St. Malo

We’ve had the grandchildren with us over the past week for their winter vacation. We had several adventures, but our most ambitious was a visit to St. Malo on the Brittany coast, about a 2.5 hour drive from our place. Even if it isn’t exactly beach weather, the kids were eager for the sea.

I found us a very nice little apartment a block away from an inviting wide beach, and a few minutes drive from the old town of St. Malo. It was perfect.

There is a wide promenade where, in less inclement weather one could walk all the way to the ancient walled center of St. Malo, seen above in the distance. At low tide the beach is exceptional.

At high tide, however, the beach disappears altogether. St. Malo, due to it’s location and sea floor topography, has one of the strongest tides in the world! The waves routinely crash over the walls. In a storm, they look like tidal waves. Still, St. Malo seems to cope without blinking.

The children and I were enjoying the drama one morning, staying well away from the edge. In fact I wasn’t even on the walkway, but rather in a little set back alley. An exceptionally large wave crashed on to the shore and managed to knock me right over. I was completely soaked from head to toe and a bit bruised.

We stayed for two nights. The middle day was gloriously sunny and even a bit warm. It made our day especially wonderful.

St Malo is almost an island, surrounded on four sides by water. A narrow causeway leads into the city. It has ramparts that encircle the town, where one can stroll along with views of the buildings below on one side and the sea beyond on the other.

St. Malo was founded by the Gauls in the first century and has had a long and fabled past. It became a very wealthy town when it took advantage of it’s location to waylay English ships sailing in the channel and extorted large fees for safe passage.

In the second world war it was occupied by the Germans and heavily damaged by an allied bombing campaign. It was one of the last Nazi strongholds after the D-day landing beaches had been recaptured. It was completely rebuilt after the war, and today it is hard to see any traces of that recent devastation.

While driving to and from St. Malo, we listened to the audio book, All the Light We Can Not See, by Anthony Doerr, which largely takes place in St. Malo during the end of the war. We were able to identify some locations from the story.

More than anything, however, the kids wanted to play on the beach, and there was ample opportunity. We explored several. It’s easy to descend the walls at low tide to explore.

All around the city are little fortresses which played an important role in protecting the city in times past.

While the birds collected their dinner in the tide pools, Quinn and Zinnie amassed an impressive collection of beautiful rocks and shells.

We were happy to sit and watch them frolic, as the sun often came out and bathed us in it’s golden light.

One other thing about St. Malo that we really love, is the Maison du Beurre, where you can buy the most delicious butter imaginable. Our favorite is smokey flavored!

Winter at the Maison

Monotype Landscape #1

Winter this year so far has been extremely mild. Global warming has come to Montmirail. In our front garden we currently have a rose in bloom, and our Daphne plant, (which usually blooms first, but closer to the beginning of March) is in full bloom. Unless something changes soon, I think we will see Spring long before expected. Of course since it was significantly warmer in Antarctica this week than in our village, it’s clear that we can’t count on much these days.

One thing, however, that hasn’t changed, is the Maison Conti is currently very quiet. We have our days mostly to ourselves. I do appreciate being able to begin the new year with lots of time to experiment and indulge myself in my atelier. It sustains me for the year. A little winter hibernation is not a bad thing.

I have returned to printmaking experimentation. I spent a lot of time several years ago exploring monotypes. The process basically involves painting an image on a plate and printing it as a one-off. 9 out of 10 times I wasn’t so happy with the results, but the ones that did turn out well were very pleasing to me indeed. It’s a process with a lot of surprises.

Monotype Landscape #2

I have done many fewer etchings over the last few years than I did when we first set up the atelier at Maison Conti. I hope to get back to more of that as the year goes on. I finished my first effort in early January.

Chez Nous”, a line etching

I have also begun working on some relief prints. The difference between intaglio, like an etching, and relief, like linoleum or wood block printing, is that in a relief the part that is not meant to print is cut away, leaving the surface to be inked and printed. In Intaglio, the lines are incised into metal, using acid. The plate is inked but then wiped clean, leaving the ink only in the lines which print under the pressure of the press and the dampness of the paper. I have done very little relief printing in my life. The results are less detailed and fine, but can be lovely in their own way.

“Black Bird,” relief print cut from wood blocks, one block for each color.

“Versailles”, one color wood block print

Our little village is calm at this time of the year, but there are lots of ideas in the air to improve and grow the town. We have a new restaurant being planned, perhaps a bike rental and brewery, we have some crafts people moving in to town to open up their studios for visits, we have a new gift shop and many cultural events in the coming seasons.

Eco-Dyeing on Silk

I had quite a lot of plant material left over from our holiday, including two generous bouquets of flowers; roses, mimosas, daffodils. I dried many of them, as I discovered last year to my surprise that one can still extract color from dry plants. Some of the fresh flowers and leaves, however, became subjects for silk eco-printed pieces I have been creating over the last two weeks. I was able to make so many prints of various sizes, that when sewn together (using some pieces done over the last year), I had a large quilt of about 3 X 5′.

Silk is wonderful to dye with, but a bit of a pain to sew with. It’s hard to make everything square, but Rick, who is very meticulous with such things, helped me make a good rectangle.

The way the eco-dyeing process works is that you soak the fabric in a basin of water which has a couple of tablespoons of both alum and washing soda. This is an effective mordant for the silk (or cotton and paper, for that matter). The plants are soaked in a bath of half vinegar and half water. Just a few minutes of soaking both for the fabric and plants is sufficient. Before arranging the plants onto the silk fabric, I take the plant pieces out of the vinegar water and dip them into a bath of iron water (made by soaking rusty nails in vinegar and water for a month or so). The fabric is then rolled tightly around a stick or a bottle and tied with string so that the plants and fabric have maximum contact. The bundle is placed in a pot of boiling water, not submerged, but suspended above the water, so that the whole thing can steam for an hour. It is that simple.

Here are a few details from the quilt. I love how the results can almost seem photographic.

The roses were white, but they printed a golden yellow with blue outlines.

This hobby is rather addictive because the results are always such a surprise. All variables, the weather, the time of year, the quality of the soil, the exact plant specimen, the fabric or paper used, all will change the results, and sometimes quite dramatically. In Australia eucalyptus leaves print red but in France they print yellow. In the late fall maple seeds print purple, while earlier in the season they print rusty red.

Silk is the best medium for eco-dyeing, in my experience. It takes the plant images in the most detail, but of course it is expensive, so I feel as if I have to use my results in some kind of project, rather than just adding them to the stacks of eco-dyed materials I have in drawers. In this case, I intend to make a large wall hanging, which will involve doing some quilting onto cotton batting with some beautiful silk embroidery thread I have ordered.

Earlier in the week, we had occasion to go to Vendôme, a forty minute drive southeast from us. It was a chilly day but rather pretty nonetheless. The Loir River (baby brother to the larger Loire River), which passes through the town was high and lively. I caught a photo of these fishermen on the banks, trying their luck. Vendôme is a very elegant town.

Starting This New Year

For the first time in my life, we did not celebrate Christmas this year. For our family in California, the price of flights to Paris for New Years was less than a quarter of what it would have been for Christmas. I thought I was sentimental about trees and ornaments, but it turns out I’m not. Christmas passed without much notice and with no regrets for Rick and me. Instead everyone arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the first week of 2020 with us at Maison Conti. New Year’s Day has always been my favorite moment of the year anyway, so I found it an especially nice time to come together.

Let’s begin by talking about the food. Most of the family loves to cook, and all of us like to eat. The main celebratory meal we had together was on the 1st. It included the essentials, such as oysters, foie gras and roast beef.

But there were a few surprises too. Emily, being a vegetarian and an excellent cook, always has something special to share for our meals together. This time it was a galette made with a crust of ground nuts, topped with avocado purée and mushrooms. I have added a link to the recipe as I highly recommend this dish. It was spectacular.

We bought some beautiful côtes de boeuf from our local shop. They directed us to cook them over an open fire, so we turned our downstairs fireplace into an indoor barbecue.

We had several organized activities planned for the holiday, but most free time was spent walking, sitting by the fire, reading, chatting and doing crossword puzzles.

The weather was mild but not bright and sunny.

In the past we have often done some crafts projects together during holidays. One year, inspired by Calder, we made lo-tech mechanical toys. (Calder had a fabulous collection of handmade puppets which he used to create magical circus performances for his friends.) We have often done sewing projects. This year we decided we would make a book together, and I was left to arrange it. I prepared all the pieces in advance, so that we could put the journal together in a reasonable time frame.

Since I have had so much fun with eco-dyeing, I decided to begin by having everyone make a title page using this technique. I collected leaves and asked James to bring me some eucalyptus from the U.S., which he kindly did. Eucalyptus is one of the best leaves for this process.

I chose to show them how to create a little book that binds the pages together with elastic so that pages are easily added and removed.

Everyone seemed pleased with the results. Each had a unique book well put together. Each cover and the decorative inner lining pages were different one from another.

Several people have told me since that they have put their little books into daily use.

Another project we did together was some canning. We made pear chutney, lime pickle and pickled vegetables.

One day we decided to show Daniel the first house we bought in France, which is about an hour northwest of Montmirail. We visited the old haunts on a very chilly day.

In those early days, we literally lived in the middle of a forest beside a little stream. The old house has fallen into some disrepair these days. It is really a little paradise in summer, but not so much in winter. It’s hard to picture now the life we lived there, especially at this time of year. We used to roam the woods looking for fallen branches since there was only a small fireplace and no central heating.

After everyone had gone back to their own homes, ours got very quiet. Still, it has given us some time to get a few things done around the house and to start projects of our own. I’ll share some in future posts.

Catching Up

Frouville-Pensier, located in the Beauce region of France (known for wheat cultivation) is the only surviving windmill in the Eure-et-Loir department of France. It is in working order, and from time to time is rigged out with cloth sails and allowed to turn in the wind on ceremonial occasions. Emile Zola described it as “a light house in a sea of wheat.” He visited in 1886. It has stood in this field since 1274.

We discovered it by accident, when we stopped for a picnic on our way to Burgundy in July.

Some good friends called us from California recently and reminded me that I haven’t posted anything on my blog since July. My only excuse is that my mind (and often my body) have been elsewhere. I promised, however, to try to rectify the situation and get myself back in front of my computer to chronicle our adventures and reconnect with friends and family who might be interested. Last year was full of travel and discovery. To bring you up to date on our activities in some kind of reasonable blog length, I am going to have to limit the number of photos of beautiful places we have been over the last five months. Each location merits an entire post, but there isn’t time for that.

This summer marked our 23 year wedding anniversary. We decided to celebrate by returning to the hotel in Burgundy where we began our honeymoon trip in 1996 Le Moulin des Templiers. The countryside around Avallon and Vézelay isn’t so different from the part of France we live in, but the Vallée du Cousin, between the two towns, has a beautiful rocky river beside which the hotel sits. It reminds me a lot of places I love in California and Oregon, so it is especially attractive to me. We had a marvelous time revisiting happy memories from two decades ago and also discovering some lovely new corners.

James and Daniel were in Paris all summer, as Daniel is the director of the UC Berkeley Summer Abroad program. In early August, after the students had gone back home and our boys were free to travel, the whole family took a vacation to Tuscany together. We rented a house in a remote village in the hills above Lucca, called Casabasciana. The location was spectacular. There was a swimming hole down the road where we spent several afternoons splashing about.

Days were spent lazily, playing cards, reading, doing crossword puzzles, drawing, walking, cooking and eating. The house had a wonderful terrace where we could gather together and enjoy the beautiful view across the valley. It was just what everybody wanted to do: almost nothing.

In October our friends Cass and Billy arrived. We had rented an apartment in Sarlat, as they wanted very much to see the Dordogne, one of my favorite regions of France. We were in a wonderful lodging in the center of this lively and ancient city. We took day trips to see the sites, but spent the evenings at home playing Mahjong and Oh Hell, two of my favorite ways to while away the time. There was a daily market right across the street from our place as well as numerous restaurants to choose from.

The Dordogne is called the Valley of 1000 castles. It certainly has its fairy tale qualities. This view of the river, as seen from Domme, (considered one of the most beautiful villages of France,) is famous.

One thing I had never done before was to take a boat ride down the river. This was a marvelous way to spend an afternoon. We could look up to the famous château of Castlenaud which during the 100 years war was a British stronghold. Across the river is the château of Beynac which was held by the French. Those were the days of catapults and siege warfare. The Dordogne Valley preserves that rich history.

We spent a day at Rocamadour, the site of a famous pilgrimage sanctuary. It’s dramatic location, hanging on to the cliffs above the river, make it one of the most popular sites in France.

Cass had one place above all that she wanted to visit in the Dordogne, and that was Les Jardins du Eyrignac. It really is one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. The manoir, at the center of the formal French gardens is a private home, in the same family for 500 years. It perches on a hill above a picturesque valley in the Périgord Noir. The garden itself is known for its topiary and fountains.

In November we had yet another long trip away from home. Rick’s cousin and his wife are spending a year traveling around Europe. They are living in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence during the fall and winter. We began by visiting there and discovering this town which was new to us. It is the location of the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh was admitted after cutting off his ear. He made 142 paintings in the year he lived here, including some of his best known. While there we were treated to some wonderful day trips in the area, including a visit to the magical village of Gordes, another one of those French towns that seems to grow out of the mountainside.

One of the most remarkable experiences we had in Provence was attending the Carrières de Lumières, a large enclosed space that was once a stone quarry. It is now home to an immersive art experience of video and music. It’s difficult to explain how extraordinary it is. We saw an exhibition of Van Gogh’s work and it was truly mesmerizing. This show has now moved on to Paris and if you follow this link, you can get a taste of how beautiful it is.

We have heard about the glories of Provence from our friends Christine and Chuck, who know the area very well. Last time we saw them they gave us a list of “must see” villages. One of them, Eygalières, was not far at all from where we were staying. The view of the Alpilles Mountains from the hill top is breathtaking.

After leaving St. Rémy we took a tour along the fabled Côte d’Azur. We stopped in Cassis for a night and enjoyed the open sea, the old port and the exquisite sea food.

We drove past Cannes, which looked quite overwhelming, to stop in Nice, but only for lunch and a short tour. Nice is nice, a little more authentic than a lot of the towns along the coast which, according to many French people, “are ruined.” Nice holds up. One can see why so many of the rich and famous have chosen this area, and why it attracts so much tourism. The coastline is very beautiful and the Mediterranean is a warm and calm sea. Unfortunately though, there are just too many people, too many high rises and far too much traffic.

Our real goal, as we raced past the glamorous cities on the Côte d’Azur, was Lake Como. From Menton, where we stayed a night, it is only a 3 hour drive. I have wanted to go to this romantic destination for quite some time. We were not disappointed. Sitting, as it does, just beneath the Italian and Swiss alps, it is the third largest lake in Italy. Shaped like an upside down Y, it certainly attracts the rich and famous too, but happily the villages that hug its edge are more or less as they were in the 17th century. There is no gaudy development. It is one of the loveliest places I have ever visited.

Next time I will finish my catch up with some stories from the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

Still Life Photography

I have been experimenting with photography this week, and taking an on-line course on food photography. I own a nice Nikon digital camera which I generally have used as a point and shoot, set to automatic. In my class I am finding out how to manipulate the f-stop, ISO and shutter speed to achieve some dynamic effects.

With a low f-stop, one can create images with a shallow depth of field, a focal point and light, slightly out of focus backgrounds.

The more dramatic moody effects are a matter of dark backgrounds and objects, a higher f- stop and a single indirect light source. A higher ISO gives a little graininess to the photo, which I like.

I still find it difficult to fiddle with all the settings to achieve some predictable effect, but the effort is enjoyable and it’s possible that after all this time of being entirely baffled by photographic techniques, I could actually learn something about photography.

Summer in Paris

Picnic on the banks of the Seine

Last week we spent a little time in Paris, visiting family. The city has almost 18 million international visitors every year, so obviously its attractions are legend. Summertime, like all the time, offers charming sights and activities. Here’s a random list of some of my favorite Parisian pleasures.

Place des Victoires

Without doubt, my favorite activity in Paris is simply to walk through the city, enjoying its architecture and history.

Cafe Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole

There is no place I’ve visited that has as lively an outdoor cafe scene as France, and Paris must have the most and probably the best choices of places to sit outdoors, watching the world go by.

Jardin de Luxembourg

Paris has more than 400 gardens where one can sit to relax on a warm summer afternoon.


Museums are obviously a marvelous activity while visiting Paris. There are 130 to chose from. Monet’s water lilies are among my favorite paintings to revisit.

Fromagerie, rue Cler

Buying fresh food at the many markets and specialty boutiques in Paris is a pleasure that even the tourist should not miss. The Rue Cler is a pedestrian street, several blocks long, of every kind of food shop one can imagine.

Grande Mosquée de Paris

Paris restaurants are a subject that takes up a lot of ink. In general I find discovering new places to eat preferable to visiting ones I already know, but I make an exception with the Grand Mosque. I go there not for the food per se, but to feast my eyes on the extravagant decor.

Faubourg Saint-Antoine

Discovering the hidden corners of Paris is a gratifying activity while in town. There are so many books, blog posts and websites devoted to the less well-known neighborhoods that it makes quick work identifying a new quarter to explore and enjoy.

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris

There are several English language bookshops in Paris. The most venerable, Shakespeare and Company is a place you can hang out in for hours. It’s no problem to just plop down somewhere and read one of the books from the shelves.

Watching the river flow from the quai, as seen from a Batobus

The Batobus is basically a river taxi. It is a pleasant and leisurely way to get from one historical Parisian monument to the next.

Follow the links in red for more information.

Using Plant Prints

Wall hanging quilted with a traditional Sashiko stitch design

Printing with plants is a magical process and it can get quite addictive. Over the course of a few years I have used a lot of fabric and paper to imprint plants. I have a large stack of both. I like to be able to put these prints to some kind of practical use. Some eco-dyers make clothing with the fabric they dye, but I tend to prefer to make wall hangings.

With a stack of my recent mordant experiments, I recently made an accordion book which I can use as a resource to remember effects I have gotten from various plants.

It is a small object d’art in its own right.

One of my favorite plants to print is bergamot (also known as bee balm), which is an invasive volunteer in our garden. It has literally taken over several of our beds. Of course it is also an edible plant, from the mint family, and, as its name suggests, a supporter of bees and butterflies. It produces my favorite images, so I guess it goes to show that sometimes nature knows better what to offer the garden than the horticulturist herself.

Hello Summer!

View from our upstairs window, a swallow swooping past

This week our hemisphere tilted its maximum towards the sun. We had our longest day, which in our part of the world means that it is light from 5AM until close to midnight. From now we move inexorably towards winter again…but in the meantime, the long, languid days bring that sense of well-being that comes with the various bird songs I hear outside my window as I write this, the warm weather and all the happy travelers who come to our door.

Painting the front doors of the Maison Conti

We have had five Japanese artists staying with us this week. They have been a sensation in our town, as they seem quite exotic and attractive to the locals. The artists have been traveling around France with their painting supplies and portable stools, making many watercolor sketches. Their routine is rigorous. They were off right after breakfast, took only a short lunch break and worked again all afternoon. They made paintings in every corner of the village.

Left: California Poppy. Right: Canterbury Bells

My time in the atelier is somewhat curtailed during our busiest months, but I did manage to collect some garden flowers and eco-dye them onto paper.

View from the back window, village cat resting on the castle wall

Summer always brings a renewed interest in cooking, and dare I say, in eating. We have so many fresh ingredients and our wonderful window herb garden gets used at practically every evening meal.

Moon rising over the village

A nice bonus to this first week of summer was a full moon.