Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The wandering

As the final weeks of our sejour commenced, what I really wanted most to do was just to really be here, to see, to hear, to smell, touch and taste "here." So I set off wandering around in the afternoons, after my class, a nice lunch and a little homework.

Dennis' daily hikes filled his head with ideas for places for us to go together -- not the monuments, museums and architecture one usually "must see," but things like someone's private Japanese garden,
Japanese garden

a rose that actually smells like a rose,
My favorite
a row of birches shimmering in the breeze coming off the Seine,
Birches along the Seine

and the taste of an apple crepe ordered at a window and carried off down the street.

There's a bridge that attracts musicians. We wandered across it, enjoying a piano tune. The player was perhaps performing something that might well have been his own composition. We don't know. Notice the bride and groom who stroll across the bridge behind him. Anything can happen. It was Saturday.


One of the oh-so-many King's palaces had a rose garden. Think about this. Roses, dozens and dozens of them, some of them bound to be the poster plants for "antique roses" being perhaps centuries old ... Varieties created way before looks and carefree cultivation were all that mattered. Smell these roses. Go ahead. They don't mind. Every one of them has a unique scent. Ahhhh. All my time in this garden I spent bent over, my nose in some rose or another.
Like a bee, drawn to the flower

One doesn't hear horns honking much in Paris, with two exceptions: marriages being celebrated by everyone who was invited to participate, as they drive apparently all over town hanging out of their windows and yelling and honking; and police convoys (and they always seem to travel in packs). So traffic has a bit of a different ring to it. It's more of a hum.

And there are all these little unique shops with their windows full of different kinds of things. If you see something that interests you, you'd better just stop right there and go inside and check it out. You won't remember where you saw it, and you won't see it anywhere else. No going back!

There was a hunt for the best yogurt. Yes, yum. My favorite was actually a fromage blanc with granola, served up at Telescope, near my school. Makes me want to start making yogurt again when I get home. Bread, granola, yogurt, fresh berries. Best breakfast in the world.
Telescope's fromage blanc
 et granole; Credit: Farfalue

A lizard, fish, crawfish-looking fountain? Well, why not?

Sea-themed fountain

Off to the side somewhere hidden, a courtyard with an old massive port that once opened to let in coaches, once blue, now with the paint very nearly completely peeled off. Oh, and a pot of yellow pansies beside it. Someone must have thought that one through.
The blue door

Things in the market that I've never seen before:

The roots of a celery plant.
Celery root

Apples that are sort of shriveled up, each box labeled with the variety. I wonder what one does with them? One of the stories in the Premiere Gorgee de Biere was about going down to the cellar and smelling these apples, and what a treat that was. Indeed.

Pommes ratatinees

And outside a shoe store, for no good reason, an antique pitcher filled with a colorful mix of tulips in full bloom -- it's being what I'd call late winter here and all...
Tulips on the sidewalk

So, this will go on for the next several days until the sun sets for the last time on our trip, we put away our things, fold everything up, compact it all into the couple of cubic feet we're allowed for luggage, and head for home!

Sunset from 7 Quai Voltaire

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Getting away from Paris for a long weekend

My french class made a weekend trip to Normandy last Friday, and I took advantage of a full day, Saturday, to relax and "faire du shopping."
Bayeux, Saturday morning

Bayeux, the town we spent most of our time in, is small, with a walkable downtown. I had noticed on Friday night as we explored a little that there were lots of small shops with all kinds of things for sale, and it seemed like a good place to look for the little gifts I wanted to take back to friends.
Gift shop

So, Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, I headed off to town.

Before I got there, however, I came upon something that always enchants me, a weekly market. Coming upon one of these by surprise, as I did, just makes the day for me. There's an atmosphere that's special -- the sounds, the smells, the sights, catching little bits of conversations as people greet each other, ask questions, corral their kids, and such.

And, a market gives me a chance to practice french!

This market had every kind of thing for sale: Animals, clothes, books, CDs, vegetables and fruits, flowers, cheeses, and all kinds of meat, fish, and shellfish, as well as prepared foods for eating then or taking home.

Chickens for sale

I could have spent the whole day there. 

Gorgeous veggies and fruits
Cheese market
When I texted Dennis photos of the rabbits, chickens and ducks, he suggested they would make great gifts. Perhaps...

And I did indeed find some nice gifts there, other than the beautiful and healthy little animals.

Catalan Paella in the market

Gorgeous dessert
Bayeux, as does all of Normandy, enjoys a great reputation for its regional dishes, among them, just about anything and everything made from apples.

Another specialty is dairy, so there are lots of dishes with cream sauces and cheese. Among others, the region is famous for its Camembert.

One of the students in our class and I had dinner together Saturday night and ordered several small plates to share, so we got to try five different regional cheeses, as well as a fabulous polenta dish with little slivers of brightly colored veggies tucked in everywhere.

Bayeux has a botanical garden, and it just happened to be right across the street from our hotel, so I spent a bit of my afternoon there. So peaceful and beautiful.

And for my friends who are as transfixed by birds as I am, I awoke every morning well before it got light to a vibrant dawn chorus, owing to our hotel's being adjacent to the garden. I hadn't heard this much birdsong in weeks. As is always the case for this trip, I couldn't put a name to anything, but whoever they were, merci beaucoup! 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Gardening, Paris-style

While last week, nothing topped a good hot chocolate, this week, nothing tops a Paris garden in springtime. Our weather turned truly spring-like this week, and we were able to shed the wool hats, sweaters and jackets (and for me, the wool base layers...). We visited lots of little gardens. They're everywhere, often tucked into recesses behind walls. I would turn a corner, and all of a sudden there's a little gate and I hear birdsong and the strong scent of flowers. I'm simply drawn inside these worlds of green, magenta, yellow, red and white as though I had no power to resist.

Austin has lots of little neighborhood parks too, but all pride about Austin aside, these little gems here in Paris simply put us to shame (excepting of course our Japanese Garden, which is a treasure in any season). I don't know who tends these gardens, but they are beyond magnificent. And they're everywhere!
Jardin de Voltaire

Almost daily we stroll past Voltaire's little pocket garden, on our street. Not a park you can actually go into, it's just a bright spot along the walk to the area around Place Buci, one of our favorite destinations for drinks, dinner and shopping.

Promenade Plantée
We strolled La Promenade Plantée last Sunday -- the first-in-the-world elevated park (the model for the High Line), repurposing a part of an abandoned rail line. About 2 1/2 miles long, it passes through two parks, Jardin Hector Malot and Jardin de Reuilly, while being a park itself. A triple-delight.

On the Ferris Wheel
A day later, we rode the Ferris Wheel, for splendid views of all of Paris. It's at the back of the Tuileries, a rather formal garden close to where we are staying. It's beautifully planted with beds of tulips, redbuds in bloom, lilacs, and pansies, daffodils and other winter bloomers (winter, for us in Texas).

Tulips in the Tuileries
Dennis goes on long walks each day, in the mornings while I'm in class and discovers things that we go off together to see in the afternoons. He hit the jackpot today! He orchestrated a "small garden tour" day just for me, a beautiful walk that took us to 3 of these small gardens and the Luxembourg Gardens, one of the most well-known in Paris. Two of the gardens flanked Le Bon Marché and La Grande Epicerie, rather over-the-top stores in Saint Germaine des Prés. So, we made the tour of those grand edifices as well. But back to the gardens -

Square Boucicaut

The first was Square Boucicaut. Flowers everywhere; birds singing; kids playing; Parisians lounging, relaxed, in the chairs and on the benches. The second, just a block or two away, was Jardin Catherine Laboure. Slightly larger, a little more elaborate (espaliered apple trees waist-high, in full bloom - can you believe it?), totally amazing.

Next was the Luxembourgh Gardens and I simply can't say enough about this grand example, certainly nothing that hasn't already been said.

Pictures describe Luxembourgh better than words anyway, so, have a look for yourself!

Our last garden today required a bus ride across the Seine all the way to the East Train Station. Jardin Villemin was just incredible. I was stunned upon entering to see peonies in full bloom, the size of a dinner plates. We don't have those in Texas, no we don't.

All day I've been hearing these lovely little birds singing their hearts out, but just never get a look at one. They must be tiny or in the very tip tops of the trees, or both. It's a nice reminder that naming a thing can often shut down curiosity about it. It's good to simply listen and enjoy, see and enjoy, feel alive and enjoy!

I hope your spring gardens are all blooming beautifully too.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Paris daily

Ah, how quickly we've settled into routine...

There's a gentle rhythm to days when you have a few things that you have to do but plenty of time in which to do them. That means there's time for all those other little things, like writing in a journal, planning out a day-trip for later in the week, and gazing out the window at the roof across the courtyard and the gray sky above it, with the clouds that slowly move across the whole scene.

That's what's happened in our second week here; we've got our little routines, but that doesn't mean we've sunk into ruts! Hardly. I made a day-trip to Fontainbleau this week.
The Library, CC*BY Mark Schlemmer
I am not sure I've ever seen a man-made thing so over-the-top, though I no doubt will find Versaille even more so than Fontainbleau, from what I've heard. But then there's the Grand Canyon, the desert at sunrise and Big Sur. I get chills just thinking about places like that. Not so much with castles.

But chocolat chaud, absolutely incredible. I will swoon over a good hot chocolate any time. I had one this week. It was served with an empty cup and two little pitchers. The smaller pitcher was filled with smooth-as-silk melted hot chocolate; the second with steamed milk. Being a novice, not knowing just how to proceed, I just poured *all* the chocolate into my cup and then topped it off with a little hot milk. I could have died right there after the first sip and been completely content. So this is now the chocolate trip, like our earlier trip was the gelato trip. We had for that trip a daily budget for gelato of about $15, and that was a decade ago. This time chocolat chaud, oh, and croissants.
Chocolat chaud, à la Carette

French is coming along well. There are times I hear and understand whole conversations, short ones to be sure, but still. Every word! Yea! Other times I understand nothing, but those are usually other people's conversations where I lack context. And most people talk so fast. I think I'm disadvantaged by being from Texas. I just talk slower and I hear slower too, I guess. I love the classes though and can't imagine missing even a single day. We're reading these lovely little stories about "minuscule pleasures." Exactly my kind of thing. One need only notice to find life an incredible thing.
Premiére Gorgée
The book is called La Premiére Gorgée de Biére, by Philippe Delerm. The first sip of beer, out of the bottle. Dennis has always said it was the best. My favorite story so far, "Helping to shell peas." Imagine that.

The morning classes, as much as I love them, make my trips to the bakery a very early morning ritual because I have to fit them in along with quite a few other things before I go to class. So, leisurely mornings are reserved to the weekends. Sounds so familiar, like a time far away and long ago.

So, 'en avant la troisiéme semaine!'
Eric Kaiser Bakery

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ten days in Paris

What an adventure! I’ve barely been able to catch my breath this first 10 days because Road Scholar whisked me into gear only hours after we arrived in Paris. The first 3 days were a seemingly unending series of dinners, breakfasts and lunches, with meetings in between, or trips around the neighborhood where most of the students in the French course I’m taking are staying, or to the Sunday morning market. For that one, we had a French restaurant chef as our guide to picking the best fruits, vegetables, cheeses, olive oils and fish!

That’s all very good information for me, as I love to cook, and our little Paris garret has a nicely equipped kitchen. 
Rainy day courtyard

La cuisine!
The Road Scholar program offered a “commuter” option, which let us choose our own place to live. I wanted somewhere centrally located, and with a real kitchen and a few other features that the Adagio (the apartment that students stay in who don’t choose their own accommodations) didn’t offer. So I found this wonderful apartment through AirBnB, right on the Seine, across from the L’œuvre, in a 300-year-old five-story building. 

Le salon
We love it!

There is an elevator...
Take today: Paris is more like winter than spring for us this Sunday. It’s cold, rainy, and we’re inside, warm as toast, listening to Vivaldi and having our dejeuner of ‘pain avec du beurre et de la confiture, et café, bien sûr.’ 

Le dejeuner
But tonight I’ll get to cook a homemade pasta sauce and serve it over spaghetti, with a salad of fresh greens and other goodies from our local market, Marché Saint Germaine des Prés.

No way this will compare with the dinner we had last night, Saturday, at La Buca, down near Place Buci – a 3 course affair where we could easily have called it a night after the first course! And that fabulous dinner had followed an equally impressive beginning at Prescription, our “neighborhood” bar, where we had wonderful cocktails and a copita of Del Maguey’s Tobala. We literally fell into bed after our walk home.

So, that is our first free weekend. During the week we were much more like ‘des tourists.’ I walk to my class each morning, after a quick trip to our local boulangerie for the day’s bread, and a breakfast with Dennis of bread (sourdough, croissants, pain au chocolat) with butter, jam, and fruit, with yogurt and orange juice and coffee. Actually, that’s an enormous breakfast by French standards, but it’s what we love. All fresh, and delicious.

Nôtre Dame
My classes are incredible. I can’t recommend the Road Scholar independent live and study in Paris program more highly. Class meets 3 hours each morning, Monday through Thursday, and then all day on Friday. Fridays are devoted to learning about French culture, art and history. Last Friday we had a lecture about the middle ages, up to the time of the revolution (1789). We visited the Conciergerie, Saint Chappelle and Nôtre Dame. The lecturer is really wonderful. He’ll be joining us next Friday for the continuation of this theme, with our day trip to Fontainbleu.

The rest of the time we are in Paris, outside the class times, we are totally on our own, free to do whatever we want, when we want. Like being retired! La vie est belle!

Dennis isn’t taking the classes, so he’s off exploring in the mornings, and in the afternoons after I get home, he and I take long walks, usually with a destination in mind, or errands to run. We ride the busses and take the subway as needed (weekly and monthly passes), but mostly we walk. One does not come to Paris to lose weight, but it would be nice not to gain too much… This week we explored little pockets of "old neighborhoods" hidden within larger quarters of the Paris districts. Such hidden gems were the subject of our first week's study in our French classes, as taught by our talented Madam Bocquet, or, as she prefers, Odile. The first neighborhood was La cité floral. Indeed.

In the evenings we prepare our little repas, do emails, spend a little time on FB, and then watch some little BBC or PBS drama, or science program, or an Australian murder mystery like the Miss Fisher series, all on YouTube of course, and off to bed!

I am learning French, and really having so much fun doing so. I’ve studied off and on for more than 10 years, but I’ve learned the most when I was here, especially the two weeks I spent with my friend Zarah, who lives in Lyon. We spoke nothing but French the whole time. That’s what it takes, really, being here. I don’t have quite the “only French” situation now, because when Dennis and I are together, we don’t speak French, but, on the other hand, I’ve never had classes quite like these, geared precisely to where I am and what I need to progress. They are very practical, not so much about grammar and all (which it’s assumed, for those who are intermediate to advanced, we all have had plenty of), but more about vocabulary and how to say things like they are actually said, rather than how we as speakers of English might think they would be said. The subjects about which we speak are all relevant and interesting (like learning all about the character and differences among the neighborhoods in Paris, first week). And the classes are entirely in French, though the beginners’ courses are not. The course is offered through the IESA, Institut Supérieur des Arts, Paris. Their instructors are fabulous.

Flower market
So, highlights of these first 10 days for me include visiting the flower market on Île de la Cité, understanding more and more of what I hear around me, as well as understanding my teachers (we have two) when they speak quickly as well as slowly, getting braver about speaking with people I meet in social situations, and vendors, cashiers, waiters, etc., being able to walk several hours without getting hot and tired (being from Texas), visiting the markets, whose sights, smells, and sounds I simply love, and the view out the “front door” of the building, onto Quai Voltaire, each time we take off on an excursion. Oh, and the food, and the drinks, and the course I’m taking, and our apartment, and having Dennis here, and the fact that we’ve got another 35 days!!!

But I do miss my kitty. Yes, I do.
Kitty girl - Minou

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What does it mean to work for a living?

Working at home
I had been at it for almost 50 years, with a few notable breaks -- one for college, one for a year in South America, two for the boat trip, another 3 for Law School. Well, one can hardly call Law School a break from anything, but it was pretty much a break from working for a living.

Now I am not working for a living. I have worked. I was working. I no longer work.

What does that mean though?

I still do a lot of work. I read and meditate every day. I take care of my cat and my husband. I make 3 meals a day, most days, and tidy up things constantly. I plan trips, get together with friends, do the shopping, read books, write in my journal, keep in touch with friends who are far away. I take walks in the morning, work in the garden, bake cookies, biscuits, make granola, tortillas, bake bread, make yogurt. I'm revising a course I've taught in the past on contemplative nature observation, to teach it again this fall. I'm in three book clubs and enjoy meeting with my book club friends even when I don't read the books. I go dancing at the Broken Spoke when the weather's cool. I catch a movie from time to time. I practice Spanish and French; I signed up for a 6 week intensive French course in Paris next spring. I take photos of stuff that catches my eye. I'm beginning a weaving project for the fall.

Nobody asks me to do these things. And I don't do them because they are necessary, for the most part. I do them because I want to, I like to and I enjoy the process and the end result. And I do them when I want to, within reason.

I wasn't what I did. I'm not what I do now. This is just living life, with time to notice, without a lot of things crammed in and a sense that whatever you do, it's never quite enough.

It is enough.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

To act without attachment to the fruits of your actions

According to Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Chah was living proof of the secret of life, described in the Bhagavad Gita -- the secret I honor with the title of this post. It is indeed a secret from most of us, most of the time. Even if we know that everything is uncertain, even if we once see beyond the illusion that we can control things, we forget all about that in the rush of day-to-day. But then something suddenly reminds us, sometimes tragically.

kitty girl
Kitty Girl
Kitty Girl disappeared on a sunny afternoon earlier this month, or rather, I noticed that she was not in any of her usual places on that sunny afternoon. Within a few minutes I added up a number of things I'd noticed that afternoon, and after I called her continuously for about half-an-hour, I concluded that she wasn't coming back. This idea plunged me into a state of sadness, quite intense, a state of loss, loneliness, and despair. I missed her terribly, even after just a few minutes of knowing that she was gone.

The evening went by with a hundred mistaken sightings. I kept seeing her out of the corner of my eye, where I would expect to see her. But it was never her. I went to bed early, hoping to wake up to her return. But no.

The next morning there was still no sign of her. I approached morning meditation as an opportunity to explore the feelings of sadness, loneliness, and loss. I sank into them, willing to see and feel what might be at the center. It was no surprise though. After a short period of stillness and peace, my heart filled with compassion for my own suffering, and the suffering of everyone of us, at the hands of the illusions -- that things have permanence, that there is solid ground we can stand on, that we are separate beings, separated from the things that love us and that we love.

Form and emptiness. Emptiness and form. Kitty Girl and I are not separate. Except in the relative world. And relative world, the here and now, is the only place where it is possible to access ultimate mind, where there is no separation.

I practiced gratitude meditation, grateful for the lessons, the joy and happiness that having and loving a pet provide; and compassion meditation, accepting myself as I am with this suffering, knowing that I am strong enough to hold it in my heart, and accepting my life as it is, with what comes to me and what departs.

I doubt I would have seen any of this in the experience of losing my kitty without the guidance of the teachers I've been privileged to learn from over the last 2 1/2 years of my studies with Naropa's contemplative education program. The teachers, the teachings and the sangha they created for me and my classmates has given me such gifts of understanding as I could never have imagined. I am so grateful.

That next morning I remembered Ajahn Chah's teaching of the broken tea cup, as Kornfield recounts in The Wise Heart: "To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it's gone, it's gone." Nothing is certain except this moment. (Ah, I just thought I saw her again, in peripheral vision, on the deck.) But instead of leaving us in despair, this fact can bring us great capacity to appreciate what we have, enjoy it fully. Fully. And then let it go when it's gone.