27 October 2007

Forest fairies

One final post from Saint-Aignan for now: I'll be posting at my U.S. travels blog starting next week, if I can.

Yesterday I took the dog out for her afternoon walk. We wandered through the rows of vines and ended up out on the paved road that is the Route Touristique.

Rows of vines with brown leaves after the first frost of the season

As we walked, I noticed a spot of bright red color off in the woods, maybe 30 yards/meters from the road. There wasn't much undergrowth right there, so we went to see what it was. It was strange, that's what it was.

I don't know who would have put these stuffed figures and the doll out in the woods, tied to trees, but the sign says: "I am Blondine, the fairy of the forest. Don't touch me. I will bring you happiness. Thank you." Well it almost says that, with one mistake in the "I will bring you happiness" part -- it says "I would bring you happiness." And they don't even really celebrate Halloween here!

Our house with the nicely trimmed hedge, thanks to Walt
26 October 2007

Callie waiting patiently to be let in through the front gate
26 October 2007

26 October 2007

Taking a break from Saint-Aignan

As far as I know, I won't have access to a high-speed Internet connection while I'm in North Carolina, so I probably won't be posting much. If I do post, I plan to put topics about my American trip in a blog I started last year when I was over there.

So if there's nothing new here, check my U.S. East Coast blog.

* * * *

P.S. I finished tilling up the garden this morning. That was the big thing I wanted to get done before I left for the U.S. It will likely be too cold and rainy in late November, when I get back, to finish the job if I left it unfinished.

The gardener's best friend, the rototiller

Callie loves to chase and bark at the rototiller.
Here, she's just waiting for it to move again.

Now the garden will be ready to plant, after another tilling, in spring. Let's just hope we have a normal spring and summer next year, rather than this past season's hot April and chilly, damp summer months.

25 October 2007

Work now, Paris later

I won't be going to La Défense this weekend, but I will be going to Paris. I'm spending the night at the airport before flying out to Atlanta on Sunday. I'm looking forward to the trip, but I'm a nervous flyer. Traveling is stressful.

The view from La Défense

One way to go to the airport in Paris, of course is to drive. Actually, the airport is in the town of Roissy, north of Paris. It can take anywhere from three to five hours to get there by car from Saint-Aignan, depending on traffic around Paris. It also depends on whether you take the toll road or little local roads. When I went in mid-September to meet my sister, it took me about 3½ hours on the autoroute and the toll was about 15 euros ($20). Fuel for the car is a big expense too.

The EDF building at La Défense — EDF is
Electricité de France, the utility company

The other way to get to Roissy is by train. Again, there are two options. There are the local trains from Saint-Aignan, connecting either through Tours or Vierzon to lines that feed into the Paris Austerlitz station. Or there are TGV trains from Tours either to Paris Montparnasse or directly to Charles de Gaulle airport.

Another ventilation tower at La Défense

The price of the ride on the TGV is between 55 and 75 euros this Saturday morning, according to the railway system's web site. The regular train from Blois to Paris Austerlitz is 23.50 euros, and that's what I'm taking That means Walt has to drive me to Blois. There aren't any trains directly from Saint-Aignan to Paris that work with my schedule. If I left from Saint-Aignan, I'd have to leave early in the morning, arriving in Paris around noontime, and I don't want to do that. The train from Blois is at 1:40 p.m. and takes just under two hours.

By now a familiar view

In Paris, I'll take the metro to the RER line and ride the RER out to Roissy. If I get to Austerlitz at 3:30 or so, I'll have plenty of time. I have a hotel reserved at Roissy, and I'll check in and leave my bags there. Then I'll take the RER or the Roissybus back into Paris. I'm having dinner with some people not to far from Opéra at 7:30 p.m. Then I'll take the RER out to the airport once again.

On last view, framed by artwork

The trip is complicated, but you just have to be very zen about it. Did I mention that once I get to Roissy I have to take a shuttle from the RER station to my hotel. And a shuttle back to the RER station or the airport terminals both Saturday night and Sunday morning. I will be spending 6 or 7 hours on public tranportation, and then 8 hours on an airplane.

* * * *

It was hard to blog this morning. The dog needed walking, and then the yard and garden needed attention. We raked some leaves, ate some weeds (as it were), and hauled a lot of trimmings to the compost pile. It's cold and gray here now; you'd think it was December. It's afternoon now. More tomorrow. It will all get done.

24 October 2007

La Défense — why that name?

La Défense means exactly what you would think it means: the defense. But defense of what?

The Arc of Triomphe seen from La Défense

In 1870, long before an office park was planned for the west side of Paris, France was engaged in the first of three wars it would have with the Germans. The first one was the Franco-Prussian War (in French, La Guerre Franco-Allemande). The German armies rolled over the French in several battles in the eastern part of the country. Napoleon III and many thousands of French soldiers were taken prisoner.

Modern artwork at La Défense

In Paris, a coup put a national defense government in place. With the eastern battles won and Napoleon III a prisoner of war, the Germans mounted a siege to try to take Paris. They surrounded the city with as many as 400,000 soldiers, but Paris was well protected — forts had been built all around it. The German military headquarters were set up in Versailles, southwest of the city.

Seen at La Défense

The people of Paris organized themselves into a defensive force and the Germans never did take control of the French capital. Or at least not until the France's provisional government outside Paris signed an armistice a few months later and let the German forces in for a symbolic occupation of the Champs-Elysées. Meanwhile, the Germans had bombarded the city with artillery fire and the people of Paris, cut off from the outside world, had suffered great deprivation.

The old Défense de Paris monument

That was La Défense of Paris. In the 1880s, a grand bronze sculpture was erected out on the western edge of the city to the glory of the soldiers who had defended the city against the Prussian armies. Soon the whole surrounding neighborhood, which became an industrial center, was called by that name: La Défense.

The sculptor was named Barrias

The bronze statue is still there — it was moved to the esplanade of the new business center. It's dwarfed by all the big buildings, of course. All the old industrial facilities and 25,000 residents of the quarter were relocated when the current "business city" was planned and construction began.

23 October 2007

La Grande Arche at La Défense

The Grande Arche de la Fraternité (or de la Défense) was inaugurated in 1989, the second bicentennial of the French Revolution. President Mitterrand was the sponsor of the architectural competition for the building, which was won by a Dane. Earlier presidents Pompidou and Giscard d'Estaing had considered plans for a great architectural monument at La Défense, but it was finally Mitterrand who oversaw the project.

The architect saw his work as a 20th century version of the old Arc de Triomphe, and it stands as an extension of the historic axis of Paris that runs from the Louvre, through the Place de la Concorde and its Egyptian obelisk, and up the Champs-Elysées to the Napoleonic triumphal arch. The Grande Arche is dedicated to humanitarian ideals rather than to military victories.

The Arche is in part an office building. Several government ministries, including Transportation and and Tourisme, have their offices there. On the top floor, there's a computer sciences museum, a convention center, a restaurant, and an observation deck open to the public. The building's elevators are cabins made almost entirely of glass that run on the outside of the building in the center space.

Walt told me I should point out that La Défense is not just a centre d'affaires (a business park) but it is also home to some 20,000 residents. Before construction on the modern complex started more than 40 years ago, about 25,000 people who lived in what was mostly an industrial area were displaced.

Last year, friends of ours said they wouldn't mind seeing La Défense, because they had been to Paris many times without ever venturing out there. We had our car in the city that day, so we drove out. That was a mistake. First of all, there was a lot of traffic on the road from the Porte Maillot out to La Défense, so that turned into a slog.

La Défense in the distance behind the Eiffel Tower

And then you can't really see anything interesting at La Défense (assuming you think there is anything interesting there to see) from the car. You really need to be on foot out on the vast esplanade surrounded by tall, futuristic buildings and the Grande Arche to get an idea of what the place is really all about.

22 October 2007

The "new" Paris

If you've been to Paris, you've probably seen it, at least from a distance. If you haven't been to Paris, you might not know about it. It's the "new" city outside the old city. It's on the west side, out past the Arc de Triomphe, and it's called La Défense. Since the 1980s, it has had it's own grand arch — aptly named the Grande Arche de la Défense.

La Grande Arche de la Défense

The 19th-century, Napoleon-era Arc de Triomphe in Paris is a monument to the emperor's victories on the battlefield, and to the officers and soldiers who served and died in battle. The 1980s Grande Arche is an office building. That says a lot about how the world has changed over the past two centuries, I guess.

La Défense on the horizon behind the Eiffel Tower,
from the top of the Tour Montparnasse

The new city outside Paris is an office park. Planning started in the late 1950s and construction of a first generation of buildings began in the 1960s. The goal of the authorities and the planners was, at least in part, to take the pressure off central Paris and make sure skyscrapers built on the edge of the old city rather than in the center. The Tour Montparnasse, which many still consider a blight on the city, went up between 1969 and 1972, causing a great hue and cry.

View of the old Arc de Triomphe from La Défense

A second generation of still taller buildings at La Défense starting going up in the 1970s. The area that is now La Défense had been occupied by factories (mostly the auto industry) and shantytowns (bidonvilles in French). Then the oil crisis brought on economic hard times and building stopped for several years.

La Tour Gan, headquarters for an insurance company, at La Défense

In 1974-76, I lived not far from La Défense, in the town of Asnières-sur-Seine. I remember riding the train to the do grocery shopping there in what at the time was a huge supermarket. The whole place was a big construction zone. For me, coming from small-town North Carolina and the University of Illinois, it was terrifying in a way. I had never seen such a place, which resembled a new city in the making and a ghost town at the same time. It was spooky.

Modern office buildings at La Défense

In the 1980s, the pace of construction accelerated. The Socialist president, François Mitterrand, organized an architectural competition for the construction of the Grande Arche. Hotels and a big shopping center were built, and the Paris metro's no. 1 line was extended out to La Défense, integrating it more into the city. Today, something like 150,000 people work there.

I think the striped building is aventilation shaft
for the underground shopping center and parking garages.

I know a lot of Americans who come to Paris are curious about La Défense, but they often think going out there would be time wasted. It's Chicago-like compared to central Paris's old monuments and narrow streets. But it's all a matter of priorities. If you have time, it's interesting to see how the French approached the task of building a new city in the late 20th century.

By the way, all the pictures in this post are ones I took in April 2002 with a Canon Pro90 IS digital camera, a model that was discontinued years ago.

21 October 2007

The pull of Paris

2002: Rue Saint-Dominque in the 7th arrondissement

The weather in Saint-Aignan has turned wintry. We had very few days last winter that were as cold as these days we're living through now. This morning, the temperature was below freezing. There was a lot of frost when I took the dog out at 8:15.

The Seine in the center of Paris. That's Notre Dame.

Next Saturday I'll be going to Paris again. It's funny, but we don't spend nearly as much time in Paris nowadays as we did when we still lived in California. Back then, between 1990 and 2003, we would often rent an apartment in Paris or a house in the French countryside and come spend two or even three weeks in France.

Walking across the Pont des Arts

Two weeks in Paris was perfect, usually. By the end of the two weeks, we would be ready to go back home to San Francisco, no matter how much we were enjoying Paris. We always left the dog back home with a sitter, so that was one reason we wanted to get back. And then San Francisco was home, and after a while I find I always get an urge to go home, no matter how much I'm enjoying what I'm doing, no matter where I am.

A café on the Rue de Buci in the 6th arrondissement

Nowadays, we go to Paris for a day or two now and then. The dollar has fallen so low against the euro that prices there, especially apartment rentals, are just too expensive for retired people like us. When the dollar was strong, even a fairly expensive vacation apartment in Paris might cost about $100 a night. Now you have to count paying on $200 a night. That's true even though there are many more vacation apartments available in Paris these days, and competition has kept rental prices from rising as fast as they might have. But the dollar is worth only half what it was worth in 2002!

Typical Paris sidewalk scene

The other reason we don't spend as much time in Paris, of course, is that we are already in France. We have the food, the language, the beauty of the country's old monuments and buildings, and so much of what we always came here for, right here in Saint-Aignan. Paris doesn't pull at us the way it used to.

A tavern in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood

It's still fun to go to the city. Last year, when our dog Collette died, the first thing we did was to rent an apartment and go spend a week in Paris. It was a good change of scenery at that point, and we walked all over the city for a week. It was certainly fun, but guess what? After a week, we were ready to come home. There was gardening work to do. We missed Saint-Aignan, the house, the yard and garden, the vineyards, the markets, and our kitchen.

Two guys walking a dog along the Seine near the Louvre

Next Saturday I'll go to Paris and spend just 24 hours there before I fly off to the U.S. Saturday night I'll have dinner in a restaurant with some Internet acquantances. Sunday at noontime I'll get on a plane to go to Atlanta. I'm looking forward to the trip, to seeing friends and family, but I know I'll be glad to get back to Saint-Aignan when the time comes.

Window-shopping: an antique store on the Rue de Sèvres

The pictures in this post are ones I took in April 2002, the last time Walt and I spent two weeks in an apartment in Paris. That was the year we decided to look for a house to buy in France — but not in Paris. We were ready to move to the country. We found the house and actually moved here — lock, stock, and barrel (not to mention the dog) — in June 2003.

20 October 2007

Strike continues, and so does life

According to the news, yesterday was worse than Thursday for people who needed to get into and get around in Paris. Traffic jams around the Paris region were a lot worse. A lot of metro, RER, and bus lines were running only at very reduced rates or not at all.

View across the vineyards in autumn toward La Renaudière

What happened on Thursday, I think, is that a lot of people decided it was going to be a fun day. They took the day off from work, kept their kids home from school, walked or rode bikes to get around in the nice weather, and made impromptu car-pool arrangements. It was kind of a lark for many, I'm sure.

Callie hoping some more water might squirt out of the hose

Yesterday, Friday, was different. Everybody figured it was over and people tried to resume normal activities and routines. So big traffic tie-ups resulted from all those people who decided to drive on into Paris, with one person per vehicle. Problem was, too, that the unions didn't quite cooperate. And all the people who wanted to jump on trains, metros, and buses were caught off guard — the workers on some lines were still on strike. Reality set in, as it always does.

A close shot of that October 18 sunset at La Renaudière

Oh well. The reality here was hedge trimming and garden tilling. And working with Callie in the yard. Callie loves to chase and bark at wheelbarrows, lawnmowers, and rototillers. We are teaching her to sit quietly and ignore such distractions. Then I got out the garden hose, and found out she really likes to play in and with the spray of water that comes out the nozzle.

Enjoying the drops falling on her nose

I kind of knew about the dog's taste for playing in water. Twice she has taken us by surprise and jumped into ponds to paddle around a little bit. Then a few weeks ago I went out to wash down the car and she got interested in the hose spray. She snaps at it, trying to catch the water in her mouth.

Walt trimming the long hedge

She ended up soaking wet the other day, but it didn't matter. The weather was warm and dry. And we were getting ready to go out for a long walk anyway. By the time we got home, she had had time to dry out.

19 October 2007

October news, scenes, and chores

The transit strike yesterday was a big success as far as the labor unions are concerned. More workers actually walked off the job than back in the big strikes of 1995, which paralyzed the country for several days. Yesterday in France, few trains ran as scheduled, and metro and bus traffic in Paris was much reduced. Some workers and unions voted to stay off the job again today, but I think the situation will be returning to normal now.

Fall colors at La Renaudière

From the public's point of view, the strike was less disruptive than feared. There were traffic jams around Paris, but they weren't paralyzing. There was a lot of carpooling, the news reported. The weather was beautiful, so people who didn't just take the day off were able to get around the city on foot or on bicycles. The overall assessment on the news was that the day didn't turn into the "Black Thursday" it might have.

The Touraine vines in autumn

On the evening news, I heard that there are at total of 27,000 of the new "public bicycles" in Paris under the Vélib' — a contraction of vélo (bike) and liberté — program. They were in demand, and there were some problems with lots being empty when somebody wanted a bike, or even completely full when somebody wanted to turn one in. It's all automated, with no attendants, and you have to find a post where you can lock up the bike and make sure it is properly checked in, using your credit card. If not, you are liable for its disappearance, I imagine.

The neighbors' roof tiles

The other big news of the day is that President Nicolas Sarkozy and Cécilia Sarkozy are now divorced. The divorce was pronounced Monday, and it was by mutual consent. History has been made.

For us in Saint-Aignan, the transit strike and the marital affairs of the first couple didn't have much effect on our everyday lives. As Walt has written on his blog, he has been busy with the job of trimming the long, tall, and wide hedge that surrounds our property on two sides. It has to be trimmed once a year, in the autumn. As for me, I've been busy in the vegetable garden, cleaning up the remains of a crummy season.

Sunset at La Renaudière, 18 October 2007

We have four vegetable garden plots, each about 15 x 15 feet, plus a small pumpkin patch. That doesn't sound like much ground, but believe me it is when it comes time to turn the soil. We invested in a rototiller a few years ago, and without it we wouldn't be able to have a garden as big as the one we've got.


The rototiller is a heavy piece of equipment and it takes a lot of strength and stamina to pull it around and get the ground plowed up. That's especially true when weeds and grasses with long, strong roots have taken over the space, as they have this year. I managed to get two of the garden plots and the pumpkin patch tilled up yesterday afternoon. I'll get the third one done before I leave on my U.S. trip. The fourth plot, the herb garden, has to be done by hand, because some of the plants in it are perennials. Walt takes care of that.

Two garden plots all tilled up (well, except for two bell pepper
plants with peppers on them still growing in one of the plots)

Callie chased the rototiller around barking at it, and then really enjoyed playing in and with the water when I got out the garden hose to wash the machine down before putting it back in the shed. I'll have some pictures of that tomorrow.

The pumpkin patch, sans pumpkins now

This morning I went out for a walk in the vineyard with Callie between 8:00 and 9:00. The sun was just coming up and the temperature was about 38ºF/4ºC. Milestone: there was frost on the ground for the first time this season. Brrr.