Tag Archive | France

Blue Cardigan F’reals Yo

This is the tale of a crochet book that I owned for two years and never used and the yarn I owned for eight years and could never use up. I’ll give you a hint — it has a happy ending.

Let’s start with the yarn, because it’s older. When we lived in France, there was a tiny sewing notions shop 30 seconds from the front door of my apartment building. The lady who owned it also had a display rack of yarn that she would wheel out onto the sidewalk on nice days. It was basically a many-armed coat tree with bags of yarn in all colors hanging from it. I can’t remember how much I paid for it, but I seemed to think it was a good deal. I believe there were twenty 50 gram skeins of yarn in there. I bought it with the intention of making my mom a sweater. And I did. But there was more. So I made my French friend, Stephanie, a diaper cover for her baby. And there was still more. So I made a baby blanket and a long skinny scarf and there was still more. This was the yarn that would never die. It reminds me of the Bible story where the widow pours out oil into jars and it just keeps coming. No shortage of oil and no shortage of blue French yarn.

Hey, Penguin, you so fine!

The book I bought a few years later was through a craft book club. It’s called Crochet So Fine by Kristin Omdahl. I was captivated by the lacy purple wrap featured on the front cover. I had just been the recipient of two fairly large skeins of hunter green laceweight yarn and figured that this book would give me a good use for it (I haven’t used that yarn yet because I have no idea how much of it I really have and I’m paranoid to start a project and find out it’s not enough). I was flipping through the book again a few weeks ago and noticed that not all of the patterns used thread or laceweight yarn. In fact, there are a few that use DK/sportweight yarn. And one of them just happened to be a cardigan, which I need. I feel weird in church wearing a heavy corduroy jacket over my nice dresses just ’cause my arms are cold.

The pattern I used is called Pearl’s Cardigan. I liked it because it looked feminine and pretty without being overly delicate. I needed it to have enough coverage to keep me warm, but liked the open areas that keep it from looking too dense.

I really liked the way this pattern worked up. It began with the yoke and worked down all in one piece. The sleeves are crocheted in the round directly onto the sweater. No seams whatsoever! I likes it. I did get a little nervous when it came to the sleeves because I was finally (finally!!!) running out of yarn. I managed to eke out just enough, though, by unraveling a solitary sleeve from some other project using the same yarn (two strands together, boo-ya). I spent a lot of time winding little yarn balls for this. But it was enough!

The book suggests running a ribbon or scarf through the waistline to cinch in the sweater.

Where would you nest your angel?

Wiggly jiggly flip-floppin’ squirmy wormies. What?? Or Turtles, I suppose, although they generally aren’t associated with a lot of spastic movements, outside of Wiggly Turtle Toobies. I didn’t invent that, but I wish I did.

Now, how about in French? Gigoteuse, Turbulette. Probably means just about as much to you, doesn’t it? Loosely translated, they mean “for wiggling” and “for squirming.” But the word I like the best is nid d’ange: angel nest. Why am I telling you all this? Because they are all words for what English-speakers know as sleepsacks or baby buntings. The French names are so much more evocative, don’t you think? Can’t you see the wiggly, squirmy babies kicking away in their sacks like little cocooned worms? (Technically, larvae, but that’s just not cute).

One of the first sacks I made was for my niece. Notice the square corners. I did away with those later!

I don’t really remember seeing sleepsacks on babies before moving to France. My baby brother, who is ten years younger than me, never wore one. None of the babies I babysat through high school had one. It’s kind of a new trend in the States. Now you see them much more frequently, but they are far different from the beautiful styles we saw in France. Once we saw those, we wondered why they had ever lost popularity over here. I’m hoping to revive interest!

Sleepsack in dragon fabric made for a friend. Now I do the top half in a complementary fabric to the rest of the sack.

Rana, being our first child, was our first baby to wear a sleepsack. After she was born, the nurses cleaned her all up and dressed her in a white sleeper and the softest, puffiest white sleepsack, embroidered with “American Hospital of Paris.” We didn’t get to keep that one, but she had three store-bought hand-me-downs — all the lovely sleeveless, quilted cotton styles. Three may seem excessive, but when you think about how often a baby spits up or has a leaky diaper, it was sometimes not enough!

Our first experience with sleepsacks at the American Hospital of Paris!

When we returned from France, I saw the flimsy fleece sleepsacks being sold around here and was so disappointed that were no other offerings, that I decided to start making my own. I’ve given a few as gifts, and now I have three in my etsy store. I used the French sacks as inspiration and I’ve made a few tweaks to my pattern each time I make one. At first, I was making the bottom edge too square, which made it difficult to insert the zipper. Later, I switched to snaps at the shoulders instead of buttons. Then, I lengthened the back shoulder strap just a bit so that it would lie down flatter over the baby’s shoulder. Most recently, I started using rib knit instead of bias tape for the trim and cotton batting instead of polyester batting for people who might prefer that option.

Metal snaps and rib knit trim

I like the European-style sleepsacks because:

  • the sleeveless design reduces bulk on the baby’s arm and helps the baby regulate his own temperature.
  • the zipper around the bottom of the sack (as opposed to smack down the middle on the American sacks) makes diaper changes really convenient. Sometimes our babies would fall back asleep mid-diaper change because we didn’t have to wrestle them in and out.
  • The cotton lining keeps the baby from getting sweaty and doesn’t cling to the baby’s jammies like fleece does.
  • They’re basically a wearable quilt!

These are the three sacks currently available in my etsy store! Retro-style puppies & kitties, Sailor whales, and Nursery Rhyme toile.

Right now, the sleepsacks I have available will fit a baby up to about 6 months (store link is on the right). I have more fabric destined to be sleepsacks (teddy bears, little green and brown birds and more retro puppies & kitties). They’re kind of fun to make. I’ve learned a lot sewing them, like how to completely enclose the edges of the zipper so there is nothing to scratch the baby; how to best sew on the trim to give a neat finish; what order to do everything to get the best results. I had to write it all down so that I wouldn’t forget how to do it right! I should probably make a copy of that little paper.

Zipper, nice and neat

If you’re having a baby or need to give a baby gift to someone, please consider my sleepsacks! And if you have fabric ideas or requests, let me know! I’m happy to do custom orders. Just imagine that cuddly, squirmy little sack of cuteness.

Granota, sacked and bibbed, way back when.

French Friday #10: Napo and Fifi say, “Make yourself at home!”

Look at this! Today is the tenth installment of French Friday! We should do something to celebrate. How about we take over the world. En avant!

(All photos by my family)

«La mort n'est rien, mais vivre vaincu et sans gloire, c'est mourir tous les jours.» "Death is nothing, but to live vainquished and ingloriously, is to die every day"

First, we need a headquarters. Choose somewhere that’s close to an established population center, maybe near – but not in – the former seat of government. After all, you want everybody to know that this is a new regime. Paris was officially the capital of France, but it had not been the seat of power since Louis XIV decided to take his toys and play somewhere else back in 1682. Versailles is beautiful, it’s true, but maybe not the best place to reestablish power after that nasty Revolution thing.  What about…

Driveway to Malmaison

The Château de Malmaison! Situated in the town of Rueil-Malmaison, it was built (and built and built) between 1610 and 1686, and came with a large domain. Good job, Josephine! You’ve got an eye for real estate! It’s a little bit of a fixer-upper, but we’ll have it looking great in no time. Hire a couple of fancy architects and a landscaper and voilà! your seat of power is ready. There’s going to be a lot of business to conduct, so let’s outfit this place with a suitable meeting room.

The Council Room

It has to look manly so what better decor than to mimic a military tent and then decorate the walls with friezes of helmets and weapons from glorious armies of the past. And also…

Madame la Mère

A portrait of your mom. Don’t worry, Josephine, you have your own portrait on the other side of the fireplace.

After a few intense rounds of Risk, we need some sustenance. Good thing this isn’t a real war tent. Instead of going to the mess hall, we can dine here:

Stucco paintings of Pomepeiian dancers decorate the walls of the dining room

I bet there were some good dinners served here. No mystery meat or unpalatable cafeteria gruel. And that table is like a mirror; that should promote good manners. After dinner, the gentlemen can retire to the billiards room.

This is my kind of room -- green everywhere!

And the ladies won’t be left out! There’s a lovely music room at the end of the hall decorated with Josephine’s favorite paintings, especially those of flowers, and a harp and harpsichord for your enjoyment.

Josephine received the harp as a gift.

After a long day of being the ruler of the known world, you’ll need a comfy place to retire for the night, but not too ostentatious.

The earliest known portrait of Napoleon hangs on the wall draped in Indian silk.

Josephine, you’ve got a nice little bed, too, also draped in silk. It’s a pretty good feeling to be so rich that you can just hang yards of silk from the walls.

This is the Empress' "ordinary" bedroom.

But, in the event that you are feeling ostentatious, you can always sleep in the other bedchamber.

Josephine had this room outfitted with its current decor after the divorce.

Once upon a time, Malmaison had a domain of 1,793 acres, but after changing hands a few times, the land was slowly broken off into private lots. Now there are only about 15 acres of land left around the château, but it’s still more than you’d want to mow by yourself.

Little stream that runs through the grounds at Malmaison, sadly, it is usually choked with leaves.

There’s lots more to see at Malmaison and entry is just 3€. Plus, you can also have a picnic in the Bois Préau, opposite Malmaison, and that’s free. If you ever go to Paris, take a day to visit the town of Rueil and the home of its most famous residents.

Back of the château looking out over the grounds towards Marly.

French Friday #9: Paris When It Sizzles

This week’s French Friday begins in the U.S. Washington State, then through Idaho and Wyoming on the way to Colorado, and back up through Utah and Idaho (again) to end in Olympia, WA. This was the summer of 2003 — July to be exact. That summer, the Western United States experienced a heat wave like the one that the East Coast has currently been suffering under. The temperatures were hitting record highs for that early in the summer: 99F in Spokane, WA; well over 100F in Wyoming; 14 days of record setting temps in Pueblo, CO, topping out at 109; even the normally mild Olympia was hovering at 100 degrees.

Mr. Gren and I moved out of our duplex at the end of June and spent three weeks traveling to see family before we made our trans-Atlantic move. The first problem was that our ’87 Camry had no air conditioning. The drive from Olympia to Spokane (about five hours) was unpleasant, but still tolerable. We roasted in Spokane for a week before continuing the journey to CO. I have never known misery like that two-day drive. Even being pregnant through the summer three times cannot compare to the utter wretchedness we felt. We had two options to cool ourselves: The first was our pseudo-AC. We had bought two small, battery-powered fans that we set up on the dash board of the car. Mostly they just blew hot air in our faces, but we each had a squirt bottle of water that, if sprayed into the fan, gave momentary relief lasting about 2.5 seconds. The second option was to roll down the windows. On the freeway. Going 75 mph. This obviously increased the flow of hot air (but at least it was moving air!), and greatly increased the road noise to the point where Mr. Gren and I couldn’t even hear ourselves, much less each other, resulting in two nearly wordless, sweltering, tormented days. Made even worse by the chocolate milkshake that spilled in the front seat because an incompetent McDonald’s employee couldn’t find a lid to fit. It was a ghastly stench.

We reached Pueblo with no end in sight to the punishing heat. Fortunately, my mom’s steam vac got out the worst of the milkshake accident. When we left there, my parents sent us off with a cooler stuffed with two sopping wet t-shirts. The relief they provided was amazing! Until the suffocating heat in the car forced us to roll down the windows once again. “Surely,” we thought, “we’ll be able to cool off a little once we get back to Washington.” Instead, our friends greeted us with exclamations of, “It has been so hot here, it’s crazy!” Hardly what we wanted to hear. But we only had one full day in Olympia before flying to Paris and once again we told ourselves, “Paris has mild weather; we’ll cool off there.”

August 3rd, 93F. The view from our bedroom window.

You see where this is going, don’t you? Paris registered 93F the day we arrived in the middle of July. In a city built largely of concrete and asphalt — not to mention devoid of air conditioning — the buildings were literal ovens, retaining and even increasing the heat within. You probably remember hearing of the tragic number of deaths caused by the high temperatures in France that summer. It was a horrific summer.

The fountain in front of our apartment building looked very inviting.

The first couple of weeks after Mr. Gren and I arrived, we were not yet registered to drive the car given to us to use, nor did we have a way to purchase bus tickets at that time as all of the tabacs were closing down for les vacances. But, we needed to stock our cupboards. On our first bleary day, I had seen a blue arrow sign not far from the apartment with the name of a grocery store on it — LeClerc. I told Mr. Gren about it and we set out walking. We found the sign and followed the direction it pointed. We were a little surprised after walking another ten minutes to find another sign pointing us on. And a few minutes later, another. Where was this store?! We ended up walking about an hour, dragging ourselves up hills with the blistering sun beating down on us and the heat radiating back up from the pavement. Finally, we saw the store. It looked big; it looked promising; it looked like the kind of place that might have air conditioning.

“Find the LeClerc closest to your home!” Too bad we didn’t have internet, either.

Hallelujah, it did! We stumbled through the doors and saw a sign pointing to a cafe upstairs. Mr. Gren declared, “I don’t care how expensive it is, we’re going up there to sit for awhile.” He got no complaints from me. Disheveled and dripping in sweat, we slumped into a couple of chairs and ordered the best Cokes we had ever had in our lives. Eventually, we regained enough strength to go do our shopping. We couldn’t get too carried away, however, because we still had to lug those groceries home on another hour-long walk.

Living in a house without air conditioning in 90 degree weather is bad enough. Living in a 4th floor apartment without air conditioning brings an entirely new meaning to “les misérables.” The nights never cooled off below 75 outside and the air was dead and still, so the buildings never got cool enough to be comfortable. We flung open the three sets of French windows in our living room and dragged a mattress right up to the iron grate, hoping to catch even just a wisp of a breeze. For 29 more days, Paris suffered, and we along with it. During that time, the temperature went down to 77F for a couple of days, but then spiked up to 98, 100, 104, for eleven days. Mr. Gren and I had come with just one week’s worth of clothes each (the rest of our belongings we had shipped in June, but they still hadn’t arrived) and we were always soaked in sweat.

Our living room - you can see two pairs of windows, the third out of frame to the left.

I will always remember the night that the temperature finally dropped, that we weren’t being swallowed in an overwhelming heat: In the summer, Paris shows classic movies at a variety of outdoor locations. It’s free to attend and people often pack a picnic to enjoy before the show starts. On 15 August, “An American in Paris” was scheduled to show at Trocadero, the plaza that provides such a great view of the Eiffel Tower. A group from our church was planning to go and Mr. Gren and I jumped at the chance to go, too. We enjoyed the company of our new friends, ate a simple but tasty meal, and settled in to watch Gene Kelly dance and sing as night fell around us.

Big screen (on the left) set up at Trocadero

About halfway through the film, the crowd murmured with excitement. A breeze was blowing through! We hadn’t felt the slightest courant d’air in weeks, so this was a truly momentous occasion. As the night went on, we could feel the heat dissipate, that welcome wind carrying it away. The relief, oh, the relief was immense. Late that night, well after we were in bed, it even rained.

Our group had chosen a great location for the movie.

It was our first best day in France.

French Friday #8: What I like about you

Five years ago this week we returned to the States after three years in Paris. Three wonderful, infuriating, amazing, heart-wrenching years. And not a day goes by that we don’t miss it! This is not an exhaustive list, by an means, but, just for fun, here is a little album of things that we miss about living in France (all pictures are mine).

Mayonnaise in a tube. Seriously, the best mayonnaise ever.


Reliable public transportation (as long as they aren't on strike, that is).


Annual pass to the Louvre. Makes for great dates!


Quirky cars. Yes, that is fur on the wheel wells.


Finding history on every corner (plaques optional)


Amazing views. Sunset over Mont Valerien.


Hanging out in Napoleon's digs

There are lots of other things we miss that I don’t have photos of (but now that I’m looking, I wonder, Why not?!): good baguette, cheese, wine for 3€ a bottle, of course the markets, being able to walk anywhere we needed to go, plenty of interesting things to do or look at for free, wonderful little restaurants, fresh crêpes just to name a few more. We’re always scheming ways to get back. One of these days, we’ll make it, and then I will take pictures of all the things I missed the last time. 🙂


French Friday #7: The wheels on the bus

When I did my study abroad in Grenoble, I chose to live with a host family rather than in the dorms. I was placed with an older lady named Hélène who lived in centre ville. We got along quite well and I loved being smack in the middle of the city. Another plus was being able to walk out the door of her 400 year old apartment building and right onto the tram which took me straight to the university. This was a wonderful bonus not only for its convenience but also because Hansel & Gretel are better with directions than I am. Not having to switch lines or even remember which stop to get off at (the university was the end of the line) saved me from inevitable backtracking and tardiness. I had never taken any form of public transportation before and the tram was a nice introduction: clean, fast, simple.

There's the door on the left and my bedroom window is the one on the far right in the middle. Great view! The tram stop is right below.

I participated in the CUEF program (Centre universitaire d’études françaises) at the Université Stendhal. All of the international students were placed in a grammar class according to their proficiency level in French. The grammar classes had from 15-20 students and met every morning; in the afternoon we had elective classes, divided  into merely Upper Level French and Lower Level French. Those classes were much larger, taking place in auditoriums that seated a couple hundred students. Because of the small size of the grammar classes, we got to know the other students there fairly well. I became friends with a Korean girl named Kyung Jin. Just a few months before, I had taken some Korean classes at a Korean church in my town. I used the little bit of Korean that I had learned to break the ice early on with Kyung Jin and it was well worth it.

Université Stendhal, my school for a semester

Kyung Jin invited me to lunch at her apartment one weekend, along with a Danish and a Norwegian girl from our class. I was excited to do something social outside of school. Trepidation began to set in, however, when I realized she lived far off my trusty tram route. I was going to have to expand my public transportation horizons. I was going to have to take the bus. Kyung Jin gave me the bus number and I picked up a route schedule on my way home from school. I studied it for quite awhile that evening until I was sure confident not completely terrified about venturing off my beaten path.

Kyung Jin and my host parents, Hélène and André

The next morning, I made it to the bus stop and onto the bus without incident. It was going to be a ride of about twenty minutes, so I settled in and stared out the window at this area of Grenoble that I had never seen. About halfway to Kyung Jin’s place, the bus pulled into a designated bus turn-out. People began filing off. It seemed like a lot of people. But I noticed that most of them seemed to be junior highers, so I just figured that there must be a school nearby (French schoolchildren all ride the public buses; there are rarely buses reserved just for shuttling kids to and from school. Something a lot of American communities could take into consideration…). But wow, it sure did seem quiet after that. I sat patiently in my seat in the middle of the bus, waiting to continue my journey. Huh. The driver turned off the engine. Strange. I was beginning to feel a little nervous as I watched the driver in the mirror at the front of the bus. He lit a cigarette; he turned slightly in his seat and put his feet up on the dashboard; and then he unwrapped a sandwich. The dimmer switch on my brain slowly brightened to a full glow and I realized, “He’s on break!”

Embarrassed and horrified, I gathered my things and hurried towards the front of the bus. The driver, thinking himself alone, nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun around and slammed his feet back to the floor, yelling, “Que faîtes-vous?! Vous ne savez pas?! — What are you doing?! Don’t you know?!”Je sais maintenant! — I know now!” I called back as I sprung out of the bus and hurried across the street to where the rest of my fellow passengers were waiting for the bus that would complete the route. I can only imagine what was going through their minds as they saw me exit the bus a full five minutes after them.  Secret tryst with the bus driver or just an ignorant foreigner?

It's a big city, Grenoble

I did eventually make it to Kyung Jin’s apartment (not before I arrived in the general vicinity, couldn’t find it and had to call her from a beer-soaked payphone) and we all had a wonderful afternoon together. I learned interesting things like Korean chopsticks are shorter than Chinese chopsticks, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other speaking their own languages although they prefer to just use English.

And, if everyone gets off the bus, even if you don’t know why, you should, too.

French Friday #6: To market, to market

On Tuesday, my family and I went to check out one of the four farmers’ markets that occur each week in our city during the summer. We go with high hopes, but always come away disappointed. We have to commend our city for attempting to have regular markets, but they leave a lot to be desired. We chose to visit this particular market because there was supposed to be live music, which I thought would be fun for the kids. The band was listed as “bluegrass,” which is not normally my genre of choice, but if it’s lively and upbeat, it could lend an energetic atmosphere to the market. Instead, it turned out to be one man singing sad, mellow ballads. Way to bring down the mood, dude. There were only about ten stalls total: milk, honey, rock jewelry, bagels and flowers, and then the rest were all selling the same vegetables on the same tables under the same tents. It took us about two minutes to walk from one end to the other, only because we were creeping along. The kids got a free carton of milk and the girls drew on the street with sidewalk chalk and that was it. They try here, they do, but I think they’re missing out on all a market could be. They could use a visit to a real European market. To a French market!

Your Rueil markets

The French appreciate fresh produce and fresh food in general; even with the influx of convenience foods in recent years, most people still shop frequently throughout the week. They have to — their kitchens and refrigerators are so small, there’s no sense buying in bulk. But there is so much more to the market than just the produce!

Greeted by flowers at the top end of the Rueil market

The town where we lived was Rueil-Malmaison, a suburb of Paris. We lived in centre ville, and three times a week (Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings) we were treated to a fabulous market. I made my first visit in July 2005, shortly after we moved from the States. I didn’t know what to expect, never having been to anything like it before, so I was a little intimidated. It was probably the best time of year for my inaugural visit because the town was half emptied out in the annual French tradition of les vacances. When they vacate, they really vacate. Because of that, the market wasn’t nearly as busy as it was the rest of the year. Everything I had read said to choose a vendor and then establish a relationship with them with repeat business, but there weren’t really any tips on how to choose a good one. What if I chose a vendor and he turned out to sell me mushy potatoes and wilted lettuce all the time? Would I be stuck with him? How do you break up with the vegetable guy? That’s some kind of pressure. Fortunately, I chose possibly the best produce vendor out there. I never did get his name, but in my head I called him Monsieur Legume (Mister Vegetable). He was so good-natured, he probably would have even liked that nickname. I nervously approached his stand — several long tables pushed together, stacked high with strawberries, plums, peaches, nectarines, melons, apples and more, and behind him was an artful displayof onions, several types of lettuce and other greens, carrots, and potatoes. I don’t remember what I bought that first time, but I do remember how Monsieur Legume set me at ease right away. He asked why I wasn’t on vacation, too, and I replied that I had only just arrived in France! He was intrigued and of course, wanted to know where I was from (an American who speaks French?! Et sans accent? Pas vrai!) and he called me Mademoiselle, which I found endearing. 🙂 “Sold! Give me one of everything!” Ok, not really, but I was convinced that he would be a vendor worthy of my patronage. Nearly every week, I would come with a vague idea of what I wanted, he would make suggestions and carefully choose each piece of fruit or vegetable before he weighed it and placed it in my market bag. During busier times, he had helpers: his very tall son whose name I forgot, a grumpy man who really wasn’t in as bad a mood as he appeared, and a girl a few years younger than me named Sue-Ellen (“Mes parents ont regardé beacoup de “Dallas,” she explained with an embarrassed smile.)

Waiting in line at M. Legume's stand towards the end of October. It was a popular place!

After my weekly visit to M. Legume, I would then take my time to wander the rest of the market. I could easily spend an hour down there, checking out all the different stalls. All of the food vendors were housed under the central covered area. Among them could be found several fruit & vegetable stands (each with different wares and displays); fresh seafood lying on beds of ice; naked chickens and other poultry sitting side-by-side in a case; honey and beeswax products; gourmet candies and nuts; charcuterie (cured meats); cuts of beef and lamb; towers of cheeses; fresh-made crêpes; par-cooked seafood casseroles encased in pastry (I have no name for these, but they were really good); eggs, sausages, and more. You really could buy everything you needed for the week right there.

"Fruits from Orgeval" and "Cheesemonger." And pretty pottery in the foreground.

Then, on the perimeter of the market, things got even more interesting: cut flowers; potted flowers; baby clothes; sewing supplies; tablecloths & napkins; jeans; toys; purses; men’s shoes & women’s shoes (with flattened boxes to stand on while you tried on your size); hats, scarves and gloves; boxes of socks to sort through; handmade jewelry and trinket jewelry; dresses and sweaters hanging with portable changing rooms nearby; pottery; antique furniture; porcelain dishware for every purpose (garlic keeper, anyone?); vacuum cleaner parts and dish gloves; hair accessories and sunglasses; books; flower pots; clothes for young girls; clothes for old women; CDs and DVDs. If you could think if it, it was probably there. Wouldn’t you want to go to a market like that? This market happened all year round, rain or shine, unlike most markets here that run just through the summer. Admittedly, I didn’t linger as long on a rainy February day, but the market always merited a walk-through just to see. Some vendors set up just every other week, swapping out with others, so there was always something new to look at.

And note the French fireman in navy blue on the left inviting people to the firemen's ball. Wouldn't you want to see him, too?

The market was a social event, even if you didn’t know another soul there you felt a part of the community, a shared experience with hundreds of other people. I remember walking down the main street in town, and feeling the energy and excitement growing in the air as I neared the market plaza. Once I rounded the corner, it felt like stepping onto a carnival midway: Everyone was enjoying the morning out, the opportunity to bump into friends, the possibilities awaiting at the many, many stalls. My kids would not have been bored at that market, even without music. I can only hope that someday our city’s markets will live up to all that they can be.

And to Monsieur Legume and Sue-Ellen, wherever you are: Vous me manquez.


French Friday #5: Serendipity

Full disclosure: The majority of these photos were not taken by me (you’ll learn why), but instead, were sourced from free stock photo sites on the Webernet. If you relied solely on my photography skills from twelve years ago, this would be a fairly bland post. I want you to see what I’m going to share.

In 1999, I had the opportunity to study abroad in France for a semester. This was nearing the end of the photographic Dark Ages — true, I didn’t have to use a hood and a magnesium bulb, but fancy schmancy digital photography was still in its very expensive infancy — so I, being the poor college student that I was, had to make 8 rolls of 24-exposure film last from January til June. That required some awfully hardcore rationing and several gut-wrenching decisions and, in the end, a lot of regrets.

There I am with the program leader and two other students, standing at the plaza that overlooks the valley below St Paul de Vence.

My actual studying took place in Grenoble, in the Alps, but the program in which I participated had several “excursions” built into the program, the first of which was a long-weekend trip to the Côte d’Azur. Our hotel was in Nice and from there we visited Menton and Monaco, and, in the other direction, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins and St. Paul de Vence. We saw some beautiful sights in each of those places, but my favorite was the little village of St. Paul de Vence. It is located about halfway between Nice and Cannes, back from the coast by several miles, atop a hill standing alone in a vast valley, in turn, hemmed in by rugged mountains. It’s quite an impressive location and no wonder that it was chosen as the site for this medieval town.

St. Paul de Vence

This was my first encounter with a town so old and so inaccessible that there are no cars allowed in the village itself. You can see in this photo there is a parking lot right at the wall and there are a few others like that. Once your car is parked, you start hiking! I saw a tree bearing oranges for the first time in my life and walked along cobbled streets lined by quaint and picturesque buildings. Our group leader let us wander the streets as we wished, so I tried to drink in as much of this Provençal charm as I could.

Typical little street in St Paul de Vence

As I strolled down one narrow street, the right side unexpectedly opened up into a little courtyard. Vines grew up the walls and formed leafy awnings over the doorways. Ancient stone planters filled with colorful flowers lined the base of the walls. Gracefully curved iron grills bowed out from the windows. And there, in the center, was a breathtakingly beautiful little fountain. A spigot mounted on an arched stone trickled water into a basin set into a larger block of stone. Certainly, France is peppered with lovely fountains; the fountains at Versailles are a sight to behold for their opulence. But this, this fountain was perfect in its simplicity. Sheltered by the households that, at one time, probably made daily use of its cool flow. It was removed from the crush of tourists, a welcome breeze wafting through the courtyard, silent except for the sound of the water gurgling in the basin. But, oh! The decisions! I had already taken four photos here in St Paul de Vence, not to mention the several I took in Monaco and Nice, and it was only February! With a pang in my gut, I resolved to commit this perfect little scene to memory, and turned away.

Of course, you know already that not taking that picture was one of my biggest regrets of the whole semester. But what could I do? There was no way to get back. Every time I thought about it, it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. For the sake of one picture! I couldn’t have spared one shot? It sounds so ridiculous now.

Church in St. Paul de Vence. I took a picture similar to this, but this one is better than mine.

I returned to the States in June and, a couple months later, began my senior year of university. After being gone for so long, it was great to reunite with my roommates as we all tried to catch up on each others’ lives. Naturally, most of my stories were about France and all the wonderful and incredible things I had seen and done there. So when Christmas rolled around, one of my roommates gave me a calendar called “365 days in France.” I loved it! It was full of richly colored photographs from all over the country.


I happily flipped through the pages, admiring the variety of photos. When I got to March, I gasped! Could it – is it? I looked more closely and yes! What were the odds? Of all the tiny towns, of all the fountains, of all the fountains in tiny towns, what are the odds that my fountain would be featured in this calendar? (Math is not my friend, so I will never bother to calculate that.) But there it is, in all its tiny glory. Seriously, the picture is about two inches high, but I don’t even care. Now I have a picture of that lovely little fountain and I will never get rid of this calendar. And now, you can see my fountain, too (although, bear in mind, since I had to enlarge this itty bitty picture, the quality is not that great. Use your imagination. 🙂 )

The luck of the Irish brought me a French fountain.

French Friday #4: Speed Slug says, “Slow down.”

When you move to a foreign country, there are plenty of things that you expect to be different: the food, the clothes, the architecture. But you don’t usually think of the mundane things like street signs. Most of Europe has standardized their traffic signs with color, shape, and helpful symbols. They look different from the signs in North America, but most aren’t so out of the ordinary as to cause consternation. (Usually, said consternation was caused by the decided lack of signs, at least in France. A popular proverb among ex-pats living in France was, “You can’t get there unless you already know how to get there.” Even born-and-bred Parisians carry maps of the city in their cars.)

We did, however, find a few signs that made us laugh. We enjoyed the digital signs spanning the French highways that gave driving tips in the form of pithy little rhymes. We liked the Ausfahrt signs in Germany because, well, sometimes our brains revert to 9 year old humor. We liked this sign in England because, what the heck is a bollard, anyways?!


(It’s ok; you don’t have to tell us. We know now).

This sign in Wales was just too good to pass up without a photo:

How many points are they worth? *snicker*


But our very favorite was this masterpiece of government-commissioned art back in France:

As Pacific Northwesterners, that symbol calls to mind just one thing.

Remember, Speed Slug just wants you to be safe.