Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Catacombs, Meritaten, and Green Bean Soup

I forgot about one stop I made while flaning around Paris: late afternoon, I sat down at a cafe wanting a small bite of something. I ordered, in French, a glass of dry white wine, a glass of water, and some soup.

"Soupe?" the waitress asked in amazement. I was not sure if her attitude meant, I didn't even know we had soup on the menu or who the hell orders soup at four o'clock in the afternoon? I pointed to the board, which said "Soupe de legumes" which translates to "green bean soup." I sort of hoped it really meant pea soup, even though that would be "soupe de pois," and it was, in fact, green bean soup--pretty much green beans run through a blender, then lightly cooked in broth. Much better than it sounds, however. Most French food is like that. At one point in this trip I actually ordered, on purpose, something that translated to sweetbreads. Sweetbreads can be either calves' thymus glands or calves' pancreas, and I'm not sure which I ate, but it was tasty with a surprisingly interesting texture. There you are.

I've written already about how my husband and I love French art galleries. The same day we saw the Picasso, we were walking a long way toward dinner--that's how we stumbled across Shakespeare & Co--and saw an antiquities shop with a large golden bust--like a funeral mask, only not quite--of an Egyptian pharaoh. It looked rather like Hatchepshut. We went inside and I examined at the back of the bust--it was carved painted wood, quite old but not from the actual time of the pharaohs. (Only a thousand years old? Pish!) The rest of the shop was full of glass cases with amazing real artifacts, mostly ancient. Then I saw the stone carving--a slab about the size and shape of a notebook. "Meritaten!" I said, in amazement. "That's actually Meritaten!"

Meritaten was the wife of Ankenaten, the heretic pharaoh who preceded Tutankhamun and was likely his father. (Meritaten may or may not have been Tut's mother.) I recognized her because Ankenaten, Meritaten, and their daughters are all portrayed differently than all other pharaohs--it may be because Ankenaten had some sort of physical anomaly, but it's more likely because he had radically different ideas about everything. This carving showed Meritaten holding out her hands, either offering or receiving something. It was so beautiful.

Of course it's an odd thing to have in a shop. It should be in a museum--probably in Egypt. But I digress.

I asked how much the carving cost. The proprietor told me in rapid French, and my husband and I disagree on whether he said it cost 150,000 Euros or 160,000 Euros. Not that it mattered.

Okay, I still haven't gotten to the Catacombs. I'll save them for tomorrow. This is long enough, and I need to go write my novel now. 

I Become a Flaneur

So, back to Paris, over a week ago now. On the day my husband and son played golf, my husband left our hotel at 9 in the morning. I met him, our son, and our friends at a restaurant at 8 pm. That meant I had 11 hours on my own in the city. I had booked a tour of the catacombs at 1, and I had a pocketful of Metro tickets, and I could do whatever I liked.

Later that day I would spend time inside Shakespeare & Co, the delightful ancient warren-like British bookstore on the left bank, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. I would find (among other treasures) a book called Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke, a Brit who lives in Paris and writes about it with classic British deadpan humor. According to Clarke, the French have a word, flaneur, (there should be a carrot accent mark above the a) that means an artist who wanders the city streets in search of inspiration.

Ah. It made so much sense. Because while I am content to walk in just about any city, in Paris I actively wander. I have Citymapper on my iPhone and I more or less know how to use it, I understand the Metro, and I have a feel for the major tourist sites and landmarks. And yet, I am quite often not entirely sure where I am going, much less where I am. And I don't care. Because whatever is around me is fascinating.

On that day, I set out walking toward the Place Bastille, where the prison once was, on my way to an open-air market called Aligre. I am fascinated by open-air markets. It was a really, really long walk, and eventually I popped into the Metro for a few stops, and then I realized I was completely out of energy, so I stopped at a cafe and had a coffee, sitting out on the street. Revitalized, I pushed on, past the Place Bastille, which is mostly just a roundabout, and then toward the market. I went under an old train viaduct that had been turned into a city park, high above everyone's heads. At the market I admired the asparagus and the fresh fish. I bought strawberries, and some cheese, and I found a boulangerie and bought a demi-baguette and another coffee,  and sat outside with my picnic lunch.

Then I had to hurry to get to the catacombs--that's a whole nother post--afterward I wandered some more, first figuring out where exactly I was (you ascend from the catacombs several kilometers away from where you descend into them). Then I went to Shakespeare & Co, which I'd found by accident the day before, walking with my husband, but hadn't really investigated, because that takes a whole bunch of time.

The upper floor of the bookstore is two small rooms full of old books, not for sale, and comfortable chairs. They're reading rooms--you're welcome to sit up there and peruse the old books at your leisure. The rest of the store is just absolutely crammed with books, all British editions. I was cheeky enough to hand them my card and ask why they didn't stock The War That Saved My Life (there is a UK edition). The clerk looked me up and told me solemnly that of course they usually carried my book, they were just temporarily sold out. (There's no record of what he muttered once my back was turned.)

After that I wandered back across the Seine and found myself in the area around Les Halles, which was once a huge market but is now an underground shopping center. Seriously. I went down there by accident, looking for the Metro. The side streets around Les Halles are fantastic; I did rather more shopping than I intended to, including buying a 3-pound can of duck legs confit. Between that and the books it's no wonder my luggage weighed so much more coming home.

The sun was still bright and the afternoon seemed endless, but I glanced at my watch and saw to my surprise that it was well past six. I found a Metro and negotiated myself back to my hotel, freshened up, dressed for dinner, and re-Metroed myself to our dinner reservation. Despite all the times I'd taken the Metro, I'd walked more than 10 miles that day. I don't usually go around thinking of myself as an artist, but I am one, and I'm starting to cast around for the idea that will become my next book. It was the perfect time to be in Paris, in search of inspiration.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I found my next book. But it's years away, and I can't talk about it yet.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

TBT: How To Ride An Ostrich

Today I was checking Eventing Nation, the premier website for my sport of eventing, and found myself on the front page. Riding an ostrich. This was an article I wrote for them 5 years ago that they put up for their Throwback Thursday. So I copied it here. Hey, it was mine originally.

Each Thursday we take a trip down memory lane to a favorite EN post from over the years. This week's comes from Kim Bradley, a longtime EN friend and contributor, who wrote about her experience riding an ostrich. Wylie explains why it's one of her favorite EN posts of all time: "Not only is riding an ostrich a secret fantasy of mine, Kim's description is brilliantly hilarious. The first eight paragraphs of this story comparing horses and ostriches ... I can't even." Originally published on Feb. 17, 2011, we think it's as fun a read today as it was back then. Enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.
The first thing to know is that riding an ostrich is nothing like riding a horse. But a quick side-by-side comparison, horse vs. ostrich, will show you why they are different.
Look into a horse’s eyes. You might see affection, indifference, loathing, fear–whatever it is, you’ll see something. You’ll sense that somewhere behind those eyes there’s a functioning brain, making decisions that might occasionally be described as rational.
Look into a ostrich’s eyes, and you’ll be able to check your hairdo. That’s about it. Gram for gram I don’t think ostriches’ brains are that much smaller than horses’, but ostriches clearly have a lot less neurons firing.
Look at the horse’s neck. Nice and sturdy, with all that handy mane to grab.
Look at the ostrich’s neck. If you have any doubts about its flimsiness, give it a little push. The neck will coil away from you like a large and hairy snake. Nothing to hang onto there.
Look at the horse’s legs. Four of ’em. One on each corner. Kind of comforting, really.
Ostrich, two legs. Not as good.
In fact, riding an ostrich is remarkably like riding a pencil-necked two-hundred-and-fifty pound chicken. For all that, I was very keen to give it a go.
We were in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa. Located inland from Mossel Bay near gently rolling mountains, the town was originally settled by–I was surprised at this, too–Latvian Jews. They all speak Afrikaans now. (The drugstore in Oudtshoorn, manned entirely by white people, was also the one place in all of South Africa where I absolutely could not make my English-speaking self understood.) Ostriches were farmed here starting in the late 1800s, because of the demand for ostrich feathers to decorate ladies’ hats. Before World War I and the invention of the automobile, prime ostrich feathers were worth their weight in gold.
Now, however, ostriches are prized for their meat and their skin, which makes a remarkably beautiful (and expensive)leather. The ostrich farms cater to tourists; at ours we began with a lovely meal of ostrich fillet (tastes like beef, not chicken) and red South African wine. We moved on to petting ostriches, admiring paddocks of foot-high baby ostriches, and learning about ostrich development in general. Next our hostess escorted our group to a small paddock, and that’s where the real fun began.
The ostriches aren’t trained to be ridden. There’s no saddle, no reins, no attempt at or semblance of control.
The farm staff turned a half dozen ostriches loose into the paddock, where they milled about randomly the way ostriches do. A staff member grabbed one and threw a cloth bag over its head. Apparently doing that confuses ostriches into temporary docility. The men pushed the bagged ostrich up against the board fence of the paddock, lifted the ostrich’s wings, and told me to climb aboard.
I won’t ride a horse without a helmet, pants, and sturdy leather shoes, but I rode my ostrich in capris and a sun hat.
The ostrich’s body was thinner and smaller than that of my daughter’s small pony. Its feathers were wonderfully soft, and for a moment I worried about crushing them. (The ones on the body aren’t the valuable ones–and anyway, the days of ostrich plumes are long past.) As instructed, I hooked my legs over the ostrich’s knees, which are right up by its body. (Think about the legs on a roast chicken. No, flip it over, legs pointing down. See? I tucked my feet right around the chicken thighs–only on the ostrich, of course.) I grabbed the wing pits. I leaned back.
The man yanked the bag off the ostrich’s head. The ostrich exploded. With only two legs, ostriches can’t buck, which was dead useful. My ostrich skittered instead, ping-ponging back and forth around the small paddock, scattering the other ostriches into a sort of cascading hysteria. It took considerable will to maintain my grip on the wingpits and not fasten my hands around its neck instead. After all, that’s where the mane should be. But I’m pretty sure that strangling the ostrich was not in my best interests just then.
I figure I managed eight seconds, like a bull rider. I didn’t fall off, but I didn’t actually dismount, either. With a lapful of wings, my only real option was to slide straight backward, into the supporting grasp of two of the staff members, who were laughing themselves silly at the screeching white woman on the bird.
It’s hard to call it riding. But I sat on the back of a galloping ostrich, and by golly I had fun.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

One Can Still Buy A Picasso

Ok, so we went to Paris for the weekend.

As one does.

I say that snorting with laughter, shaking my head at the absurdity of it all, because it's so nuts to do something like that, except that it was also outrageously fun. Truth is we went to Paris for a long weekend last spring, too, because our son was studying abroad and when we asked him what he would do if he had one choice while there, he said he'd go back with his dad and play the golf course outside of Paris they'd played years ago, and loved. So my husband arranged it, and we went--my son joining us by train--and it was crazy good.

This year my husband noticed that my son had a four-day weekend at Easter (one of the bonuses of his attending a Catholic college; my daughter had no vacation at all) and thought we should repeat the experience. He wrangled his way onto the golf course again (it's little known, and private) courtesy of some friends of ours who live in Paris. My husband and I flew out Wednesday night and landed Thursday morning. My son flew out from near his school on Thursday night, landed Friday morning, went straight to the golf course, played 27 holes of golf, then went straight to a fancy restaurant and had a late dinner with us and our friends, staying up until midnight, Paris time, which was 6 am where we come from, and he still thought it was awesome, one of his best days ever.

Thursday afternoon my husband and I amused ourselves by walking great swaths of the city window-shopping and ducking into art galleries and antiquity shops. Last year we did the same thing, and fell entirely in love with an immense wall tapestry--castle-sized, the colors still vibrant, the weaving impeccable. I'm a big fiber arts fan, so I took hold of the edge of the tapestry to examine its back side, which was probably not really kosher--I've been told off in museums before--and we enthused about the thing so genuinely that the shop attendants asked for our email address, which my husband promptly gave them, so they could send us proof of the tapestry's provenance. It had been woven for Louis XVI, one of a set of four, and the other three hung in a museum together.

The tapestry cost a quarter million dollars.

Or Euros. I forget which.

I was astonished you could still buy a tapestry woven for Louis XVI, anywhere, at any price, but was not exactly whipping out my checkbook, not that it would have mattered. Still,  this year we wanted to visit our tapestry again. We found the shop, but our tapestry was gone, which made us happy somehow--it's hanging somewhere, we hope loved.

After that we encountered another gallery which I remembered clearly because they have a mannequin of a security officer posed by the front door, and last year I politely said, "Bonjour, Monsieur," to it before I realized it was a statue. This year I was immediately taken by the movement and color and grace of a painting hanging near the front. Then I saw the signature. My command of French is very much a work in progress, but I was able to gasp, in French, "That's really a CHAGALL?"

Oui, Madame. A real one, not a print. Price on Request. I didn't.

Farther down was another art gallery we again remembered clearly, because last year they were hosting the opening of a special exhibit. We swanned in, back then, as though specially invited, were handed glasses of champagne, and made intelligent remarks about the bright, vibrant pictures, which we liked very much indeed, and which, honestly, we could actually see ourselves purchasing. By the standards of the street they were absolutely cheap. We didn't buy one last year, but this year perhaps--

Nope. Same art gallery, different art. It had reverted to high art, to very, very, very swanky art. Lovely stuff, in the same class as our pet tapestry. I stood in front of one painting admiring the greens and gorgeous, gorgeous blues. I would have claimed it in an heartbeat. I would have admired it every day, forever.

I still will. It was by Picasso--that Picasso, the real Picasso. I will keep it forever, hung on a bright wall inside my head, beside my pet tapestry, beside every other thing of beauty I have seen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Windsurfing in Any Language

I'm working on my French. I took French for 3 1/2 years in high school then didn't take any foreign language in college, which is something I now regret as I'm ashamed to be yet another monoglot American. So. I've been listening to language CDs in the car while I run errands, and I have to say, they're just about useless.

From this morning: "Have you ever tried windsurfing? Please answer in French, 'yes, I have tried windsurfing.'"

Also, "I'm trying to reach the CEO, M. Albertine."
"I'm sorry, M. Albertine is on a conference call."

These are not the phrases I need to know in French.

I already know how to ask where the toilet is in several different ways. My favorite, "Ou se trouve le W.C.?" translates directly as "Where does the WC find itself?"

I can order wine, but I don't know how to ask for good wine.

I can usually order a meal, but once almost asked for kidneys by mistake.

Years ago I went to Normandie with my mother. We landed in Paris after an overnight flight, then took a train to Bayeux. The train was not complicated, and in fact served beer, but getting from the airport to the train station was an unholy mess. Later we were not sure why we didn't just get a taxi. Instead we did a complicated sort of Metro/train thing while dragging ridiculously heavy luggage. I was hauling my mother's suitcase up and down stairs that smelled like urine; I turned the corner at one point, encountered yet another flight of concrete steps, and said a very bad word very loudly, in English. I don't know if the man who overheard me understood the word or just the emotion behind it, but he grabbed my arm and pointed me to an elevator. It was kind of him, and at least I knew to say, "Merci."

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cover Reveal on the Nerdy Book Club!


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Our Slightly Better Future Selves

I love reading self-help books. Mostly I check them out from the library, because I read them indiscriminately and rarely, if ever, take their advice. But I love them. I love the multitude of suggestions they contain.

Last week I read a book (Start From Where You Are, or something like that) that had what I thought was a useful and creative idea: when faced with a choice, try to do whatever your slightly better future self would do. If your slightly better future self is more tolerant of your friends' foibles, perhaps the comments you make today on their online posts could be less sarcastic. If your slightly better future self is healthier, perhaps today you don't order cheddar rounds to go with your mid-morning Pal's iced tea. You align yourself with the slightly better version to hope to be soon.

Yesterday a huge storm came rolling toward our farm, and both my mundane current self and my slightly better future self kicked it into high gear. I got my work done at FIA, told the girl that's leasing Gully to get herself to the barn earlier than planned, and I cleaned the stalls and rebedded them and rinsed and filled water buckets and watched the girl and Gully run through their dressage test, twice, while giving what I hope were helpful hints about his free walk. Then I brought all the horses into their stalls and fed them while Gully's girl threw hay. We shut the pony in the wash stall. I closed all the half-doors and latched the back barn door, and then I drove my car into the barn so it wouldn't get hailed on. Then I took down all the trash, which is a job for Thursdays, but I was feeling ahead of the game.

I was sweaty and dirty but by golly everything on the farm was safe and battened down. Neither my current self nor my exceedingly fabulous far-into-the-future self could have done any better. We were ready.

Then the storm went south of us and the sun came out.

More storms were forecast, so I left everyone in the barn overnight. Those storms went south, too, and all we got was a bit of rain along with some crappy cold wind and general misery. This morning my slightly better future self, disgruntled, stayed in bed.

My mundane current self put on my heavy barn jacket, backed the car out of the barn, fed all the horses, and buckled winter blankets over most of them. Those would be the blankets I so wanted to wash and put away last week, when the weather was glorious, but my standing rule is never to wash a horse blanket until May, and today is why.

My other boarder, Syd's dad, showed up to put Syd and Pal out, and we said cheerful things to each other about how if there had been a storm we were very well prepared. The cats pestered Syd's dad for food, and he fed them, even though they don't normally get fed in the mornings, because he's a sucker for the cats. Then they mostly didn't eat, because they mostly weren't hungry. "Y'all were lying," Syd's dad said.

I said, "Those cats lie all the time."

"Not Scout," Syd's dad said. "Scout rarely lies. And Hazel, she pretty much doesn't lie, most of the time." We both looked down at Bucky, my daughter's cat. Syd's dad said, "That one lies all the time. That one lies just to lie."

"Be better, Bucky," I said, but he wasn't interested.

My slightly better future self would have gone to yoga, maybe, but she's still in bed. Meanwhile my everyday writer self can't wait to start work.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Blame Sarah

It's a rule at my house that the more innocent my mare Sarah looks in any given moment, the more likely she is to be guilty of something nefarious. Sarah has broken stall doors (her own and others), both to let herself out of the barn when she didn't want to be in it, and to let herself into the barn when she didn't want to be outside. When breaking down the stall door didn't work she has attempted to jump out. She's jumped the pasture fence into the riding ring--could not explain why. She's moved herself from one field to another--either by jumping the gate or demolishing it. She's opened a large plastic jar of horse cookies with her teeth and carefully eaten up all the cookies without consuming any plastic shards, which might have been okay if the cookies hadn't belonged to one of my boarders.

She has not chased the pony up the loft stairs. That was Gully. But otherwise, when things go awry, we blame Sarah.

This winter has brought changes to our little herd. Our very dear, very old pony, Shakespeare, died. He had been Syd's turnout companion; now Pal, our very dear, very old (but still thriving) Quarterhorse fills that role. Then Silver came to live with us. She's a bright delicate Arabian mare, pasture-sound and low-maintenance. Until Silver arrived Sarah was the only mare on the farm, but I'd noticed that Sarah tends to love other mares (with the absolute exception of one pony mare in the hunt field) and I thought she'd enjoy Silver. I was right. The first few days after Silver arrived on the farm I shut her by herself in the front pasture, so she and Sarah and Gully and Mickey and Hot Wheels (the red pony) could all make acquaintances over the fence. Silver was agog to join the others.

"Hi!" she said, when I walked up to her. "I'm Silver! And you know what--this, I think this is a gate! You could open this gate! Would you?"

When I did, she yelled, "Thank you!" over her shoulder as she galloped to Sarah's side. They were instant BFFs, formed the Grey Mare Brigade, and set about winding the geldings up. Sarah taught Silver the brilliant game called Move the Pony. "When you're bored, just make the red pony go somewhere else. Then, when he moves where you tell him to, move him back to where he started. It's fun!"

A few weeks ago the grass turned green and sweet and started to grow, which meant that Gully and Hot Wheels had to be moved to the tiny threadbare pony paddock, because those two could easily, and I am not making this up, eat themselves to death. Hot Wheels could founder on an asphalt parking lot, and the two of them vie for the world record at removing grazing muzzles. So. They don't get grass.

That means poor Mickey, my daughter's horse, is alone with the girls. Yesterday, though, there'd been some sort of coup--when I went to feed it was obvious from the start that Mickey and Silver were in high dudgeon, united in feelings of outrage toward Sarah.

"What?" Sarah said. "WHAT??!!"

I walked into the pasture and the water trough, a 50-gallon tank I'd filled the day before, lay on its side in a sea of mud. Empty. Silver blew out her nostrils, aggrieved--I'd never seen her aggrieved before--and Mickey trotted toward me muttering, "Look. Look what she did."

"I didn't do anything!" Sarah protested. Which I might have believed--probably not, but maybe--except that her fetlocks were dripping. Sarah likes to play in troughs. She likes to wash her feet. I thought I'd nixed that by elevating the trough onto cinder blocks, but apparently Sarah was feeling extra acrobatic (or her feet were exceptionally dirty) yesterday.

I gave them all their dinners, set the tank upright on its blocks, and refilled it. When I let the horses back out first Silver, then Mickey, when straight to the tank and drank from it, giving Sarah the side-eye. Then the two of them walked off, together.

Sarah stood by me. "I didn't do it," she said.
"Yes, you did," I told her.
She sighed and lowered her head, and I rubbed her forehead like always. Then she walked down the hill, content. It's still a few months before I'm cleared to ride; at least my horse is good at keeping herself entertained.

PS I'm actually cleared to ride, according to the neurologist. I'm just not cleared to fall off. This makes horsepeople snort. "Ok, just don't fall off, then!" Or maybe I'll wait until June.

PPS If you're a blogger or librarian or bookseller, and you'd like to be considered for an ARC of The War I Finally Won, send me a message, fast.