Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hello Goodbye!

All of Josselin is dressing up for the upcoming Fête Médiévale - from the time we ran our afternoon errands to dinner this evening, the streets have been festooned with rich colors, and the restaurants are at constant fill. It's another wave of awakening: les Grandes Vacances. School ends on Friday across the nation and the excitement and energy is practically crackling in the air. Here, we've packed the last suitcase, and sent off the last box (we hope!) and are at least physically ready to go. Psychically, emotionally... won't know until Friday. We cleaned house today, and both remembered the smallest details (a first French word here, a kids discovery there), as we readied ourselves to begin the process of handing the house over to the next tenants. We've come to think of our landlady more as our benefactress than as our landlady - all that we've lived here, and all that we've discovered, none of it would have been possible without her gracious ease and her welcoming ways. And now to meet the next family who will fill these rooms - it's all that wonderful Breton continuity I tell you.

Case in point: here is Oliver demonstrating the escargot tool kit to little David, who will also have a birthday here, and will discover King Arthur's forest, and will taste of ice creams, and see castles, and dream of knights... Surely the Breton good-bye, Kenavo, entails seeing each other again.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Brittany 'till you Drop (Kerguéhennec Redux)

We couldn't stay away from Kerguéhennec (so much fun to say) to see the inside of the manor, but first....

This is Iris's rendition of her "herrow" on the horse (that horse must have appeared to have been all legs to her!) - complete with cool if puzzling beard braid! So without further ado at all, here is a video extravaganza from our time at the Fête du Cheval at Guer.

These are the Bagad players that Mac could listen to all day long (and a "woo-hoo!" to Steve and Gina, whose wedding memorably was initiated by awesome bagpipe playing!).

These are the players who told the story of Brittany through dance - I can't tell you what this event is, but bicycles were a big deal during the Resistance (kids on bikes, especially, heroically threaded their way through treacherous terrain on two determined wheels). I really love the music here, and check out how young that kid is singing (in the red shirt on the right) - wonderful.

And here are Oliver and Iris responding to the Ukrainian music with a little jig of their own.

And here, my sweet Iris being a little lavandière (with much elbow grease!)

And finally, her "herrow," this guy who swings himself underneath the horse (!) and then back up - you can see at the end that she is pretty amazed!!!

And now mademoiselle Eleanor will bring us back to reality by pointing out her incredibly red goldfish. We received Iris's enormous folder of work from the year thus far, and can't wait for Oliver's and Eleanor's. Eleanor suggested today that perhaps her teachers could come with us. And maybe the whole class, too. That would, of course (especially if we added the town) be the best solution. Much better than our current rationalizations about time passing and being ready for more adventure. I love how kids think. There are these promised continuities in the kids' classes that make it natural to want to talk about the fall here. The little English boy in Eleanor's class just welcomed a baby sister. I spoke to his sweet mom today when I was stunned to see the little one (she was due in mid-July). They're a really interesting family, having moved here from England to completely make their lives here - the dad works over at the abattoir and I believe she stays home (there's a little girl, too, who is now a big sister to the newborn baby), but we very often see him dropping off or picking up his little boy. The new baby is named Isolde, and would have been Tristan had she been a boy. Arthurian legend continues apace, you see, and I can't help but think of this beautiful little family growing here in Josselin long after we're gone, with a poetry that defies the hard work of the abattoir - one of the many reasons, perhaps, for making one's life here.

We entered the poetic world of Kerguéhennec once again right after school, knowing that now the manor was open. Oliver wasn't enthusiastic at first, ranking the manor well below a proper castle. Turns out this is the least hierarchical place ever: we saw families in the parks, by the lake (how many of the parents work in Josselin's abattoir, the biggest in France, I wonder), joggers and runners, friends walking and talking. But we had the manor all to ourselves, and the minute we entered its cool hallways, Oliver and the girls were very keen indeed. It's free to get in and they have all sorts of amazing things set up for kids: here's Oliver down in the kitchens preparing a feast (that is one purple eggplant) for the count and countess Lanjuinais and their guests above.

The "Swiss bankers" aspect of the construction of the manor in 1710 was downplayed, with the presentations instead focusing on the late 19th century renovations of Lanjuinais. The manor was bought in 1872 by a Lanjuinais who loved the countryside and loved to hunt. The lay-out of the grounds is beautiful (lots of views of the gardens framed by the architecture) and that of the house as well: small dining room, large dining room, salon, and then, grouped together: fumoir, billiards room and library ("Is that so much to ask in a house?" asked Mac wistfully, knowing that a fumoir addition would be, um, awkward on our house). Here you see the kids being invited to set the table in the big dining room (with its Fontainebleau-inspired fireplace) - they absolutely loved this - Oliver even said that this felt more real than just walking through a fancy place. Amazing what some colorful plastic fruit and gold paper plates will do!

There were two kinds of by-hand work in the small dining room that I really enjoyed thinking through. The first was the wall-paper which was drawn and painted by hand. I loved following the outlines of the ink along the paper. There were massive restorations here in the late 1990 (the before and after photos reveal that the manor had fallen into complete ruin, only the fireplaces and walls and some of the wooden beams left standing).

This is another end of the hand-painted spectrum: it's in an Academic style, and part of me could never get tired of looking at the glossy drapery folds and the smooth, rosy skin. The other part of me wonders if this is Lanjuinais himself, or an ancestor from not too far back. 1872 he started planning out what he wanted for the manor (apparently, he was a countryside and good fishing kind of aristocrat - again, Mac had to ask, is that asking so much?). Since the late 19th-century renovations, there have been two more renovation campaigns, but oh the wonders they have wrought!

It's a country house, right, and so the beams are wooden, but they are gloriously decorated, complete with nigh inscrutable coats of arms. There's a series of of patterns here that I found truly exceptional - they just flow and move across the surfaces and frame and reframe what you see. (Makes me want to see the Draughtman's Contract for some reason.... hmm). Such a perfect setting.

The library was denuded of the 10,000 volumes that had once resided here, (there has to be a story there) and so it was a little sad, but it was a perfect library, complete with "flame o' knowledge" torch carved in wood. To think I used to scoff (well, more like get defensive and silly) at restoration projects. "It's not authentic!" I'd complain inside my head, thereby missing the point that I often think I see now, about Brittany's renewal, about its continuities, about the deep love that aristocrats of the 19th century held for the place (they are actually responsible for most of the restorations that we've seen, not the government - the Count of Lanjuinais, not Viollet-le-Duc, who, I just now realize, is the 19th century restorer whose work I'm used to seeing - that might explain my early reluctance to embrace these). In any case, here is the library with its waiting book cages - I hope that they all fly home soon!

And so what's better on a hot summer day after school and after a manor than playing in the shade after being given two squirrels and a hedgehog. Part of me balked, thinking of the packing (always), but how can I begrudge Oliver a 1.50euro hedgehog which, it turns out, gets along great with squirrels!

Speaking of Oliver, here is his brush with fame in France! The Ouest-France reporter was indeed out here for the circus performance and snapped this picture in which you can just barely see Oliver's eyes peeking out over the little girls in the front row - he's fourth from the left in this kind of pewter rose vest. And the little girl who is third from the left in the front row wearing that gorgeous outfit is our dear, dear Clementine who has befriended Oliver powerfully and has great, good humor (recall the water pistol fight at the school kermesse!). Hey-wow! My little guy was (pretty much) in the school paper!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Breton Panorama: Fête du Cheval (Guer - Ferme du Vauvert)

Mac l'Extraordinaire found out about the Fête du Cheval at the Ferme Vauvert near Guer about three weeks ago and we've been counting down the days ever since. It was all here: the music, the dancing, the horses, the food... the music, the dancing... :-) As I sit down to write, Mac sighs and says "Do you know what I love about Brittany? It's France with good beer and bagpipes." Indeed! And a parade, and a sunny day, and lots of hay on an open farm.

The poster alone is so cool. This was the 20th year of this festival, and they have perfected the experience. Even though it was off the beaten path, they had signs everywhere, they organized three music stands, multiple traditions, and great food, and there was a parade, and dancing and, oh yes, the horses. It was a panorama of Brittany and everywhere we turned was some reminder of some wonderful experience we'd had over the past six months. Merci, monsieur Mac! My little video recorder is low on batteries, so tonight, just the still images - then, fall exhausted into bed for the last packing tomorrow (the next tenants arrive Tuesday evening and we can't wait to play!). Iris says that she doesn't even want us to say the word "Friday," as that will be our last day here, the last day of school for her. She can't stand it. (She also spoke very eloquently at breakfast this morning about her mixed emotions: about sadly wanting this to never end, yet thinking happily of home).

So good thing there was a 1949 schoolroom set-up. I did a double-take at the date on the blackboard (and loved the "Moral" message about courage and truth) - 1949, not 1849? But then I realized that a lot of what we saw was from that great long Breton century, the one that stretched from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th. Poul Fetan showed us this as well: traditions (dance, food, clothing) as well as technologies (agriculture, fishing, laundry) had deep, powerful continuities. I still want to read more about Brittany's convulsive changes in the 20th century (and not just after/because of WWI). But this long century creates an incredibly stable base for Breton culture - I would argue that that's why these kinds of festivals aren't motivated by nostalgia for a lost time, but rather are visited or entered into as part of one of the most beautifully balanced relationships between past and present that I've ever witnessed.

So many of the dancers and musicians are young. Take the bagadou, for example, whom Mac could listen to (he said it this afternoon) all day and all night. Not only are there men and women (and look at that young kid second from the right!), but apparently, it's a mid-20th century phenomenon inspired by the bagpipes of Scotland! One year, I'll have to get Mac back here for the InterCeltic Festival in Lorient, which looks completely and utterly awesome (and this year is the 40th anniversary - we should all go!). So to what do we ascribe the youth of this traditional culture? This is something I'd like to also do more research about: many traditions actually have their revivals instigated by governments for patriotic or nationalistic reasons (Mussolini was notorious for this in Italy - the Palio of Siena, I recall a friend saying, was a medieval tradition that had fallen away by the 18th century, and was brought back by him - not mentioned in Wikipedia, but there you go). I wonder what the French government's relationship has been with Breton festivals? I don't see the Ministry of Culture listed anywhere in the financial partners page of the festival - it's all local mostly municipal organizations, and then many local businesses (opticians, pharmacists, radio stations, macons...). So am I waxing romantic in thinking that these festivals are completely owned by the people who are in them, that these are grass-roots organizations with independence of spirit and personal motivations for participating? I'm going to say I'm not - plus, there are simply too many people who know each other at these festivals: but if you've been going to Fest Noz's all winter trying to keep warm, a summer festival is the bets place to meet up!

A quick note about the titular attractions of the festival - when they say "Cheval," they don't mean racing horse or show horse, they mean work horse - these wonderful thick-set, low-to-the-ground horses who made Breton farms go until tractors came along (and apparently who still do at Vauvert, a farm, Mac was telling me, dedicated to teaching agricultural students the older methods - the list of "Anciens Métiers" at the festival is indeed impressive, and they could accommodate them all here). Look at the musculature on those guys! And indeed, they were pulling plows, and hay-making machines, and people, and haywains - all of it.

This didn't mean that there weren't other kinds of horses there. We saw incredible stuns being performed on these "Voltige" horses - riders hanging off the side of the saddler, upside down, going underneath the horse and coming up the other side, all the while the horse is going down the field at full gallop. Iris was completely enthralled and declared the guy on the white horse "her hero" (she was also fascinated by his funky beard braid). Looks like it'll be time to head back to Medieval Times in Schaumburg, once we're back in America (talk about weirdly distanced "traditions" - oy! but the horse show is terrific - and for $10, you can upgrade to "Royalty" status which, actually, really does make me love the place).

The folkloric dance wasn't only Breton, either - as this group from the Ukraine attests. There were actually three groups involved: four musicians (you see just a bit of one of the young men in his so-cool red pants), a group of young girls and boys, and a group of older women. And they were all housed by volunteers from the region. That's such a cool idea - and I couldn't help wondering how familiar or strange Brittany was to the Ukrainians, whether these young people came from agricultural regions as well, and of course, how each one had found his or her way to these traditions, paths back to local culture made so torturous and complex by the Soviet government.

It was under the cool shade of the lavandières' washing square that the kids took shelter from the sun and watched in fascination. They'd seen this "ancien métier" at Poul Fétan and, save Iris, had paid no mind to it at the time. This time, they couldn't take their eyes off of the women, and seemed to love their chatter (this seems to be the heralded thing about the lavandières: their very funny banter about society, their men, customs and morals...).

Iris go really caught up in it all and volunteered when one of the washerwomen called for some help! I watched my industrious little girl scrub away happily at a handkerchief with a soapy brush and then sway it gently through the water and wring it out with the woman and hang it up to dry - she was so proud of herself! Here she kneels, her position cushioned by some hay. And this is where the folklorist and the feminist have some things to say to each other, don't they? Iris would have thrived in this work society: she loves a project, loves t help, loves to lead a team. But am I glad that my daughter won't be lead washerwoman on a farm? I can't answer that without sounding like a humorless cad (because I don't think these festivals are about a comparison between modern (bad/good) and present (bad/good) - that's part of what I admire about the balance between past and present here), so maybe I won't, except to say that I'm glad there will be opportunities for her to work out her keen interests and talents in all things mechanical and engineered as well. Complicated. But she looks cute and proud and happy here - brava, girl!

There was a lot of "getting caught up in the moment" this afternoon - here you see Oliver and Iris dancing to the music of a group of dancers with multiple costume changes (which were executed seamlessly) who were illustrating the history of Brittany's long century (don't know where they started, but they ended with WWII) through traditional dances done up with a really cool edge to their music (I hope to give you a listen tomorrow evening).

But how can you not get carried away when all this is going on and your lunch consisted of a sausage wrapped in a galette (crêpe)? The galette saucisse is apparently gaining in popularity of late (I can see why looking at the (too busy of course) web site: it's just so handy! We each had one and the kids have decided this is one of the things I need to start making at home. After watching every mom at school yesterday wield the crêpe spreader, I know that my time to learn to make crêpes has come. Some kind of life passage thing. I've read that the batter is best after having been refrigerated overnight - I loved preparing food right before going to bed that will be ready the next day, so this may actually happen (after I practice all the right swooshing and swooping gestures with the spreader!).

We were reluctant to go, and so lingered past the old timey cars and this very terrific motorcycle that the kids enjoyed pretending to drive (love Iris in that driver's seat!). About halfway through the afternoon, the hot afternoon, the kids started asking about going to the beach at the Lac au Duc at Ploermel. Since we're not really saying no to any Brittany desires these days, 6:30 p.m. found us here...

On the beach in Ploermel where, despite the hot weather, the water is still cold enough to make Eleanor run out of the lake about every ten minutes and take a warming hug from a towel. Oliver was out pretty quickly, too, but Iris was ready to stay in much, much longer. Only the promise of school the next day (!) lured her out. Well, school, and the fact that Mac had these ready for us:

Our Sunday night desserts (surely we can keep up this tradition somehow): a good old chocolate eclair, (working clockwise), a "Trois Chocolats" (the name says it all), a millefeuille, and a pana cotta gâteau. It was a delicious way to go to bed after this incredible gift of a day. The kids spoke of the horses and the washerwomen the most at dinner (although the bagad scored an impression with Eleanor - ooo, I could just see her wielding a bagpipe, that one!). And then, Oliver did this wonderful thing: I hadn't been able to resist buying him Muddle Earth (nope, not a typo) by Paul Stewart at the English Book Shop the other day (gotta get that boy ready to Tolkein!) and he's started reading it at night to the girls - and they're listening and everything! Can one be so happy as to be corny? So be it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

School Kermesse (wow!)

This was our first day of good-byes, as by next Saturday we will unbelievably be on the road to Switzerland. The kids had made cards for our two most valiant merchants: "Merci pour les fromages" went to monsieur le Fromagier who did indeed look refreshed from his California sojourn, and who provided us this week with half a Reblochon, which is just soooo ready to give itself up to us, and a Darley Fermier au cumin (a bold move for us, as usually just great cheese taste is all we require - no ups and extras like cumin) - and guess what? it's fantastic! We had a nice good-bye chat and he (and everyone else we talked to today, by the way) said "you ought to find a way to live here, people are doing it all the time." You hear that enough times and the daydreaming gets pretty extreme. But our skill set is pretty small (the world doesn't need that many art history, though the world desperately needs art - at least since the Paleolithic period), and though I do love the idea of Mac working at the Bar le Alzey, and me consulting for medieval cultural events at the castle, that market is pretty saturated.

"Merci pour les lasagnes" was the card for the butcher, and though I've been asked to provide a photo of said Cute Butcher, I just couldn't do it. You'll have to know that his lasagna was so great that the kids were prompted to draw pictures of themselves eating it (and Oliver put in a drawing of his new little adventure character, a duck incongruously named Boxy (which he spelled "Boxie" in French!) eating lasagna for good measure). The image here is actually of the saucisson sec man (the one who provided us with boar saucisson sec last week). This week, we bought fig, deer, and hazelnut saucisson sec, and then, as a good-bye, good-travels gift, he gave us an ostrich saucisson sec - wow!

We also said good-bye to the Fruit Guy and the Chicken Man, and the Vegetable People (all named by the children, I'd like to add). And yes, I'll miss the food so very much, how it structured our week, how good it tasted, how it emerged from musings and conversations with both Mac and the kids, and the merchants. And I think that it's those conversations that I'll miss the most; I think that's the loss I felt the most today when, unbelievably, I shed tears while fixing lunch. (How silly I felt, crying over the last market, but I resolutely pushed aside my Protestant prissiness over pleasure, and let myself cry for the loss of pleasure in food, and the loss of connection about food). When we first went to the market, the list was made beforehand, and I knew exactly what I wanted and it took about half an hour. And then at some point, we started bumping into people we knew, and forgetting about the list (or just forgetting the list entirely, in our anticipation at being Out There at the market), and then it took longer to decide what to get. And I'd have to talk to the merchant more: what do you recommend this week? what would be good with the fennel I just bought? would this new cheese you have work after a chicken dish? My efficiency decreased, but my pleasure increased. (Does it always have to be that way? What is "efficient pleasure"? Don't answer that - it's too absurd and weird sounding, no?). So that today's market outing, with the good-byes and the questions took nearly two hours.

I fear sounding pious and self-satisfied in saying that it felt really great to know where my food came from (a mantra of the local-eating movement) - but it did; or rather, I will miss that aspect of our eating. That the kids could understand (albeit grudgingly because they love it so) that the butcher had not had time to make lasagna a particular week because of the Ascension holiday (he has two kids); or that our Fruit Guy was one of the first to have the Strawberries of Plougastel at the market (made him a hero once the kids had tasted the gorgeous fruit). That was pretty cool when you think about it.

What was also pretty, very, wonderfully cool was the Kermesse, end of the year fun fair party, at the École Suzanne Bourquin. The term is religious in origin (ker - church; messe - mass) and I think Dutch, but it's come into secular parlance as a once-a-year bash, now with a fundraiser element. But never mind the etymology! The joy was in moments like these: Oliver playing with the water pistols that were winnable at every single stand (everyone was glad, it was hot hot hot today) with his good friend Clementine who is a fantastic kid. She spoke to me a little bit about Oliver (between dueling bouts) and just said over and over how "gentil" (kind) he is - my favorite phrase of her was "il ne fera pas de mal à une mouche" (he wouldn't hurt a fly). Oliver's friends talk about his kindness a lot which just makes me still with wonder and that aching love when you see your kid out in the world through others' eyes.

There was this moment, too, when Iris and Eleanor, in playing with the spiky green ball that Eleanor won (and loves), showed me where they play together "under the shed" (a covered play space so that the kids can still play outside even when it rains - yea, Brittany!). They played and played and laughed and again it was that glimpse into the word they've built for themselves. A stylishly decorated world, complete with Elmer!

We had signed up to volunteer, but, of course, had no idea what to expect. In the end, I wasn't needed at the "restaurant," which was a crêpe stand (every Breton woman knows how to wield a crêpe ladle and spreader and I'm truly glad that I was spared the humiliation and that the good people of Josselin were spared the disappointment of what would have been abysmal crêpes produced by my inept handling of the instruments). But Mac was very much needed at the "Caisse Boîte" stand which entailed he and our friend Christophe (father of Simon in Eleanor's class) setting up empty tin cans so that people could knock them down. It was loud, hot work, and the beer was non-alcoholic (apparently no alcohol on school grounds), but Oliver decided to help out at some point, and he loved running around the picking up the rolling cans. :-)

So the girls and I walked all over the school grounds, and they showed me the "Petite Maison Bleue" (the little blue house) where they have apparently also spent many a happy moment with their friends. They are both grateful for the shade here, and the opportunity to lay out just a few of their winnings. There was a little space for me to squeeze in next to them and we had ourselves a nice little chat. I realize now (I have before, but really now) just how lucky we were to fall into this fantastic little school. That Sarkozy wants to abolish the Maternelle system and start kids at the CP (Cours Préparatoire -preparatory course) level when they're between 6-7 years old is deeply depressing. Hopefully he will be out of office before any such awful idea can take place. For now, funding is getting cut drastically, and today was, after all, a fundraiser. So we bought raffle tickets and lots of game tickets and had an absolute blast.

The prizes were amazing! Iris hit "Super Bingo" on the spinning wheel and not only got to blow a horn signaling her good fortune, but also won this beautiful little jewelry set - not plastic, my friends! Oliver scored an official soccer ball (yes, my packing heart stopped for a second) of excellent quality...

Eleanor's favorite score turned out to be a dog chew toy, the wittily named "Doggy News" - you can see her here stylishly carrying it while relaxing atop her dad's shoulders. The kids were just amazed by it all - more gifts from Brittany! - and loved all the running around with their buds. We were stunned to discover that one of our raffle tickets won something: a perfect sports backpack into which we will undoubtedly stuff as much as possible come July 31st. Considering that most of the other raffle prizes were things like blenders and tool kits, this worked out rather beautifully! :-)

But the sweetest surprise came at the end of the day - and no, it wasn't Eleanor's collapse-of-a-nap. Mac and Christophe had bemoaned the state of the non-alcoholic beer (warm) during their hours in the Caisse Boîte stand and so Mac had invited him for a beer afterwards (big move!). Christophe had basically demurred and said they'd have to probably get the kids home, etc., but really nice and friendly, as ever. And then, about halfway through our much-welcomed beers (Blanche Hermine) for us and ice cream for the kids at the Taverne, we saw all four of them come strolling up! They said they were hoping that we'd still be here, and there we were. And so there we sat, on this day of endings and beginnings, with our French friends while the kids ran around the church and up and around the terrace. And a great time was had by all.

Pêche a Pied - Fishing by Feet (Séné)

All people are born good. This is what a day with small children, big wonderful groups of small children, makes you realize. Maybe just the one day (maybe after 10 days there would be a different conclusion) - but no, being around kids and seeing their triumphs and needs first-hand definitely confirms my faith in humanity's goodness. It's the openness of kids, whether it's about their joy or their woes, that makes me say that. Today, I was also thinking that it might be their lack of self consciousness (for with consciousness of self, comes preservation of the self, and a whole host of ethical dilemmas that close us more and more onto our own subjectivity). In any case, today was a beautiful, bolstering day. We were very kindly invited by Iris and Eleanor's teachers to join them on their field trip (field trip! the highlights of school!) to Séné, a lovely beach right near Vannes. Here is the lovely Élodie, getting her class of 29 students ready to go - that little girl with the fresh ponytail sitting with her back against the glass paying careful attention is Iris.

The pedagogical goal was a discovery of the little creatures who live or are washed ashore by the tide, and are then visible when the tide pulls out. But there were aesthetic and ludic goals as well: it was a great day at the beach. So there was plenty of burying feet in sands, and castle building, and bucket filling at first. And what a setting to do it in! Before you, the cool variations in landscape of the Golfe of the Morbihan (the sea weaves its way in to the land through a series of small passages of water). That's actually Eleanor's group which dear Mac was in all day - valiant, wonderful Mac, there's no greater test of one's French than being surrounded by twenty-five 3-4 year olds all day. He thrived and loved it. And I love you, man!

Look at some of the things we found just by turning over a rock! (granted, a big one)! Starfish (really nice starfish), algae of all kinds, and, I don't know that you can see him here, a fish, too!

Here was the little group with whom I tromped around for about an hour. They were such sweethearts. That's Floriane, Valentin, Océane, Erwan, Courtney, and Iris. See how almost all of the names end in some kind of -n sound? very Breton!

We had spent the morning building sand castles, then had our nice, big lunch break (and I watched and listened with great interests, as the teachers made the kids slow down and enjoy their food, and definitely everybody had to clear their plate. Iris tells me that that's a necessity in the restaurant scolaire as well. And I have indeed seen a teacher report to a mom after school that her kid hadn't eaten her entire lunch. A culture that cares about food is a great hope for humanity. But more on that in a bit. Meanwhile, the afternoon consisted of learning from Ludovic, the totally hot "animateur" (indeed). He's the one we followed out into low tide and who told us to look for crabs, fishes, starfish, eels, and the inevitable water snail. Above, we had regathered again, and Ludovic was showing the kids the eel that one of the boys had found. The reactions of the kids are hilarious - some of them had already gotten up to the out of the eel's way! But Ludovic knew what he was doing, and so we went back to school with a bucket-full of low-tide sea life to be put in the classroom aquarium.

Almost as soon as we'd gotten back, it was Portes Ouvertes (Open Doors) at the école maternelle, and here are Iris and Eleanor looking at a map that highlights all of the countries they studied this year. There was the North Pole, Africa, and Australia. Travel to far countries still triggers imagination, and lots of it. I hope that we could keep that imagination going - geography can be quite amazing!

Here's Iris reading me a book about a little Chinese girl named "Soeur Li" - too cute. And Oliver is completely engrossed in these great rhyming books. The Open Doors event was set up in the space where Motricité (awesome little obstacle courses) takes place. I realized with a start this afternoon just how familiar this building is to me, and all of the emotions of letting the kids go for the day, and then the happiness of knowing they're having a blast and the still-guilty-but-good feeling that we'll be able to work work work. I'm going to miss Thinking Bench with Iris, and giving her kisses in her pockets that she can take out whenever she needs to later that day, and picking up all the kids at the end of the day in all of their joy. I think that the kids are going to miss being in the same school and seeing each other throughout the day for recess. They'll be going to three separate schools in the fall (and organization challenge, to say the least) - but I'm hoping that we can pick up little rituals and fall into habits like we did here.

Elodie told us again how well Iris was doing with the French. She said (and I'm still marveling at this) that she'd rarely seen a child pick up the language this fast, nor be so determined to do so. The determined part, I get (that's 100% Iris), but the rapidity part surprises me a little, since I'd always thought that kids "pick up" a language effortlessly. I can now say from the experience of the past 6 months, that that isn't actually the case. Bottom line: it's hard work for a kid to learn a language. Eleanor flows seamlessly in and out of a kind of babble French and excellent English, and she understands everything, so in some ways I would say that she's had it the "easiest," but nor would I call her fluent in French - still, she can definitely make herself understood if needed!; Iris has worked and worked, practised and practised and can understand everything and is now working to express herself on really complicated stuff (feelings, etc.); Oliver understands most things (I'm still surprised at what he doesn't understand that the girls do) and speaks very little French (short phrases, things pulled from movies, but never entire conversations like you can have with the girls). It's hard work. And I would guess that Elodie being in the trenches with the kids, and having taught several Anglophone kids would know. The part that filled me with the greatest wonder was that she said that Iris will speak in front of the entire class in French - this is shy, retiring Iris (only in public is she that way, but that's how she is) we're talking about it here. There's definitely been some "coming into her own" for her here. And I don't even know yet the kinds of seeds that have been planted for the kids here - where the French they've picked up will lead them at other points in their lives. Surprises await, I'm sure.

After all this, what was there to do but go get beautiful Breton fish at the supermarket, eat dinner, look at various bento boxes sites, some quite awesome (my complete fantasy of being able to make food like this for the children's lunches - complete. fantasy - just dreaming here, folks), leave Mac to put the kids to bed, and go out to see my last movie in Josselin, Solutions Locales pour un Désordre Global. The trailer will tell you a lot, and I want to write and write about this, but now it is really rather late (time! ugh!) so I think that I'd just want to say that, like with global warming, the science of the food crisis in in: we eat wildly bizarrely made foods with great consequences to our planet, bodies, and I would even add ethics. The film is incredibly smart, brings in discussions from people who have been working at local solutions for years, and shares the consciousness-raising spirit (but with greater political acumen, scientific knowledge, and a much more in-depth look at the econimics of the multi-national food corporations themselves) of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. The biggest surprise, however, did not come from the film itself, but rather from the discussion that ensued afterwards. It was an announced discussion, led by people who were practising some of the local solutions discussed in the film (food co-ops, here called AMAPs and original (non-hybrid) seed distributors, and going organic, etc.). I had been quietly aware that almost everyone in the room was 50 and over, which gave me pause (since most food movement discussions in the States attract only really young people - or maybe that's just me living on the college campus, but let's just say that none of the farmers from around Greencastle (and there are many) come to the environmental or food discussions at DePauw). The real surprise came when I slowly realized that almost everyone in the room was somehow involved in farming. Conventional farmers who had gone "biologique" (organic), people who grew some of their own stuff and also helped organized AMAPs, people who were starting to feed livestock grass and natural foods instead of processed cornmeal, people who had decided to become organic farmers 13 years ago and who were just now seeing the fruits of their labors (financially more than literally), and many more. There were two cool language moments: all of them referred to themselves pointedly not as "agriculteurs" (the modern French word for farmer), but rather as "paysans" (which is not exactly "peasant" but has an older ring to it, and also comes with some old-age defiance: the "paysan" culture being one of its own traditions and ways of doing things, thank you very much - quite present in Breton culture of the 19th century, and clearly today!). The other was the wordplay "consom-acteur" - a play on "consommateur" (consumer) and acteur (actor). It's really too bad that we can't do the same wordplay in English (consumactor doesn't really have any ring or sense to it), because I think that the word gets at the gulf that needs to be bridged, the one between food producer and food consumer, one that's particularly enormous in the States. We're members of a food co-op in the States, and not particularly ideological about any of this (friends were doing it, we joined, we loved it). But the more I learn, the more absurd some of the scientific and economic moves are (this is what I wish I could go on about, but will instead hope that you'll read Pollan or see this movie someday if you haven't already), and the more convinced I am that, while absolutely not being able to take on the big multi-national food companies, we can certainly tend our own gardens (more or less figuratively), and feed our children well. And I once again admire Brittany: this land that has had to re-invent its agricultural role and function several times already, I got the sense tonight that there are more of the "local solutions" happening here than elsewhere in France. I would not be surprised if that's the case: Bretons' historical record of endless resourcefulness and reinvention rising to the occasion again. The discussion (people laying out what they've done) and debate (how to get through French bureaucracy which is right up there with global bureaucracy according to the audience) was lively and at the end, I somehow felt compelled to thank people for the conversation and say just a tiny something about the little pockets of local solutions in the States and that there was so much I had learned tonight that I would take back to my friends there (including the challenge of coming up with the equivalent of "consum-acteur"!). My voice was shaking pathetically the whole time, but if not now, when? This was a unique moment. I'm embarassed to tell you that the comments received applause, because they were completely unworthy of such a show of good will. But that is the generosity of spirit that we have been surrounded by these past six months and I will not soon forget this film, and this conversation, and all of its socio-ethico-economic-scientific intricacies or the people trying help us see them to a better tomorrow. I can't.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bliss (Kerguéhennec)

When I went to bed last night, I had a searing ball of fire in my throat with what I thought was me coming down with a cold. Ouch ouch ouch. So at 8h30 this morning, I was in the waiting room of Dr. Niemiec's office (that's right, you have to say it two or three times to really appreciate it). As I may have described previously, doctor's visits are on a first come, first served basis, so there's always a good bit of waiting involved. But then you're seen, you pay your 22euros (which is what the doctor makes, i.e. this is not a co-pay) and you're on your way with your prescription and your day. Every time I go, I hear older patients bemoaning the state of affairs once Niemiec retires (he must be in his mid-55s now, and unless the retirement age goes up (that's what 2 million people were in the streets of France about today) he'll retire in 5 years) - he's apparently the only one in town who will visit patients in hospitals in the morning, then see in-office patients (us), then see at-home patients (the bed-ridden, the elderly), then go back to the hospital at night. This guy works incredibly hard, and the older women this morning were worrying about the "younger generation" a) not wanting to work as hard and b) not wanting to live in Josselin. The first worry I have to take with a grain of salt, as it is a perennial complaint of the older generation to the younger one. But the second one I understand, living as I do in a small town in America - doctors basically have to have a really good reason to come live in your tiny town, and so you find yourself hoping for a family connection or a personal reason. More so in Greencastle than in Josselin, I would think, but still, they worry. And I can see why: Dr. Niemiec is terrific. Within seconds of my describing what was going on, he had a diagnosis: I talk too much. Yes, yes, go ahead and laugh - I did. It's laryngitis, which I always thought was just your voice being hoarse, but turns out to be an inflammation of the vocal chords, which would explain the incredible pain of swallowing. It can often be triggered by a slight cold, but the baseline problem is "un mauvais emploi des chordes vocales" (a mis-use of the vocal chords). He said professors often get it (ha!) and indeed, when I've had this before, it's been in the early summer, at the end of the school year (all the talking to students). Perhaps this is the price I pay for endlessly talking up the kids and our friends. Mac has forbidden me from following up with my Neanderthal Man stories (Neanderthal man discovers that one can eat an artichoke, Neanderthal Man discovers fire, Neanderthal Man considers the weird nice feeling he gets when he looks at the ocean). I've loved Neanderthal Man stories (they've (gasp!) displaced Baby Pink Dragon these past few nights, but the kids really do love that pre-historic period. See you later Neanderthal Man, when I have my voice back (his, uh, limited but emphatic grammar and guttural voice are a challenge). All this to say, a Cortizone pill and some kind of magic spray later, I was much better. The only weird part is that in the States I was prescribed antibiotics, and that worked, too (perhaps there was infection at the site of inflammation? I don't know). This was too long, but I'd wanted to do a full-blown description of a visit to a doctor's office, and somehow didn't get to do the two ear infection visits we had with the kids. Thank you, Dr. Niemiec - you work incredibly hard, and literally keep an entire town going.

I will get to the glorious photo above in just a second, but just know that I came home having pretty much lost my voice and so had a quiet hour with the kids. I noticed that they were quieter, too. Is laryngitis this good for everybody? Something to consider: could I actually just keep quiet, not alk so much, and thereby have quieter kids? Wow! Actually, they're really specific. And impossible - because I actually crave hearing the kids. Oo! This is the day of Thoughts on the Side, but I did want to record this one. When we came home from the Aquarium in Vannes yesterday, we rather inevitably watched Finding Nemo. Oliver and I have a long-standing debate about whether or not Dory really speaks whale. I say that YES, she does, and that it's all part and parcel of her knowing other surprising things, like how to read, and what a hammer and money are; Oliver says NO, there's no way that a fish can speak whale and there's no way that a whale could understand a fish trying to speak whale anyway. We have this debate every time we watch the movie, and of course we started again last night. During a lull, Oliver says "I can just hear the movie makers chuckling about a mom trying to convince her kid that a fish could speak whale." Movie makers chuckling? I love it: chuckling! So, above is rational Iris who stays out of such debates (wise) and is seen here getting a jump start on her bridge book, which we were thinking of starting for all three kids in Switzerland to help them get ready again for American school. We're at the Taverne following a great picnic at the Bois d'Amour (if we could strew kisses and flower petals to Josselin and get away with it, we would) - two of our favorite spots in town. The Lists have not been taken over by pétanque-playing men, but instead by the camping cars occupants who park in the lot directly behind the Lists - the changing o' the seasons.

I'm going to repeat the picture above because I love it so. It was taken at the Domaine de Kerguéhennec (another name to say three times fast), which is part of that great group which also brought us to Suscinio, Melrand, Poul-Fetan, and Gavrinis. (wow!) It's the one closest to our house (not even 20 minutes away!) and so of course we'd never been there. In some ways, we misjudged, because the castle only opens again tomorrow. But in other ways, it was total bliss. We had the place pretty much to ourselves once again, and were just together, in a beautiful place. Kerguéhennec is another really cool idea: an 18th century castle that sits upon a lush forest and lake domain now turned into a visitable castle, a center for contemporary art, and a regional restoration atelier. The coolest part: the fields and forests house contemporary sculpture (Tony Cragg, Hrrein Fridfinnsson, and more!). This shot was taken within minutes of coming into the property gates: an enormous pine forest surges up against a hill that overlooks a lake. It's been very hot, so Oliver and Iris wanted to cool themselves with the view. They sat there for a good long while, while we walked about with Eleanor getting our bearings.

Oliver did ask: "What's the goal of being here today?" which, of course, made me realize how programmatic our visits to places are. It was thus pretty swell to be able to say "just to see something beautiful together." He looked at me like I was nuts, but I was really into the idea of doing just that. So we settled into this long alley entirely shaded by trees (think cathedral vaulting, but of green gently moving leafy branches) and did absolutely nothing for a good long time. Meaning: Mac and I tried to lie down, but those moments were short-lived, broken up by questions, teasings, desires for entrance into the castle (which was at the other end of the alley), and queries as to how to draw a pentagon (apparently, that's one of the skills you're supposed to acquire in Kindergarten to get ready for First Grade). Communing with beauty is neither a skill set, nor a state of mind for the kids, but I will say that when we were walking around they did a bit of communing. Now if we could only get them to commune lying down (yoga?).

We only touched the surface of the awesome sculpture park (if you have time to click on the link, you can see a full listing (and picture!) of each of the artists' pieces present - truly fantastic! This piece is entitled Sept Colonnes à Mallarmé and was made by Etienne Hajdu (Romanian) from 1967-1971. Its homage to the poet was beyond us, but Oliver and Eleanor loved the piece, and it's a powerful (those are bronzes, folks) connection to megaliths.

The piece that moved us all was Sentier de Charme (1986) by Italian artist Guiseppe Penone. If you look closely, you'll see that a tree is growing within the bronze form. The symbiosis of the tree growing through and around the bronze as it ages, and the bronze turning greener and greener and more closely approximating the moss-covered tree as it ages is just so beautiful. I love how the figure's "traces" unfurling behind it will anchor it as the tree's weight grows. This human figure and the tree will be constantly negotiating their physical and aesthetic relationship. I want to come back and see how they're doing for a long time.

There is one sad note about the Domaine de Kerguéhennec, and that is that while the castle and sculpture park will stay, the Center for Contemporary Art will close. Apparently, the Conseil Général du Morbihan will no longer be supporting it, and the support of the State and the Région Bretagne aren't enough. I went to the petition website and some 4000 people have signed the petition. Sigh - that will be very much too bad if it closes, as the presence of contemporary art in Brittany is a rare one. The presence of contemporary art in a setting such as this one in Brittany is utterly unique. Well, we have plans to go back and see the castle and the center (while we can). The castle, it seems, was built in the 18th century for Swiss bankers - could there be a better building segue for our trip to Switzerland which starts (ee gads) next Friday afternoon? Poetry!