Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Royal Savoy Hotel of Lausanne, Switzerland.
Gosh, that sounds classy!
And I guess it was, for many, many years.
It’s a huge old dinosaur of a thing, dating back to the days when upper class young people from England and the USA would still swan around Europe to be «finished ».
The Americans wanted to acquire that sheen of genteel Old World culture. According to my deep analysis of this phenomena ( which mainly involved reading the book ‘Little Women‘ several times), this sheen could only be had by sitting by a lake ( preferably a Swiss lake, but a French one might do) and painting watercolors of it.

The English, on the other hand, seemed to seek ‘continental sophistication’. This is possibly involved the ability to eat roasted horse without freaking. I’m not sure.

And this was the kind of hotel where people would do this stuff. It was very fancy and very, very expensive.
And it wasn’t just the foreigners that flocked there. It was a favorite with European aristocrats, as well. In fact, the Spanish royal family lived in the hotel throughout the entire Second World War.

It was furnished with antiques from all over Europe from the 19th, 18th and even 17th century. Very chic.

But then something happened. Two very bad somethings, actually. Major remodels and refurbishings were done in the 1960’s and again in the early 1980’s.
And this was bad. Very, very bad.

The antique wallpapers and carpets all went and all kinds of newer stuff was installed. Some antiques were kept, but many disappeared and were replaced by modern 60s and 80s stuff. Bleh.
Worst of all, 19th century landscapes were pushed out of the way in favor of 1960’s art. God help them. The stuff was darn ugly and didn’t fit at all with the spirit of the building (or the spirit of good taste).

After this frenzy….nothing. Absolutely nothing for a long, long time.
And the hotel began a decline.
It began to disappoint

The internet arrived and word began to get around even faster…the Royal Savoy was musty, sad, shabby and far too expensive for what it offered. A client review from 2009 on one travel site called it a « smelly, dusty, run down big hotel ». Another person remarked « We were expecting a nice hotel but in fact it is an old, smelly and antiquated hotel ».

The « Grand Old Dame » had become a « crazy old homeless woman with ragged clothes and distinctly bad body odor ».

I guess it’s a good thing, then, that the place was sold recently.
And the new owners, Barwa Real Estate of the tiny (but rich!) nation of Qatar, had big plans.
Their first plan was to clear the whole place out. Everything would have to go: furnishings, bathroom fixtures, dishes, paintings, ashtrays, etc.
How would it all be gotten rid of?
It would be auctioned off.
And just who would buy this stuff?

Well….my husband would.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The first order of the day is to wish a very

to my faithful friend and constant blog reader, Babzee.

The next is to show you all what has been keeping me away from my computer lately.

No, I haven't been out enjoying the good weather. There's been none of that to be had around here. There's been nothing but cold rain- perfect weather to be sitting in front of a sewing machine and making tons of stuff!
My first project was to sew two sets of curtains for the living room. JP had picked up some fabric last time he was in Burkina and it had been laying around for the last two months, constantly whimpering " Sew me!" at me every time I passed by the crumpled plastic sack in which it was forced to live out its sad days. Maybe this was all just in my head, but that didn't make it any less disturbing.

As my old machine isn't fixed yet, I've borrowed one from a friend. It's white, plastic and very modern, but it works pretty darn well. I'm enjoying the heck out of the fancy zigzag stitch it has.

(Why no, I don't get out much. Why do you ask?)

When my kitty and I were done with the orange, African-ish curtains, we got right onto another project: an adorable pioneer outfit for Mallory!

The fabric is...old sheets that I got from my MIL! So, price-wise, this was a complete win.
I didn't even pay for a pattern- not that I'd easily find one in France. I would have had to special-order it at the fabric store.
So, I designed the dress and bonnet myself!

When it was done, we decided that it was still a little plain. So, I added a matching pocket on the apron and sewed up a cute pair of bloomers to go under the dress.

Mallory has been learning to embroider and she wanted to decorate a handkerchief to go with her outfit. So, I sewed one up for her and she put her initials and a flower on it. You can click on the pic of the skirt detail to see it a bit better. She's actually quite good and is working on a cute cross-stitch bib right now.

I would have KILLED to own this outfit when I was a young Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. I loved the books and read them many, many times. I watched the tv show, but with less enthusiasm. The only thing it seemed to have in common with the books was the setting and the names of the characters. SO annoying and disappointing!

The impetus for making this? Well, this summer, we'll be camping up near DSmet, South Dakota! We'll get to see the real Little Town on the Prairie and go the the annual pageant up there. This is something I've wanted to do for years. luckily, my three girls are all fans and are completely up for it. the men of the family are going along with it and won't protest too much ...unless I try to dress them up in old sheets, too!

My next project? Making a pioneer outfit for Alexa, of course! And i'm alos in the middle of making her a new Renaissance faire outfit.

Plus, there's tons of repair work to do. Now that the machine is out and running, it seems that everyone has ripped pants and torn shirts for me to fix... And no, you can't mail me yours to fix. I adore you guys, but I have to draw the line somewhere!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Back when we lived in Ouagadougou, we had a television, but never bothered to hook up the antenna. And there was no question of paying good money (or even bad money) for a satellite dish.
The tv was never turned on during the week.
At all.
On the weekends, our kids were allowed to watch just one video cassette per day (with the exception of special permission from their soft-hearted father).
One of the most often viewed and most treasured of these cassettes was « My Little Pony ». It was a French tape, so it was actually « Mon Petit Poney ». In this cartoon, small, chubby, pastel-colored talking horses went about their daily activities. And their daily activities included: being adorable, going on scavenger hunts, being even more cloyingly adorable, babysitting naughty (yet adorable!) toddler ponies, being adorable some more and rescuing a rock-star pony from the clutches of an evil manager. (Note: Rock Star Pony looked and sounded very much like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and that particular episode was, as you may imagine, peculiarly fascinating)

One thing the ponies were never, ever obliged to do in an episode of the show was flee from people intent on killing them, butchering them and serving them up as Sunday lunch. This might well have been the plot of an installment if the show had been made in France, or Switzerland.

Most of you probably already knew that the French eat horse meat. What you may not have known is that the Swiss do it too.
They’re sneaky that way.
The Swiss may seem charming but you have to watch them closely. Otherwise, the minute you sit down to the table for a nice lunch, they are plonking down a huge roasting pan right in front of you and it’s chock-full of Mr. Ed basted in an herbed wine sauce.

And I know this is absolutely true because that’s exactly what happened to me last Sunday.

We’d gone to the Swiss city of Lausanne to visit some good friends there. We’ve known M and D for many years and were looking forward to a nice meal with them and then a group visit to an old hotel that was auctioning off all it’s furnishings (note: this hotel will figure very prominently in my next post for reasons which will surprise you. )

Anyway, there we were, all sitting around the table. There was JP, the twins, Sev, and our friends’ two lovely teen-aged sons. M was in the kitchen finishing up , while D approached the table with a big cast-iron dutch oven.
He put it down right in front of me and lifted off the lid with a decided flourish.
The large chunk of meat inside had a definite gray tinge to it. I figured that it was the sauce that had given it a funny color.
D want back to the kitchen to get a better knife and those of us left at the table speculated as to what it was.
Beef was the general consensus.
By this time, D was back at the table, hacking away at it with a large knife.
I asked him what the meat was.
« C’est un rôti de petit poulain. » he happily informed me.
« Poulain » is « foal » in English.
We were being served « roast of small foal ».
« You’re kidding, right? » I asked him.
D just looked at me quizzically and went back to putting slices on Sev’s plate.
I turned to JP. « He’s kidding, right? »
JP peered down at the lumps of gray on his own plate.
« No. I don’t think he’s kidding »
« Seriously . What is it? » I insisted, a vaguely worried feeling creeping into my mind.
« Poulain. » he said again, quite surprised I’d asked twice.
« Really? What? Really?........As in « My Little Pony ?» I asked, a bit desperately.
During all this, M had been coming down the long hallway to the dining room. She could see me clearly the whole time and she swears that throughout this exchange my face went from draining paper white to flushing bright red. (Note to self: Don’t plan to earn millions as a professional poker player)

D didn’t quite get what my problem was. In fact, he’d gone specially to the horse-butcher’s shop to buy us this nice treat.
I said that it was just like serving a roasted kitten.
In other words, not so good.

The twins, of course, refused to touch it.
The men of our family, on the other hand, chowed down. Sev even had seconds and thirds. With sauce. Horse blood sauce.

I’m not even that keen on eating cows. I serve beef to our family maybe once a week, max. It’s always organic, relatively happy beef and usually small quantities- little chunks in a sauce over pasta or rice, rather than steaks.

The foal roast was so very, very creepy.

Luckily, M and D are good pals and we all managed to have a good laugh about it in the end
Everyone but the foal, anyway…

Friday, March 19, 2010

I've been working on some posts-mostly about French culture and such- but can't manage finish anything. Spring has sprung in the French Alps and I can't seem to keep still in front of a screeen. I'd much rather be outside admiring my bright yellow crocus patch...

The addition to the house ? Well, the builders have got all the doors and windows on and put the interior wood panelling in. Their work is done.
Lucky dogs.
Now there's lots for us to do. JP will do as much as he can by himself, with a bit of help from a neighbor and maybe our kids.

What's left?

Flooring (insulation and then stratified floorboards)
Heat (drill hole through kitchen wall and add on a radiator out in the new room)
Paint (one ugly cement wall which used to be the exterior of the west side of the house)
Light (Agree on, purchase and put up some light fixtures!)
Varnish (interior walls and ceiling with transparent UV protection)
More varnish (exterior+shutters+the carport)

So, plenty to do there.

The REALLY big news is that Tya is leaving for Germany.... at 2am this Saturday morning. That's only about 16 hours from now! She's leaving on a bus with a bunch of classmates and some teachers. They'll all be lodged with various host families in a small town not far from Berlin. Tya's very excited. She'll only be gone a week, so expect a full report on her blog very soon.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I was in Thonon today, dropping off my sewing machine to be repaired. It's an old Kohler that belonged to JP's maternal grandmother who was a seamstress. Widowed when her only daughter was just a year old, she earned her living making hats and dresses for the good folks of Luneville. And she had to work hard, as there wasn't a penny of insurance money.

She's planned to pay the premium on Saturday, but the baby (my MIL) was crying and fussing in her stroller. She decided to go right on home and get to the insurance office on Monday.

The next day, her husband died in a motorcycle crash...

So, that's my sewing machine.

The repair guy thought it was great. A real classic.

"An old metal machine from the early 1960's? These things are indestructable." he said.

If nuclear bombs go off, it seems, the only things left standing will be the cockroaches and my sewing machine...

I had it with me in Burkina, but it didn't do well on the trip back to France. The six months in transit were hard on it and it hasn't worked quite right since. I need it working again because I need to be making curtains, cushion covers and cloaks for the girls (renaissance faire stuff).
I also want to give Valentine a few more sewing lessons, as she's been asking me...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Book: The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk- I’m not generally a big fan of non-fiction, but I make an exception for books about early polar exploration. I don’t know why , exactly. When my interest began, back in Burkina, I thought maybe it was because reading about people freezing to death made me feel less miserably hot. But that theory doesn’t seem to hold any (ice) water because I now live somewhere with very long, cold winters and I still love me some polar adventure. And this is a good one. Based on a mountain of diaries, newspaper accounts and some interviews, this account of a Canadian scientific voyage gone very, very wrong could have been very, very dry. But Jennifer Niven keeps the story engaging. It’s an amazing book!

The TV series: Dollhouse.
Joss Whedon-how do I love thee?
Let me count the ways…
( Buffy, Angel,
Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible and now, Dollhouse)
OK. Six.
I love thee six ways, baby.
(Apologies to E. Barrett Browning- but I figure she can take the damage)
Like everything Whedon has done, it's thought-provoking, creative, touching and funny. And, like the amazing and beloved Firefly, was cancelled by the networks after only a short run.

The Music Video: TikTok is THE song of the moment, I'm sorry to say. But, much as I'm not a fan, I’ve listened to it several times lately. I wanted to watch the cute video my cousin’s daughter made with a friend.
I’m not sure how appropriate it is. The cans of Mountain Dew labeled as Jack Daniels were kind of disturbing.
And the lyrics "Boys trying to touch my junk"? Well, maybe it refers to people rummaging through her box of old Barbies at a garage sale...
But it’s all in good fun. And she wants lots of people to watch it. And her mom is very sick right now with cancer.
So, cheer up Mikayla and watch her video. 'Favorite' it and star it up, even. She's a sweetie.

The Podcast: AV Talk - This is my go-to movie review place

The Home Improvement Project: That would be the new room being added to our house. And right now, as I write this, there are workers in it nailing on the interior wood paneling! Progress is being made!!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Bad news: France is again an occupied country.

This time, though, the invasion force is made up of annoying imported cartoon characters. They are everywhere and imprinted on everything: Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Spiderman (which the French pronounce "Speeder-mahn" which makes me ROTFL) and everything Disney.

This foreign invasion has long been a concern/peeve of mine. As a young mom in France with a passel of tots, I often found it frustrating that most of the kids' clothes looked just like what you'd buy back in the USA, only way more expensive. On top of that, they'd often feature text in nonsensical English. And I didn't WANT my son to wear sleepers imprinted with Batman's face and ungrammatical phrases. I just didn't.

I started thinking about this issue again when a friend (non French, but living in France) recently complained that she couldn't find much "real" French stuff for her kids. Where are the real French kids' books (as opposed to something originally published in English, but then translated) , the cartoons, the nursery rhymes and songs? And this is just the kind of "insider" information that is difficult to prise out of the natives. (see this post for more info on why the French won't tell you jack)

Luckily, when I got my French passport back in 1996, they neglected to make me sign any papers promising to keep my mouth shut. So, I'm free to give you the low-down on Real French Stuff.

There's a lot of ground to cover. So, today I'm just going to go over a few comic book characters you need to know about:

1. Asterix- This little guy is at the core of French culture. If you want to be an insider, a nodding aquaintance with this small Gaulish warrior is a must. He, along with his big pal Obelix and their many friends, fight the good fight as the last holdouts against the Roman invasion of Gaul (France in about 50BC). The books are very funny and there are 34 of them, so get cracking!

2. Tintin- He's cute! I love the intrepid boy reporter. I really do. But he's Belgian. So, never mind.

3. Marsupialami- This cute fella is...well...I don't know really WHAT he is. I guess he's a kind of monkey/leopard (?) thingy. Anyway, he spends his days bouncing around the Palombian jungle, outwitting the hunters and saying "houba houba!" in an adorable manner. He's been around since 1952, so apparently the formula works. At any rate, he may have a Palombian passport, but he's also trés, trés français.

4. Titeuf- His pedigree isn't as long as that of Asterix or the bouncy yellow guy above, but since the early 1990's, he's definitely been a force in the French culture of childhood. I didn't "get" this one at first. I guess maybe because I found the artwork kind of ugly... but both the comic book albums and the animated cartoon are actually very good. French kids certainly adore them. In fact "Titeuf" is the most popular comic in France right now...and has been for some years. Don't miss it.

5. Becassine-I was always delighted when I could find baby gear festooned with the figure of this lady:
She's very vintage (1913!), very cool and still a force to be reckoned with. Who would have imagined making a housemaid from Bretagne into a comic strip heroine?

6. Lucky Luke- I'm adding this one a bit grudgingly. I don't like him, but he's a definite presence in French culture. I probably feel about this dopey, fake euro-cowboy the way actual French people might feel about Pepe Le Pew. But a true knowledge of French popular culture definitely requires at least knowing what the song "Les Daltons" is about and who sang it back in 1967.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Just so you know...
If someone offers you a choice between the two following options:
1. See the new Scorsese film "Shutter Island"
2. Get your eye poked by a sharp stick,
my recommendation is that you take a good, long look at the stick in question. If it seems to be relatively clean and free of any obvious splinters, you should go with the stick. Chances are, you'll be fine, with some good medical care.

Maybe your eye won't thank me for this bit of wisdom, but your brain will. Your brain does NOT want to deal with "Shutter Island".
Trust me.

What's not to like? (spoiler alert: if you're determined to see this film despite my good advice, you'd best get off the bus here)

Well, most obviously, there's Leo DiCaprio's squinting and brow-furrowing ("acting").

There's the distracting accents. Somewhere between the dialect coaching sessions and the eventual performances, something went horribly, terribly wrong. I know people from Boston and they really don't sound like that. At all.
There's the overwrought "scary" score that I would have expected from a brand new, not too smart filmaker. Some subtletly, please? If something is frightening, I don't need jangy, staccato piano notes and/or screechy strings to tell me so.
There's the threadbare "suspense" plot that gives away the ending with ten minutes of the opening shot.
There's a horrific, drawn-out-beyond-the-realms-of-good-taste scene near the end which is completely gratuitous (because the audience already knows the details of the traumatic event) and seems to be there just for the shock value of seeing small dead children and giving DiCaprio another chance to over-act.
And don't even get me started on the Dachau scenes. Just don't.

About 30 minutes into the film, I leaned over to JP and whispered "Scorsese has lost his freaking mind."

Not that I've ever been a big Scorsese fan. Lots of his films are about the mafia (Casino, The Departed, Goodfellas) and one (considered by many to be his best) is about boxing (Raging Bull). These are two subjects that are completely uninteresting to me (as are race car driving, football and watching paint dry) and I go out of my way to avoid movies about these things, even if they are supposed to be "good" ones.
Another problem is that Scorsese made many of his films in the 1970's . This was an era in film-making when it was fashionable to make everything look like crap. Really ugly crap. On the big screen, even the most glamorous movie stars looked like homeless heroin addicts. (In fact, even the "adorable" orphan in Disney's 'Pete's Dragon' (1977) looked like a homeless heroin addict!) I was only a kid, but I couldn't help but notice that things in movieland had suddenly gotten ugly, dirty and sexual (in a cheap, scary kind of way).
We're just lucky Scorsese and his ilk never got a hold of "The Sound of Music".

The only Scorsese film that I admire is "The Gangs of New York". The whole "gritty realism" thing worked to bring to life a very realistic mid-19th century city in a way that I don't think had been seen before and hasn't since. But maybe I'm biased because I'm an archaeologist and have spent a lot of time trying to imagine the past and he did a great job with the historical aspects.

The above is just to flash my credentials as a non-Scorsese-worshipping filmgoer. I won't, as so many seem to be doing, cut him any slack on this one. It's NOT a good film and you shouldn't waste your time.

My only two consolations are that
a. we went to a cheap show and only paid 4 euros each to get in
b. I still have both of my eyes intact.

(Many thanks to blogger/artist Sean McGlinchey for the use of his crazy sketch. Check out more of his stuff here)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I didn't post yesterday because I had to shop for party supplies, teach a couple of English courses, clean house and then make this:

It's a kind of psychedelic fairy cat. You can see that, right?

At any rate, it's what the twins wanted and they were thrilled. Plus, their pals were gratifyingly impressed.

I had to bake it at a friend's house (Thanks, Esther!) yesterday, as my oven is still broken. (As it would cost about 150 euros to fix it, I know we had better just go buy a new one. But I can't seem to make myself spend the money...)

Anyway, the kids were busy this morning getting everything ready. Even Severin lent a hand, but quickly fled the scene when the nine 11 and 12 year old girls showed up and started with the squealing and chattering.

A good time, as they say, was had by all.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Birthday Girls!

Last Sunday, the twins turned 12 years old. As a friend recently pointed out, this is probably the last "kid" birthday for them. At 12, they still ask for Barbies and Playmobil as gifts.

At 13? Not so much.

Actually, Mallory asked for books. As is often the case, Alexa didn't have any idea of what to ask for. It's funny that Mal has such definite ideas about...everything, while Alexa is much more laid back and vague about things.

And it's been that way since they were born. When she was small, Mallory would grumble and howl to get things just how she liked them- while Alexa laid ( and then sat) around looking serene and generally ok with the world as it was.

So, the zen girl got a video game involving music (she likes music) and a tiny digital photo frame

Then we had our outing. The buffet at the Chinese restaurant was a big success. The food was good and the decor was satisyingly oriental, in that crazy-tacky Chinese restaurant way that is so entertaining.

Afterwards, we went to Geneva:
The Museum of Art and History is rather small, but has some great pieces. Severin enjoyed the swords and armour, while the girls preferred the paintings.

Here's Alexa in front of some gorgeous peonies by Renoir.

And here's Mallory's favorite- a painting depicting a happy family of farmers apparently enjoying a picnic with all of their livestock. That's what I call cruelty-free farming!

That evening, for about 20 minutes, Mallory was 12 years old and Alexa was still only 11. Mal enjoyed it while it lasted, but Al was very happy when the clock finally hit 8:50pm. She could finally say she was really a whole year older!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The high-tech voodoo practitioner came today, waved some chicken feathers over my computer and now I can once again post photos! Yippee!

OK- I'll admit it.
He didn't really do a rite involving poultry.
But he DID do something deeply mysterious that made my computer behave better....

Anyway, to celebrate, here a a few pics taken TODAY to show you the progress that's been made on the house.
As you can see, we have a proper roof, windows, cute shutters and a gorgeous copper gutter:

We can finally start imagining how it will look when it's all done. I am loving the super-high ceiling and big wooden beams:

Also, we finally have the insulation all in. (No door yet, though):

And now that it's insulated, that means the electrician can come and start the wiring!
We accepted an estimate yesterday and the guy promised to come tomorrow morning! And I'm pretty confident he will- he's someone we've had work for us before and he's exceptionally dependable, for a local artisan.

We had to modify his estimate a bit, though. The electrician had included a lighting system for the room...a very nice one. A bit like this:
The thing is, a set-up similar to the above would us cost over 1000 US dollars.
So, that's not happening.
I'm sure we'll be just as happy (and way less broke) with normal lights costing ten times less.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

I haven't been posting often, as most of the subjects I've wanted to write about seem to demand at least one small photo to illustrate them...and I seem to have picked up a computer virus (?!) that prevents me from using any photos or attachments. At all.
And it's not just with Blogspot- also Gmail and any other site where I try to load my own photos. Very odd.
I've got a computer specialist coming on Thursday night to help me out. I sure hope he can figure out what's wrong and fix it, asap!

As soon as my computer is working right, expect pics and posts about:
The twins' birthday outing in Geneva
The progress on the addition to the house
French comic book characters
Tya's artwork
The twins' 12th birthday party (coming up this Sunday) which will feature a fairy cat cake designed by yours truly. i'm already working on the sketches for it. Could end up being cute. Odd, but cute.