people and animals lived here. There's been a lot lately on one of my favorite medieval blogs, In the Medieval Middle, about interactions between humans and animals, and we were reminded here of just how absolute we assume our boundaries to be between ourselves and animals.

Not here! The sheep and goats wander the site freely, and in the summer there there are cows! The kids didn't immediately notice that there were no gates (we did), but were plenty freaked out when they had the animals rush by them on a little run. We spent quite a bit of time in this house, and here's Iris eyeing the ram warily. Is that even a ram? What do I know? Dear Oliver asked me what to do in case the ram charges and I tell him "Don't make eye contact" - is that even right? Maybe rams are offended if you avert your gaze! In any case, these animals were thoroughly used to human company and milled around us and all around their village. We had an interesting conversation about what it might mean to sleep in a house that had a section reserved for animals (the kinds of sounds (and yes, smells) that one would hear in the night while snuggling in bed); what it might mean to brush up against sheep and goats throughout the day, going to them for milk or, much more exceptionally, food. The kids agreed that it would take some getting used to.

There were (gorgeous) hens and a rooster as well, but they were in their own yard, so as to be safe from the dreaded wolf - seen here in a wolf trap. (!) Oliver spent a good bit of time examining this knot which (said the sign) would tighten as soon as the wolf would start to pull on it. No wonder domesticated animals were so beloved - the other kind were devastating. Well, this little wolf, at least, would probably just pet the sheep and goats.


Nature creates all of the forms and boundaries of culture in the year 1000. The hamlet sits in the crook of stone walls built along rises in the hills. The trees shape every view, every memory for the walk home from another hamlet. I can't ever get over how green with moss the trees are - there must be hundreds of species of moss in Brittany. Those nostalgic for the Middle Ages (think twice!) often refer to the organic quality of medieval architecture: the forest-like bends of cathedral vaulting, for example. But having been here, I see those stone constructions as a resolute rebellion against the bend and sway of the architecture of the (primeval) forest. We've been busy rebelling against natural form ever since.

The way back was along a path built up in the 16th century - pretty remarkable to have a forest path from the 16th century left to us! The rocks look so much more alive beneath all of that moss - breathing, undulating forms; and the trees, too. Glad that it was daylight!

Once back at the Welcome Center, the kids were ushered into a splendid craft room where they had all the paint, paintbrushes, stencils, and printing stamps their little hearts desired. The woman there was so incredibly nice - she showed the kids books of medieval illuminated manuscripts (woo-hoo!) and all sorts of possibilities for their works of art. For the first time, we saw all three kids slip into French mode - they all understood everything the woman said, and all asked little questions in French, always just enough to get to the next thing. Amazing!

And here are the results! Eleanor went abstract with the two pieces in the bottom left; Oliver captured village life with images of the bread oven, a house, and various animals; and Iris worked the entire time on her masterpiece: a beautifully decorated portrait of the little cat who guided our visit. Three cheers for the Village of the Year 1000!

There and Back Again

We are back, dear friends!
Mont-Saint-Michel - Day 1
. This is about the point when the kids started squealing in excitement about actually, really truly being at Mont-Saint-Michel. Iris had been taking pictures from the back seat for most of the ride, but this one is just so great - as though you could reach out and touch it.

Absolutely everything about Mont-Saint-Michel is somewhat surreal, not the least of which is the secret code they give you to park in the "spend the night" parking, if you're staying in a hotel on the Mont. We all loved punching it in and entering this smaller lot near the fortified walls - it's on a raised causeway that the tide never overcomes - but watch out if you're parked below!

We settled into our terrific hotel room, in which the kids promptly and happily claimed the loft, set up a secret password, and declared that no grown-ups were allowed upstairs. They did all this in these great, theatrical whispers, though, so we quickly deduced that the password was "Mont-Saint-Michel rocks" ("because it's built on a rock," we heard Oliver explain - thanks!), but didn't dare use it. We walked the ramparts as far as we could go and then the kids started scampering up towards the abbey itself - we caught up with them in this open space garden area on the western end of the Mont. Iris would like Marnie to know that this is a picture for Marnie, and that both of her thumbs are, in fact, pointing up (!). She also composed a little poem: "Side by side/ The sea and sinking sand/ Lay together." Kind of nice, don't you think? This in the final moments before the tide would start to come back in.

The natural wonder of Mont-Saint-Michel is at least three-fold: 1) the bay it is in is enormous, and stretches for miles in every direction, 2) the imposing presence of the rock of the Mont itself, jutting out of this enormous bay, is stunning, and 3) the tide, the tide - it rushes in so fast and so completely - I suppose that it has to to cover that enormous bay. Then there are the views and the sounds and the every-changing sky and you start to understand why it was sought out as a spiritual place as of the 10th century when a small, very humble abbey was built on top of the Mont after Bishop Aubert of Avranches had a vision of Saint Michael telling him to build a sanctuary on the Mont. Oliver was equally moved to respond to the site, as you can see below:


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It wasn't just the tide that rushed in at Mont-Saint-Michel. For reasons I still can't quite put into words, I was completely overwhelmed by emotion the first evening we were there. I was thinking about my Father, telling us as kids so many times about his coming here after WWII and about walking the streets and going up to the abbey. And (and this is the part that I don't think comes out well, but I'm going to try), and I felt the crushing weight of Mont-Saint-Michel being a witness to history (to my dad's one-person history, to the history of WWII in France, to so much more) without preserving any of the memory of it. Watching that tide come in so dramatically, pull out so dramatically, realizing that it does that twice a day every single day, that it doesn't care who comes and who goes, who's fought in WWII and who hasn't, who's had a brain injury and who hasn't, who's so far away and so trapped in a body that won't take him where he wants to go anymore when he used to go anywhere and everywhere in the world. Thoughts and feelings I'd been able to keep tucked away came barreling forth and before I knew it, I was crying in the hotel room. Is this what the Romantics mean when they talk about the Sublime and its simultaneous beauty and angst? well, whatever it's dubbed, it did a number on me. I really couldn't believe the power of those emotions and I wanted to stop but couldn't. But you know, amazing things happen sometimes when you cry in front of your kids - at first, everything stopped and they were very quiet - and then Iris came up with a plan. They would write their grandfather a letter telling them that they were here and looking out for Mont-Saint-Michel for him. I'll never forget lying there listening to them upstairs, and especially my little Eleanor who, when she heard of the letter plan, said forcefully "Hey guys, don't forget: I can't write!" I'd say I got over it then, but truth be told, that heaviness was with me the whole time, as I struggled to make sense of this incredible place within my thoughts about my Dad.

Mont-Saint-Michel - Day 2. The next morning, Iris showed her siblings her mad hotel breakfast skills (earned in the Czech Republic during last year's Winter Term trip!), and had everybody equipped with hot chocolate and multiple pastries in no time. We made the climb way, way up to the abbey and here paused on the West Platform (enlarged when three bays of the nave collapsed during a fire - the west façade is from the 18th century). You can see that the bay behind us is sandy (and enormous!) - when we had awakened a couple of hours earlier, there had been water all around!

The monks of Mont-Saint-Michel had a knack for names (the mound or mountain of Saint Michael is a good start) and indeed dubbing the 13th century constructions (the cloisters, the refectory, and three levels of various ad sundry rooms) "The Marvel" has worked. As Oliver said "They don't call it 'The Boring' after all!" - we scampered through every room, and talked about the engineering feat of building such a huge mass architectural mass on a rock; about the Mont's impenetrability during the Hundred Year's War; about its changes during and after the French Revolution when it exiled its monks and served as a prison; about its post-Monuments Historiques life with its hundreds of thousands of visitors a year (if not more!).

I will say that the tourism in Mont-Saint-Michel is pretty soul-crushing. The minute you step onto the Grande Rue (the main medieval street stretching up the Mont), you are assaulted by every souvenir and kitsch tschoschke imaginable. The kids succumbed pretty quickly to the medievalalia (how many variations are there on the plastic sword and axe?), but the results were fun. I had promised myself that I would go with the tourist flow here in honor of the millions of medieval pilgrims who had come here (and probably themselves experienced souvenir shops on the Grande Rue) - it was still a challenge. I cannot imagine this place with summertime numbers of visitors - it was already pretty crowded here during the low season. Wow.


And then you see something like this, from your position suspended between sea and sand, and you forget everything.




But not for long. For Mère Poulard awaited us for our final dinner on Mont-Saint-Michel. Yes, that is a bowl of chunks of butter between the basket of eggs and the copper mixing bowls (how else to get the omelettes so fluffy, we should ask? The high tourism factor brings with it the occupational (recreational?) hazard of bad, expensive food - we had had a pretty measly meal the first night (though the setting was great), and the mussels at lunch were shrunken and not so great (though the view was great). But I will say the Mère Poulard absolutely came through: the omelettes were ridiculously fluffy (really, think pillow thick), and the food scrumptious. Something very tragic-silly happened here which is that my camera ran out of juice and I'd forgotten to bring the battery recharger. Urgh! Else you'd have a great shot of dear Oliver looking down at his omelette with glee and expectation. We all walked the dimly lit medieval street of Mont-Saint-Michel after dinner, with Iris whirring away on the little music box she'd bought that day (it plays "La Vie en Rose" - her choice!), and then went back to the hotel to watch some Olympics coverage, all five of us in the big bed. Perfect.

Saint-Malo - Day 3. You know that scene in the movie A Christmas Story, when the narrator tells you that often things that turn your whole experience upside down occur when you least expect it (this comment comes right before the neighbors' dogs eat the Christmas turkey)? That was us in Saint-Malo, jauntily humming along, eating a great crêpe lunch, visiting the cathedral, walking along the ramparts, making our way through the museum, completely ignorant of the fact that a nasty stomach bug was about to unleash its fury on my poor Oliver. We should have known, as his mood became more withdrawn and sullen. Instead, I just chided him for being a poor sport and neglecting to note how cool the model ships, prow sculptures, and maps were. We were a little bit thrown off by Iris also being in a bad mood: I'd been very moved by seeing a plaque on the floor of the cathedral commemorating the spot where Jacques Cartier had knelt to be blessed by the bishop of Saint-Malo before going out to find Canada. There was even a Mont-Saint-Michel connection in that François Ier had met Cartier there and charged him with explorations in the New World. There were maps of Cartier's voyages and models of his ships, but Oliver and Iris were having none of it. It would turn out that Oliver was sick, but Iris was just cranky: "Why is Canada so important to God?" she asked sullenly about his being blessed by the bishop. !!! Oliver sat out the last three rooms, made it outside and then completely lost his lunch on the place Chateaubriand. My poor little guy - he was to throw up four more times before he felt well enough to walk and get in the car. Few things make you feel farther from shelter than taking care of a sick kid on a busy street. Mac found a bottle of water and did his best to keep the girls away - but Iris was deeply concerned for her brother, and Eleanor was insistent on her solution to this whole situation: "He just needs a carousel ride!" That actually got a smile out of Oliver. In the end, he and I waited out the bug on a bench nearby while the girls rode the carousel. Consequently, this is my only visual record of Saint-Malo. !!!

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Dinan - Day 3. The beautiful, peaceful medieval city of Dinan is only half an hour away, and Oliver slept most of the way. We really didn't know which way things were going to go, so we didn't even talk about the next day, and if we were going to go to Fort La Latte or not. I've learned that kids can be surprisingly resilient (lest we forget the Great Stomach Bug of December 23, 2009 when, upon our return from D.C., all three kids threw up all night long, and yet were fine the next day for Macmas Brunch - well, fine enough to sit up and watch TV the whole time, but still!), so we just enjoyed getting to know our gorgeous room in the Bed and Breakfast (splendid!). Oliver was very shaky for dinner (didn't eat a thing), but lion-hearted as he was, he made it possible for us to enjoy a fantastic meal at a restaurant called Le Cantorbery in Dinan which had a roaring fireplace, exquisite food (Mac had his first blanc mange!), and a very kind staff (they made him puréed carrots). And so we had another late-night walk down medieval streets, this time with anxious hopes about the next day...

Dinan - Day 4. ... which dawned bright and sunny. Oliver definitely felt better and first words were "I want to go to the castle."

So we breakfasted in a sunny room decorated with enormous copper bowls and walked the streets of beautiful Dinan for the morning. Oliver felt better by the minute, and everything was possible again. Mmm, I'm enjoying looking at that breakfast feast again...


We found beautiful English Gardens behind the Saint-Saviour church and Oliver and I talked Harry Potter while the girls ran around from tree to tree and Mac filmed some of the breathtaking views onto the river below and the ramparts above.


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It was sunny and warm, and so we decided to picnic outside - a pleasure to come as spring does.

Fort La Latte/CapFréhel - Day 4. And then, we were off for the most exciting, astounding, amazing part of our vacation: Fort La Latte! A 14-18th century fort built atop craggy rocks on the dramatic wave-crashing coastline of northern Brittany. The 1958 film The Vikings (starring Kirk Douglas!) was filmed there - and we were sooo eager to get there!

As you can see...! There it rises on its cliff behind us, waves crashing on the rocks below it. Before us, there is a neolithic standing stone that is about 10 feet tall - it's come to be known as Gargantua's finger, and Iris was certainly impressed. Oliver and Eleanor both were so focused on being invading knights that they charged ahead. At this point, still photographs are hard-pressed to do justice to the site: there are the sounds of wind and waves, the dizzying heights, the multiple views. I have a short series of short videos for you to end this "compte-rendu" of our vacation (forgive my prattling commentary, I can't seem to be quiet while filming!) - enjoy, dear friends and family, and see you soon!

Here we are entering the Fort itself (drawbridge one of two!):

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Here is Oliver as an invading knight - I love how Iris runs across the screen wanting to see the next thing.

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Here Iris and I are at the very, very top of the Fort, in this tiny crow's nest of a spot, and she just decided to start talking and walking. She looks as though she's trying to sell us something: "Hello, I'm Iris, and I'm here to tell you about the revolutionary new crossbow from Ragnar Unlimited..." She cracks me up here!

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And finally, after that dramatic rain, the Breton weather surprised us as it always will, and we saw the lighthouse on Cap Fréhel in a whole new light:

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Thus ended week one of our winter vacation: drama and adventure, history and memory, the show on the road. To bed, wishing everyone well!