Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes.....The main event has begun. The processional of midnight mass moves the cross, the candles and The Word down the aisle, and as it was foretold and prophecized, Our Lord comes to us. As Catholic people of faith, this and Easter Vigil mass is where we live. I always cry as the candles move slowly down the main aisle of the Cathedral and I never, ever don't think of my brother, whose favorite carol is 'Come All Ye Faithful', and our childhood in my beloved Coeur d'Alene; I always offer a prayer of thanks for him, for that and for my parents, who wait for us. Life is so exquisite sometimes. After mass, we retreat to the solace and sanctity of our beds; we all share some kind of a reverance for good linen and down pillows that borders on a holiness that's usually reserved for shrines and this fetish deeply suits us early Christmas morning. We go happily with The Sandman who still leaves pajamas for the children here, now adults who vote and pay taxes. Christmas has come.
The day begins late and is leisurely. We talk on the phone, eat, play dominoes and entertain the Chows' thoughts on a variety of topics, mostly around the facets of napping. We are happy and relieved for the partridge is in the pear tree. We party and laugh and run around into the New Year or until it's time for everyone to go back to their jobs and their lives. The Twelve Days of Christmas always end just in time because we are exhausted with food, fun, and frolic. This riotous rejoicing and celebrating is tough work. The Chows and I agree that then most special part of Christmas begins.
After Twelfth Night, things slow down to a creep. It gives us lots of time to think about the events that shape the destiny of Christendom. We review in succession the events of advent: the visitation (Hail Mary! Full of Grace...who me, Lord? But I'm 16 and he's an old man and we're not even married)...the announcement (For unto you, born this day)....the laying in in the manger (She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes)....the gifts of the Magi (For we have seen your star)...But it's only in the January that we have the time to contemplate the events subsequent to advent that are central to the life of our Lord. The Slaughter of the Innocents, the escape to Egypt, the Presenation at the Temple are the parts that I can lose pretty easy, but are the parts that put the final bricks in place of The who we are and what we believe. I relish the quiet time of January, with the nativities, to think about these things and what they mean and to begin to prepare for what lies ahead in the new year. And the value of the Christmas decorations and pretties around me is incalculable, as it keeps me ever mindful of the rich and abiding blessings that have been visited upon my head. I have much to live up to.
Well, today is the official end of the holiday season. So soon? JBelle? you ask. Gee whiz, Valentine's isn't for another two weeks--your tree will hold over, won't it? Very funny. Today the tree and the bannister bows and the stockings and all the nativities will go back in their box for the eleven months. I'm sad, but I'm ready. And that's ideal.
My darling friend Jeanine has an exquisitely decorated tree that goes up the day after Thanksgiving. Next come the garlands and lights and Santas oh my. Being at Jeanine's house on December 5 is an exercise in humility and a marvel at industry. I don't need to play Tchaikowsky or watch 'Love Actually' to get in the Christmas spirit. Jeanine's for one cup of tea and I am good to go. Martha Stewart is an uninspired slacker next to Jeanine. So I go to Jeanine's and then I'm ready to get ready.
I am grateful for my life these days--I get to take the season at my will as I am not tied to the calendar they are working off of at school or any of the mandates that formally dictated when and how Christmas went up at Bellemaison. Instead, I am able to move with the spirit which has mounted a full scale rebellion inside me against the American retail calendar of Christmas. Around here, we do not start on Labor Day and we are not finished on December 26. Instead, we start after a good whiff of Jeanine's somewhere the first of December. We then shop a little bit, we decorate the outside of our house, we see our friends and we think about the main event. We conspire heartily with each other, against each other, on each other's behalf. We anticipate, we contemplate, we hope. We observe and celebrate advent around here. And on December 20, we then prepare to put up our tree, pick the nativities, and make that last shopping list, this time for Christmas dinner. Then when we all come together, we begin to celebrate Christmas.
Over the years, we have amassed a certain nativity scene collection. Okay, we have about 150-175 of them. The Chows and I really don't really know for sure as we haven't taken the time to count. This year we went with the Hopi Indian creche--stunning. Wonderful to sit and think with. In memory of the victims of Katrina, we went with the Cajun nativity this year, purchased at an art gallery in the French Quarter of New Orleans about ten years ago.
Mary is Evangeline, the hero of Longfellow's epic poem 'Evangeline', the saga of the Arcadians' expulsion from Nova Scotia and their emigration to the Louisiana bayou. Joseph is a Louisiana hunter, with shotgun and bluetick hound. The Christ Child rests in a pirogue, the flat bottomed boat used on the bayou. The three wise men are Paul Prudhomme, a crayfisherman, and an American Indian, whom we would call a Native American here in The 'Kan. The shepherd is a French Quarter jazzman with clarinet and the animals are racoon, alligator and armadillo. The angel is eating a huge piece of watermelon, in deference to Twain's observation that watermelon is food of the angels. This piece gave us all much to think about this year and much to hope for in 2006. God, how can we be so stubborn and strong-willed to think that we got it allll under control?
So Christmas doesn't even begin to get going around Bellemaison until December 23 or so. And we like that. Next: the afterglow.
Well, I am here at Bellemaison, in The 'Kan EWA, and when I woke up this morning, I thought I was in Paris. But I knew something was terribly wrong, because it was so quiet. The weather here is just about the same as in Paris but the dogs here are much finer. (Peet told me to say that, as I owed him something for being gone so darn much lately.) I am suffering from jet lag, as always, but it dawns on me that that particular kind of jet lag that I go though is psychological/emtional as much as anything else. I'm here and then...I am there. But yet, it's the reverse. I was there...and now I'm here. And I occupy a place in each natural, ordered world. I'm sure Dostoyevsky or Aquinas would have much, maybe something, to say about that but at the moment, it doesn't much matter. I am here, surrounded by the things I love and that love me. And there's nothing confusing about that.
I had a wonderful, wonderful afternoon in The Marais yesterday. Its street are narrow and winding and it's a real adventure always. I had the best lunch! My server, who spent a year in Cal-GARY, was trying to talk me into the pork and gravy when a plate full of scallops went by and I said, oh la la! He didn't say another word, but turned and put my order in.
Oh la la, o my sainted aunt, holy shazola. The scallops arrived, pan seared, with bouquets of some greens, I don't know what, that had been wilted by the juices of the pan searing. Underneath the greens, were, surprise! potatoes. Thinly sliced and definitely al dente. Crunchy potatoes! Oh, did I forget to say, there were hazelnuts, too? This was incredible food. The server was very funny and flirted furiously with me. Brought me dense chocolate cake for dessert, with caramel sauce made on the spot, by him. Sugar and butter, high heat, and bang! Ambrosia. A wonderful, crisp white wine followed by cappuccino and oh my, what a memory.
The French economy is stronger than I have ever seen it. Very few vacant store fronts and many people shopping and spending money. It's really nice to see that most of the toursists here are French. They stop me and ask for directions. Must be the IDAHO shirt.
Bon jour! It is a spectacular winter day in Paris. Blue sunny, crystal clear skies and one chilllly burger. My heart is full, my spirit soaring this morning. I have been walking around the Latin Quarter since about 7:30 am, it's now about noon, just enjoying the sun and the blue of sky. I walked on Rue de Escoles, passing the Sorbonne. Rue de Escoles is like The Ave at the University of Washington in Seattle. Comic book stores, parka/outdoor clothing stores, cheap women's fashions, convenience stores and the ahem, occasional store with "erotique" in the window. We never had that stuff at IDAHO. ;)
Stopped at La Poste with some stuff to mail home. My new best friend works there. His name is Pascal. Took the better part of 45 minutes to get the stuff in the box he wanted it in and the proper customs/shipping forms completed. He is from the Loire Valley and family is in the food business, with a winery. He told me they are a major producer of all duck and geese products. Foie gras? I say? He says, yes. He thinks, Americans know foie gras? He invited me to stay at his family's winery the next time I am in France and to tour their food operation. One of his co-workers quietly chastised him after I had been there about 30 minutes and he just turned to him, stuck out his tongue and made one of those bathroom noises little boys make at each other. I pretended not to understand, which I do quite well these days. Anyway, Pascal and I really turned the corner in our new friendship once I asked him if he hunts with pigs. That's how they get the truffles. Well, of course, he does; mai oui, Madame; (moral equivalent? DUH.) and when I visit his family the next time I am in France, he will take me. I allowed as how my husband probably would really like to get in on that sort of thing, (I thought our terms should be well defined from the get-go) and Pascal responded, then we must take heem too. I told Pascal I have wanted to go to Lascaux for a long time but...I just have't gotten there. He replied immediately, butt whi knot?? Whii knot, indeed. I left Pascal and walked over to Abbaye de Cluny and saw among many beautiful, lovely things, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. The abbaye is now the official Medieval Museum of France is singularly exquisite. I cannot describe how I felt, looking at the handicraft of these women executed in poor light and drafty rooms, fully one thousand years ago. By the way, it's important to note that the MEN made the cartoon of the tapestries but the actual weavers are not mentioned, which means of course, they can only be...the nuns. The abbaye itself is built on the ruins of Roman baths, some of which are remarkably intact, fully two thousand years later.
One exhibit represents the most important archeological discovery of the twentieth century. Seems those testy, bratty revolutionists got really cheesed one morning and went over to Notre Dame, to make sure the church was showing no respect to the royal family. There they found some sort of adoration to the royal family, several dozen kings worth, on the back wall. They tore down over two dozen medieval full body, larger than life carved sculptures affixed to the cathedral wall itself of...the kings of ancient Judea, not the kings of France. Oops. The sculptures were considered lost to eternity and were mourned as they were quite detailed and finely rendered. Different destructive moments of the revolutions have been redeemed when priceless works of art and architecture were recovered in the ninteenth and twentith centuries but these sculptures never were until...the 1970s when a bank in Paris underwent an expansion. There were the heads of the kings of Judea, complete with their severed bodies, buried in the basement on this bank. They were not taken back to Notre Dame but instead brought here where they comprise a stunning display, curated in the baths. Talk about a powerful moment. These heads do talk! A beautiful morning, giving me much to think about and much to be thankful for.
One more word, only one. Anyone who thinks that Oregon is on the right track with assisted suicide is dead, flat wrong. I know this because I sat with my mother and my father as they died, each taking their own deliberate path to death. (My mother said one evening, I don't want to die; I've had such a good life. This, matter of factly.) They both died in my arms after lengthy illnesses and it was excruciating. But powerful. I will never forget it but I never want to experience it again. Following His Holiness JP2 on his journey to glory made me remember much of the details I had forgotten but reaffirmed all of what I knew already: you cannot claim to value life, value people, if you believe that it's okay to exercise human control over life and death. The claims for assisted suicide are seductive in their humanistic stance and rationales. It can be quite easy to fall into the rut of this dark treachery. This is why it's important to remember who we are and what we believe--and at the forefront of that credo is LIFE.
I am utterly fascinated with the reaction I get when it comes out that I am American. (ah-mare-ee-CAIN!) I get great respect but across the board surprise and puzzlement (many are you sure? ah-mare-eeCAIN? looks). The immigrants are quite impressed that they are talking with an American woman, God bless their baby hearts, and all people here are quite fond of Americans, with no ill will at all. The cab drivers still give you incorrect change, giving themselves a nice tip. I don't argue as hassling cab drivers is not my idea of a good international experiece so I let it go, but exit the cab with loud TSK, TSK, TSK. I never tsk, tsk, tsk anywhere in the US. I cannot feature why I surprise people so. I wear this: black Cole Hahn G series shoes, Dana Buchman black slacks, black Dana Buchman twin set, black Nike vest, black knit hat with 'Idaho' on it and black leopard fleece gloves from Old Navy. Kate Spade sunglasses. Not exactly international couture. It is how it is, I guess. I'm off. The Marais awaits.
Being in a Catholic, socialist country is interesting. The workers have little or no ambition. I watched a guy unload water bottles and go cups at Starbucks this morning and arrange them on the shelf. There were probably 2 1/2 dozen. Took him an hour. If he worked for me, and I have employed many, many college students, I would have given him a big hug and his last check. Many of the food service jobs are held by...immigrants. There are many Tunisians in the Latin Quarter. They tell me they love it here. They are ambitious. The women who serve breakfast in the hotel each morning are French as well beyond retirement age. I don't know exactly what that means. The churchs, every one exquisite, are everywhere. Most are falling into ruin. Who supports them financially? St. Nicholas, where I go each day, is a very conservative parish. All the masses are in Latin! (Note to Becky Nappi: write a big, nasty column condemning these people and embarrass the bishop and the Holy Father for good measure while you're at it). You go to the rail for the eucharist. The rail itself is covered with a white, canvas cloth. It's attached to the back of the rail and pulled over the rail itself for communion. You kneel, fold your hands up and under the cover and receive the eucharist on your tongue. The last person receiving the eucharist then flips the canvas back over the rail. Never have seen this, not even in Italy.
I love to read about St. Genevieve and St. Denis and the Abbaye de Cluny (have grown that rose for years) but one of my favorite stories is about a street in the Marais, Rue des Archives formerly called Rue ou Dieu fut Bouilli ("Street where God Was Boiled"). Seems that a moneylender in a supreme exhibition of rebellion stabbed a communion wafer with a knife. He then threw it into a steaming pot in anger, where to his astonishment, it began to bleed. That to you unfaithful.
Today I am going to the Marais--one of my very favorites. A very old and aristocratic neighborhood in Paris, now a hip, edgy conclave of the gay community and the trendy shoppers. Formerly, no less than seven kings lived here, the last being Henri II. He died during a freak jousting accident and his wife, Catherine de Medicis, was so desolate she tore down the royal mansion and moved out of the neib. I love these people! The other story I like about the Marais is that of the Grande Dame of the Marais, Madame de Sevigne, who lived at the Hotel Carnvalet (now housing the City of Paris Museum). Seems our Madame de Sevigne was quit a mover and shaker, knowing and entertaing all the best people of her times and described them in detail in her remembrance, Lettres. I understand it's witty, acerbic and keen. (I gotta find a good translation; I can't get through the French.) She ran with only the best thinkers. Anyway, her Lettres did not fade into obscurity once she died. One hundred years later, the revolutionarary hotheads, the well-read among them anyway, did not forget her association with the royals. They dug her cold, skinny corpse up, beheaded her and paraded her skull around Paris. These people take nothing lightly. The Marais has what I think is the prettiest square in the world: Place des Vosges. Aw, geez now that that's out there, I won't hear the end of it. BTW, Place des Vosges is the former site fo the royal mansion of Henri II and Catherine de Medicis.
It's seasonably cool again in Paris today. I was up and out early, walking the neighborhood in the dark at 8 am. I was just at Starbucks, waiting for the Cyber Cube to open; they charge 4.40 E for a venti latte, about 5.50 $A, but only 1 E, 1.25$A, for the most luscious croissant, only slightly smaller than an American football. I love this country! BTW, I went to Starbucks because it's right by Cyber Cube. Watched all the American men, presumably college professors or administrators, struggle in--relieved, I am presuming, to find an oasis of home, in the midst of the jungle. Or the desert. Or whatever. I am presuming they are educational people because this neighborhood is that of the Sorbonne and the University of Paris. It's great fun to be here with the vibe of a good college town. The comic book stores are fabulous! I was just wandering a few moments ago and came across the local high school: Lycee Fennale? All the kids have iPods and all the kids smoke. (sigh)But they are all dressed quite well. :)
I read a piece on Ben Franklin in The International Herald Tribune, published by The New York Times, that was highly inspiring to me. In part it says, about Franklin,
Neither birth order nor longevity--he signed every document central to America's founding--would alone have established Franklin as the ur-American, however. He was a true egalitarian, which could not be said of Adams. For all his ingenuity he was less a manufacturer of ideas than a purveyor of them; he was no dreamy Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton may well have known everything, but Franklin questioned everything.
His curiosity was matched by the supplesness of his mind, one singularly free of hobgoblins. (His ability to argue either side of an issue with equal vigor drove Adams to distraction.)
Nor was there anything orthodox or evangelical about Franklin, who took his Puritanism as he took in Enlightenment ideals: with a splash of water, hold the doctrine. His religions was tolerance, his sect pragmatism.
This is from Stacy Schiff, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America."
What I ended up ordering at St. Honore Bakery really is worth mentioning. It was a cake of sorts--perfect isosoceles triangle shape. All 3 sides and the back were dipped in chocolate. The top was evenly browned, or maybe with some crunch stuff on it. I bit into it and...it was coconut. O delirium! It was a chocolate dipped coconut cake. Had no way of knowing. It was like Almond Joy cake and the smell! I may walk over there again today, just for another one. It's about 6 miles or so.
I sat at lunch at a cafe on Tuesday and here's what I saw:
two older women, immaculately dressed and coiffed, giggline like only girlfriends do, drinking beer and sharing a toasted cheese sandwich with a fried egg, sunny side up, on top.
an older man in an impecable tweed jacket, perfect navy blue tie, penny loafers, navy, gray & green argyle socks, immaculately pressed gray charcoal wool pants, reading a sports newspaper, lecherously eyeing me sideways. (L'Equipe Headline: Et un, Et deux, Et Trois)
a man and a woman sharing lunch, pasta and cheese of some delectable kind, both drinking wine and espesso, talking and laughing quietly.
I had a ham and cheese omelet, two lattes, one vahlrona chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream; it came to about $40 US.
Yesterday I walked on Faubourg-St. Honore which makes Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue seem like the Spokane Valley Mall. The beauty of the stores, the clothes and wares, and the architecture is impossible to describe with mere words. One thing that's fabulous about it: the French White House is right there. You can walk on the sidewalk right next to it which is a whole bunch more than you can say about the American White House, which is now bunkered down and impossible to even see from the street. The British Embassy and the American ambassador's residence are up street on Faubourg-St. Honore, very close together, too. A wonderful walk. And farther up the street and around the corner on Boulevard Haussman is the house that Thomas Jefferson took a 9 year lease on; I've read the accounts of his time in France and of the country estate where he stayed. Prime commercial real estate these days.
I always forget what really bad fur coats French women wear. It fascinates me!
I'm often asked if the French are nice to Americans. I am never taken as an American; it's not until I open my mouth that the truth comes out (mai oui! AmeriCAIN!) and once the French know it, they immediately speak English, at whatever proficiency they possess. That's so impressive. They try really hard to please you and to be kind--they are waaay above and beyond nice. Yesterday, I stopped at the St. Honore Bakery (sigh). It took me a long time to order but once I did, opened that cacophonous mouth, the bakery staff was in on the secret. They all turned and smiled broadly. The young woman finished taking my order and as she turned to fill it, her eyes suddenly lit up. She put the bottle of water she had just taken out back in the cooler, then turned to a larger, obviously higher horsepower refrigerator/cooler and got out an identical bottle of water; only this one was really cold. She giggled, then, and got me a glass of ice, too. I laughed and applauded as she had clearly pleased me. Europeans drink their water chilled, but Americans like it cold, with ice.
And so on it goes. By the way, Starbucks is featuring Carmel Macchiattos.
It's raining here in Paris. And at 8:30 am, it was only beginning to get light. I was walking the neighborhood, after mass at St. Nicholas, and my heart went out to those mothers and fathers, scurrying their children towards school, in the cold wet of the morning.
I am staying in the Latin Quarter, where the tourists don't often venture because here they speak French and live like they are Francillians, showing very little interest in catering to the Amricans with French/English menus, signs, speaking staff. Fine by me. I came here to be among the people of the most beautiful city in the world, while tasting, smelling, feeling, seeing and absorbing the most beautiful city in the world. Not for a week's vacation in Adults Only Disneyland Paris.
There were the usual suspects at mass: old, gray women. I see them at Mass in Italy, in the U.K., in Canada, in Hawaii, in the U.S. I don't think old, gray women are any more devotional or spiritual than the mothers with their children I saw this morning--they just have more time. And I always really cherish the time I spend these faithful, even though it's only 30 minutes or so and I never see any of them again. Ever. Still, it's a rich moment in my life and one I anticipate and savor.
One thing that sets the old, gray French women apart from the other women I have known at mass is that they kneel with impunity. They do not hoist themselves in and out of the pews with their hands. These women bow their heads, fold their hands, and go up and down on their knees as if they were powered by pneumatic lifts. How is that? First, they all probably weigh within 15 pounds of what they did when their wore their wedding dress to church. Second, they are urban women, which means they walk more and ride less. Third, French women eat butter & chocolate & wine daily, but in those famous, small French portions and eat no, if any, processed food. They are babes, all. I had the distinct pleasure of being mistaken for a French woman by a French man, no less, in the Detroit airport. Absolutely jumpstarted my time in Paris with a nuclear thrill.
I'm off to walk the river. You can take the girl out of Idaho, but not . . . .