Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday Greeting 2006

Terrace Sunrise at LaBoissière, Fall 2006

Dear Friends far and wide,

Ah, another delicious year, varied, intense, relaxing, joyful, and full of visits from US friends. Here are a few of the generous souls who made the long trek.

Monthly highlights of 2006

January – Ron flies free to London on Ryanair as a surprise visit to see a former CV student perform at Ronnie Scott’s. London is outrageously expensive: rancid fish and chips for three, no drinks, 150 pounds. Stays with two sets of friends. Best laugh: The hostess of our elegant high tea about her independent daughter's order of Dim Sum, “Who would have thought that we would be having high tea at the Four Seasons served with chop sticks?” A sexy, brilliantly staged performance of Chicago evoking thoughts of childhood and the value to Ron’s life of having grown up there, well, as much as he could ever grow up. Overnight trip to friends at Arcachon and Cap Feret on Atlantic coast.

Silky skiing in Andorra, the very best the Pyrénées offer. Cosmopolitan ambiance, several languages heard in town and on the slopes, dazzling sunlight and nightlife. Biggest laugh: Lunching outdoors high up in an enormous ski bowl as we watch seven Russians dancing, singing, and rolling around in the snow, the guy at the next table turns to us and says in his thick German accent, “Too much vodka.”

Februrary – A new (2001) Mercedes Station Wagon arrives, a loaded (if not almost obscene) dream car. Paid photo shoots of friends’ manor houses and châteaux some of which are destined for newspapers and magazines. Visit from a dear old French friend living in both Paris and Corvallis. We celebrate our anniversary by looking at photos from the past 34 years. Moving, a profound sense of gratitude and humility. We are so blessed.

March – Bowling, Ron for the first time in 50 years, ouch, back injury – two weeks flat in bed on floor, and we didn’t even win. Performance of Aïda at newly refurbished Bordeaux Opera House.

Poor lighting, clumsy blocking, confusing costumes, but magnificent voices. Leave at intermission, window shop, disgusted that ripped up, worn out jeans could bring 500 Euros. Turn to food for solace, terrific Italian fare on the Cour de l’Intendance. We must take you to beautiful, bustling Bordeaux.

April – Visits from Corvallis friends and from a Eugene friend currently studying design in Rome, several visits to Château Couronneau, our favorite new winery. Cultivate friendship with owners of one of the most fascinating restaurants in the Aquitaine. The presentation is pure art matched only by the delicacy of the dishes. Our chef friend Noël designed this plate especially for our composer friend Georges Lifermann.

Our first swim of the season, April 10th.

Global warning?

May – Darrell flies free to London for god-daughter’s graduation. Wines and dines at the Ritz and Four Seasons while Ron remains at home with the renters from hell (story when we see you) and tends Valucci and Valenquie, our two bundles of daily joy. We attend the opening of an artist friend’s exhibition at a local gallery. Tranquil Cottage occupied by winners of our auction contribution to the Old Mill School fund raiser.

June - Ron goes to Paris to attend a friend’s ceremony honoring a life time achievement in contributions to French music. Most astounding moment: while in a local magazine shop in the presence of this composer friend Ron asks other customers if they ever heard of “Ca Ira Mieux Demain,” one of his friend’s most famous songs. Composer is astounded when the entire group begins singing the lyrics. We never know when or where fame will raise its head. While in Paris after attending a modern dance performance by a company we've seen in Paris and Athens many times, Ron runs into the world famous choreographer, Pina Bausch, in a café and has a brief conversation with her. An “everyone wears white” dinner party to honor the return visit of friends who live mainly in London but who have a home here which we tend. In order to get the honoree to wear white, a color she hates, Darrell agrees to her demand that he wear her wedding dress. Take a peek.

July – Trip to the very “in” Barcelona to visit Corvallis HP friends. The pine, the salt air, the calamari, and swimming in the Mediterranean bring back fond memories of all those summers on the Riviera.

Trip to the Dune at Pyla, Europe’s highest, with friends from Lake Oswego here to spend the summer in their French country home. Wonderful visits now and again during the summer with this loving family and witnessing the growth and development of their kids.

August – Visits from friends from Seattle, Corvallis, New York, and, from Chicago, Ron’s brother and nephew and their families. Thrilling highlight of the summer: getting to know Ron’s nephew, his wife, and their son. Little Alex, named after Ron’s father, is bright, sensitive to others, creative, helpful, and very well behaved. He represents to us hope for the future. Ron’s brother and nephew spend hour upon hour fixing up everything that is broken or not functioning to fullest potential. This couldn’t be a better coming together. Another dream come true.

Ron & Nephew Steve, 40 years ago. Ron & Great Nephew Alex, 2006

September – Visits from two more families from Corvallis, two from Seattle, one each from New York, San Francisco, and London, some only one day apart. Lessons learned: to handle a tight schedule, take the bedding, towel sets, and napkins to a professional laundry which even irons everything.

October – Time of gathering. Things begin to settle down a bit. Alone together for the first time since May. No visitors or renters from anywhere giving more time to long neglected gardening, housekeeping, correspondence. Ron cans many pints of fig/lavendar, apple/pear, and plum preserves, fruit from our trees. Still enjoying daily swims. A horrendous wind storm rips the cover of our gazebo to shreds. Ron finds replacement fabric, and Darrell, sewing for hours, reconstructs the entire thing. We work the annual grape harvest in the old fashioned, hand picked way with friends at LaSalle. Morning snack, large sit-down luncheon, and a banquet with all the trimmings to wind up the day. The French certainly know how to focus on food, and all of it delicious.

November – No out of town visitors. We attend the finest home show we’ve ever seen and somehow limit spending to a new garlic mincer. We learn how to use the Bordeaux light rail system and attend viewings of several films projected in English. Best dinner: Thanksgiving here at La Boissière for 16 at one table.

It becomes somewhat of a theatrical potluck with everyone participating. After spending hours in research we finally find a place to get two huge, organically fed, old fashioned, unpumped turkeys which usually aren’t available until late December. Two new recipes evolve: pumpkin chiffon pie, and cranberry mousse gâteau.

December – Visits from friends from Barcelona and Amsterdam. The warmest Fall on record finally ends. Darrell spends most of his free time constructing costumes for New Year’s Eve party. All participants must do two things: 1. Cross dress, men as women, women as men. 2. Performance of choice (song, dance, recitation, poetry reading, playing an instrument). Ron drags out his tap shoes daily and tries to remember steps he learned before moving to France. He’s tapping to “Rum & Coca-Cola.” Darrell prepares a humorous monologue about life in ancient Egypt. Darrell will issue in the new year as Cleopatra and Ron will join him as Carmen Miranda. Talk about a fruit head! He’s also practicing walking in red patent leather 2” platform shoes with a 6” (c.f.m. pump) stiletto heel. Pray he doesn’t fall. This experience is an eye-opener to us as we realize that sometimes it must be "trying" to be a woman. We’ll send pics just before we leave for the party to those who request them, that way you, too, can start 2007 with a good, hearty laugh.

Throughout the year we have had many jobs in order to supplement our income which has suffered with the fall in the value of the dollar. We’ve cleaned houses, built web-sites, given French lessons to the Brits, sold houses, managed rental properties, done photo shoots for magazines and newspapers of houses for sale, translated for builders, repaired and installed computer programs, and rented our guest house. Most of these endeavors have led to new friendships and strengthened old ones. We will terminate many of these activities next June when Darrell’s retirement kicks in. So the new year will bring some basic changes in our life style.

Generalities: Due to lots of good, farm grown food, fresh country air, constant physical activity through maintenance of houses and gardens, acres of silence, and lots of exquisite organic red wine we have enjoyed excellent health all year. Looking back through this last year's calendar, we're surprised to realize that we’ve attended 114 dinner parties and hosted about an equal number, including those we’ve shared with the 17 groups of friends visiting from the USA. F0r some folks this might seem like a bit too much, but these gatherings and visits have taken on a new value to us. Our US friends keep us abreast of what is going on across the pond, and from our local friends we've learned still more about French culture. So these dinner parties and visits are really a venue for human discourse. We're constantly astounded by the conversations at table. Topics include the environment, prominent social problems, art, religion, cinema, literature, spirituality, science and technology, and politics to be sure. We’ve learned, however, never to ask the French for whom they’re voting. You never get an answer; it’s even more private than their sex life. When asked about how they are voting they dodge it by going into a discussion of history, always history. Our French friends know their past as well as the past of other countries. Sometimes to our own embarrassment and amazement they often quote events, dates, and people who shaped what the USA is and has become. They often know more about our history than we do. (Incidentally, after the recent US election several French friends called and sent cards to congratulate us on the results. They are very hopeful that things will now change for the better.) At any rate, these gatherings around food have been and still are important in shaping the culture. The conversations at these dinners can become quite heated, but they always remain polite to a certain degree. The evenings usually start at 8:00pm with an apéritif, followed by the opening course, called the “entrée,” which by the way, does not mean "main course" as it does in the USA. Then initial formality gives way to conviviality. The verbal banter starts. We’ve learned how to get our French friends into a discussion of the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary (200,000 words as opposed to 600,000 in English) of their own language. We sit back and just marvel at their wit, their quickness of response, and their love of argument. There is a spirit of trust, however, even when people are on opposite sides of an issue, and ordinarily everyone at table is involved in the same discussion. Besides that, they love their language, and love to talk even more than United Statesians. It's in their blood.

Observations: The French whom we know, and they are from many walks of life, are a highly social people. The longer we live here the more we realize that they have a completely different way of thinking about their place in society. They have a most profound sense of the Other with a capital O. As individuals they never seem to forget or at least always take into account, that they are a part of a social fabric, part of the structure which must be held together even sometimes at the cost of personal gain. They are fiercely independent but always aware of their responsibility to the good of the whole. The result of this attitude is a brilliant universal health care system in which even we have been invited to participate, a highly efficient and inexpensive transportation system, and a demanding education system which is virtually free to everyone who qualifies and which provides alternative paths leading to careers for the less academically inclined, as well as free job training for all artisans. Naturally all of this means high taxes, about which they will complain, but these taxes are self-imposed. In most elections 80 percent of the people vote, and even we as expats have the right to vote for our mayor. All of this because of the particular way of thinking in a country (pop. 60 million) smaller in area than the state of Texas (pop. 22 million).

Through these many dinner parties not only have we learned new ways of cooking, but we’ve also learned that the French, to be sure, have their problems. They are concerned that the influx of foreigners is changing the social structure, that they will lose jobs, and that their taxes are going to support people who are using the system without contributing to it. One of their major concerns is how to maintain their uniqueness and quality of life within the melting pot of the European Union. They seem to fear that the young want to have everything handed to them without making an effort to work. Yet we point out to our friends that when the government decided to water down the requirements for college entrance to make it more “democratic,” it was the students themselves who, in force, took to the streets in massive demonstrations to prevent the change. They still have a spirit of revolt when conditions are revolting. They complain about the inconvenience of the seemingly constant strikes, yet when the teachers walk out, for instance, the truckers might very well block the roads. A word we hear frequently is "solidarity". Our French friends see the shift in music and in clothing toward vulgarity and sloppiness as signs of decadence. They are upset that there is a disintegration of their language, which to them is sacred.

Our French friends have a difficult time understanding a few things about the USA which we’ve tried to explain. They ask us why we haven’t abolished the electoral college (which by the way some of our friends understand better than we do), they want to know why we vote on a weekday rather than on Sunday, why all time zones don’t vote simultaneously in national elections, why we don’t have run-off elections pitting the top two candidates from the first go-around (which would have changed everything the year that Nader screwed it all up), and why we’ve come to rely on electronic machines for voting. We've also been asked more than once recently why we call ourselves Americans when that includes two continents and many countries. We've since begun to refer to ourselves as United Statesians or USAmericans. And in these rural parts, the French don’t really seem to understand how we can get through the day without a two hour break for lunch and at least a little cat nap.

Each year we become more integrated and more a part of the French way of life, and we hope a part of their way of thinking. We’ve come to realize that we have a small double mission here in our little corner of France: 1. We try to represent what is good and positive about our native land and dispel the image they get from the world media, and 2. We try to alert the French not to take for granted and lose those qualities which make their society special to us.

May you have a pleasant holiday season, and may 2007 bring all of us deeper understanding and greater acceptance of each OTHER.

Mug shots to add to your holiday cheer.


We all send our best wishes for a “purr”-fect holiday season!