Sunday, November 30, 2014

School Days' Christmas

This month I have chosen to post a chapter from my book, Cool Mom on the Hot Seat (pub. 2005).  The book does not have pictures, so I have added these from the  my "vintage" collection just for fun.  Merry Christmas to you all!

On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Meredith ran up to the back door and called as she arrived, “You should see all my stuff, Mom!”

 She emptied the contents of her backpack on the living room rug. Out spilled Christmas cookies, candy canes, and school papers collected through all of December.

I looked out the window and saw Thomas approaching, slowly, carrying his violin, a scowl on his face. He bumped his way into the house, breathing frustration, and dropped his backpack and violin case. Slumping into a chair, he moaned, “We were ba-a-ad. I couldn’t believe how bad we were. Everybody played a different speed.”

It was true; the violin portion of the Christmas concert had sounded, as Charles Dickens said, “like fifty stomach aches.” Already in his third year of private violin lessons, Thomas found school music frustrating. I understood his sense of humiliation.

“Look at this, Mom,” Meredith exclaimed, opening the gift from her teacher—a new box of crayons and coloring book. In the midst of her belongings she began a picture. “Did you see me in the concert? I smiled at you. Miss Mantas said to smile when we saw our parents.”

“I saw you. I could tell that you knew the words to all the songs.” Meredith had been singing around the house for days.

“I knew them all,” she said. “You know what Janelle said? She said she had on the prettiest dress. I don’t think that was very nice, was it? Besides her dress wasn’t the nicest. Miss Mantas said everybody looked nice.” Meredith continued on to the annoyance of Thomas.

(homemade decorations for the little upstairs tree)
“She’s always such a chatterbox,” he complained.

“I am not, Thomas.”

“Yes you are—all the time.” He slunk further into the chair.

“Okay Thomas,” I intervened, “it’s your turn. What do you want to say?”

“Nothing,” he grunted. “It’s just a rotten day. I’m going outside.”

In a few minutes, I heard the thud-thud of his basketball hitting the driveway I had shovelled earlier that afternoon.

“I’m going out too,” Meredith said, heading to her room to change into play clothes. I listened to her talking to her dolls, to her clothes, and to herself. At last, she went down cellar for her snow pants, boots, hat and mittens, still in a cheerful one-sided conversation.

Thomas returned with an improved frame of mind. “Johnny can’t come out, so I’m going to read. I have to read four books over vacation.” He sat down on the living room rug and started pulling books and papers out of his backpack. In her snow clothes, Meredith clomped up the cellar stairs and out the back door, without noticing that Thomas had come in.

“Here, Mom,” Thomas said, coming into the kitchen. “I made this in Art. I thought it would look nice over the sink.”

He held a paper angel, neatly colored, mounted on green construction paper and folded into a cylinder.
“Can you hang it up now?”

I cut a hole in the top, thread a string, and hung the angel over the window latch.
“There, how’s that?” I asked.

“Good. That’s a good place for it.”

Although only late afternoon, it was getting dark and I hadn’t seen or heard Meredith since she went out. I turned on the outside back door light, but didn’t see her in the yard. I went into the living room, turned on the front lights and opened the door to look out. Meredith lay sprawled on her back surrounded by snow angels.
“Look at all these snow angels,” I called to her. “We’ll think we’re in heaven, there are so many.”

“There are twenty-three of them.”

I wondered that twenty-three snow angels could fit in our small urban yard, but there they were, a heavenly host shoulder to shoulder, in rows. I closed the door. In a few minutes Bill would be home and it would be time for dinner. Thomas appeared relaxed in the chair reading. I put on Christmas music and walked into the kitchen where the paper angel hung over the sink.

(Santa Clause brings Buster kitten and a Hess truck!)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Autumn glory

(Mirror reflections on the Kunjamuk)

I have been nearly in a swoon for the past month over the gorgeous fall foliage this year.  Granted, I always think the trees are beautiful, despite what people say about this or that year being not as nice as another, but this year is stupendous.  I hope you have been able to get out to see the display!

While Bill attended a conference in Orlando, I spent a few days in late September and early October on day outings in the Adirondacks with friends. Karen took me to Speculator to kayak the Kunjamuk River. I almost never carry my camera in my boat, for fear of getting it wet, but I'm sure glad I did this time.  I was in complete awe at every bend of the river. 

(Karen is dwarfed by a brilliant overhanging maple)

Can you see Karen under the arch of this gorgeous maple?   Despite floating aimlessly at times to view the scenery and take pictures, we covered quite a few miles.  We had hoped to get to Elm Lake, but ten beaver dams used up a lot of our time and energy. We were able to stay in our boats and push ourselves through four of them, but we had to get out and climb over six dams hauling our boats behind us.  Apparently, the beaver population is booming in the Adirondack wilderness!

(Buttermilk Falls in Long Lake)

On October first, I took my elderly parents for, what I called, My Grand Boyle Adirondack Fall Foliage Tour. I knew they would love riding through the Adirondacks to places they used to visit.  We stopped at Sarah's Cafe in North Creek for coffee and a bun, visited friends in Indian Lake, walked the short distance into Buttermilk Falls in Long Lake, had lunch at the Adirondack Hotel with a view of the water after walking the causeway in Long Lake Village, came back along Indian Lake, and returned to their Saratoga home by way of the Lake Desolation Road.

(one of our favorite campsites at Indian Lake turns golden)

The gray macadam of route 30 literally felt like a thin line parting two walls of red, orange, and yellow, highlighted by dark spruce green.  My mother, father, and I were a tree-crazy trio.  We could barely hold a conversation, because every sentence was punctuated with "did you see that red tree over there?" and "it is sooo gorgeous!"  We decided that, if one of us missed a sight on one side of the road, there was always an equally glorious sight on the other.  Our heads swiveled.

(fallen leaves on a campground path at Indian Lake)

One time, a number of years ago, Bill and I were in Colorado, visiting the high-elevation town of Nederland.  A snow storm of a few days prior melted quickly in the strong sun.  The woman in the visitor's center told me how Colorado's brilliant blue sky always came out after a storm, unlike in the east where gray clouds might hover for days.  Then she said, "You should come here in the fall.  The aspen is beautiful."  I said, "I'm sure it's really pretty," and then added, with a smile, "but I come from the Northeast."  Need anyone say more? You wouldn't catch me leaving this area in late September and into October! 

(Lake Desolation)

My friend, Linda, said that she would like to go to Merck Forest.  Merck Forest is dedicated to teaching sustainable agriculture and forestry.  At 3100 acres, it also has lots of hiking trails.  "My foot is a little sore," Linda said, "so maybe we won't hike Mount Antone this time."  That was fine.  Merck Forest has great variety, all appealing.

(Merck Forest, Rupert, Vermont)

We drove through bucolic Washington County in peak foliage and into Vermont, entering Merck Forest's  maple-lined driveway.  Yellow and red leaves glittered in the bright sunshine, but when we got out of the car and began to walk towards the farm, blasts of chilly wind hit us in the face.  "I need to warm up," Linda said. "Let's hike the mountain," and we set off at a brisk pace.

When we reached the summit and saw miles of rolling hills and mountains below in dappled shades of color, we were glad we hadn't missed this. I have been visiting Merck Forest since childhood, and don't remember ever seeing as far as we could on this day with its clear cold atmosphere.  In addition, we were plenty warm, and Linda said that her foot held up fine. 

(view from the summit of Mount Antone at Merck Forest)

My Tuesday trips of 35 miles, to see my parents, give me a chance to watch the progress of fall color as it spread throughout the Capital Region.  Huge swaths of trees along the Northway glowed in red and gold by the 10th of October. Peak foliage was now close to home.

Sunday's forecast was for a high of 60 degrees and sunny. Bill was ready for a fall outing. We debated where we should get doughnuts.  Should we head east and try the new Cider Belly shop, highly advertised, in downtown Albany, and then continue on to Grafton for a walk around the lake?  Or go southwest, stopping at Indian Ladder Farms for doughnuts and hike a few trails at Thacher Park?  Despite all the good press, I was skeptical of Cider Belly and figured Indian Ladder was a sure bet for good cider doughnuts.  We decided to go southwest.

(Albany County from High Point at Thacher Park)

Indian Ladder Farms has the best cider doughnuts in the area (barring my home made ones!).  Half of the Capital District appeared to agree; the place was mobbed.  We wove our way through the crowd. However, the farm's well-orchestrated and friendly staff made the process of getting doughnuts and cider easy.  Outside, we found a picnic table and had no trouble demolishing our purchase!

Fortified for a walk, we drove up to Thacher Park.  Lots of families were here too, but the park has plenty of room for everyone, and, anyway, I like to see people enjoying the outdoors on a beautiful day.  We continued through the main park area to Thacher North.  Only a couple of cars were in the parking lot.  Scuffling in the leaves and smelling the fall aromas, we hiked the Fred Schroeder Trail to High Point Cliff, making a pleasant three-mile loop.

Again the atmosphere was crystal clear, the view gorgeous, and the colors a mix of bright oranges, yellows and reds with dark green for contrast.  

(Bill walks through a path of gold at Thacher North)

With peak color blazing in the Capital Region, Karen suggested that we take a final paddle for the season and go to nearby Kayaderosseras Creek. We called long time outings leader and friend, Charlie, to guide us, help us spot cars, and to add his pleasant company to our trip.  Charlie had been on the Kayaderosseras in all seasons over many years, and was familiar with every part of the calm gently-flowing creek. Besides the Kayaderosseras itself, we added a side trip to Lake Lonely, and eventually paddled into the exciting swells of Saratoga Lake, ending at the entrance to Fish Creek where one of the cars was parked.

As we parted to drive home, Karen and Charlie were already brainstorming adventures for next year.  It is never too soon to think ahead!

(Virginia paddling on the stream leading to Lake Lonely)

Now, in mid-October, I can see oranges and reds from my back porch, and throughout my neighborhood.  Fall foliage is going by in the north country, but I am stunned by the brilliant color right here at home. I'm still saying "Look at the tree over there!  Isn't it gorgeous?"  My head will be swiveling for another week or so, and I'll continue talking about this year's beautiful fall for a couple of weeks after that.

One of these days, I'll go for a neighborhood walk and pick up some leaves to iron between waxed paper.  The pressed leaves will hang in the kitchen window well into November as a reminder of October's glory. After that, I'll be ready to move into the next season, as winter brings a new beauty.

(it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Environmental Activism

Who would have guessed that one event, for which I have been working an entire calendar year, and another, that came about in the last couple of months, both of which are really important to me, would fall on the same day?

First, I'll tell you about the one you can be part of.  On Sunday, September 21, many environmental organizations are coming together for a People's Climate March in New York City.  Some of you know that I am very involved with the Sierra Club.  In addition to the usual 30 emails I get a day as a member of our local Sierra Club Executive Committee, and as a member of the statewide Energy Committee, I have tried to do my part in encouraging people to attend the March. Many Sierrans are making phone calls, organizing buses, and tabling, for this effort.

The timing of the People's Climate March is immediately in advance of the UN Climate Summit where leaders will lay the groundwork for a Climate Treaty.  After my experience at the march against the Keystone Pipeline in 2013 in Washington, DC, I would like to be in New York on the 21st and help take a stand for the environment and the most important issues facing the world today. If you can go or would just like more information, go to    Being part of this march will be an amazing experience!

I have been working on the Adirondack Mountain Club Fall Outing sponsored by our Albany Chapter for a year, as one member of a five-person committee. I have committed to being at this event.  Hey, even my award winning photo of Lake Durant is featured on the registration page!

People often think of ADK as a "hiking club."  In fact, 70% of members join because they believe in the conservation efforts of the club.  The issues ADK tackles are more local and are easier to understand than the complex world-wide issues of the Sierra Club.  Both are worthy environmental groups.

The Fall Outing, however, will be fun.  It is three days of outings in the Keene area, including a spaghetti dinner at the firehouse and a musical event.  My part in the planning has been to communicate and help organize the 52 hikes and paddle outings for the three days.  I enjoy emailing with the leaders and working with the other members of the event committee, even though it has required many hours of communication and cooperation over the past year. If I could be in two places at once, I would surely attend both the People's Climate March and the ADK Fall Outing.

If you are able to attend the People's Climate March in Manhattan, I hope you will do so.  It will be a momentous event, and will show our world leaders how much we are concerned about the huge environmental issues we all face today.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Biking Santanoni

(Karen and Janet rode up the carriage road )
Some of you will remember my post from this past winter entitled, "Santanoni Ski."  In subzero temperatures with deep fluffy snow, a group of us skied into the Santanoni Great Camp, a National Historic Landmark in Newcomb, once owned by the Pruyn family.  Ever since then, my friend, Karen, had been determined to ride our bikes in.  A couple of people we knew had done it, and visiting the Great Camp in the summer would offer a different interest and beauty from winter.
(Summer air comes through the main lodge's windows; a big change from when we were here before!)
On a cool damp July day, our mutual friend, Janet, joined Karen and me for the outing.  A five-mile ride on a bike is not a big challenge, but patches of soft dirt, that could make us spin out on our hybrid bikes, forced us to be extra cautious. Still, the old carriage road was a comfortable ride on a gradual uphill through a rich green forest.

At the farm site, we could see the remains of the big barn, burned down a decade ago. This farm produced large quantities of produce, despite farming in the Adirondacks being notoriously difficult. Today the fields are mostly forested, but we could still discern boulders poking through the shallow grass, and stones throughout the landscape. While I love the deep woods that have reclaimed the land, I wondered what it had been like to see across open farm fields to myriad majestic Adirondack peaks. 

(Beautiful woodwork was made from trees on the property)
In just about an hour, we arrived at the camp. Only the great room had been open for us to view in winter; now we had access to every room in every building. As Great Camps go, this one is rustic, a place to enjoy nature and summer sports. The Pruyns of the late 19th century and early 20th century came here to have fun with a few select friends and family, away from work in Albany.

(Hailey restores and  reglazes windows)

Besides the summer openness of the grounds, Santanoni advertises tours.  In fact, Hailey, an intern majoring in historic preservation, did not give us a tour, but talked to us on the porch, telling us the history of the property, and encouraged us to take a self-guided tour through the buildings.

With rain in the forecast, and the sky a heavy gray, we decided to save perusing the buildings for later, and, instead, chose to go out for a boat ride before the rain set in.  Just downhill from the lodge, the boat house, where the Pruyn family had kept canoes, guideboats, and rowboats for their own use on Newcomb Lake, sits on the water's edge. The public is encouraged to use the boats currently stored there and explore the lake, its islands and coves, and to view the Great Camp from the water.

(Karen paddled on Newcomb Lake using a kayak from the boat house)
Janet, Karen and I were excited to find three canoes and a kayak in the boat house.  Without deliberation, we decided that Karen should have the kayak, and Janet and I would take a canoe.  Then we looked closer.  One canoe had a sign on it that read "this boat leaks."  We eliminated that one. Of the remaining two canoes, one was very large, so we chose the other as less cumbersome.

Karen was already in the water. Janet and I carried our canoe down the ramp. Next, she climbed into the bow and sat down.  From behind her, I could see the metal seat sag and the sides of the boat draw in.  "Janet!" I called out.  "Aluminum shouldn't do that! What if the sides crack while we're out on the lake?"  Janet and I carried the canoe back into the boathouse.  All that was left was the big canoe.  We couldn't lift this one, so we dragged it to the water.  It was definitely sea-worthy. 

(we were drawn to the lake on the other side of the bridge)

While the equipment proved to be a bit sketchy, paddling on this remote lake was a dream.  We headed towards the bridge that we had just ridden our bikes over.  Earlier, we had heard the call of a loon from the far side.  Hoping to see the loon now, we went under the bridge and into the open water beyond. Leafy shrubs between gray rocks dipped into the water along a shoreline devoid of sign of man...or any sign of the loon.

We could have gone a long distance on this small lake, but, afraid that a storm might come up quickly, we decided to turn around.  Suddenly, the rhythmic sound of flapping wings made us look up. Just above, large and black, our loon went over our heads towards the other section of the lake!

(Janet enjoyed her solid seat in this canoe)

Paddling back under the bridge and closer to the camp, we were within a stone's throw of the boathouse if the weather changed.  We reveled in the peace and quiet as we meandered through this calm water, but we knew there was a time when conversation and laughter, combined with outdoor activity, made this a more active scene.

(the main lodge of Santanoni Great Camp is tucked into the woods)

For the Pruyns, amusement was the order of the day--plays, story telling, poetry writing, music, games, and outdoor sports filled the time they spent here. Bedrooms were not luxurious, with the idea that guests should get up and outdoors, not languish indoors on comfy mattresses. The lodge's wrap-around porch drew people out of the buildings.

(the artist's cottage would be a perfect cottage for me!)

Fishing, swimming, boating, hiking, or picnicking on an island in the lake, could all be done on a moment's notice. An artistic Pruyn son had his own artist studio, and a daughter enjoyed her nearby gazebo. Part way around the lake a small building housed towels for swimming, and changing rooms, at a time when modesty demanded that swimmers be on the fringe of visibility.

The sky grew darker and a few sprinkles fell...and then we saw the loon, a final touch of wildness on this lake within the mountains.  We paddled close to him and he slipped beneath the water, turning up a little farther away on our other side.  He seemed relaxed, looking around, and then stretched up, preening.  We were enthralled.  After a while he dove down and reappeared farther away.  By now, the rain came down harder and we paddled back toward shore, past the artist's cottage, past the great lodge, and into the boat house.

We were grateful for the big porch where we could sit at a picnic table with our lunch and look through scrap books and photo albums portraying the Great Camp's heyday. The photos showed women walking on logs like balance beams, men writing rhymes describing an evening's antics, children using child-sized canoes or making collections of moss and stones they had found in the woods.

Even the staff had more leisure time when they came north.  With functional decor, cleaning required less effort and upkeep than in the Pruyn's formal home. Seasonal meals with the day's catch, and fresh produce from the farm, made cooking simpler too. Just the same, while the whole lodge might only have 15 people staying at one time, 70 staff members were needed to run the place.

(the wide porch surrounds the lodge and sheltered us from the rain)

A family joined us on the porch at another table.  They had just arrived on their bikes.   After perusing the albums, we took a careful look inside all of the buildings, and we chatted with Hailey. Our decision to paddle on the lake first had worked out perfectly.

Before long, the rain turned to drizzle, and we decided to walk the path to the artist's cottage.  Inside, we saw the massive stone fireplace and the view of the lake out the large front window.  We didn't stay long, because it appeared that this building was currently being used as the interns' residence.  We imagined what it must be like to wake up amidst the wild splendor of Newcomb Lake and the shrill call of the loons.

Walking farther along the path, we came to a little sand bar and took off our shoes. Although the air was cool, the water felt warm.  Surely the Pruyns and their friends had waded here. 

(Ladies having fun in a line dance)

In the spirit of the fun-loving women visiting the Great Camp a hundred years ago, Karen and Janet kicked up their heels on the lake shore in the drizzle. Salut!

(Ladies having fun in a line dance--just like those in the other photo, right?)

Hours had passed since we left our bikes under a back porch roof at the main lodge.  In a light drizzle, we began the return ride along the dirt carriage road. Although we remembered that we had ridden on a gradual ascent on the way in, the speed of our descent took us by surprise. We pulled on our brakes the whole way, conscious that we might skid out more easily in the soft spots on the down grades.

Janet flew!  A very athletic and strong woman, Janet appeared fearless.  At a more level spot, she waited for Karen and me.  With near panic in her voice, her words tumbled out, "My brakes are hardly working!  I don't want to go so fast!"   At the farm area, we stopped again. The descent had leveled and Janet had more control. The rain had stopped, so we relaxed a moment before the last half-mile to our cars.

(the gatehouse made an elegant statement to guests entering the Santanoni Great Camp)

Near the parking lot, the property's gatehouse, with upstairs residence for the gate keeper of long ago, is impressive.  We entered a small gift shop that sold maps, books, and other items on trust.  I bought a booklet about the family and the property, leaving money in the cash box.

We were drawn to the creek alongside the building, which connects Lake Harris and Rich Lake, where we could see blue mountains in the distance.  Then we rode into the parking lot and loaded our bikes onto the cars.

(there is no end to beautiful scenery here)

We thought about other friends of ours who would enjoy this trip. Maybe we'll come again next year and bring them along.  We'll just be sure to check the boats carefully before we put one of them in the water!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Speaking French in France

A few years ago, when I decided that I should regain the ability to speak the French that I had learned in high school and college, people often asked me if I was doing this because I was going to France.  Every time, I would say, "Maybe I'll go to France someday, but re-learning French is not about that.  It's about getting back a skill I used to have, and it's about being a more well-rounded American."

(St. Emilion in the Dordogne wine region of France)

When Bill and I toured the Netherlands in 2004, I had been impressed that most Dutch people speak four or five different languages with ease. Since one of the languages is English, we had no trouble communicating, but, I thought, wouldn't it be great to be fluent in more than just a native tongue?

Those of you who read my two 2011 blog posts about re-learning French may remember that I took French I and II at the College of St. Rose.  After that, I spent two years attending a one-evening-a-month conversation group.  I missed some months, but every time I went, I came home and said to Bill, "This is so much fun!"

(Houses pile one on top of another on Mont St. Michel)

A group of six or more, we sat around a table and visited.  Any topic was fair game.  The participants ranged from people struggling with French to native speakers.  I fell somewhere in the middle.  At first I contributed to the conversation tentatively.  Then one December evening I was the only person who showed up besides the moderator.  Forced to communicate, I gained confidence, and, from then on, I spoke often at every meeting.

In March, Bill and I made our trip arrangements for a tour of France, planning to go for the last week of May and the first week of June.  Evening schedule conflicts forced me to miss my French conversation group in April and again in May.  Here I was, with a trip to France on the doorstep and rusty speaking skills!  Then, Terry, a friend who works with me in the cheese department at the Co-op, said, "I'm trying a different French group.  They meet at people's houses and chat.  They usually meet in Schenectady, but the one this week is in Albany."

(The Van Gogh cafe in Arles looks just like Van Gogh's painting of it)

I needed to go.  I drove to the home of MaryAnn, a woman who had been born and raised in France.  A few people were already there when I arrived.  Others streamed in, carrying wine, baguettes, cheese, and fruit.  I looked at Terry, and said, "I didn't know we should bring anything."  He said, "Don't worry about it.  I brought cheese.  It will be from both of us."

(Walking on the castle wall allowed me to take this picture at Carcassonne)

All around me, I could hear French conversations, as people went to the kitchen for a glass of wine and to the diningroom table for snacks.  I joined in one conversation after another.  When I got tired of the topic in one group, I moved elsewhere.  The people were welcoming and friendly.  They wondered how I had learned about the group, made sure I got on the email list for the next meeting, asked me if I had ever been to France, and were excited that I would be going soon.

(Chateau Chenenceau in the Loire Valley)

I couldn't eat or drink--speaking French on all different topics was enough for me to keep track of.  I took a couple of cubes of fruit to hold on a plate, just to make a good appearance, and felt transported into a French cocktail party, mingling, chatting, making new acquaintances.  After an hour and a half, I was exhausted.  I thanked MaryAnn and went to the door to leave.  In lovely French, she called out to me, "It has been my pleasure to have made your acquaintance."  How nice, I thought, and memorized the phrase.  I felt ready to take on France.

When we arrived at our hotel in Paris with a few hours on our own, I knew that I could ask in English where the nearby park, Bois de Boulogne, was, but I thought, hey, I might as well try my French now as later.  I asked the receptionist for directions and she brought out a map to show me.  My words sounded halting, but I got the answer I needed.  The next day, I spoke to a vintner where we had a tour of a wine cellar, asking him if it were okay to take pictures. Although my grammar was still awkward, he answered me nicely in French.

(A Medieval street in  Beaune)

From then on, I was off and running, and I had a blast!  I asked directions to a beach near the Riviera, spoke to vendors about their wares at a Farmer's Market, talked about the weather in a shop in Provence, ordered food in sidewalk take-away shops, read signs and translated them for Bill. Every day, I made opportunities to speak French.

(Virginia wading in the Mediterranean)

Once in a while I got bogged down, such as when I wanted to buy a tablecloth and had difficulty converting centimeters to inches.  I finally spoke to the vendor in English, but I bought placemats instead.  Twice people told me that I spoke very well.  I wondered about that.  Maybe I didn't speak all that well, but I knew they said this to encourage me and to let me know that they appreciated my efforts.

(Every city has a carousel on the square, Avignon)

One evening we went to a very old farm for dinner.  Everything had been made or grown on the property--the wine, red and rose, the chicken and vegetables. Our hosts even caught the fish in their stream.  Homemade bread and butter, and a salad with their own goat cheese began the dinner and a rhubarb crisp ended it.  Besides the wonderful fresh food, the farm had a continuously working mill from the year 1036.
At dinner, when the hostess came around, I told her that the food was delicious--my lead-in to my next French chat.  I asked her if the house, like the mill, was very old.  She took right off!  In a volley of words, she told me that the church was that age, and the surrounding farms, so, judging from that and the age of the huge stone fireplace, yes, the house was probably also from about 1036.  Whew! With intensity, I tried to grab every word.  I didn't catch them all, but I got the gist of what she was saying, and I nodded, murmuring impressed responses, finally ending by saying that her story was absolutely fascinating, which it was.

(The mill from 1036)

As the days passed, I also learned some technique and protocol. First, the French think Americans are very rude when they do not say "hello," before asking for something.  This made me realize how often we go up to a desk and say, generally in a nice tone of voice, "Do you know where...?" or "Can you help me find...."  I made a point to remember to say, "Bonjour" first.

One time, I was frustrated, trying to use my international phone card to call my parents.  I had been concerned about being far away from them for two weeks.  I walked to the desk and said, in French, "I'm having trouble using the phone."  I had forgotten to say "hello" before my question.  The receptionist answered me in English....

(Virginia and Bill have a sandwich at the beach, St. Jean de Luz)

And I learned how to end phrases like the French do, with a little tag on the ends of words, making a softer ending.  Better yet, I became comfortable using the breathy French "r."  It helped that our bus driver did not speak English and that his name was Eric.  Every day, we got on the bus, saying "Bonjour, Eric."  By the end of the trip, I could say the "r" in his name almost as well as our tour director did.

Eventually, we had to return to Charles de Gaulle airport.  That's it, I thought, I'm done speaking French in France.  It had been so much fun, and I probably would never do it again.  I felt sad about the end of the tour and the end of my language experience.  We stood in a long line for security.  Around me, people spoke in many tongues, but the dominant one I heard was American English.

(The high Pyrenees at Lourdes)

With my carry-on open for inspection, I waited for the security guard to ask me the usual questions.  I was shocked when he threw out a slew of them in French.  At first, I wondered if I should respond in English.  Surely, he knew I was American, and security processing was serious.  Should I play around with words now?  Then I thought, it's my last chance!  I said the appropriate "no" and "oui" to "Has anyone else had your bag besides you?  Do you have a laptop? or a Kindle?"  It wasn't a creative conversation, but we communicated satisfactorily...and he let me on the plane.

By the time we had been home over a month, I had not spoken a word of French.  I'm sure I've lost my "r", I thought, and those nice phrase-endings that I had learned felt long ago.  Neither of my French groups met in the summer. I began to think that these past few years of trying to re-learn French actually had been about going to France.  I had been kidding myself with all that esoteric nonsense about widening my American English perspective.

(Farmer's Market at Libourne)

Then an email arrived from a woman in the wine-and-cheese party group.  In French, she wrote, "We don't meet in the summer, but I'm around.  If anyone is free, come to my house Friday evening."  I went, and so did about 15 other people. This time, I brought a fruit plate--I knew the drill now.  As before, the others welcomed me and a few remembered me.

Most of the attendees were native speakers or teachers of French, yet no one was impatient with me, and I was not the only participant with mediocre skill.  Best of all, I remembered  the "r" and the phrase endings. 

(Golden-colored stone in Old Nice)

After two hours, I could hardly think anymore; I was so exhausted from trying to understand and to speak, but it had been a great evening. When I got home, I wrote down the new words that I had learned.  I would need to keep progressing if I were going to go to this group now and then.  And, as far as talking French in France, well, most of all it had been a lot of fun. And now, back home, maybe someday, I will have a soiree at my house!

(The Eiffel Tower is 125 years old this year, Paris)