Sunday, June 23, 2013

Shot Down By The Grammarians

With no direct experience of war, thank goodness, I don't know what it is to wait and worry about someone in combat, but I have read that the worst thing is the not knowing, the unanswered questions. I don't like waiting. I don't like not knowing. Last Monday I had my oral examination for the cheese program in the morning, and a state-certified French comprehension test in the afternoon, and I don't have the results for either of them, yet. I am not particularly happy with the way the morning session went, either. I'd reviewed the paper I wrote on monastery cheeses but then lost track of what I wanted to say while trying to summarize that paper. The questions afterwards went better, but I'm still not sure how they're going to judge me or determine what I learned from the course, because none of the questions were on what I learned. And I'm not sure that I had my paper in the correct French format - not the language, I'm fairly confident on that, and not the information in the paper, because I did my research, but that there was some particular issue of style or organization or who knows what that the two reviewers didn't like. I'd provided two formal copies of the paper, spiral bound and with a fancy cover and all the required details on the front, as requested. At one point one of the reviewers picked up a copy, holding it by one corner like it was a used dust rag, shaking it slightly, and asked me if I'd had anyone read through the paper before I handed it in. I said yes, someone had read it, but that there hadn't been any suggestions other than phrasing and words here and there. "Hmm ..." said the reviewer, and dropped the paper as if it were a week-dead fish. I am afraid that this is another weird situation where I didn't follow the rules, but I have no idea what those rules were. When my exam was over, the reviewers thanked me and said that I would get the results in forty-eight hours or so. That was six days ago.

In the municipal cemetery at St-Pierre-des-Corps, the southeastern quarter of the Tours metropolitan area, the graves are low and plain between the gravel walkways. Near the main entrance, there's a set of tombstones commemorating soldiers killed in World War II, "shot down by the Germans." I spent a half hour or so walking around the cemetery, which is near the building where I took the TCF (Test de connaissance du français). I got there early, since I hopped on the first bus that came by downtown after mailing off a set of letters to prospective apprenticeship locations for the next school year, and drinking some orange juice for lunch. I haven't heard back from any of those people either, except for one couple who said that they don't take apprentices. Which is odd, because they were on the list of contacts I received from the school program coordinator in Pau. And which is too bad, because I really wanted to work with them, as they make sheep cheese and have musicales every month; the wife is a former professional pianist. I'll follow up with the other contacts in a week or so, and write - again - to the program coordinator, who hasn't answered my last two e-mails, and who doesn't want me to call. Her personal number is the contact given on the brochure, and Marie-Morgane assured me that she called that number without a problem, but the last time I spoke to the coordinator on the phone she made a point of remarking that it was her home phone, and that she wasn't at work. Another rule broken, apparently.

When I took the practice test on line, I scored fairly well, and at the level I need to apply to the program in the fall. I think I did slightly better on the oral comprehension part on Monday, about the same on the grammar, and perhaps not as well in the written comprehension section. I think I understood the texts well enough, and I understood the question about each text, and I understood the four possible answers. But there were some cases where I didn't understand why any of the possible answers would be right, or why of the three answers that seemed reasonable one of them would be the most reasonable. The last text/question/answer combination was particularly frustrating because while one of the answers could be eliminated easily, the other three were about the same level of probability and logic, in a somewhat illogical way. What I mean to say is that I think there was some sort of subtext going on, some way of interpreting a phrase or two that perhaps you have to be French to get in order to pick the best answer when there were two other answers that were also true (I think), but not quite as true. Whether that was to test my fluency in French, or my worthiness to live in France, I may have failed on both counts.

There were a few dozen other hopeful Francophones there to take the test, most from China. The young man on my left leaned over and whispered that it would be really helpful if I could let him see my test answers, since he really really had to test out at the B2 level. I said no, I wasn't going to help him cheat. Five minutes later he asked again, and I turned to one of his friends to my right and asked if this was normal in China, for people to copy answers. She said no, and in fact in China if they catch you then both people get their exams torn up. "Well, you just have to do whatever you feel is right," said the young man. What I did is leave half an hour before the end of the test period, just to screw with his head. I suppose I could have checked my answers over for the grammar and written parts, but I don't like to second-guess myself and I'd been pretty thorough the first time through. And I was getting frustrated by feeling like the answer to half the questions was "the larch" or the French equivalent, and that I'd never solve the secret code. Plus, messing with cheater guy's head. And getting back out in the sun was nice, too, though it was pretty humid that afternoon. I'll get an e-mail in a few weeks telling me that I can pick up my results at the language school in the center of town, and then we'll see if all hopes of getting accepted into the university at Pau have been shot down, or if my dreams live on.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dazzling Reflections

At the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen I discovered that I am an Impressionist. I wondered where the impulse came from to always take pictures of water, and of reflections, of puddles mirroring trees and lake surfaces sending doubled images of cliffs or houses, of oceans shading from blue into grey. Once I saw the exhibit titled "Dazzling Reflections" (Éblouissants Reflets) it was as clear as a brook running over shallows that I am channeling Caillebotte and Peltier and the early adopters of that new-fangled photographic apparatus who took the series of images that were nothing but reflections in black and white and sepia tones. That was a nice counterpoint to the rich colors of the paintings, especially my new favorite artist Robert Antoine Pinchon, whose "Les Coteaux de Belbeuf" I stared at happily for a long while. I was also quite taken with a work by Maximilien Luce. And of course there was Monet, some of the paintings of Giverney where we had already been, and some of the coast near Étretat, where we decided to go on Saturday, taking advantage of the clear skies.

We were looking for fossils as well as art on the coast, and while we did find sketch-worthy scenery the fossil landscape was pretty sketchy. One of the sites I'd done research on said that fossilized sea urchins could sometimes be found between the stones on the beach, but we weren't so lucky. In fact, there wasn't much evidence of recently-dead sea life on the beach, much less long-dead creatures. It was hard to walk on the piled ridges and flat shoreline covered with large round rocks, and if any shells had washed up they were likely quickly crushed into minuscule fragments. Or else we just got there after the early beachcombers had already cleared the area. John said there wasn't even anything in the tide pools, just a bit of seaweed.

We started out by driving to Fécamp which, now that I am looking on line, is more interesting than we had time to discover, including the remains of the 10th-century ducal palace where William the Conqueror celebrated his victory after the Battle of Hastings. We saw the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity perched at the top of the cliff forming the northeast edge of the bay, and saw flocks of parasailers take to the wind from the abbey grounds, but we didn't make the trip up there. It's worth a visit, however; I'm looking through the tourist office info right now and have discovered that this building is as big as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which we also didn't visit (the interior, anyway).

We drove along the high winding road edging the cliffs west to the small town of Yport, and ate lunch in the parking lot above the harbor, after a quick visit to the casino. We had to go to the casino to use the bathrooms, you see, and so we were then obligated to try out their machines ... we had to show identification before we went in, and I lost about eight euros, though due to John's timely find of a forgotten euro coin in one of the machines he and Mom managed to come out ahead. By one euro. The bathrooms were nice, though.

Mom kept going up to the chalk cliffs we'd been told not to go up to, due to the frequent rockfalls. If I remember correctly, the variation in the rock layers is due to the changing sea levels. She found a small fossil here, I think, or perhaps at Étretat, where we went next.

Monet and other painters spent a good bit of time along the coast here, and Étretat in particular is popular due to its long beach as well as its artistic connections. I'm glad we were there before the vacation season really got started, as it's probably wall to wall sunbathers on the beach during July and August, even though the beach is more of the lumpy rock fields and not sand. There's a casino here, too, but we didn't go in to that one. I headed to the northeast end of the promenade to try to get a good photo of the famous arch, and Mom and John went to the other end to continue the fossil hunt.

There used to be a fairly thriving fishing industry here, though now it's more a place to go for windsurfing, having become a seaside resort popular with people from both sides of the Channel. The town is tucked into a small break in the cliffs with narrow winding streets leading to the port; we had to park up towards the top of town and walk back. It's a fairly generic seaside town, like Seaside in fact, and the promenade was lined with shuttered booths and stalls that probably sell souvenirs and ice cream and such, once the season starts.

When we parked the car, I noticed a sign advertising farmstead goat cheese - unusual in Normandy, land of cows and butter - pointing down a small road leading away from town, and when we got back we followed the signs that led us down a bumpy narrow road with tall hedges on either side and shortly to the farm Le Valaine, where Agnès and Bernard Dherbécourt make cheese and chocolates and frozen treats out of goat's milk. The cheese is a simple farm cheese that is naturally cultured, a chèvre in other words, hand-ladled into the molds and then drained and aged, eaten young and soft or aged and sharp and crumbly. The flavor is very good, pointing to the quality of the forage and feed provided for their herd of goats. We didn't ask for a tour of the facility, but I talked with Mme Dherbécourt for a bit about milk allergies; she is deathly allergic to cow's milk, she said, and when she was recovering from a particularly nasty bout of cancer ate almost nothing but the goat's-milk chocolate puddings that her husband made for her. Whether or not they're a cure for cancer, the chocolates are incredible - rich ganache inside a crunchy shell, plain or flavored, and I can vouch for the absolute yumminess of the walnut-topped version with walnut liquor blended into the filling. The frozen dessert they sell is made from the whey left after the cheesemaking, and I would like to go back and find out how they do that. It's good, creamy and fresh, in strawberry or raspberry or (the one I would try next) the apple with Calvados, a true Normandy product.

I was driving on the way back to Rouen as well, and got a little random from time to time, swerving off the main road to follow other signs that promised interesting things to see. We found several red-and-white brick manors of various ages, and Mom and I agreed that somewhere, in one of them, is the duke (or earl, or count - I'm not picky) that I am destined to marry. I did get the Pentecost Dove, you remember. However, none of them were home that day, so I will have stop by and knock on the gate some other day, on my way back to pick up more goat's-milk chocolates.

And so the northern coast of France became the latest in the series of "we could have spent all three weeks here" spots we visited. We could go back in the fall when the apples are harvested to make the area's famous cider and Calvados, and we never did eat moules-frites at the source, or the famous oysters of the region. I would love to visit Mont Saint Michel some day, and the Bordier buttery is not far away either. And maybe there are more renegade cheesemakers who opted for goats or sheep instead of cows. Or I could just take up sketching again, and spend my days trying to capture the dazzling reflections on the waves in summer, if I could find a place to sit on the crowded shore. It worked for Monet, anyway.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Louvre: Non-Sculptury Stuff

Two of the twenty-four paintings featuring the life of Marie de' Medici, commissioned by her and painted by Peter Paul Rubens between 1621 and 1624.

So many vast canvases. Little details hidden behind triptych panels. Art spanning four thousand years of history - it's impossible to see it all in one day, even if you're not delayed by driving wrong and driving rain. And dignitaries. And closed-off wings that make it even easier to get lost in the sprawling complex that is the Louvre. But go, and it doesn't matter where you start, because you're bound to find something fascinating that will make you say, "I could have spent the entire four hours just in this section alone." The third floor (or second floor, if you're using French terminology) of the Richlieu wing is a good example of this.
The Medici cycle incorporated a lot of allegorical references, and we probably would have benefited from using one of the audio guides to point out all the things we no doubt completely overlooked. The main theme is fairly obvious, however: "Yay, Queen! Marie de' Medici is awesome!" Rubens definitely earned his commission with this series. The meanings and symbolism behind Jan Provost's "Christian Allegory" (below, left) were more enigmatic and frankly pretty trippy. The eyes! The Holy Book and the holey Earth! The chest full of rubies, maybe? and rosemary for remembrance - wait, that's a lily - and the hands framing yet another eye, I think ... what was going on in the artist's mind 500 years ago, I wonder?

The Getty Museum website describes the paintings of Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Triosson as "coldly sensuous and atmospheric" and it is true that his 1806 "The Flood" (below, right) sent shivers down my spine. If I remember correctly, it symbolizes the attempt of a man to rescue the past (his aged father slung over his shoulder) and the future (the children clinging to his wife) but I don't recall from what, other than the obviously cataclysmic flood and weather which according to the explanation is not the biblical flood. Should have been taking notes, or at least pictures of the notes. But we were running out of time, and running faster, reluctantly, to squeeze in just one more gallery before the museum closed ...

And there were the paintings that were just lovely to look at, like Paris Bordon's "Flora" from 1540 (above, left) and Ingres' "Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière" (above, right) that was exhibited at a Paris salon in 1806. She died later that year, Caroline did; Ingres died in 1867 in Paris, where he is buried. Some of his major works, like "La Grande Odalisque" (below) are at the Louvre, but many more are at a museum in Montauban, south of here, where Ingres was born. I believe I will put that on my list of places to go before I leave France. It looks like an interesting place to visit, even without the museum.

Even in fairly simple canvases there were things that caught my eye that I could have spent much more time contemplating. The hands of St. Peter, for example, as painted by Gerard Seghers (Zegers) in 1625 or so, clasped in regretful memory of a moment of cowardice and betrayal fifty years earlier. I was so taken by the emotion in these hands that I completely missed the rooster in the upper left-hand corner of the painting, something that would normally have attracted most of my attention immediately.

Behind a wooden panel with a cheerful portrait of a man, a skull rolls around on the cold stone, reminding us of our eventual ends. There were other examples of this in the tomb-and-sepulchre section we'd gone through earlier, kind of startling, really - transi or "cadaver tombs" showing not only the (perhaps idealized) image of the person in life, like the graceful reclining young female figure I remember looking at, but also the realistic reproduction underneath of that woman's now-dead body, naked with sunken skull and rotting hair and withered breasts.

And when you talk about death memorials and tombs, naturally you'll eventually talk about the Egyptians. We didn't see a lot in this section of the museum, but I'm glad that we did walk through, because I liked the three-thousand-year-old model of a cat on the hunt for mice, and the even earlier diorama of people grinding grain.

And now I know the hieroglyph for cheese! On the left is the symbol square for plain fresh cheese ("curdled milk") called yat and on the right a variation that someone has translated as "milk curdled with beer" or possibly "beer cheese," proving beyond a doubt that Alexandria, Kentucky was founded by descendants of the pharaohs.

We had to stop in at the temporary exhibit containing the recently-discovered mosaic floor from Lod, Israel, which was in much better shape than the ones we had seen in central England at the Corinium Museum near Gloucester, although they date to about the same time period. As amazing as this work is, it's even more amazing to think of all the work it takes to move it around from museum to museum. I'm very glad we crossed its path in Paris, the last stop in its world tour before going back to Israel.

Mom and John had a few specific things they wanted to see, although due to room closings and dignitaries Mom didn't see the Vermeer exhibit she was looking forward to. And John wanted to see works by the Impressionists, but we were told that all of those paintings are elsewhere, not in the Louvre at all. We almost didn't bother going to the Mona Lisa because of the crowds, but by the time we got near that room it was getting close to closing time, and the mob had thinned a bit. Somewhere in my box of slides is a picture of the picture below, though back in 1985 when I first saw it the work was not behind glass, or in its own separate room, as it is now. And there's another slide that's nearly identical to the view I took of Nike of Samothrace, wandering dazedly through the halls of art, jet-lagged and sunburned after a weird lonely week in Sri Lanka, on my way home, eventually, from a year's study abroad (we won't go into the fact that I dropped out during that year, because "dropping out abroad" is an awkward phrase) in Tokyo.

Had I but worlds enough, and time, I would spend more of it at the Louvre and other museums, though I will admit I enjoy the visits more when other people are there to share thoughts and impressions and amazed wonder. But I think I'll have to fit at least one more trip to Paris into my schedule soon.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Louis-Napoléon's Chandeliers (and Eugénie's Loveseat)

If I were a good photojournalist (which I should probably be practicing, given that I'd like to make at least some money writing articles for other places than my blog) I would summarize the history of Napoléon III and the impact he had on French history (and cheesemaking, at least peripherally) and maybe even go into a bit of detail around the building of the wing now included in the Louvre museum that connected the older structure with the relatively new Tuileries palace, which was burned down during the uprisings which also took this last emperor of France out of power, though the reorganization and rebuilding of Paris into the lovely star- and tree-filled city that it is remains as a legacy of his vision.

Instead, I'll just stare entranced at the glittery prisms of the fantastic chandeliers, and imagine myself in a high-waisted dress, trailing my gloved finger over the velvet edges of the chairs, discussing the correct seating of the luminaries invited to dine in the grand salle à manger and whether there would be dancing, after. Imagine that I don't need to earn a living doing anything other than traveling around photographing interesting things. It will work for a little while, anyway, until the lights go out and the museum janitorial staff come in. Shhhh ...