Category Archives: Friendship

Our Fall Festival Tradition


Today, we’re back to sunshine.  Yesterday’s continuous rain failed to wash away fall’s colors; it simply spread them around with an artistic flair.  The weather is mild.  It’s a perfect day to be outside, enjoying October.

It’s a day that makes me a bit nostalgic for my daughter’s younger years.  If she were seven or eight, we might be heading to Cox Farms after school. This family-owned farm puts on a fall festival that really is fun for most ages.  It’s one of our favorite local traditions.  We discovered it with a group of friends we met through D’s preschool.   


If you live in a suburban or semi-rural area, you probably have a place like this nearby.  In Princeton, there was Terhune Orchards, which my husband and I enjoyed.  If something similar existed in Atlanta when I was growing up in the 70s, we didn’t know about it.  Lucky for me, I didn’t know what I was missing.  Lucky for my daughter, she didn’t have to miss it.   


Cox Farms is a low-tech, homespun, rough-around-the-edges place, just as a farm should be.  As a preschooler, one of my daughter’s favorite “rides” involved rolling down a hill inside a big pipe.  There are mischievous goats to feed, various baby farm animals to admire, a cow to milk, and lots of hand-painted folk-artsy plywood signs.  Naturally, there are pumpkins, apples, cider and kettle corn.  On weekends there might be a bluegrass band.   


There’s lots of hay: hay mountains to climb, hay bale forts to explore and tunnel through.  Of course there’s a hayride, during which aliens and assorted odd but non-threatening creatures appear.  There are many slides, some of which are quite steep.  When we first started going to Cox Farms, D was afraid to attempt any of the slides on her own, so we went down them together.  That’s when I found out how much fun a fun slide can be.  Apparently, I was slide-deprived (as well as fall-festival deprived) as a child. 


Our daughter’s first-choice activity was the rope swing with a drop into a foam pit.  One doesn’t often get a chance to brag on a child’s rope swing skills, but I must say she had excellent form and always managed to sail to a far corner of the pit.  The two photos above are from consecutive years, the first in 2006, the second in 2007.  Evidently D’s fall festival uniform consisted of a pink shirt and blue jeans. 

In 2007, D added her Brownie vest to the uniform. She enjoys recalling those fashion-forward days.




For several years when our daughter was in elementary school, we had an annual fall festival meet-up with former preschool friends, a brother and sister, and their dad.  It was one of the highlights of the season. 

IMG_2973Our every visit to Cox Farms ended with the careful picking of a “free” patch pumpkin.  D has always delighted in the perfect pumpkin. 

It’s been several years since we’ve done the fall festival.  But our daughter is now a regular attendee at “Fields of Fear,” held at Cox Farms on weekend nights for older kids and adults.  It includes the Cornightmare, the Dark Side Hayride and the Forest: Back 40.  As of this year, she and her friends can even drive themselves. 

But at the end of the night, D still picks out a little patch pumpkin.   


The Red Tree and the Legacy of Eugenia Brown

Today is the day for that steady, late fall rain that washes much of the brilliant color from the trees.  In tomorrow’s sunshine, many branches will be newly bare.  Gutters and lawns, though, will gleam red, orange and gold.  One of the brightest patches in our area will be beneath this magnificent tree.  


Located behind our church, it’s adorned with some of the most vividly red leaves imaginable.  I’d always assumed it was a maple.  When someone referred to it as an oak, I knew that wasn’t right.  But in September, when Kiko and I were sitting in its shade for the Blessing of the Animals, I realized I was wrong, too.  This was no maple.  The leaves, still green then, were the wrong shape. And there were berries.  Bluish-purple berries, like elongated blueberries.   


What was this tree?  No one seemed to know.  But mention “that red tree by the church” and everyone knew exactly which one you meant.  I began an internet search.  Googling “trees with blue berries” didn’t provide a quick answer. 

Then I remembered my little tree book, which I’d recently brought from Atlanta.  As I mentioned in a previous tree post, a neighbor gave me the book when I was a child.  She encouraged me to look closely and appreciate nature as we saw it all around us.  She was Eugenia Brown, a Southern lady with a Southern name, a proud graduate of Decatur’s Agnes Scott College some decades before.  (Daddy thought she was too old to be talking so much about her Agnes Scott days.)  Mrs. Brown was a wise woman, and I’ve only recently begun to realize the impression she made on me.  She wasn’t particularly religious, but I can see now that when we examined leaves, acorns, pine cones, shells and flowers, she encouraged my sense of wonder for that vast and easily overlooked array of amazing little things God made.  His little creations–those unique, tiny masterpieces of design–they have always brought me joy.  For that gift, I thank Mrs. Brown. 



I found the book, and sure enough, I discovered the tree almost immediately, recognizing it from the handy close-up painting of its red leaves and berries.  It’s a Black Gum tree.  Also known as Black Tupelo, Sourgum or Pepperidge.  According to the concise text, “Black Gum leaves are smooth and shiny, turning brilliant red in fall.  The dark blue fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals.”  Bingo. 

Yet again, thank you, Mrs. Brown.  And thank you, God.  Had I not known Mrs. Brown, had she not given me the tree book, I might not be able to find such solace in the beauty of little things and the God who made them.  How wonderful it is that our God designed bright red canopies with plump blue berries to shelter and sustain His littlest winged and furry creatures!  To paraphrase that old hymn, His eye is on the berry, and I know he watches me. 




Wild Trumpet Vine Turns Four

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Four years ago, I wrote my first Wild Trumpet Vine post.  Like the plant for which it’s named, Wild Trumpet Vine perseveres. There are dry spells, but it hangs on.  It’s grown deep roots, and it keeps me rooted to the real, keeps me on track in a world of smoke, dead ends, and mirrors.  Life is fragile.  Let’s look, live, and love while we can. 

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Thanks for reading!  For more on why I write, see here

Year Three for WTV

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It’s been three years since I began my little blog.  Like the tenacious wild trumpet vine for which it’s named, it keeps on creeping on.

Wild Trumpet Vine is, for me, a convenient, inexpensive form of therapy.  It’s my way of taking stock of life.  It helps me keep my perspective, helps me see beyond the tedious, insistent busy-ness of daily living.  It reminds me of what’s real, important, worth contemplating, worth sharing with family and friends, worth remembering, worth passing on to my daughter.  Sometimes, as I sit and think and write, I discover something I should have known all along.

Occasionally, I write something that strikes a chord with another person, and I hear about it.  I love it when that happens.  Sometimes it’s from someone unexpected–perhaps a childhood friend I haven’t seen in thirty years or so.  This is a real gift.  It’s proof of the resiliency and elasticity of the ties that bind us in a  web of community.

Many thanks to all my WTV readers!  And many thanks for reaching out!

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For more about why I write, see here.

Back to the Cité Universitaire, Part III (And on to the South of France)

That day at the Fondation des Etats-Unis, looking up at the balcony of my former room, the life layers continued to flip by.  I can see myself back in Paris as a grad student.  I’m spending this year primarily in London, researching my dissertation in medieval art.  It’s April of 1989, and my friend Laura had joined me in London.  Together, we had made our way to the south coast and crossed the Channel.

It’s seven years since my summer in Paris.  It surprises me, but I feel considerably more mature.  Maybe it’s Laura’s companionship; perhaps her air of confident capability is wearing off on me.  The stamp on my forehead that once read CLUELESS AMERICAN COLLEGE GIRL!! has evidently worn away.  The throngs of loitering young men check us out but generally don’t pursue us.  Shopkeepers treat us with respect.  Some even call us Madame.  Although this last point strikes me as overkill, otherwise I thank my lucky stars for the perks of aging.  Paris is a familiar, gracious presence, and it’s good to be back.

Laura and I outside our very bare-bones hotel, April 1989.

We find a cheap hotel just off the Fontaine Saint-Michel, in the midst of what I think of as the old neighborhood, the Latin Quarter.  The hotel is pretty awful, but it’s certainly affordable, the location is great, and its oddities are the source of many laughs.  It’s not worth our time and trouble to trudge the streets in search of a new place, so we stay put for five days or so.

With Laura, against a backdrop of Notre-Dame.

When Laura flies back to the states, I’m joined by a friend from England.  I have an Apocalypse manuscript to examine in the city library of Toulouse, so we head south.  It bothers me that I have no recollection of how we got there.  We must have flown.  There seem to have been no high-speed trains back then.  I have a vague, unpleasant recollection of trying to speak French on a pay phone with the airline.  One way or another, we got to Toulouse, an ancient university town of rose-brick medieval buildings and tropical charm.

The Romanesque Basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse.

It’s a bank holiday weekend, so the Bibliothèque Municipale in Toulouse is closed.  Throughout this year abroad, bank holidays keep popping up.  Many I anticipate and plan for, but others come at me, unexpected.  I take them in stride; they offer a good excuse to postpone work and relax.  On this occasion, we opt for additional sightseeing in the South of France.  We take in the nearby historic cities of Albi and Carcasonne, then head to Provence, where we spend several gloriously unhurried days in Nimes, Avignon and Arles.  The gray chill of April is yielding to the sunny splendor of May, and the countryside has an air of lush enchantment.

In Albi, the fortress-like early Gothic Cathedral of Saint-Cécile towers above the muddy River Tarn.

Atop the hill is the fortified medieval Cité of Carcasonne. Its striking resemblance to a fairy tale village is likely due in part to its comprehensive nineteenth-century restoration by Viollet-le-Duc.  The newer part of town surrounds the walled center section.

The old town of Carcasonne, seen from a perch along the wall.
Another view of Carcasonne and its walls.

 On our last night in Carcasonne, we seem to be floating in a slightly surreal multicultural soup.  At a rustic traditional restaurant in the old town, we eat cassoulet, the area’s famous casserole of duck, goose, pork and white beans.  During dessert, an Irish band plays Leonard Cohen songs, the lyrics translated into French.

The cloister of the Romanesque Cathedrale of Saint-Trophime in Arles.


Another cloister, at the Romanesque Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac.

Once we return to Toulouse, my friend goes home to England, and I’m on my own.  The library opens, and I spend a couple of days with my manuscript.  One afternoon, I go to the nearby town of Moissac to see the medieval Abbey of Saint-Pierre.  The church is adorned with a wealth of Romanesque sculpture, which I’ve studied since my very first art history course.  The carving is dramatic, highly stylized and exuberant.  What a thrill it is to be in its visionary presence.

On the trumeau of the south porch of Moissac Church, the prophet Jeremiah appears to be frozen in a contorted, contemplative dance.

I return to Paris by train, stopping for one night in the picturesque town of Souillac on the Dordogne River.  The scenery between Toulouse and Souillac is amazing.  I’m more and more smitten with each village we pass.  Look:  there’s the medieval bridge of Cahors, as neat and tiny as a child’s toy.  In the distance I spot the perfect hilltop village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.  My dog Popi, six years gone now, has his own French town, I think.  It’s appropriate; he had such class and style.  I’m envisioning future trips to the lovely Dordogne Valley.

I can’t remember why I stopped in Souillac, but I’m glad I did.  I find the nicely situated and aptly named Hotel Belle Vue.  The day is warm and bright, and I wander the old, narrow streets with no particular goal or destination in mind, one of the great luxuries of leisurely travel.  Before long, the buildings give way to flower-filled meadows.  I stop to watch some ducks paddling in the river near an old mill.  After a while, I follow a grassy pathway winding uphill.  At the top of the hill, the path emerges from trees and foliage to reveal the village below, clustered around the domes of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie.  The scene is quaint, timeless and peaceful.  It could be an image from one of the illuminated manuscripts I’ve been studying.  I couldn’t have dreamed up a more poetically satisfying finale for my solitary exploration.  All these years later, I carry it with me, like a treasure.

My hilltop view of Souillac, May 6, 1989.
The eleventh-century Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie in Souillac, built in the Byzantine Romanesque style.

Back to the Cité Universitaire, Part II

Returning after many years to a pivotal, memory-charged place verges on the overwhelming.  That day at the Cité Universitaire, I could see the young college student version of myself overlaid with that of the middle-aged wife and mother I’ve become.  Briefly, both versions coexisted, and it was unnerving.

I saw the stages of my life like a design done on multiple sheets of transparent plastic.  An early layer shows me at nineteen, near the beginning of my stay in France.  I’m at the desk in my room, writing a letter home.  I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be in Paris.  I had known it wouldn’t be the place of idyllic enchantment that the movies show.  Still, I hadn’t expected to be quite so disenchanted.  I’m surprised at what feels like borderline disappointment.  My friend Jackie had participated in the same program the summer before, lived in the same building.  She’d described the trip as a “blast.”  I’m not having a blast, and it bothers me.  I should have gone the year before, with Jackie.  I feel petty and petulant.  I almost wish I were back home.

I’m sheepish in my homesickness.  I hate to admit it, but I miss my parents.  I miss my dog.  I miss my best friends.  I guess I miss my boyfriend, although this recollection is less clear.  I’m certainly disappointed that the local youths who trail us everywhere (and there are many, because we are obviously American, and they’ve apparently heard that American girls are supremely willing) are not exactly the cream of the crop.  We’ve learned to pretend not to see them, to say nothing.  If we look blankly through them, if we show no reaction, they usually go away.  Some are more persistent than others.  Some become belligerent.  While we rarely feel truly afraid, it’s wearing to have to be constantly on guard.  I know how the chickens in the henhouse must feel when a fox is on the prowl.

July 1982: Joanne, Nancy and I at the Cité RER stop, on our way to the Sorbonne.
1982: Too much time on the Metro could be a drag.
But after a while, things start to look up. On the main staircase of the Fondation, August, 1982.

Another layer, toward the end of the trip.  I’ve come to terms with Paris.  So I didn’t have a blast every day.  But there were far more fun times than bad.  We’ve learned to feel at ease in the city.  We understand the Metro. We’ve checked off the major tourist sites.  We’ve discovered favorite spots we’d never before heard mentioned.  I’ve worked my way through the Louvre, room by room.  It was free on Wednesday afternoons, and I took full advantage.  Often, up in the remote nineteenth-century galleries of French painting, it was just me and the guard soaking up the atmosphere of quietly magnificent landscapes by Rousseau, Millet and Corot.

We’ve made new friends among those in our group, become closer to those we already knew.   We’ve had many laughs and some adventures.  We’ve ridden in a little French car through Paris traffic.  We’ve bicycled through a forest near Compiègne.  We got locked in the historic Père Lachaise cemetery but managed to find our way out.   Fending off local young undesirables has become second nature.  And we did meet some perfectly nice local boys, had a couple of chances to sit at cafés speaking French with them, just as our textbooks had suggested we might.  We discovered that four-franc wine was quite drinkable.  We learned that the best place for our big group to enjoy an affordable, easy-going meal was an Algerian restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

We were not wholeheartedly welcomed by every citoyen.  But each time we experienced a stranger’s animosity, others followed with gestures of kindness.  On Bastille Day, for example, waiting for the Metro at the Châtelet station, a drunken man took unexplained offense at my hair color.  As I’d already noted, blond hair stood out in Paris, but it hadn’t yet provoked this sort of ire.    Les cheveux blonds!  Les cheveux blonds!, the man sputtered, pointing at my hair and approaching more threateningly with each exclamation.  The French crowd muttered its disapproval, and a powerfully built, well-dressed man placed himself as a reassuring barrier between the man and me.  Another night, when we found ourselves in an unfamiliar area after the last Metro had departed, a couple walked with us to the bus stop and waited until we were safely aboard.

August 1982: on my balcony at the Cité, shortly before we left Paris.

In the photo above, I’m holding my only major purchase, a bust of a porcelain-headed lady decked in fur and feathers.  She struck me as perfectly Parisian.  Her current home is atop my piano.

By the time we were to leave for our two-week tour of the countryside and other notable French cities,  I was almost sad to say goodbye to Paris.  My early feelings of disappointment had vanished.  Sure, the area around the Cité was a little messy.  But all in all, the city was more beautiful than I had remembered it seven years before.  And as for the French people, well, they’re people.  My friends and I had often been amused by the cultural differences we observed.  Why would the French do this, or that?  Why not the American way?  Isn’t that funny?  But fortunately, we had come to realize that these differences are, in truth, unimportant.

The variety of surface details from culture to culture gives life interest and humor.  But at a deeper level, we’re more alike than different.  Warmth and good will need no common spoken language.  They transcend all barriers.  Our summer in Paris had helped us learn perhaps the most important lesson of travel:  the ties that bind us as humans are stronger than the forces that pull us apart.  Of this truth, travel offers living proof.

Back to the Cité Universitaire, Part I


My friend Nancy and I attempt attitude-filled poses at the Cité Universitaire, July 1982.

I had not been back to the Cité Universitaire since I lived there that summer thirty-two years ago.  (See That French Connection, April 2014.)  I hadn’t expected to return on this trip.  I thought it would hold minimal interest for my husband and daughter.  But on our first day in Paris, a Saturday during spring break, we found ourselves engulfed in crowds.  The area in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral was a roiling sea of humanity.  The line for the Sainte-Chapelle stretched for blocks.  We expected Palm Sunday at all the expected sites to be equally busy.  This factor may have persuaded H and D that we should visit the Cité, located in an unfashionable area at the bottom of the Paris map.   Tourists would certainly not be flocking there.

I had remembered the Cité as being far removed from the city center.  I was surprised to see that it was only three stops from Luxembourg on the RER.  I was also surprised to see the complex looking almost exactly as I recalled it, but spruced up and considerably less seedy.  It wasn’t exactly run-down in 1982.  Perhaps indifferently maintained is a good way to describe it.  The grounds were wild and weedy, closer to messy than pristine.  Litter was common.  This past April, the Cité was looking comparatively fresh, fit and clean.  The plantings were lush and well-tended.  The buildings were grander and more imposing than I had remembered.  And there were fewer shady characters skulking about.

In this view of the back of the Fondation des Etats-Unis from July 1982, I’m the red blotch on the balcony, fifth window from left, one floor from the top.

My little room was perfectly adequate, and I loved my balcony that looked out onto the big evergreen tree, the then-scruffy garden, and the Mexico building.  On the top floor were much sought-after artists’ lofts, with high ceilings and skylights.

The Fondation, April 2014.

In the photo above, the open balcony door at the right suggests that the current resident was in my old room.  The same red-orange draperies adorn the windows.  The tall tree still flourishes in the courtyard.

July 1982: I do laundry in my room. Trying, and succeeding, in looking pitiful.

Although the institutional décor left something to be desired, I enjoyed that humble, well-worn room. In addition to the vinyl-covered armchair, there was a decent bed, desk, and a reading lamp with a shade covered in peeling contact paper.  The open balcony doors provided all the air conditioning needed.  Not a single mosquito, gnat or fly ever flew in. Toilet cubicles and showers were down the hall, of course.  There was no adjusting the water pressure or its temperature in the shower.  You pushed a button, which triggered a quick burst of water that lasted about three minutes.  Luckily, the button could be pressed multiple times, or I never could have rinsed the shampoo from my hair.  The atmosphere was classic Paris student.

The sight of those bare shelves in that room reminds me of how lightly and simply I traveled that summer.  Some aspirin, soap, toothbrush, a little make-up, some paper, pens and pencils, a book or too.  My address book and airmail envelopes for letters to the States.  I did bring a travel iron, at my mother’s insistence, which I don’t think I ever used.  Its adapter was nearly as large as the iron.  No cell phone, iPod, iPad, no laptop.  From the looks of the trash bin at my feet, I had recently polished off two boxes of French crackers.  My friends and I snacked on packaged melba toast-like crisps and La Vache qui Rit cheese.  For further between-meal sustenance, I had brought a large supply of grape Tangy Taffy from home.

Thirty-two years later, as I stood there in the garden behind the building, my husband and daughter by my side, looking up at the open door to my old room, the memories swirled around me.  Some were vivid, others were just out of reach, like dreams upon waking.  The experience was unsettling.  I understood then why some prefer never to return to such places.  As for me, though, I’ll go back.  Those chances to glimpse the present through the eyes of the past, and vice-versa–they add a richness to life that I want to savor.  Even if there may be bitter along with the sweet.

Back to Paris: In the Latin Quarter

For me, one of the great pleasures of travel is returning to a well-loved place.  “My” Paris is the Latin Quarter I came to know as a college student.  That summer, on weekday mornings, two friends and I would take the RER train from Cité Universitaire to the Luxembourg stop.  We’d emerge into the lively bustle of Paris to that unique smell:  car exhaust, of a distinctly Parisian type, mingled with the freshness of the new day.  We’d walk past the elegant Luxembourg Gardens and the big corner cafés, glimpse the Panthéon at the end of rue Soufflot, and continue down the Boulevard Saint-Michel for a couple of blocks to the Sorbonne, where we had our classes. We’d pass a restaurant where a waiter, setting up his tables, would blow us a kiss and make the beating heart gesture.  That kind of chivalric appreciation could brighten even a dismal day.  And that summer, dismal days were few.


August 1982:  Toward the end of our Paris summer, my friends and I posed for photos around the Latin Quarter, trying our best to look cool.  Above, Joanne and I on rue Soufflot, with the Pantheon in the background.         


April 2014:  My daughter and I try to recreate the photo. The dome of the Panthéon is currently undergoing a massive re-stabilization. 

Each time I’ve returned since then to Paris, the Latin Quarter has been home base. With each visit, I discover more to love.  Twice now H and I have stayed at the same hotel immediately across from the Panthéon.  This area is in the heart of historic Paris, with its roots in the Roman era, yet it’s a bit removed from tourist circuits.  While the big tour buses swing past the Panthéon, on the sidewalks you’re likely to pass more actual Parisians than foreign sightseers.  Many Americans are apparently unaware that there is a Panthéon in Paris.  A typical comment is “I thought that was in Italy.”  For the record, it’s a grand neoclassical building inspired by the classical Pantheon in Rome and situated on a hill known as the Montagne Sainte Geneviève.  Begun as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, it was finished during the Revolution as a humanistic temple honoring the great men of France.  It may look familiar to Americans because its majestic dome and portico were architectural sources for our U.S. capitol.

Surrounding the Panthéon on its Place, or square, are elegant buildings that function as centers for civic and student life.  There is the Mairie, or Town Hall, of the fifth arrondissement, where locals marry, vote, attend concerts, meetings and special events. Opposite the Mairie is the University of Paris Law School.  Another neighbor is the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève.  This library’s arched reading room appears in many Art 101 textbooks because of its early use of structural cast iron.  Near the library is the beautiful  Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, dating from the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries.  Behind the Panthéon sprawls the historic Lycée Henri IV, which incorporates buildings from the medieval Abbey of Sainte Geneviève.  Below are some of my favorite views in the old neighborhood I adore.


May 2002:  View from our hotel of the Place du Pantheon.  From left, the Law School, the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, and the portico of the Panthéon.


April 2014: View from in front of the Panthéon looking down rue Soufflot   toward the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower. The colossal bronze statue of a portly nude man was installed in January. A work by the Chinese artist Hong-Biao Shen and entitled Mongolian(Standing Position), it immediately became a popular photo-op destination.

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The typical Paris street sign offers explanatory information.


April 2014: the entrance foyer of the Mairie.

Europe2014286In the light of sunset this past April, the buildings of rue Soufflot glow coppery gold.

That French Connection

At the gates of the Cité Universitaire, July 1982.

 As I’ve mentioned, I was lucky to receive an early formative introduction to France, its language and culture, thanks to a remarkably dedicated middle school teacher.  See Vacation ’75: Part I: Paris, March 2013.  Mrs. Correll emphasized the value of college study abroad, and I took her at her word.  The summer after my junior year at UGA, I headed to Paris.  Courses were held in the hallowed halls of the Sorbonne, where Mrs. Correll had received her Master’s degree.  We had the option of living with a Parisian family, but I found the prospect of total immersion in French too daunting.  My residence that summer was a dormitory at the Cité Universitaire, a complex for visiting international students. 

Aren’t I original? With the gargoyles of Notre-Dame, July 1982.

My husband came to love France during his undergrad years at Union College in Schenectady, New York, a small liberal arts college that aims to turn out well-rounded students.  Scientists as well as artists are encouraged to spend time in foreign study.  H majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering, but he also studied French.  He lived with a French family during a semester in Rennes, and before the program began, he and a buddy meandered through Europe by train.  I distinctly remember telling a friend about H soon after we’d met as grad students, “He’s an engineer, but he speaks French!”  My friend agreed that this was quite unusual.  Maybe things have changed, but in the early 90s, the typical Princeton Ph.D. who toiled in the labs of the E-Quad did not speak French, unless it happened to be a native language. 

H at the Loire Valley Chateau of Chenonceau, October 1, 1988.

As I look back, I see that our mutual interest in French was a primary factor in bringing my husband and me together.  Now, after nearly nineteen years of marriage, we share so much:  a home, a church, fundamental values, a daughter, family, friends, a dog and a turtle.  But we began as two strangers with very little in common.  When we met at that grad college barbeque, he was just beginning his engineering courses at Princeton and his research into “the thermal decomposition of nitrous oxide.”  I was writing my dissertation on medieval illuminated manuscripts, having finished my coursework and research abroad.  My funding had run out, and I was working as a professor’s assistant in Intro to Modern Art.  Our interests, on the surface, could hardly have been more different.  And then there was the age difference.  He was a dewy twenty-two.  I was about to turn twenty-nine.  Those seven years appeared to stretch like an unbridgeable river.  No betting person would have put money on our going on a second date.  Maybe not even a first.

But there was that French connection.  We couldn’t discuss manuscript illumination or the burning of nitrous oxide for very long, that’s for sure.  But we could talk for hours about France and our experiences there.  Did that French link make him think twice about me?  Consider that I might not be a hopelessly artsy, aging pseudo-bohemian?  Was it the point that convinced me of his unexpected depth, of some wisdom beyond his years?

French was, and still is, a fertile area of common ground between my husband and me. While neither of us makes any claim of fluency or expertise, our appreciation for the country and the language is genuine and heartfelt.  We don’t sit around and speak French and think how sophisticated we are, or how cool we sound.  We know we don’t sound particularly cool.  But we find humor in what we consider the quirks and oddities of the French language.  For example, to our American-trained ears, the word pneu (tire), sounds silly.  And we find it amusing that a stick to stir coffee is called, rather formidably, “un agitateur.”  But then we reconsider and agree that the word is decisive and definitive, unlike our American terms.  (Is it coffee stir, or coffee stirrer, or stir stick?  I really don’t know.)  The French seem to have a specific word for everything, and we respect and admire them for that.

Our mishaps in speaking are a source of many laughs.  A favorite story is from H’s student days in Rennes.  He’d bought a little second-hand moped to take him from his family’s house into the center of the city.  One night after late partying he locked it up near the university and got a ride back with friends.  The next day it was gone. He reported the missing moped to the police, saying “Quelqu’un a violé ma mobilette.”  He was asked to repeat his story to officer after officer, each of whom maintained a strenuously serious expression.  H was pleased that his report was being received with impressive gravity, certain that swift action would be taken to retrieve his trusty vehicle.  Only later did he realize he’d been saying that his moped had been violated, rather than stolen (volé).

H with friends at Chenonceau, 1988.

H and I first traveled to France together in the spring of 2002, with my parents.  They had funded most of my several visits but had never set foot in France themselves.  We thought about taking our daughter along.  She wasn’t yet three.  We didn’t consider it very long, since H’s parents were willing to take care of her.  We’d wait until she was old enough to appreciate the wonder of being in a foreign country.

Then, as they tend to do, the years zipped by with lightning speed.  We realized we were in danger of waiting too long for our family trip to France.  Our daughter’s idea of the perfect holiday is no longer hanging around with her parents, even if it does happen to be in an exotic locale.  And before long, she would be a young woman in college, no longer our captive child.

This past spring break, the three of us flew to Paris.

Along the Atlanta BeltLine

The Saturday of my stay in Atlanta, my friend Connie and I walked a portion of the Atlanta BeltLine.  Connie is among my parents’ most devoted neighbors.  She’s there to help, as needed, in any way.  She’s a nurse, and our family has relied on her numerous times for medical advice and assistance.  When I thank her for all that she does, she says simply, “I love your parents.  They’re family.”  And she means it.  I’ve come to think of Connie very much like a sister.  She also loves Atlanta, and she can be counted on to know what’s worth seeing and doing at the moment.  With Connie, I catch up quickly on the life of my old home town.

The BeltLine is a work in progress, the ongoing redevelopment of a former rail line that circles the city’s core in a  twenty-two mile loop.   It includes a wide paved path for walking, biking and running, along with other trails and parks branching off from the main circuit.  It’s bringing revitalization and the excitement that comes with it to in-town areas that had tended toward the derelict and run-down.  When finished, it will link up forty-five Atlanta neighborhoods.  It’s already possible to walk from Virginia-Highland to the Carter Center.  The BeltLine is an appealing place to get some air and exercise, to walk the dog, and to see city landmarks from unique perspectives.

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A section of the mid-town skyline, from the BeltLine.

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A view of the Ponce City Market, currently in development, from Paris on Ponce & Pop Marché, a vast collection of cool boutiques.  The enormous City Market building began its life as a Sears & Roebuck store in 1926.  In the 1990s it functioned as City Hall East, but has now sat vacant for years.

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One of many BeltLine oddities:  medieval-style fencing of braided sticks, awkwardly meandering, for no apparent reason, across a desolate hill.
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The Masquerade, a live music venue, seen from the back.  I remember it as a popular restaurant and bar called the Excelsior Mill, so named because the building was constructed as a factory to produce excelsior, a stuffing and packing material that predates foam rubber.

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An old water tower seems to perch precariously atop this apartment building.
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Public art is common along the BeltLine.

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An entrance to the Eastside Trail is near Grady High, my alma mater.  In front of the school is its football stadium, renamed in 2011 for Coach Henderson, who was on his way to becoming a local legend during my Grady years.