Happy Birthday to Mr Original

Clive on his birthday, in Felixstowe

10 November 2019

Happy birthday to Mr Original, resident music man and technology, DIY and spreadsheet guru, the guy who makes me smile even when I don’t always get his (self-labelled) warped sense of humour, who never fails to sing a cheerful tune, who faces his challenges with courage and strength and the world’s greatest attitude to living every day and who chose to spend his birthday with just me and a stroll in sunny Felixstowe: my hero, the one and only Clive.

A great way to start the day: Skype with (most of) the family in Australia

Some of you have seen this post on Facebook but I wanted to share it on my blog as well (if a bit late). Thank you to all who sent Clive birthday wishes via email, snail mail, FB and in person.

Watching the ships come into Felixstowe on Clive’s birthday

Cheers to my wonderful husband and may we celebrate many more birthdays together, wherever we may be.

The memory lens: a reflection about one Paris day, sixteen years after my first husband’s death

Gary photographing rooftops in Paris

My first husband, Gary, died 16 years ago today.

I’ve written about the night we met and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world; and about my tradition of scattering red rose petals in his memory.

Gary and I had both visited Paris before we met. Our first time there together occurred the year after we married.

One Paris Day

We began one day by taking the train to Chartres, so Gary could see the cathedral. I’d been fortunate to visit it once before.

On our walk from the Chartres station, we came upon a square which had a white van selling glaces (ice cream) and a grey one selling frites (French fries) and boissons (drinks).

The Chartres glaces van

The frites van was old then; now Clive says it looks like something out of Heartbeat, the TV series set in the 1960s. I can’t disagree. Nor can I remember exactly what Gary and I ordered — possibly glaces *and* frites.

Gary waiting for our order at the Chartres frites van

I only remember we were delighted to find this unexpected source of nourishment on our walk from the station. We happily parked ourselves on a bench and savoured our treats.

That afternoon, back in Paris, Gary took photographs from the external escalator platform of the Beaubourg (Pompidou Centre), as shown at the top of this post.

I watched him as he framed his shot. He moved, as always, with characteristic calm and steadiness. Unbeknownst to him, I snapped a photo with my point-and-shoot camera.

Later, we came by chance upon an Édouard Manet exhibition at the Grand Palais.

Manet in the afternoon, Grand Palais, Paris

Here I viewed for the first time Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, Luncheon on the Grass. The painting’s sumptuous sensuality astonished me then and continues to do so every time I see it at the Musée d’Orsay.

The Memory Lens

Memory’s a slippery little trickster. Sometimes you look through the memory lens and see big events blazing. Sometimes it’s the little images that flare and shimmer.

You remember the Chartres frites van more than the cathedral; a photographer composing a photo more than the photo itself; and an afternoon in Paris with no planned itinerary when you were awed by one of the world’s great paintings.

And you’re grateful for all of it, for the place and the time and the memories, and especially for the person who made them with you.

Gary on the Left Bank after a day at Chartres, the Beaubourg and the Grand Palais

Today I talked with my son and scattered red rose petals for Gary in the Felixstowe seafront gardens. As I also do each year, I came home to Clive and gave him a red rose for his desk. Red roses for love, for Gary and Clive.

Thank you for reading and may at least some of your memories, whatever size they may be, bestow comfort and light.

Then They Stay Dead: Reflections at the 15-Year Mark of my First Husband’s Death

My late husband Gary and our son at Giverny, Monet’s garden outside Paris

My first husband, Gary, died 15 years ago today in Sydney, Australia.

Many events have happened in my life since Gary’s death, including (not in chronological order) our son’s graduation from high school and college, my retirement from a long corporate career, my son’s wedding to his beautiful bride, my move from Australia to England, the deaths of both my parents and my wedding to Clive.

Last year I wrote about my reaction as a new widow to ‘In the Next Room’, the well-known words of Henry Scott Holland. In death’s immediate aftermath, the deceased may be in the next room of Heaven, but they most certainly are not the next room of our physical space.

And they never will be again. My faith is such that I believe the soul is eternal, and I pray I will be reunited with my loved ones one day. But they have left the life we knew with them on this earth.

‘Distressed Haiku’

Walkway to Sydney’s Shelly Beach, one of Gary’s favourite places

The following lines are included in Distressed Haiku, written by American poet Donald Hall after the death of his wife.

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

The husband and father – or, in my parents’ case, after the death of my brother Rob in an automobile accident, the son — stays dead while we raise children or attend graduations or weddings, when we gather year upon year for family birthdays or Christmas dinners, when we recall a special time and can’t share the memory with the person who made it so. And on every random day when something expected or unexpected causes us to think of them. They stay dead as we pass the one week mark, one month, two months, six months, one year, two years … fifteen years (or in my brother and uncle’s case, 45 years …).

I share Hall’s words not to be negative or bring anyone’s spirits down, but because they speak the truth to me. They capture the truth about the long-lasting impact of the death of a loved one, particularly when it’s an untimely death. If there’s a positive to this truth, it’s that some say grief is the flip side of love, and we experience grief because we were so blessed to love and be loved.

Love also endures

The first photo I took of Gary, a few weeks after we met

I’ve been doubly blessed with my two husbands, Gary and Clive. I’ve written about Gary before, about the night we met and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world as a devoted husband and father, son, brother, friend, gardener, coach, umpire, scuba diver, animal lover, photographer and DIY master; about the tradition I’ve developed to scatter red rose petals in his memory each August 2nd – at Shelly Beach near Manly, Sydney, his favourite place, or wherever I may be.

Gary loved to scuba dive around this Shelly Beach headland, where we scattered his ashes

Today I scattered rose petals in the Felixstowe seafront gardens. I came home to Clive and as I do each year gave him a red rose for his desk. Red roses for love, for Gary and Clive.

Thank you for reading and may all those who are grieving eventually find peace.

Allez les Bleus! A Paris Café, Football and World Cup Finals

World Cup weekend, Paris 1998

Clive and I are looking forward to watching France v. Croatia in Sunday’s World Cup final. We’re so disappointed England’s inspiring young team won’t be there, but they exceeded all expectations by making it to the semi-final. The country couldn’t be more proud of them.

With tomorrow being le quatorze juillet (the 14th of July or la Fête nationale, France’s national celebration day to mark the storming of the Bastille during its Revolution), followed by Sunday’s big game, we can imagine the overwhelming excitement and anticipation in Paris.

World Cup 1998

I happened to be in Paris 20 years ago this month, apartment-hunting with my late husband Gary and our son. The week we were there, France, as host nation, reached the World Cup final for the first time. The city was joyous with anticipation.

The game was played on Sunday night, July 12, at the Stade de France, the national stadium just north of Paris. A day or two before, while we were out viewing apartments, I snapped the photo at the top of this post. It’s a café in the 7th arrondissement, where several men were hanging the Tricolor, the French flag, one of thousands that appeared all over the city.

We watched the game on a small TV, cheering with everyone in the country every time France got the ball. France won, beating Brazil 3-0. The legendary Zinedine Zidane scored two of the goals, became a national hero and later received the French Légion d’honneur. The city went wild with joy. Celebrations (and noise!) filled the streets all night long and throughout the next day, 13 July, the day we miraculously found our apartment. The day after that, le 14 juillet, festivities continued with the traditional military parade on the Champs Elysées and evening fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. It was a magical, exciting time to be in the City of Light.

But as far as football went, it seemed a momentous one-off, a thrilling coincidence that our short time in Paris happened to be during that particular week.

Living with a Brit

Life changes, for most of us, in ways we can’t imagine. Never did I think I would one day find myself living with a Brit, or foresee how this particular Brit would somehow convert me into a person who enjoys following the sport of football – at least a couple of teams.

We support our local Suffolk team, Ipswich Town (go tractor boys!), in the Championship League and I’ve loved watching Arsenal in the Premier League, not least because their now-former manager, Arsène Wenger, is a distinguished, articulate Frenchman. We’ll give the new manager a chance (actually, both new managers as Ipswich also has a new one), but I can’t imagine anyone living up to Wenger.

My footy teams

At the European and global level, we also enjoy following various pan-European tournaments and, once every four years, the World Cup. On a trip to Paris in July 2013, I recounted to Clive the excitement there during the 1998 World Cup. I was retracing some of my 1998 apartment-hunting steps while working on my memoir (still-in-progress) chapter about the search, and showed Clive the photo of the men hanging the Tricolor.

Of course we had to find the café and see if any of the guys in the photo were still there. The photo doesn’t reveal the café’s name, but I thought it was near la Tour-Maubourg metro. We found it – called la Source – on the corner of rue de Grenelle and Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg.

Café la Source, Paris 2013

Café on the corner, la Source, Paris

After a cool drink under the awning, I made my way inside to the bar area with a print-out of the photo. The bartender called over several young waiters, but they didn’t recognise anyone. They urged us to return the next afternoon, when le patron, the owner, would be there. ‘He will remember,’ they said.

And so he did. Le patron said he’s the one standing with his back to the camera in the photo, supervising all the activity. He named the others in the photo, seemed pleased to have it (showing it around to all and sundry) and we had a lovely conversation about that special weekend. When Clive and I sat down to eat, he brought complimentary glasses of rosé to our table. After the meal, I couldn’t resist asking him for a photo, to which he graciously agreed.

moi (holding my 1998 photo) with le patron at la Source, 2013 Paris

This year’s weekend sequence is a little different than it was 20 years ago, with 14 juillet coming before the big final. Let’s hope the continuous celebrations will be the same.

If you happen to be in Paris and around la Tour-Maubourg, say hello to la Source and its patron for me. And maybe you could let me know in a comment: have they hung a Tricolor this year?

Wishing everyone a joyeux 14 juillet and spectacular Sunday. Along with millions of others, Clive and I will be watching the game on TV.

Allez les Bleus!

la Source, side view, across from la Tour-Maubourg metro, Paris 7e

Cheers and merci for reading. À bientôt, until next time.

Earthly Remains

Memorial Day 2013

May 23rd would have been my mother’s 94th birthday.

How strange it feels to be in England, instead of New Jersey, during these long, lovely late May days.

‘Your mom passed away’

My mother died peacefully in her sleep on Saturday morning, April 28.

Despite her recent frailty and deteriorating health, I was stunned by the nurse’s words over the phone, ‘Your mom passed away.’

Mom and her father, 1924

In late February, Mom had several falls. She had begun losing weight as her ability to use utensils and interest in eating decreased. I spent 16 days with her in late February and early March, during which time she was moved to her assisted living facility’s memory care unit.

Mom had also become confined to a wheelchair full-time. She seemed more comfortable there and no doubt felt safer than during the final weeks of using her walker. She still knew me and my son, but otherwise her memory was largely gone. We could at least page through her 90th birthday book and she recalled with deep love her wonderful parents.

A beautiful day in February 2018

I was thankful for those weeks with my mother, despite the distress of seeing her in her weakened condition. One afternoon I sat in the local Barnes & Noble and cried on the phone to Clive, asking how long a person could live without eating.

working girl at the Jersey shore

Mom received highly-personalised care in the memory unit, including mealtime feeding. It was both upsetting and positive to see her letting an aide (and sometimes me) feed her. She could still sit up in her wheelchair, enjoy different programs and respond to questions and interactions. As ever, the staff who cared for her told me how kind and lovely she was, and what a wonderful mother I had.

with Mom in the memory unit, February 2018

In late March, Clive and I returned to NJ for another two weeks. We did our usual routines, attending programs with Mom, sitting with her and spending as much time as possible with her each day. While I couldn’t say Mom was doing ‘well’, I was thankful she was receiving excellent care and felt she was doing as well as possible in the difficult circumstances.

Mom at University of Michigan

I knew I lived far from my mother. But based on experience with my father, both of Clive’s parents and other elderly people we’ve known whose death occurred over a period of days or weeks, I always thought and hoped I’d have time to get to my mother before she took her last breath. I always wanted to sit with her at the end, to talk with her, hold her hand, stroke her hair, hug her and tell her how much I loved her and that she was the best mother in the world. This was not to be.

I’ve read and heard many stories about people who die when their loved ones just step away from the bedside or go out for a short while. In most cases, the moment when people leave their earthly life is not our choice.

‘It was very peaceful, with no pain,’ the kind nurse told me. ‘She was comfortable.’

Interesting word, that: comfort-able. In those first, shocked minutes and hours I was not able to be comforted.

last photo together, April 2018

Three things

In between phone calls with my son, who was ably handling immediate matters in NJ, and Clive contacting local friends and booking flights for early the next morning, three things crystallised in my mind about what would happen with my mother’s earthly remains:

(1) Cremation. Over the years Mom and I talked multiple times about her desire for cremation. She felt that in today’s world, environmental concern and physical space was one factor. She also had a deep-seated fear of being buried alive (which I assured her I understood). It was incredibly helpful that, thanks to her clear guidance while she was alive, I had absolutely no doubt about her wishes.

Mom on her 93rd birthday, 2017

That said, I also wanted to be certain – and worried about getting there in time — that before the cremation occurred, I would have …

(2) Time alone (meaning me and Clive only) with her body. And I wanted this before anyone else viewed it. I didn’t necessarily expect anyone would rush over to the funeral home for this purpose, but experience has taught me that when people die, you never know how others may react or what they might do.

(3) Cemetery burial. Years ago, at the time of my brother Rob’s death, my mother reserved a space for herself in the family plot where her son, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. I anticipated many phone calls and communications with the cemetery for the cremation and interment.

Mom with her mother and me

Thankful things about Mom (and a few about me)

At some point in the hours that followed the news of Mom’s death, I realised my wish to have been with her during her final days and hours — should her death have come that way – was mostly for my benefit, not necessarily for hers.

On our flight to the US, in an attempt to keep my focus on my mother instead of my own loss, I made a list of things I needed to remember and be thankful for.

Thankful about Mom

* she had kind aides and a nurse with her when she took her last breath

* she was ‘comfortable’ with no visible pain or distress

* she was fine the night before, and at 5am that morning when an aide checked on her and she awoke and said, ‘Thank you, dear.’

* she didn’t linger for weeks or months in any horrible ‘out of it’ state

* she died in bed, with dignity, not in a public space or falling out of her wheelchair

* she could still respond to people and say a few words, including ‘I love you’

* we visited her five times last year and had two two-week visits with her this year

* she still knew me and my son, and my voice on the phone

* we had a loving conversation on Thursday, two days before she died (and I will always regret not calling her on Friday)

with me and Clive, May 2012

I also couldn’t help listing more practical things about me (and Clive) that I was and am thankful for:

* our friends D&J offering to drive us to Heathrow and coming over Saturday evening

* D picking us up at 5:30am Sunday for that drive (and, though we didn’t know it then, that he would repeat this generous act of friendship in reverse ten days later)

* my son and belle-fille immediately offering to host a family memorial gathering the following weekend at their home, disrupting my belle-fille’s travel plans and taking all that pressure off me

* timing: my mother died on a Saturday morning. My son, who lives within an hour of her, arrived home from a business trip late Friday night. He handled local matters on Saturday and Sunday, until Clive and I arrived Sunday afternoon. That evening, he had to leave for a crucial five-day overseas business trip. It may be coincidence he was home the one day his grandmother died. Or maybe his grandmother had something to do with it.

Two of my favourite people

My mother’s body

We learned at our meeting with the funeral director that he would organise the cremation and burial of my mother’s ashes.

After going over the details, he left the room for a few minutes to contact the cemetery. When he returned, he said everything was confirmed as we wished and, ‘She’s going in with Robert.’

It’s hard to describe how much those five words meant to me, except to say they made me weep with relief and something much deeper, a meaning and significance I hadn’t anticipated but knew was the culmination of life coming full circle from the years that had passed since my brother’s death.

Mom with her children

In a calm, lovely room – like a large living room, with comfortable chairs and sofa and soft light from table lamps – I had the time I yearned for with my mother’s body.

Mom’s body was laid out on a bed, with a soft blanket pulled up to her chest. Because it was to be cremated, the funeral home had not done a full embalming (e.g. with make-up and a hair-do), but had made her look lovely with her eyes and mouth closed, beautiful as she always was. She looked utterly at peace, more as if she were sleeping than any other body I’ve viewed fully-embalmed in a casket. The dear staff of the memory unit had dressed her in a nice shirt, one I’d bought for her a few years ago, and slacks. Her hands were clasped over her abdomen.

Because the body wasn’t in a casket, I could get right next to it by dropping to my knees on the padded bench beside her. (This is called a kneeler, or a Prie-dieu according to the funeral director. Literally this means pray God, a perfect French word if there ever was one.)

I was able lay my head on my mother’s chest for long periods at a time, hold her shoulders and hug her as I cried and talked to her. I stroked her face and hair and lay my hand on top of her beautiful hands, so I could feel them all the time. Of course her body was cold-ish by then, but my hand on hers actually made them a little bit warm temporarily

holding hands, March 2017

For just a few moments, I thought maybe I should order a nice casket and leave my mother’s precious body as it was. But immediately I knew that would be wrong. She had made her wishes clear. I whispered, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. We will have the cremation.’

In a way, I guess I did get my wish, to be at her side and to touch and stroke her body – though all the time I was in that room, I knew her soul, the essence of her being, was elsewhere. That didn’t lessen the importance to me of having that time with her earthly shell.

Also briefly, I considered keeping Mom’s ashes myself, carrying them back to England so I would always have them with me. But equally quickly, I knew, without doubt, they belonged exactly where they were going.

The grave on the hill

I’m not a big fan of cemeteries for myself. Then again, I’ve written about them many times, especially in Paris (e.g. MontparnassePère LachaiseMontmartre  …) and on the Great Orme in Wales. Clive and I enjoy walking, contemplating and occasionally picnicking in these peaceful places.

On a tranquil New Jersey hillside, my cousins and I have watched the caskets of our grandfather, then our grandmother and then my brother and their father (killed in the same auto accident) lowered into the ground. We’ve visited the site regularly, though I hadn’t been back in several years.

Spending time at the cemetery, seeing the monument and freshly-planted grass seed where the earth had been dug up for my mother’s remains, and knowing they were right where they should be was a tremendous comfort. Clive and I spent a couple of blessed hours on and around that petite patch of the planet.

flowers for my mother at our family gravesite

At the end of the week, my son and belle-fille hosted the memorial gathering in their beautiful home. It was just what my mother would have loved, and I know she would have been as proud of them as I was. Mom always loved a family party.

Somewhat to my surprise, I feel a sense of peace about my mother’s death. It seems all is as it should be, especially with respect to her wishes and her earthly remains. She graced this earth with her presence for nearly 94 years. How can I feel anything but gratitude for her life and for the gift of having her as my mom?

The beauty parlour

The afternoon before she died, Mom participated in a music program and went to the beauty parlour. She always enjoyed these activities, and I enjoyed accompanying her to them when Clive and I visited.

On the afternoon of what would have been Mom’s 94th birthday, I went to the Felixstowe hair salon. This may become an annual tradition.

Mom and me (taking photo) in the beauty parlour, October 2017

My dear friend Sandy gifted me with a little book at our memorial gathering, Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief, Martha W Hickman’s wisdom-filled gem. The quotation at the top of the page for that day is a Bible verse that spoke to me then and now:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.   [Isaiah 43:2]

My mother’s earthly remains may rest in New Jersey, but I know she will always be with me, here in Felixstowe or wherever we may be. She lives forever in my heart.

with my beloved Mom, May 2008

Thank you for reading and blessings to all and our mothers.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris: An Epilogue; A Slow December Start and Jacquemart-André Art

View from the metro: Eiffel Tower & Australian Embassy

Paris glows in December with festive spirit, sparkling lights, Christmas markets, dazzlingly-decorated shops and boutiques and the lovely bright buzz of the season.

Clive and I arrived in the City of Light on Friday afternoon, the first day of the month. From the metro we viewed the Eiffel Tower and the Australian Embassy, currently featuring a koala on the side of the building.

We’ve had a slow start to December, following the 13-month sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage) saga and a non-stop November in Felixstowe. These events are described in my previous posts, Painting (and Pâtisseries) in Paris, an Introduction and 5-part series.

Painting (and patisseries) in Paris: An epilogue

When we arrived at the apartment on Friday, our main question was: Will the window open and close?

More accurately, my main concern was: Could I open and close the window on my own? After the final-days’ drama last time, I knew Clive could handle it.

He tried it first. It opened and closed smoothly. In fact, it seemed improved from when we left it.

Then I tried. Voilà! I was able to open and close it fairly easily, too. It was definitely better than when we left it.

We should have guessed: in November, our friend and neighbour, Bernard, had also tested the window. He decided it needed a little oil on its ancient locking mechanism. Merci beaucoup, Bernard!

Brightened by the window working well again, we set off on our usual arrival-evening errands via a stop at the café to say Bonsoir to Vlad and celebrate with a kir.

Kirs at the café

Where did the next three days go after that? We’ve managed a few more trips to the café, bien sûr, a bus ride to a favourite papeterie (stationery shop) and a relaxing rendez-vous with the delightful Kim B. for tea and coffee and pastries.

Un Dimanche à Paris (merci Kim for your company and your photo!)

We caught a bus by Saint-Sulpice church, outside the wonderful Georges Thuillier shop, the best place I know in Paris to find authentic santons (figurines) de Provence.

Santons in the window of G Thuillier

I’m slowly creating my own version of this French tradition, adding one or two santons each year.

Santons on my mantle

Il fait froid — it’s cold!

On a drizzly, freezing Sunday morning, the sight of a red awning warmed our hearts as we walked to a church service.

A grand sight when it’s cold outside

At midday, the atmosphere and warmth (if not the rather ordinary burger and fish & chips – not the best menu choice, we realise) were lovely inside, too.

Warm and cheerful inside

Back in the freezing cold, the line outside the Petit Palais was way too long for us to stand around waiting to see l’Art du Pastel, de Dégas à Redon (The Art of Pastel, from Degas to Redon). It runs until 8 April 2018 so we hope we’ll still be able to see it.

A thrilling collection

Today we were rewarded with an absolutely fabulous exhibit at the Musée Jacquemart-André, Le Jardin Secret des Hansen, La Collection Ordrupgaard  (The Hansen’s Secret Garden, the Ordrupgaard Collection).

This museum, housed in a former hôtel particulier, or grand Parisian mansion, contains the permanent collection of Édouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, and also features many excellent temporary exhibitions (plus an elegant tearoom/lunchroom).

Clive on the ground floor of Musée Jacquemart-André

As with the museum itself, this temporary exhibit showcases the collection of a husband and wife, Wilhelm and Henny Hansen, a Danish couple from Ordrup, north of Copenhagen. Artists included are Corot, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse, Redon, Degas, Courbet, Renoir, Cézanne and Morisot. Incroyable! Incredible!

Apologies the photos are at an angle or crooked; we were surrounded by several groups and I was unceremoniously elbowed a few times.

Claude Monet, Fontainebleu

I could have stood before Monet’s La Mer all day; this photo doesn’t do justice to the colours and movement of the sea.

Claude Monet, la Mer

Or you can fall in love with Pissarro’s snow:

Camille Pissarro, effet de neige à Eragny

or Berthe Morisot’s young girl on the grass:

Berthe Morisot, Young girl on the grass

and so many, many more.

I wish we’d had more time. I wish the groups weren’t there (at least those who stand in frozen hordes listening to their audioguides and blocking the view for the rest of us). I wish we could return again and again to view the works in the Hansens’ collection. Sometimes life and/or current events can seem dismal and dispiriting; viewing works like these reminds me of the world’s beauty and the talent used so positively to create and support the work.

This exhibit runs only until 22 January 2018; I can’t recommend it highly enough. (And just for good measure, opening March 9 thru July 23, 2018 is Mary Cassatt, Une Americaine à Paris.)

Bravo! Super!

This evening we hosted our neighbours, Bernard and Berthe, for champagne and a petit apéritif. I feel I can never thank them enough for their friendship and help over the years, but am grateful they seem to enjoy our time together.

We’re counting the days until my son and belle-fille arrive later this week. Until then we hope to get to a Christmas market or two and soak up more early-December in Paris.

I always say if you’re thinking about visiting Paris, every month is the best time to be here. If you’re thinking of December, by all means, it’s definitely one of the best.

Christmas market at Auteuil, Paris

Cheers and merci for reading. A bientôt, see you soon from Paris.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 5: Reflections on a Deeper Meaning

It was worthwhile

After the final seven days of repairs and painting, the work in the bedroom was complete. Thanks to Clive, the main furniture pieces were also repaired to near-new condition.

I’d always known that the more time passed, the closer the day would come when the painting would need to be redone. Monsieur P’s leaky tap unleashed months of new activities and experiences.

Despite the length of the posts in this 5-part series, I left out several sub-plots and issues we had to deal with to get everything done. None of the events of the past year are included in my Paris memoir-in-progress, though in a few chapters I plan to share more ‘before and after’ photos from when I first purchased my home away from home.

The repairs and painting

Perhaps our recent journey would have been faster if we’d been on site the entire time. Learning the process, being remote, relying on snail-mail letters from my neighbour and finding each step to be another ‘learn-as-you-go’ exercise all added to the total length of time.

The past 13 months have been a learning journey and one that yet again deepened my experience in Paris.

Going deeper. Paris, je t’aime

‘Why Paris?’ many have asked over the years.

One reason is that from my childhood days in suburban New Jersey, I developed a deep longing to know Paris and the French. I dreamed I might live there one day, and knew I wanted to get below the surface level, magnificent as it is, to more fully experience the city.

The pâtisseries

Another response, when I’m asked ‘Why Paris?’ is that I dreamed of stepping out the door into streets lined with cafes and boulangeries (bakeries) and fromageries (cheese shops) and fruiterers (fruit markets) and boucheries (butchers) and pâtisseries (pastry shops).

‘Where do they buy their baguettes?’ was my constant refrain 20 years ago when we searched all over the city for an apartment. I wanted to get to know ‘my’ local merchants and walk home carrying a warm baguette or a shiny white box tied with a string and containing a little bit of magic inside.

Paris patisserie

Here’s the funny thing about pâtisseries: as beautiful as the creations are, I don’t actually like eating many of them. Often I find them too sweet, or too fruity, or the patissier’s ‘creative’ use of unusual – sometimes, to my taste, downright strange — fruit and flavour combinations strikes me as over-the-top and simply doesn’t appeal. Caviar. Matcha. Popcorn. Cinnamon-blackberry. Truffle.

Then there are the colours: neon green, pink, yellow, red, turquoise (the last being an ‘Oreo’ macaron).Clive is especially dubious, saying he wonders what exactly was added to make such unnatural colours, and wondering whether he wants to eat it.

I go for pastries of traditional, pure flavours. There’s always a wealth to choose from in dark chocolate, vanilla, coffee, caramel and lemon. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but the ever-changing flavours-of-the-season (especially with respect to macarons) sometimes seem nothing more than an ego competition between pastry chefs trying to outdo each other with increasingly far-fetched combinations (cep-mushroom chocolates or wasabi-horseradish macarons, anyone?).

Pure chocolate artistry at a favourite destination, Paris

Quality of life

Nevertheless, I adore pâtisseries. They’re about so much more than the beauty of the creations (except the neon ones), the way they’re displayed and the fact you can eat them.

For me, the deeper meaning is that beneath the surface splendour and sensual appeal to the eye and the palate, pâtisseries are physical manifestations of a country and culture that values a certain way, and a certain quality, of life.

It’s a quality of life that, to be sure, venerates beauty and sensual pleasures. But it’s also a culture that values the time and care and artistry that go into making the creations (well, at least those that aren’t industrially-produced; some top brands manufacture their macarons in large factories, some not even in France).

The culture esteems not only the creations but equally those who create. Skills and qualifications are achieved; honours and titles bestowed to great public fanfare and respect, such as Meilleur Ouvrier de France (M.O.F. Best Craftsman of France) and M.O.F. pâtissier, often shortened simply to Meilleur Ouvrier. I admire and respect them, too, even if some of their flavours are too much for me.

Pâtisseries represent a way of life in which we take time to appreciate foods that nourish not only the body and our physical senses but also our hearts and souls.

Paris patisserie

The value of relationships

I’ve learned so much through this recent sinistre dégâts des eaux saga, about the French insurance process (and ‘friendly’ forms), managers and office workers, contractors and tradesmen, neighbours and friends. Thankfully each step progressed in due course, though not always quickly and with plenty of ups and downs.

The French are so much about courtesy and relationships, and this aspect of the culture was repeatedly demonstrated and never meant more to me than during the past 13 months. I’ll always have lasting gratitude for everyone who helped, above all my friend and neighbour Bernard. Nor could I have done it without Clive’s physical and emotional support, and I like to think my late husband, Gary, was cheering us on from above. Vlad’s early-morning ‘Bon Courage!’ helped, too.

Vlad, our favourite Paris waiter, and Clive

Layers of meaning

In the end, what some may deem a simple task of ‘repairing and repainting the bedroom’ was for me so much more.

Engaging in the process and being present as the room Gary painted was repaired and repainted by someone else proved to be a good and right thing to do.

Despite my ongoing desire and appreciation of when I can increase my experience in Paris, I never would have asked for Monsieur P’s kitchen tap to leak and cause the damage it did. But maybe every renovation or DIY project has the potential to uncover hidden depths. Whether a private bedroom or a global city like Paris itself, places contain layers of history and memory and meaning. As places change and grow, we do, too.

Writing helps me understand and reflect upon some of my life’s experiences. The past 13 months, for better or worse, have certainly helped me feel more Parisian, if only part-time. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-memoir, or petite histoire (little story), of sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage), people and pâtisseries in Paris.

A happy place

Looking ahead for Christmas

Clive and I have been enjoying November in Felixstowe, the only month this year we’ve been here for a full calendar month. In addition to celebrating Clive’s birthday and our seventh wedding anniversary, we’ve been aiming to end the month with most of those seemingly-endless, pre-Christmas tasks completed. Thanks to Spreadsheet Man, we’re more or less on track.

Why all the end-of-November focus? Anticipation has been building for December, when we’ll return to the City of Light for an early Christmas with my son and belle-fille, then welcome Clive’s Aussie gang for a family Christmas in Felixstowe. As part of their traditional English Christmas, tickets for a panto have been booked.

Meanwhile, I’ve been dreaming of a clean, peaceful room quietly awaiting our return.

Standing under the repaired corner: reflections in a clean and peaceful room

Cheers and thanks for reading. Wishing everyone a joyful festive season.