29 September 2009

"Getting trippy"

Weird and wonderful link sent by Michael this morning. As it says on the website, don't pursue this if you suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. And as Michael said, what the hell does our brain think it's doing???


Finally—I too qualify as a fairy tale princess

I know Michael can identify with this rueful remark (in bold type, last paragraph) by Thomas Sutcliffe in a short piece from The Independent.

You can't beat John Lewis

I don't think John Lewis should worry too much about the mischievous ad campaign that suggests people should take advantage of their customer service to research a purchase and then buy it online instead (the competitors shall remain nameless as punishment).

I mentioned this casually to a group of colleagues and provoked a spontaneous clamour of indignation on the store's behalf, John Lewis clearly figuring in the middle-class heart as an organisation so cherishable you could only match its appeal if you mated a giant panda with David Attenborough.

Shortly afterwards I experienced just why this should be when ordering some bedroom blinds. "You'll have the measurements on file," I told the salesman, explaining that the ones I was ordering were a replacement for a set delivered only a few weeks before that had turned out to be an unsuitable colour. I could have lived with this error of judgement until the cost was amortized but my wife has higher standards (think princess and pea). "Bring them back in", said the salesmen, without prompting, "and I'll give you half the cost back". Try getting that kind of service from gazunder.co.uk.

Illustration by Taunton-raised artist Emily Golden (http://www.pollingerltd.com/clients/emily_golden.htm)

28 September 2009

Grand Tour, Day 2 (15 September)

Rain! Normandy, and later in the day Brittany, are rather different from good old Languedoc-Roussillon. Wetter but greener, crops rather than vineyards, a cuisine based on cream and butter not olive oil.

Pleased we had taken photos of the hotel garden the evening before, we scurry damply through it from our modern annex to the original building. The copper and brass collection there is extraordinary; top photo is of the pot I most coveted.

All our breakfasts were hotel buffets: baguettes, croissants, jams, juices, cheeses, cold meants, butter (in our previous experience of France, le petit déjeuner was the only meal when butter was served with bread, but in Normandy/Brittany, it appears at dinner as well). The orange juice here wasn't the greatest, but the dispenser was—an elegant tall glass cylinder with a central column filled with ice.

Grabbing hooded jackets and an umbrella, we set off to see a few of the sights in Avranches. Since we only had an hour or so before we needed to get on the road, we couldn't really do justice to the town. We didn't make it to the castle or the scriptorial museum or the episcopal palace, but did pass this lovely residence on our way to the famous botanical gardens.

Michael was hugely disappointed at the Jardin des Plantes because the weather meant the fabled view of Mont-St-Michel was obscured. This is what we saw:

And this is what we should have seen:

Still, the garden was lovely, even in the rain, as we strolled where Guy de Maupassant and Victor Hugo had found inspiration.

Our next quest was to find the spot where in 1172 Henry II had received absolution from papal legates for the 1170 murder of Thomas à Becket. [According to Simon Schama, the well-known request Henry made that resulted in the assassination was not "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" but the rather wordier "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"]

Our guidebook mentioned an inscribed paving stone, but the first girl we asked at the tourist center had never heard of this memorial (Michael was the one talking, so the problem wasn't the phrasing of the question). Her senior colleague, however, knew straight off what we were looking for, and we were directed to a remote corner of town where a cathedral had stood until 1794, when it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

At first , sand-obsessed as always, we thought the engraving on the stone was an hourglass, but on closer look the geometry meant it had to be a chalice. The plaque on the pillar (apparently from the cathedral) read "La penitence d'un roi," so we had clearly come to the place where, barefoot, bareheaded, and on his knees, Henry repented of his crime.

Part of a row of old stone buildings
near the memorial

At the tourist center, escaping from the deluge outside, I had also picked up a brochure for Marie-Louise de Bouteville: Epicerie Fine Régionale et Internationale. Since we had to pass that way returning to the hotel, Michael indulged me. A visit to what was also billed as a "Purveyor of Fine Foods & Spirits" never goes amiss and this turned out to be well worth the stop. Not only were the purple potato chips and crispy apple caramel cookies we bought delicious, the owner was a treat. Not Marie-Louise—she was his aunt, who had died a few years ago at 103, sharp right until the end. On her 100th birthday, feeling very chipper, she'd announced to her relatives, "Sorry—you're going to have to put up with me a while longer."

Her nephew was about our age, spoke very good English (though in his youth he'd lost a job with Gerber in London for lack of proficiency), and, despite his sophistication, was obviously completely unconcerned with appearance, since his frequent broad smiles disclosed that he was missing his bottom two front teeth. When he heard I was from the Philadelphia area, he said, "Next time bring me a cheesesteak. I love Philly cheesesteak!"

This unexpectedly long conversation, during which we learned there are 200,000 American expats in France, meant we needed to check out quickly and get on our way to Mont-St-Michel, first glimpsed across the polders, which Michael explained was a Dutch word for a stretch of low-lying land reclaimed from the sea. The second photo below shows a few of the sheep that graze on the polders; their meat, known as l'agneau pré salé (salt meadow lamb) is prized for its unique flavor.

A couple more photos as we neared the extraordinary Disney-like structure that had been erected over centuries on granite rock once cut off from the mainland but now connected via a causeway. We didn't have time to explore the abbey—just as we didn't visit the skull of its founder, St Aubert, in St-Gervais Church in Avranches. The hole in the skull is supposedly where the archangel Michael poked Aubert with his fiery finger when the latter delayed in getting on with the project; the truth is it's probably a trepanned skull belonging to someone else entirely. For more detail on this Unesco World Heritage site, the biggest tourist attraction in France outside Paris, see Michael's blog post, Mont-St-Michel: a massive sedimentology experiment.

We'd been lucky to gaze at Mont-St-Michel moistly rather than wetly, but the rain started up again as we drove past the painstakingly researched engineering work for the bridge that will replace the causeway in 2012. Our goal was the rugged coast of the Côte d'Emeraude, looking more gray than emerald this day. We drove through several fishing villages (with Michael leaping out to collect wet sand) and then arrived at the beach town of Sables d'Or, looking for somewhere to stay a little more promising than the Hôtel et Restaurant Beauséjour in Erquy. We had only booked accommodation for our first night and Michael's birthday, figuring we'd try the relaxed approach of Laurie and Libby. This was the one time that more spontaneous way of doing things almost didn't work. Beauséjour was in the 2009 Michelin guide we were using, but that doesn't show the * to ***** system of French hotel rankings. As a result of the offputting shabbiness of Beauséjour's reception area, a new rule: never drop below ***.

Turned away by the first Sables d'Or hotel we tried, we ended up at Hôtel LaVoile d'Or (from a gold cross the night before to a gold sail), rather more expensive than what we had hoped, but by this time we were both wet and tired. The sky cleared, though, and Michael went out for a bit more sand collecting. Dinner was very upmarket, with formal service and a chef with a fetish for multiple plates at each course. As seems to happen with surprising frequency these days, the best dish was the pork Michael ordered; this has been true in London and California as well. It would seem that the culinary world is paying more attention to the humble pig.

We learned another phrase when the waitress amended Michael's "Ça marche" on sampling the 2oo6 Sablet to "Ça roule!" Below is the dessert spread, mine variations on an apple theme, Michael's chocolate. The photo at the bottom is of the tray wheeled to the table when Michael had his coffee.

27 September 2009

Grand Tour, Day 1 (14 September)

In order to see the place names, you'll probably have to click on the above map that Michael put together to show our itinerary. I'll put this at the top of each "Grand Tour" blog post so that I, if no one else, can keep track of where we are, where we've been, and where we're going. I had a hard enough time remembering when we were actually en route. Thank heavens for Valerie: we named our Garmin sat nav with her posh British accent after the dance teacher Michael was in love with at about nine years old.

Our trip started with a train ride to Portsmouth (for future reference: destination for coming & going should be Portsmouth & Southsea, not Portsmouth Harbour), where we spent the night at the cheap and cheerful Ibis Hotel before catching a ferry to Cherbourg the next morning. The poor waitress behind the hotel bar that slow Sunday evening had the unenviable task of being chief cook and bottlewasher as well as taking orders. As someone who waited on tables during college, I'm generally a pretty good tipper—especially by British standards—but this girl deserved even more than I usually leave. Somehow she managed to produced a pretty good pizza for Michael and a really good risotto, complete with shaved rather than grated parmesan, for me. The wonders of modern microwaving!

Our 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning didn't come through, but Michael's alarm clocks, external and internal did, so we were up by 5:35. A taxi took us to the ferry terminal, where we were whisked quickly through into a waiting room and shortly after onto the boat. We haven't crossed the channel by ferry since boarding the hovercraft we took with my parents and Geretha for Cheri and Hans-Jörg's wedding.

While I was impressed by the croissants, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and comfortable seats (so different from Ryanair), Michael was pacing the deck for the best views of the mighty show of naval vessels in the harbor. As the ferry pulled away, we caught a glimpse of Nelson's Victory (better images plus history at the HMS Victory website) . . .

. . . in stark contrast to the sleek lines of a modern warship:

Here's an intermediate vessel, HMS Warrior, Britain's first ironclad steamship, built in Portsmouth in 1860. Note the two red funnels.

Even older than the Victory is the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship that sank during a battle with the French fleet in 1545. All we could see of this was the huge plastic tent under which restoration work is still being done after its discovery (1966—before divers knew exactly which ship they had found) and removal from the seabed (1982).

A reminder of the ongoing animosity between England and France is this fort, one of several in the Solent (a quick look at images on Google makes me think this is Spitbank Fort). We assumed the forts dated from the Napoleonic Wars, but no, they were built over about a twenty-year period from 1860. One forgets how recently these two nations, staring at each other across the Channel--or La Manche--have each considered the other a dangerous enemy.

As an aside here, the story, perhaps apocryphal, that I've always felt best embodied this Anglo-French rivalry is the sad tale of the Hartlepool (pronounced Hart-lee-pool, as Michael just corrected me) monkey. I'll just copy the saga off the town website. Even today, their football team is nicknamed the "Monkey Hangers."

The Hartlepool Monkey

The best known tradition and legend associated with the fishermen of Hartlepool is the story of the hanging of the monkey. Tradition attributes this legend to the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a December day and the coast at Hartlepool was subject to a heavy battering of gales and snow, through which a French vessel called the Chasse Maree could be vaguely seen just off the Hartlepool headland.

The fisherfolk of Hartlepool fearing an invasion kept a close watch on the French vessel as it struggled against the storm but when the vessel was severely battered and sunk they turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore. Among the wreckage lay one wet and sorrowful looking survivor, the ship's pet monkey dressed to amuse in a military style uniform.

The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and held a beach-based trial. Unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like they came to the conclusion that this monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death. The unfortunate creature was to die by hanging, with the mast of a fishing boat (a coble) providing a convenient gallows.

In former times, when war and strife
The French invasion threaten'd life
An' all was armed to the knife
The Fisherman hung the monkey O !
The Fishermen with courage high,
Siezed on the monkey for a French spy;
"Hang him !" says one; "he's to die"
They did and they hung the monkey Oh!
They tried every means to make him speak
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak;
Says yen "thats french" says another "its Greek"
For the fishermen had got druncky oh!

Back to our trip.

The port of Cherbourg is not in any way romantic. I've put the film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) in my Amazon shopping cart to see if that 1964 musical shows any of the rather seedy reality we were looking at in 2009.

The good news was that the ferry was a bit early and we arrived in Cherbourg before noon—critical in France since everything shuts down then for a two-hour lunchbreak. The bad news was that Michael left a file in the car rental office we were driven to that had all our reservation documents for the trip. He realized his error before we drove off, but in those few minutes, the agent had shut up shop. Two hours to kill. . . . [I, of course, was not-so-secretly delighted that it was my husband who had made a mistake for a change.]

This turned out to be a most providential bit of absent-mindedness. Because we were freed of the compulsion to get straight on our way to Brittany, we were able to head west to the Normandy beaches. Our good friend Chet Bonar, born on 14 September, was on Eisenhower's staff for Operation Overlord, so the timing couldn't have been better.

I'll let these moving images speak for themselves. You can't look at the wide, flat beach codenamed Utah (we'll be visiting Omaha, scene of the far bloodier landing in Saving Private Ryan, on our way back, and possibly Sword, Gold, or Juno) without thinking of all the Allied soldiers who stepped onto these forbidding expanses and others like them on D-Day, known as Jour J in France. One of the reasons "only" about two hundred servicemen lost their lives at Utah fits in with what you were telling me, Dad, about the effect the weather had on amphibious tanks on 6 June 1944:

DD tanks: Nearly all of these swimming tanks made the beach because they were launched half as far out as at Omaha and were able to steer into the current more effectively to avoid swamping in the rough seas. [Wikipedia]

The German pillboxes in our photos were a bit inland, not right on the beach. The landing here was accidental—and lucky, given the weak defenses. Strong currents swept the landing crafts a mile south of their intended destination.

With French and US flags flying on either side, the top inscription on
this memorial reads (literally and stiltedly translated line by line):
6 JUNE 1944

The second part of the inscription honors French general Leclerc, who arrived with his 2nd armored division on 1 August. Although there's a lot of controversy over whether Eisenhower held Patton back so that the French could themselves liberate Paris, it seems to be universally agreed that LeClerc is the outstanding French leader from that period, even though we Americans have usually only heard of de Gaulle. For a bit more about this honorable man (I can't find a properly biographical site), click here and here.

After a quick omelette at a small café in Quinéville, we headed back to the National Citer office for our file. The countryside in this part of Normandy is very like Dorset. Unfortunately we didn't take snaps of some of the lovely stone farmhouses we passed amidst hedgerows and sunken lanes, thinking they'd be the first of many. Wrong. We never saw anything like them again.

Our target, like Patton's, was the town of Avranches, where Michael had arranged for us to stay in a 17th-century relais du poste, or coaching inn, the Hôtel de la Croix d'Or. It was charming, though our room was oddly like a time warp from the brown-dominated 1970s:

Before dinner, we strolled over to the Patton memorial. The inscription there begins (in French):


When we were standing in the square where the monument was erected, we were literally on American ground: soil and trees were shipped over from the States. The bust of Patton ("General Patton, 1885-1945, Liberator of Avranches") was a later addition, dedicated in 2004.

Soon it was time for dinner, the first of several demi-pension (half-board) meals on this trip. And the first was one of the best.

The charger plate, which disappeared (I think) even before
our amuse-bouche of duck à l'orange tartare arrived

Michael's oysters, served with a spinach-leek foam

Langoustines and mushrooms in a champagne cream sauce

We didn't photograph our main courses, Michael's filet de bar, bass in yet another lovely sauce, and my pigeon. Mine was the weakest link in the meal, but what can you expect if you order one of Woody Allen's "rats with wings"?

Michael had a cheese course. Years ago I smiled when an aristocrat in Diane Johnson's Le Divorce commented that French culture had died when menus were printed with fromage ou dessert instead of fromage et dessert (or vs. and). Well, in this part of France culture is alive and well; both were on offer as part of our fixed price meal. The two cheeses that we now need to look out for are Coutances and Gaperon. Michael finished our bottle of a 2006 Sancerre, a red (pinot noir) rather than the more customary white.

For dessert, Michael had a fabulous apple and Calvados sorbet. I ordered "le délice Normand," which turned out to be a tart filled with caramel and cider mousse, with (in the small glass shown) a fabulous syrupy fruit concoction of flambéed apples, caramel, and Pommeau. Tiny meringues and chocolate mousse cups then appeared with Michael's coffee. The waitress's cheery "bonne continuation" early on in the evening had been an understatement of what was to come.

26 September 2009

Feast at Creek Way

While we were wending our way along the Atlantic coast of France, good times were being had in Lansdale, PA, as well. I'll keep Kate's captions for these photos, first of a dinner Robert and she prepared for my parents, then the celebration for my mother's 85th birthday and Mom & Dad's 65th wedding anniversary, both on 16 September. They also received a fabulous bouquet and chocolates from our newly discovered relative in Buffalo (Lori is another genealogy enthusiast—bliss for my dad, who has been able to share the research he's done on my maternal grandmother's Deforest/Wemple links) and were toasted again at a special dinner with Geretha and family. There were other treats, no doubt, but the one I especially want to mention was my mom's first-ever pedicure, a gift from Geretha.

Kate's captions in brown, my additions in black:

First off [Robert's] delicious Yorkshire puddings; he was a little worried about the shape, but hell when was the last time we didn't just buy them from Tesco...

The table spread, and yes, Robert was actually impressed by my carne asada, though he did watch over the grilling and help carve the meat. [Kate used both a mallet and an ingenious piercing device (see Amazon) to tenderize a tougher but more flavorful cut of meat.] ... A weird meeting of traditional English and west coast Mexican.

A couple of pics [I've included just my favorite] of the happy eaters (as suspected Grandma was very drawn to the Yorkshire puddings and Grandpa couldn't help picking at the steak):

And finally the dessert - cranberry sorbet, my lemon lime cookies and nectarines. Before you ask, Robert left the nectarines though I insisted on putting them on as it looked nice... [Robert doesn't like fruit & veg.]

Next event:

The happy crowd at Olive Garden and just for Mom: gp - shrimp pasta, gm - eggplant parmigiana, Robert - chicken fettucini alfredo, me - risotto and chicken. gm and gp loved it.

Grandpa didn't bring a camera, so he managed to get one on mine impressively. I think my silly face this time is to do with watching him attempt to adjust to watch the screen instead of putting his eye up to it.

Grandma figuring out her new toy. I also have a nice flip video of the opening etc... [Unlike me, Robert registered the fact that the 16th was an anniversary as well as a birthday. Kate and he bought and filled a digital photo frame with archival images—a perfect gift.]

Everybody enjoying Robert's "cloud cake," his grandmother's recipe that he won a blue ribbon for at a fair as a child. Point of interest: it was the Frog Fair at Calaveras - centered around the Mark Twain story "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"...