Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Strange, Good Day

This was the site of the castle that greeted us as we took a walk after dropping the kids off. We took the walk because we couldn't imagine what it looked like by the river, since it was clear and blue on our street, but there was clearly a pack of fog "down below" in the river. One of the reasons that we are so lucky during these intense floods is that the city of Josselin itself sits nestled behind this huge medieval castle which, raised up as it is on a hillside makes any flooding in the city impossible. Here we are, modern subjects, under the protection of this medieval structure - incroyable. It's been standing steadfast looking pretty much the way it does today since the 15th century - two major hits: Richelieu took down five of the nine towers, and the Nazis blew up the one bridge in town (the latter story from our 90-year old across-the-street neighbor who was here during the occupation and worked in the hotel which the Germans took over), which severely destabilized one of the towers (the one which has scaffolding on it these days, actually). What sits on the other side of the river from Josselin (i.e. to the right of this picture) is the little community of Ste.-Croix. It's now part of Josselin (I believe), but in the Middle Ages, it was in an entirely separate bishopric (the river being a major territorial marker). It has no castle, and most of the houses are actually pretty close to the river (I would think several of them came close to flooding this past week). In the Middle Ages, this is where the tanners and the washer women lived - no protection of the big castle for those folks. My oh my.

There's lots of talk (on newspaper headlines, on the television) about the levies that burst: how warnings were ignored, how a particular one had been ailing since 1967. This is a sadly familiar (Katrina) woe, and I really don't get why governments don't take nature more seriously - there must be some political expediency there that a polisci person could explain to me, but I don't see it! There's also a great deal of talk about the over-development of the coasts - building projects that should have never taken place because they were so clearly in a flood zone. Many of those affected are retirees (many of those British) who bought beautiful new little homes "right on the water." So, talk of rezoning and tightening things. The economic devastation (the crops, the livestock, even the oysters are being discussed) is just now starting to be added up - pretty huge.

So this "after the storm" kind of images is truly haunting. The mist (the fog?) is coming up off of the river as the sun shines terrifically brightly (who can explain this? a physicist? a meteorologist?), which means that the waters are receding and slowing down. Deep in the background of this photo (thank you, monsieur Mac) is the house of our new friends - Iris continues to fret about them, and I need to call.

Which brings up another point: making friends in France. About two months I had written that, for the large part, the French are a "slow burn" about friendship: takes a long time, but once you're friends, you're friends for good. So, after this vacation, when it really was just the five of us bumping around in the world, I am taking stock of the friends situation. We are on very friendly terms with all of the people we see daily: Mac is having lengthier and lengthier conversations with the boulangère and the patron of the place where he takes his afternoon coffee (no, he can't quit anytime he wants), and even our coiffeur across the street stopped us in the street today to let us know about a television show that will be on tomorrow night featuring not just Brittany (yea!) but Josselin (double yea!) (actually, we're ridiculously excited about watching this - but that's tomorrow night). Everybody is really nice, including the parents of the kids' friends at school. So should we be the ones to invite a little friend over, or do we wait to be invited? And why am I even fretting about this? I should go with my gut and ask someone over when the moment strikes. And yet, I hesitate. The kids have no eagerness to have friends over, which I guess I understand - they seem to get along great with their little buds at school (I love seeing Iris in the morning exchange kisses with her little girlfriends, and Eleanor is starting to chat in some kind of toddler talk with her little friends), but nope, no desires for playdates. So there's that. And then, there's just this feeling that that would cross some enormous line. There's a father who picks up and drops off his kids every day that we call "le père distingué" (the distinguished father, because he looks really distinguished), and he shook Mac's hand about three weeks ago and we were all excited. But when I asked him how his vacation was, he looked really uncomfortable - clearly something private. You should be laughing at me: I am infinitely more comfortable with the codes of medieval art history than with those of modern human relations here in France. I can't even tell you how the French friends that I do have in Paris became my friends - they just are. But I can't seem to get to that "these people are just our friends" stage with any of the kids' parents. I'm not unhappy about this, just puzzled. And there's this strange symmetrical realization I had today: I love Greencastle because of the amazing friends we have there - there is absolutely nothing in the town itself that would hold me there otherwise. I love Josselin, and I mean every stone and every path and every street, because of the town, not because of any close friendships (although we're all crazy about our friends on the island). There's also something truly wonderful about this time away being just the five of us: it'll be unique in the History of Us and I relish spending this time with the kids and with Mac - it's ours, all ours, thus far and part of me just loves that. So, there you have it: completely inconclusive thoughts about making friends in France. There are no sports teams active (the judo club is closed), and we haven't really bumped into anyone in town. Everyone is nice, and we love our "bonjour" moments and that may just have to be that.

One more gorgeous picture, this time in the opposite direction from the house on the island. We realized with a start today that we've never explored down that way. As we understand it, the paths along the river go on for miles either way, so this is our plan for tomorrow, to go into unchartered territory. Inexplicably, Oliver and Iris are all about leprechauns these days, so they'll be excited to go leprechaun hunting! Oliver cracks me up: he always gets so excited about the next holiday - notoriously, he starts looking forward to Halloween in August (no kidding), and then it's just a riot of anticipation for the winter holidays. He's really latched on to St. Patrick's day, for some reason, which I can't imagine gets a lot of traction around here (!). But he's drawn a beautiful leprechaun, which he plans on taking to school on Thursday in order to find out what the French word for leprechaun (of the Iris, gold in the pot, end of the rainbow variety) is. Korrigans are big here (they're the ones who guard the gold that's buried under neolithic standing stones), so we'll see if there are some meetings of the mystic minds here.

We spoke with Oliver's teacher today and were stunned at the news: apparently he's reading really well in French (!!!) and clearly understands what he's reading. Why he's doing that before he's speaking is a complete mystery to me (and seemed to be a surprise to his teacher as well). She said that he was doing really well in math (including being able to say the numbers out loud in French) and that he was really applying himself. This from the kid who resists going to school because he'd rather catch leprechauns or read Harry Potter! I am so proud of him!!! My heart always tightens a little bit when I see him in the morning hunch up his shoulders before entering the fray of kids who are waiting for the school doors to open in the courtyard (it is really, really loud in that courtyard of kids!) - he's doing the kid equivalent of girding his loins (a phrase he would just love if I ever used it in front of him) and I always admire how much courage it must take to enter a courtyard full of rowdy kids whom you don't really understand. Except that he seems to be understanding things. What are the markers of success here? that Oliver make friends that we can invite over? that he learns/wants to speak French with me? I know what the answer is, the answer is that he be happy. And he clearly seemed proud of himself today - in fact, he talked for quite a bit about how in French "on the page, which I like better" the words have to work together (is he talking about number/gender agreement? verb subject agreement?). I could see Oliver being interested in grammar, in how language works. One of the most surprising curiosities he had emerged several weeks ago when he said "I want to know how to cuss in French." !!! we asked him why and his answer was awesome: that cuss words are immediately understood, that they're strong. Definitely the power of language at work here.

Not sure why I'm so long-winded tonight. Oh wait, I do know - I've been elated about work all day: a wonderful and very important connection between two strands of research has been established around an original source with images. Basically, I've been trying to understand/connect the interest that Louise de Savoie seemed to have in moral pedagogy (how do you teach someone (say, your son whom you want on the throne of France) to be good, let alone be a good king?) with her interest in the Middle East (and a very Orientalist (exotics of the Middle East as available for Western pleasures/discovery) approach at that). It's all coming together in an allegorical treatise on the cardinal virtues (Prudence and her friends), which takes place in dream sequences located in the Holy Land, written by one of her son's tutors. That's all I'll bore you with for now - it's enough for me to state that I'm greatly encouraged by this development! Meanwhile, here is Iris holding forth a shiny golden coin (purchased at Mont-Saint-Michel, a commemorative medal kind of thing), with which she hopes to lure a leprechaun in the leprechaun trap she and Oliver built tonight. Yes, that is Nutella on her chin (might be more of a lure, actually!). G'night!


  1. I know they will catch that leprechaun!

  2. Thoughts on friendship –the introvert in me says maybe its fine to not cross that line..maybe its because the kids on some level know they won’t be there forever?

    Leprechauns’ –I love leprechauns—they are kind of like Irish garden gnomes! Of course German folklore is chock full of leprechaun-like creatures: Kobolde, Klabautermännchen, Wichtel, Heinzelmännchen etc etc—here’s the exhaustive English wiki article on “Kobold”: