Going to Paris: My December list, and just to be there

Christmas on the Champs Elysées, Paris

Christmas on the Champs Elysées, Paris

This December I’m more eager than ever to return to the City of Light.

My heart still aches for everyone affected by recent events. Our trip was booked some time ago, and after due consideration, we concluded we would take our usual precautions, use common sense, and travel as planned.

Mostly I just want to be there, just want Clive and me to do our small part in participating in the movements and tasks and ordinary activities of daily life – to see our neighbours, do our shopping, support cafés and markets and local businesses and soak up the extraordinary spirit of this extraordinary city, particularly at this time of year.

A favourite boulangerie

A favourite boulangerie

As always, I have a list, or at least a guideline, because it’s never possible to do everything you’d like to do in Paris.

Christmas and the holiday spirit

Christmas market on the Champs Elysées, Paris

Christmas market on the Champs Elysées, Paris

* Strolling around Christmas markets large and small, sipping hot mulled wine and maybe purchasing a few gifts

* Walking on illuminated streets decorated for the holidays; the city publishes a list by arrondissement (district)

* Admiring ice skaters as they glide across temporary patinoires, or rinks, around the city

Skaters outside Hôtel de Ville, Paris

Skaters outside Hôtel de Ville, Paris

* Seeing the grand Christmas tree outside Notre Dame Cathedral

* Watching the Grande Roue – the giant Ferris wheel – circle above Place de la Concorde, by day or by night.

La Grand Roue by day, Paris

La Grand Roue by day, Paris

La Grand Roue by night, Paris

La Grand Roue by night, Paris

Window-shopping and real shopping

We tend to avoid most of the grands magasins, the often-crowded big department stores, though we may check out their windows — in favour of Paris’s endless small shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques. We’re hoping to find a few special items for special people during our wanderings.

There’s one big store I can’t seem to stay away from: BHV. We’ll undoubtedly find ourselves there at some point, if only for a browse of the stationery section (me) and/or the basement DIY section (Clive) and a coffee in the top floor café overlooking Paris rooftops and the Seine (both).

As a gift to myself, I’m planning a visit to the Georges Thullier shop (adjacent to the Christmas market at Saint-Sulpice), to add a few santons, or Provencal figurines, to the crèche and pieces I purchased last year.

Crèche and santon figurines

Crèche and santon figurines

An exhibit or maybe two …

* ‘Villa Flora, Enchanted Times’, a private collection including Impressionist works at Musée Marmottan – not forgetting their always-brilliant gift shop

* Musee d’Orsay – the permanent Impressionist collection and maybe the temporary exhibition (‘Splendour and Misery’, works of many different artists about prostitution in 19th-century Paris, of all things) – also not forgetting the museum gift shop

… and a weekend in the USA

A combination of factors caused us to make a rather last-minute decision to interrupt our time in Paris for a short visit to my mother.

Although we were with her last month, I still felt a bit guilty about not seeing her around the holidays (she’s not totally aware of calendar dates, but I am …). Then she had a minor fall, onto her knees when getting out of a chair. She’s fine, but still … And then we found frequent flier seats were available on a few flights from Paris.

I think Clive almost fell out of his chair when I said I wanted to leave Paris, if only for a few days; I kind of surprised myself with this one. Being the supportive spouse he is, he understood completely. We’re looking forward to spending time with my mom (and a bonus get-together with my son’s wonderful in-laws), then returning directly to Paris and picking up where we left off in the City of Light.

Shine on, Paris. I can’t wait to see you again.

Paris in December

Paris in December


Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Paris.

The Amusing, Perplexing and Oh-So-English Pantomime

Felixstowe Spa Pavilion, 2015 pantomime

Felixstowe Spa Pavilion, 2015 pantomime

The beloved Christmas pantomime – aka panto – can be described as a comic play, often based on a fairy tale, designed to entertain the whole family.

This sounds rather pleasant and benign, but when Clive first told me about pantos, he went on to say they included such aspects as:

– the lead is often a very buxom female, played by a man

– the male lead, often a young boy,  is played by a woman

– the show is for the kids; the script for the adults; everything is riddled with wordplay and often-sexual innuendoes

– there’s often dancing and a lot of slapstick comedy

– there’s a lot of audience participation and interaction: ‘Oh no, he’s not!’ ‘Oh yes, he is!’ ‘Look out! He’s behind you!’

– during the performance, the actors throw sweets and/or water on the audience

– many well-known actors and actresses have performed in Christmas pantomimes; they say they love them because they’re so much fun

Having never heard of this 16th-century tradition, I thought pantos sounded amusing, perplexing, and quite English, especially related to wordplay and innuendoes and the ability to enjoy simple silliness and humour.

My first panto

Four years ago, during our first Christmas season in the UK, Clive took my son and me to a panto – our first – at the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion. There we saw ‘Aladdin’ along with hundreds of euphoric children and their parents.

Clive had prepared us well for the event. My memories include:

– the lead man dressed up as an absurdly-buxom woman, breasts flopping and heaving throughout the performance

– many mistaken identities

– much slapstick, with broomsticks, buckets and the like

– great amounts of water squirted and sprayed and thrown on the audience – buckets of it, in fact, aimed at the first few rows, causing children to scream with delight

– children – and their parents, I must add – loudly booing the villain when he appeared on stage and shouting out, ‘He’s behind you!’

– and of course, when the lead replied, ‘Oh no he’s not’ everyone shrieking back as one, ‘Oh yes he is!’

And on. And on. And on. At the end my son said, rather firmly,  ‘That was a once in a lifetime experience.’

A French poet’s view of the panto

Charles Baudelaire, the great Romantic poet, wrote about a pantomime he saw in 1842. The italics are mine.

‘I shall long remember the first English pantomime that I ever saw … at the Théatre des Variétés. Few Frenchmen appeared to relish this type of entertainment … the more indulgent among the audience said the performers were vulgar and second-rate. But that was not the point. The important thing about the performers is that they were English.

‘ … the special talent of those English actors for hyperbole gave a curiously gripping reality to this monstrous display of the farcical … it was all gone through without the faintest indication of ill-humour. They leaped and ran through the whole of the fantastic performance.’

from ‘On the Essence of Laughter’ (translation by Peter Quennell)

So what is one to make of this renowned Christmas tradition?

One side of me says (only to myself, at least until I publish this post): It’s so juvenile and crude, really – all the cross-dressing and bawdy jokes and how many references to ‘passing wind’ are we supposed to find funny? Men prancing around as women just don’t do it for me. The joke quickly gets tiresome, and who wants to see ‘stars’ (eg ‘the Hoff’, Lord help us all, or Priscilla Presley, who has returned multiple times) well past their use-by date dressing up as the opposite sex? Really? And please don’t make me sit near the front.

My other side admonishes: Don’t be such a grouch! It’s English humour, it’s entertaining and it’s all good fun. It’s the Christmas spirit! So what if the jokes are lame? It’s harmless and everyone enjoys it. Don’t be so critical! You know you smiled and even laughed at ‘Aladdin’ and when the lead-male-buxom-woman said the villain was not behind him, you called out with best of them, ‘Oh yes he is!’

Dick Whittington (and his cat)

We’ve opted for ‘it’s all good fun’ – at least once every four years – and, motivated by a friend in the cast of Felixstowe Musical Theatre, performing in the lovely nearby town of Woodbridge, booked tickets for the last weekend of November to ‘Dick Whittington and His Cat’.

According to the BBC, Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor of London from 1398-1419, known for his stellar moral character. After 1600, popular fictional stories about him appeared, in which the lead character, unlike the real one, was a poor man with an expert-mouser cat who helped him earn his fortune in London.

Apparently the panto cast includes, among others: Franky Banky, Zappo the Wonder Horse (Top Half), Zappo the Wonder Horse (bottom half), Rats 1-30, Snow White, and Sylvania Fulbright (the dame).

In due course I shall report back, because one way or another it’s bound to be an experience.

Felixstowe Musical Theatre, 2015 pantomime

Felixstowe Musical Theatre, 2015 pantomime

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe, looking ahead to Paris in December.

Paris Je T’Aime

L’heure bleue, the blue hour, Paris

L’heure bleue, the blue hour, Paris

Along with the rest of the world, I’m heartsick over last night’s events in Paris.

I mourn for those killed and wounded, their loved ones and everyone caught up in the horror. As far as I know, our Paris friends and acquaintances are all safe, for which we’re deeply thankful.

Paris is a small, intimate city, one of its infinite allures. I love Paris in countless ways, which include its beauty, its people and its way of life.

I pray for the City of Light and for our world. And I look forward to being in Paris – staying in Paris, enjoying Paris and supporting Paris — as planned, early next month.

Paris in December

Shine on, Paris

Clive’s Birthday: A Few Remarks about My Husband

The birthday guy

The birthday guy

I nicknamed Clive ‘Mr Original’ in the early days of our relationship.

My husband is truly a unique individual: a guru of pop music – and BBC Radio 2 Popmaster, I might add – a DIY expert, a computer wizard, a savvy traveller, a generous and supportive father and grandfather, and the best friend I could ever ask for.

Summer afternoon in Paris

Summer afternoon in Paris

Most of all, Clive is a sensitive, caring individual. When we met in Sydney, Australia, he told me he was originally from a place in England called Felixstowe. His life story hasn’t always been a happy one; like many people in the world, he has experienced his share of life-changing losses and challenges.

But, unlike many people in the world, Clive always focused on the positive. He got up every day and made the most of his situation and opportunities. And he still does that, every day – just gets on with life and all it has to offer. He has incredible strength of spirit and the most amazing positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever known.

Clive and his grandchildren on the beach in Felixstowe

Clive and his grandchildren on the beach in Felixstowe

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would one day live and write blog posts from the British coastal town where Clive grew up.

Several of Clive’s lifelong friends joined us for his birthday celebration earlier this week. Ray – growing up as cousins in the extended family and time spent playing at the Clarendon Hotel; Maddy, whose priceless friendship and aerogrammes to Australia helped sustain Clive in the teenage years following his mother and stepfather’s relocation Down Under; David, a friendship formed in the church youth fellowship – not to forget these two winning trophies as part of their team coming first in the popular Felixstowe Bible Quiz.

Felixstowe Bible Quiz winning team: Clive second from right, David far right

Felixstowe Bible Quiz winning team: Clive second from right, David far right

[Digression: for those unfamiliar with this precious piece of history, The Children’s Newspaper of 28 February 1959 reported,

Every week Sunday-school classes at Felixstowe (Suffolk) prepare for the Annual Bible Quiz. This event attracts over 1000 people to watch teams from all over the town competing for the coveted St. George’s Challenge Cup. Now the idea has spread via the columns of a local newspaper, sent out by a reader to a relative in Canada, and children of Orillia, Ontario, are following their example.’

You can read more about this quiz team and another of life’s full-circle moments in A Sydney-Felixstowe-Darien Circle.]

In more recent years, friends old and new have included us in their own special events and days of celebration. This week we were so happy fifteen of them could help Clive celebrate his birthday. No matter where you call home, friends and family make all the difference.

Happy birthday to my wonderful Mr Original and many more.

Travels together - at Seven Mile Beach, south of Sydney, Australia

Travels together – at Seven Mile Beach, south of Sydney, Australia

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

A Wine Journey (and Wine Library) Full-Circle Moment

My small but treasured ‘wine library’ -- before today

My small but treasured ‘wine library’ — before today

Today I experienced a full-circle moment in my wine journey, thanks to a lovely literary festival by UK Ways with Words, an alluring speaker and the mystery man who introduced her in Southwold, Suffolk.

USA — Nascent Interest

I’m no wine expert, just an interested consumer. Prior to moving from the USA to Australia in 1995, my interest in wine was in the ‘developing’ stage.

In the early 1980s, Gary, my late husband, and I toured the Napa Valley. This was my first vineyard-visiting, wine-tasting experience. We loved the wines by Clos du Val and duly signed up for their newsletter and regular wine club deliveries. This was before our son was born, and we felt quite privileged to receive and try their different wines.

Somewhere around that time, after reading his regular wine columns in the New York Times, I bought Terry Robards’ New Book of Wine, The Ultimate Guide to Wines Throughout the World. This became my go-to book for wine-related questions and learning.

In the early 1990s, I bought another wine book, Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy. I believe this was discovered via a stellar critique in the NY Times Book Review; in any case, this mosaic of history, culture and expertise about one of the world’s greatest wine-producing areas encapsulated much that I love: travel, culture, history, wine knowledge and all with in-depth observations about France.
Keep Reading

November in the USA, Australia and the UK

November sunset, Felixstowe

November sunset, Felixstowe

Barring emergency, Clive and I will for the first time spend all of November in the UK.

This time of year here feels – and is — very different from the USA and Australia, the two countries where I lived for many years. Halloween in the UK and Australia is much lower-key than in the US, though it’s catching up fast – a trend not appreciated by all. It’s really as we move past Halloween this coming weekend and begin November that life in the UK takes on a different feel.

November in the USA

November in Connecticut

November in Connecticut

November in Connecticut: days getting shorter, chilly temperatures, leaves falling, endless lawn-raking and great anticipation of Thanksgiving get-togethers.

Thanksgiving remains one of my all-time favourite holidays anywhere, focusing as it does on families and friends gathering to share a ‘thanksgiving feast’ – largely and mercifully missing the insidious and always-increasing commercial aspects of Halloween and Christmas.

When my son was in nursery school (pre-school), an American parents’ magazine article said mothers begin an internal chant at the end of each summer: ‘School, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. I better start planning now.’

This rang true in my experience. The last three or four months of the year were indeed a one-thing-after-another series of events, albeit mostly joyful ones, full of child-oriented activities, family reunions and parental responsibilities to pull everything and everyone together.

[And if those nationwide events and holidays aren’t enough, my Connecticut daughter-in-law, whose three sons’ birthdays all fall between mid-November and mid-December, manages the annual sequence of: School, Halloween, child’s birthday, Thanksgiving, child’s birthday, child’s birthday (these two share the same date, four years apart, but their wonderful parents make the effort such that each child has individual attention and celebration) and then Christmas. It really doesn’t bear thinking about, except to say every year the parents do a brilliant job with everything.]

Upside-down Down Under – November in Australia

November in Sydney

November in Sydney

November in Sydney: days getting longer, warm temperatures, jacarandas blooming (one of my all-time favourite trees and for me a symbol of November Down Under), sailboats on the Harbour, spring sports underway, plus – with the school year approaching its end in mid-December – end-of-year school concerts, assemblies and performances; planning for summer vacation; and oh, by the way, Christmas.

From our first year in Australia, I marvelled – and still marvel – at the way mothers and fathers manage somehow to handle all the end-of-school-year activities and Christmas activities at the same time.

Instead of planning for Thanksgiving, our Down-Under daughter-in-law multitasks with an Aussie flavour: one email will be about her daughter’s pre-school end of year event, the next about Christmas, the next about her son’s final awards assembly. Not to forget planning for middle child’s birthday on New Year’s Eve …

Having raised children in both the US and Australia, at least in my experience and despite the seasons and school year being more or less reversed, November feels much the same in both countries: intense, child and family-focused and full of pressure and responsibilities for parents to keep everyone and everything together and on track.

November in the UK

Felixstowe’s ‘the Dip’ in November

Felixstowe’s ‘the Dip’ in November

It’s not that November is quiet on this side of the Pond – far from it. Towns and cities gear up for Christmas with fairs, fêtes, concerts, markets and of course amusing/perplexing pantomimes. (We have late-November tickets to an avowed classic, ‘Dick Whittington and His Cat’ — more about this cherished form of theatre in a future post.)

But the absence of US Thanksgiving and Aussie end of the school year means most if not all of everyone’s attention is focused on Christmas, with much more time to plan and truly savour the season.

We’re no longer parents of school-age children, but every year until now have journeyed to the US in November, to spend Thanksgiving with my mother and family. Since we’ve just returned from my son’s wedding and many family get-togethers, and because my mother no longer has real awareness of particular days or dates, we decided to spend November at home this year.

Our heads are finally (well, almost) above water with regard to all our coming-home tasks; our desks are more or less clear; and the bathroom renovation guy is coming next week to start his work. While Clive supervises him, what do I hope for this November?

Without putting pressure on myself our both of us – that’s the last thing I want to do – it’s still in my nature to look ahead and consider what I’d like to accomplish during this first-time gift of November in Felixstowe.

November hopes and plans – my top 5 and looking ahead

Conclusion of our wedding day, November 2010, Sydney

Conclusion of our wedding day, November 2010, Sydney

1. Clive’s birthday

2. Our wedding anniversary

3. Attend local Christmas fairs, markets and the pantomime

4. Put up our Christmas tree the last weekend of November. This became a family tradition in the US, one year when a group from our church went to a tree farm the Saturday after Thanksgiving to cut our own trees. We thought it was too early but discovered we *loved* having it up and decorated to enjoy throughout the month of December (and a major Christmas ‘to do’ was done). Since then, we’ve tried, not always successfully, to do this every year.

5. Writing: finishing the current chapter in my Paris-based memoir to a level where I can send it to a trusted instructor for professional critique. This chapter has been on again, off again for over a year – in the midst of travel and a family wedding – and I well and truly want to complete it sooner rather than later. After this chapter, I have six more to go. I’m determined to publish this book one day, though Lord only knows when as it will continue to be a balancing act since we’re also determined to travel, especially to see our families, for as long as we are able.

Looking ahead
* Planning for Paris

6 Paris Christmas market Champs

Christmas markets on the Champs Elysées, Paris

Not only is Paris intertwined with the book I’m writing, the City of Light is intertwined with my life and is a constant source of joy for me, a sanctuary and a place of both excitement and comfort.

We’ll spend part of December in Paris (another reason we want to get our tree up by the end of November). I want to make time in November to anticipate and review my ongoing list of possibilities – current exhibits, Christmas markets and lights, winter walks – so we go with at least some ideas about what we’d like to do and see in the time we have there. More about Paris in December in a future post.

* and after Paris, a much-anticipated pre-Christmas visit from my son, before he returns to the US to spend Christmas with his beautiful bride and her family.

Also looming over our heads are my mother’s annual Christmas letter, which we usually do over Thanksgiving in the US, and our own Christmas letter. I suppose both of these are, ideally, projects for November, even though they don’t make my ‘Top 5’ list. We both feel we’ll regret it if we don’t complete both before we go to Paris.

For now, one thing at a time. We’re thankful to be home and looking forward to spending November, and Christmas, by the sea in England.

our tree by the sea glinting gold in late October sunshine

our tree by the sea glinting gold in late October sunshine

Wishing everyone a happy and not-too-crazy November, wherever you may be:

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Marvelous to Mundane: Ten Reasons You Know You’re Back to Reality after a Trip

October at a farm shop near Felixstowe

October at a farm shop near Felixstowe

Reality has been slamming us in the face after the excitement of my son and belle-fille’s wedding and its lovely afterglow.

Despite my best efforts to calmly complete my coming-home checklist, after a week back home in the UK it still seems everywhere I look I’m reminded we’re not in wedding-land any more:

  1. Living space not yet neat and tidy with everything put away.
  2. Jet lag, combined with extra weariness after such emotional times in the U.S., affecting our ability to be as productive as we’d like. On our first day home, I donned my nightgown at 1pm and didn’t get out of it until 5pm the next evening. I’m now getting dressed in the morning.
  3. Paper piles still high on the desk – gradually getting lower.
  4. Some emails still awaiting responses.
  5. Hand-written to-do list not yet caught up.
  6. Various items from the USA still scattered around loungeroom (living room) & dining room and a few items awaiting attention on the bedroom floor. Stuff on the floor drives me particularly crazy so these are a current priority.
  7. Issue with incorrect hotel charges to Aussie family’s credit cards taking inordinate amount of time to sort out — something I think should be simple and quick.
  8. Issue with one of my mother’s financial transactions taking an inordinate amount of time to process – something else I believe should be simple and quick.
  9. Frustration over #7 and #8 resulted in my sending multiple uncharacteristically-negative emails to people, bringing my own spirits down in the process. Got upset with myself for sending negative emails (justified as I felt my frustrations were and are), so followed up today with nicer ones – though still waiting for both issues to be resolved.
  10. Still need to clear my camera and make time to edit/purge photos copied each evening to my laptop.

On the positive side …

* We’ve caught up on the most important appointments, outings including our church’s 100-year celebration lunch and get-togethers with friends.

* Countless loads of trip laundry are *finally* done.

* Three of four suitcases are stored where they belong.

* Today I took my gown to the dry cleaners, a full week after arriving home but at least it’s there.

* My mother, son and belle-fille and our US and Aussie families are all back to their normal routines and doing well.

* Several important appointments on this side of the Pond have also gone well.

* I love October, we had lunch at a farm shop near Felixstowe (see photo at top of post) and our tree by the sea is showing hints of autumn colour.

Our tree by the sea, 20 October 2015

Our tree by the sea, 20 October 2015

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.


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