The Cradle of Flavor

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For decades, I thought I hated Indian food. In my 20’s, a guy I briefly dated had me over for an Indian meal he’d worked hours on, serving up a mélange of various foods.  I hate to say it, but I thought it was terrible.  Perhaps it was my young palette, which had grown up on mid America farm fare.  Perhaps it was the commercial “curry powder”, the only exotic spice available in the late 80’s in North Carolina.  At that time, I hardly knew where India was, but it was certainly “foreign” to me.  So I spent the next 20 years declaring that I hated Indian food, and the mere smell of “curry” sent me running.

In 2013, my husband and I were on his academic sabbatical in London, staying for two weeks in a rented flat in Chelsea. Having searched for the “best” restaurants, we settled on a few including the wonderful Gordon Ramsey outpost, Foxtrot Oscar.  But another restaurant, The Painted Heron, came up as the number one place to eat in Chelsea, promising lavish Indian cuisine.  Painted HeronBegrudgingly, at my husband’s behest, I agreed to “try it”, blithely posting in advance on Facebook that I was going to an Indian restaurant and that I would hate it.

Wow!! Was I ever humbled!  To this day, that restaurant remains a standard bearer of “one of the best dining experiences of my life”.  The extraordinary and variously complex flavors and textures and colors that came to our table for nearly two hours were simply amazing.  Out came baskets of flatbreads and seed covered crackers beside little dishes of the most amazing dips and spreads, each so uniquely flavorful!  Following came the tasting menu featuring lamb, seafood, chicken, vegetables … one after another, some cool, some spicy, as though they were choreographed to perform an intricate dance on the palette.

Two years later, in 2015, I was sent to Mumbai, India for a two-week technical workshop. While I spent most of my days and several evenings working, my Indian colleagues did get us all out into old Bombay a couple of times, which is located in the heart of the old city, beside the bay and The Gateway to India.  But they all wanted to take us to the hard rock café for a Pink Floyd tribute with bar food, which was a blast, and on another evening, out for wonderful Chinese food.  So my Indian foray during that trip was limited to buffet fare at the hotel where we stayed.  Culturally, I found India shocking at first with such a disparate society, at times beautiful and filled with colorful markets and kind people, but also sad, with so many people living on the streets as best they can, trying to take care of their families.

At Christmas this year, I bought a cookbook called Ajanta, which is an Indian restaurant on the west cost. In the Amazon suggestion section, I noticed that you could order the companion “spice box” featuring over 30 spices, which are hand ground and packaged by the restaurant and shipped immediately, so they arrive very fresh.  The smells when you open that box will excite your senses!  Little packages of seeds and chilies and cardamom pods, tamarind, turmeric, cumin and things I’ve never heard of like Chia seeds!  So we bought some plain yogurt, and basmati rice and have ventured further into cooking from the Asian realm.  Now we understand the movie, The Thousand Foot Journey, and the importance of the Spice Box!

This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Singapore, and received recommendations right away from friends that I would have to go to the “Hawker Stalls” which are everywhere in the city. I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded fun.  And so I my husband and I ventured out on the Sunday we arrived to the Maxwell Hawker center.  It turns out that hawker stalls are the Singapore version of food courts, although that term is really a misnomer when you see the dozens of walk up food counters of every variety, with families and friends happily perusing the choices, lining up for their favorite, freshly prepared foods, all in an open air Pavilion with tables in the middle.  The selection and variety of Pacific rim food was incredible!  Noodle shops, Satays, Thai choices, Indian choices and Malay choices.  There were vendors preparing fresh tropical fruit drinks and tall cold drinks made from pressed sugar cane.  Wonderful!  I’ve certainly had some very good Thai food, but nothing can really prepare you for these dishes prepared in country with local ingredients, cooked to order right before you.  A co-worker who’d lived in Singapore said we had to try “carrot cake”.  No it’s not a cake, nor does it contain carrots.  It’s a stir fry containing rice flour, white radishes (known as carrots in Asia), and a toss in of spices, soy, garlic, egg and seafood.  It was delicious!

I signed up for a cooking class while I was there, but it was canceled the day before due to lack of interest. BooksWhen I got back home, I ordered a “few” cookbooks as I wanted to explore Thai and Malay cooking.  My first attempts didn’t go so well.  It turns out cooking with coconut milk can be tricky and the varieties vary greatly in quality.  One attempt was very soupy and bland (although Thai curries are generally thinner), and on another attempt, I let the coconut milk boil, which broke and curdled and I ultimately threw the whole batch down the sink!

Today, with my husband and I both working the recipe, we made the most amazing Thai curry we’ve ever had! I found it in the cookbook, “The Cradle of Flavor” by James Oseland, which is part travelogue on the spice islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  “Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes” was supposed to be orange but our Thai chilies were green, rather than red, so we wound up with a beautiful yellow curry with incredibly complex heat and flavor!  Straying slightly from the recipe, I partially simmered down the coconut milk with the shrimp shells, and then strained it, while my husband made the flavor paste of lemongrass, chilies, ginger and turmeric, which is fried for a few minutes before adding in pineapple, shrimp, tomatoes, and finally the thickened coconut milk.  Served over jasmine rice, with crispy naan, a true success!

A couple of weeks ago, a late night read about a friend’s trip to Key West had me dreaming of a tropical excursion for New Years. After searching for a bit through the Caribbean, we shifted our attention back toward Asia, back toward the equator.  And so we’re spending New Year’s on the Indonesian island of Bali!  In my usual style, I’ve already begun to obsessively read about the waterfalls, the lush jungles, the beautiful beaches, the snorkeling, the Hindu temples, ceremonial customs and ritual dance, the terraced rice patties, and the Monkey Forest you can visit with curious monkeys trying to pick pocket!  And I’ve already found a cooking class focused on spices, which begins with a visit to the local spice market, filled with fragrant native island spices like nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon!

James Michener created the mythical island of Bali Ha’i in his book “Tales of the South Pacific”, based on an elusive, exotic island with restorative powers.  “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” he wrote, “The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.”

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Two new stamps

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I was taking a taxi to the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and the radio was playing sounds from the 70’s.  As the taxi driver (a 20-somthing) is jamming along to songs by America and the Doobie brothers, it got me to thinking.  I’m pretty sure, that in 1974, I could not have imagined that I would be in Singapore, 40 years later, listening to this music.  After all, Singapore is just a place on my school globe that I land on spinning it.

But, I’ve jumped into the middle of the story.

This is my first trip to India.  It’s never been on my radar screen as a destination.  Lorie broke the ice last year, and then I got involved in a multi-society effort to put on a show about the future of energy, and cyber-enabled energy distribution; something that I’ve become quite passionate about.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I created a series of panel sessions on Smart Living, one of our campus signature areas.  Now, how to populate sessions with 12 speakers, most of whom must be from India (where I don’t know anyone).  Fortunately, with a lot of help from my friends, some North American colleagues who don’t mind a 96 hour round trip, and the on-the-ground organizing committee, we put together some killer sessions.  Ah, but wait, does everyone share this vision, how to execute it, and, all of a sudden, I wrote to Lorie, “I think I’m going to India”  “That’s OK,” she responded, “I”m going too”.  “Excellent, let’s meet up”  And so, we were to overlap and go see the Taj Mahal,  and experience a bit of Mumbai together.

Alas, things are “agile” and I find myself with some days to kill in Mumbai, alone.   The first morning, this is the city, Mumbai.DSC04201

Undaunted, I hire a driver and we set out.  As everyone says, the traffic is crazy, there’s an unbelievable disparity between rich and poor with crumbling slums next to a 27 story house (no, that’s not a typo).  So, rather than focusing on this, I do what I always do, learn about the culture through its food.

At first glance, Indian food can be written off as brown glop, green glop, and maybe some red glop.  Alas, this is the steam table version of India – no cuisine shines there.  As you can see below, giant prawns done in a tandoori, served via french service, accompanied by Indian Sauvignon Blanc.  Clearly, this is not what everyone eats, but it’s a start.

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I’d invited my driver in, but he was quick to point out, “I have my tiffin.”  I didn’t press the point, and most likely he was happier to hang with his fellow drivers.  Still, the tab bothered me, $75 USD for a 4 course lunch with wine, probably more than he made in a week, or a month (the average yearly wage in India is $600).

IMG_0570Back to the hotel for day of rest before heading to Singapore, and rejoining our story.  Legroom, of course, always has to make the top ten pictures, and the exit row seat in the tail of an A380 was quite a pleasure.

Day 3, landing in Singapore was quite a sudden change from Mumbai, there was a distinct scent in the air, yes, it’s money. Singapore is really a giant financial district, with food from a multitude of cultures.  I had the most amazing Cantonese food ever, in the hotel of all places, an absolutely over-the-top foie-gras and poached duck foot in a luxurious sauce that reminder me of the french laundry in Napa.  IMG_0560

After a couple of very productive days at SUTD working on security attacks against power systems, I went along with the center director to a “big data summit”, put on by policy folks.  I was pretty much of an interloper, but did get invited to the executive lunch.  A four course banquet meal at lunch?  Ok.  With wine?  Maybe not, there’s still the entire afternoon, plus it’s probably hotel wine, you know, generic swill where the merlot is the best choice.  IMG_0563So, the wine sat, staring at me, finally, I could not resist a sip.

OMG, I asked to see the bottle.  Who serves wine like this, at a banquet, at lunch?  The date is obscured, but it’s a 1983 Grand Cru.  Anyway, one of the most amazing wine experiences ever.

After getting back out of this fantasy world, the workday was done and I did a bit of touring.  It’s the new year, the year of the goat, so the following little fellows in their climatron, were pretty funny.

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Day 6, back to Mumbai and the conference.    I was really heartened to see the traction the idea of “smart living” immediately got in a world-wide forum.  IMG_0578What makes this picture particularly interesting, was that the presenter is the VP of one of the largest construction companies in India, and he’s looking to build with an eye towards socio-technical aspects.

What happened next, though, was really something amazing. We had three speakers in a cross-cutting panel whose talks spanned a continuum of smart and green technology from the industrialized world to small scale agriculture.  Charles Despins of the IEEE Green ICT initiative discussed efforts to migrate data center tasks to geographic regions based on the current location of renewable intermittent energy sources.  Robin Podmore of IEEE’s smart village took the story of energy availability to the small towns, emphasizing the contribution of small renewable powered batteries and the significant impact even one light bulb can make in a household, and how having charging for cell phones keeps people informed.  Sumeet Srivastava of Monsanto carried small-scale energy and cell phone usage directly to the farmer,  describing a system that gives farmers immediate pricing to help them take their crops to market for better profits.  We talk about getting technology to people, but this, in my mind, really closed the gap – there was a tangible societal benefit to deploying technology, and this panel set the stage for the smart living track, showing how technology really is driven by societal needs.  Could this be a hook to open our STEM pipeline?

Day 8, the conference ended on a high note.  By this time I was ready to explore some more and enticed several of the IEEE staff to join the adventure.  So, 7:30 PM Saturday night, we’re bouncing along the roads to south Mumbai.  My goal, street food – the dire warning from everyone – do not do this!  But, why not?  We started with cocktails for 5 at the Taj Hotel, then wandering the back streets until we found Bade Miyan. IMG_2313

Of course, our driver had anticipated this and was waiting for us.  Americans are so predicable.  How did we find it? We “hired” a woman who was begging outside the Taj to lead us around the crowded streets.  This ended up being a story unto itself, when I tried to give her some money, she led us to a grocery store.  This played out in almost an amusing sort of way – clearly this was a set-up, but one of our party went in anyway, and entered into a long protracted negotiation on rice and condensed milk.  The prices were ridiculously high (special prices for tourists), but hopefully, by the end of it, everyone got something.   Still, we were clearly the only tourists on this balmy Saturday night.  This is definitely a stand-up affair, but, we got the royal treatment.

IMG_2317By royal treatment, I mean that they brought some chairs for us. This is a hand-formed, charcoal grilled, Kebab place.  From left to right are Veg, Lamb, and Chicken.  I have to comment on the flavors, they were very spicy, but the spice was integrated into the flavors of the meats to create almost an alchemy.  I’ve never quite tasted anything like it.

I had wanted to continue to the Mohammad Ali market, but through miscommunication, it was closed (only open late during Ramadan).  Another time, perhaps.  On the way back, we passed large-scale wedding after wedding, some taking up the space of entire American football fields, with bright lights, colors, music, and people dancing into the night.

Day 9, time for another high-end meal, this time in the hotel.  Alone, again, I ordered a selection of Veg and non-veg asking the waitstaff for selection on particular breads.  Many concerned comments: “Are you sure you don’t want both the meat with the veg, otherwise you’ll just have veg”  Egad, what kind of impression do Americans give? Don’t answer that.  This is clearly a peasant dish, but some of the most magical scents that I’ve really even experienced,  a simple dish of

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fenugreek and scallions in butter.  Suspicion gave way to interest.  By the end of the evening, I’d been visited by most of the wait and kitchen staff seemly wanting to know more about this American who took a real interest in their food.

2:30 AM, wheels up, next stop Paris, Detroit, then home.  Thoughts, conclusions, they’ve been expressed by so many.  Yes, I’m an interloper, poking my head into a culture, then retreating to a five-star hotel, as I so often do.  For a different view, Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar gives a very different view of the interloper.

I still spin that globe from my childhood,

Concealing

I’ve been watching Lisa Eldridge makeup videos lately, studying her techniques for “mature looks”. Lisa is a world renowned makeup artist whose credentials include the covers of Vogue, Marie Claire & Harper’s Bazaar magazines, and red carpet looks for the likes of Kate Winslet and Keira Knightly. She was also the makeup tutorial expert for Chanel’s website until her most recent coupe as the newly named creative director for Lancome, a longtime favorite of mine.

imageMy obsession with makeup began as far back as I can remember when the “Avon Lady” would come by the house with her suitcases of colors and creams and elixirs. She would gossip with mom seemingly for hours while she’d make up her face. Back then it was all pale blue eye shadows and rich coral lips, with thick solid wing tipped eyeliner arching out to create the iconic cat eye. I’d sit on the couch as close as possible, mouth agape in deep concentration, watching every stroke of the brush, while waiting my turn for just a little touch of pink on my lips. I can still remember the tiny little white tube samples of lipstick she left with me.

My own makeup cache would fill a carry on suitcase and that’s after unloading huge amounts to my daughters not long ago. Guilty as charged, I’m a sucker for each season’s new look. Bedazzled for the holidays by Chanel! Escape to St. Tropez with Lancome! Long, long, LONG Doll lashes, which I’m in possession of thanks to the irritating, scratchy glaucoma drops I have to use for high pressure in my eyes. The upshot is the loveliest lashes I’ve ever had!

Needless to say, I didn’t really need any more makeup on my recent excursion right before Christmas to the prestigious Plaza Frontenac, where you must dress correctly just to enter the place, lest you be tossed out like Julie Roberts in Pretty Woman. “We don’t need your business!”

At least I didn’t think I needed any more makeup. My first stop was the MAC cosmetic store, just to look for an eyebrow pencil. I have alopecia on my brows, an autoimmune disease that attacks the hair follicles, leaving the hair barely existent. My dermatologist gave up last year when three rounds of cortisone shots to the brow did nothing. Bloody hell, it hurts to have a needle lacing through your brows! So I’m always on the lookout for some new way to recreate the illusion of my former lush brows.

imageThis should have been simple, but a gorgeous, exotic Asian woman got ahold of me the moment I walked in and that was all she wrote. She was just supposed to find the right color for my brow, but before I knew it, I was seated under the lights while she studied me long and hard in the mirror before reaching for concealer. “Do you ever use concealer?”, she asked. “This will take years off your face!” Knowing I was approaching yet another milestone birthday, I thought ok, let’s go for it.

She went after my face like a pit bull! Out came little sponge puffs and she began to tap, tap, tap, tap so much so that before I knew it, I was in a deep recline and at risk of falling backward off the stool. But then I looked in the mirror and Wow, under those lights, it was amazing! I thought I Was wearing makeup but noooo! Next she grabbed the MAC Studio Sculpt foundation, and I was suddenly transformed like a geisha! All I needed was chopsticks in my hair! It was a miracle and fifteen minutes later I was heading out the door carting the Holy Grail.

Feeling ten years younger, I continued my quest at Sak’s Fifth Avenue. I was next looking for the Dior counter to duplicate the wonderful mascara sample I’d recently received as a “free gift”. I can only imagine how men perceive the labyrinth that is the makeup counters. Hungry clerks in every direction eyeing you for a cut of the money. Even I get lost and I know my way around a makeup counter. I approached what I thought was Dior but lo and behold, it was Laura Mercier, where I was quickly approached for a consultation. “Well, I’m actually looking for the Dior counter for mascara”, I said. “Oh, it’s over that direction, but have you tried the latest concealers from Laura Mercier? They’re really wonderful, and will take years off your face.”

I didn’t miss a beat. “No”, I said, “I’ve not tried them.” She lit up at the prospect of fixing my aging face. “Here! Sit right here!”, she said as she reached for Camouflage Concealer #2. “See all of this redness under your eyes? This will cover it up completely and will last for hours. And you have redness on your brows. Let’s cover that too.” I sat there amused and let her go for it, concealing me for a 2nd time that day. I even bought the concealer. What the heck! It was Christmas time!

Finally, I found the Dior counter, and the mascara I was looking for, Dior Addict-IT for glorious lush lashes. Mostly, I just love the little brush that comes with it. As she was ringing up my purchase, she asked, “Is there anything else I can help you with? Foundation? Concealer?” This time I just smiled, declined and thanked her. “Merry Christmas!”

And so, on the eve of my 55th birthday, I know that time will continue imageto travel across my face and all the concealer in the world won’t hide it. But I am thankful for the years I’ve been graced with, as I remember my beloved friends Maggie and Bea and Debbie, who didn’t get to see 55. Many of my wrinkles are from laughter shared with them and so many others, and that’s a good thing. It’s all good!

Lorie McMillin, Webster Groves, MO, January, 2015

Falling

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In the late Autumn, when the girls were little, we used to pay them a nickel for every falling leaf they could catch, before it hit the ground. This led to all kinds of fun as they intently ran around through our deeply wooded back yard, grasping and leaping towards the swirling dried oak leaves. Dozens and dozens of leaves would spin right toward them, and then at the last moment, deviously lurch just out of reach, before cascading to the ground creating a carpet so thick, we’d literally have to wade through it. An afternoon of this silly fun typically cost us very little, because it’s really hard to catch a falling leaf.

NigelLeavesAfterward, we would rake the leaves into huge piles, many feet tall, and they would take flying leaps, or Bruce would toss them in, completely burying themselves in the crunching mass, arms and legs sticking out in every direction. After a great amount of rolling and rustling about, they’d finally emerge, broken leaves stuck all over them, head to foot. Our cat Nigel, young at the time, always fell prey to escapades with leaves, repeatedly being tossed into the pile, where he would scamper about and then emerge at a full run across the yard, leaves clinging to his long fur, only to return for more of the same. What great fun.

Finally, we’d begin the task of raking the huge piles onto the fire pit in the back yard, carefully working the barrier with rakes while we set them aflame, creating a crackling volcano of smoke and fire. What is it about the hypnotic lure of this great seasonal tradition? I absolutely love the smell of burning leaves.

We did accidentally set our woods on fire once years ago during our kitchen remodel, when Bruce put out some large boxes to burn in a barrel while our ovens were being installed. One of the crew came in and said, “I assume you mean for your woods out back to be on fire?” Holy Crap! Out we all ran with rakes, including our general contractor, and it took us nearly an hour to contain the giant circle of scorched leaves amidst the trees. We used to have brambles of blackberries back there, but that pretty much took care of those. Fortunately, that was the extent of the damage, and the end of our use of a burn barrel.

NigelWoodsOur redwood sided house sits amidst six acres of thick forest, under waving, towering oak trees at least sixty feet tall. For a long time, we used a walking trail Bruce created through the first three acres, and when we acquired three more acres to the east, we extended the trail. We’d walk it early mornings with Nigel trailing along, distractedly letting us get too far ahead, such that he would pretend he was lost, and yowl imploringly for us. So we’d stop and call out to him, only to have him come flying toward us, blazing through the wild brush underfoot, until he rapidly caught up, only to get distracted again by some buzzing only he could hear.

We haven’t used the trail much since I had ACL Reconstruction on my left knee in 2010. The path is a bit rough, with hidden tree roots, uneven earth and vines ready to grab at any moment. A couple of years ago, we heard target practice coming from the house three acres away. This wasn’t the first time those neighbors had decided to shoot toward our woods, and we’d advised them we walk through there. Bruce found their name in the phone book, and called to ask what they were shooting with, and she said, “Oh, it’s just a potato gun”. I recall a New Year’s party a long time ago with people catapulting potatoes through the air, which baffled me, but a potato gun was a new one on me! So Bruce asked if it had bullets, and she said yes. What potatoes have to do with that, I don’t know, but he told her to stop shooting into our woods because we walk there.

This last spring, we once again heard the shooting, so this time I called her up and asked if they were shooting at our woods again. “No”, she replied testily, “we’re shooting towards Margaret’s”. I have no clue who Margaret is, but I’m wondering, does Margaret know she’s being shot at?! This is what we get for living in the county. So we finished our hasty discourse with additional warnings that we walk through our woods that border their land. We’re considering refurbishing our trail, this time clearing roots and layering a nice gravel path for stability. But I do wonder if I’ll need to keep a sidearm on me.

IMG_2481And so, all the leaves are brown and the falling has commenced in our forest once again. We arrived home in time for a couple of days of color as the large oak leaves turned a brownish red, at times scarlet when over-lit by the sun, the strong trees backed by yellow underbrush and colorful red Virginia Creeper clambering high into the branches. Last year, we planted two sugar maples to add more color. They are a marvel when they mature, a cacophony of green, yellow, orange and red all in one glorious tree. The Japanese maple is stunning in a rich crimson red.

When the big winds come, usually over a couple of days, the leaves cascade down in droves, a constant progression, until the trees empty their arms for the season. It’s beautiful to watch, but comes with a sad melancholy this year as we mourn Nigel not sharing this with us, his trampoline now heaped in brown leaves. We know, in time, the memories we share of him will replace the sadness, but for now, in my favorite season, this Falling is difficult.

Nigel was the great equalizer in our family. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, for better or for worse, he remained neutral, loving us each equally, and in turn, equally loved and adored by each of us. You could have had the worst day ever, and there would be that silly little face, expressionless, and adorable, lifting your spirits just by looking at him.

He would lap dance around the room, relocating himself to his advantage, based on who was the most interesting at any time, as a quiet competition ensued amongst us. If Heather was in the chair knitting, he’d be with her, patiently waiting until she cut off a long strand of yarn for him. Sometimes, he would literally just lay across her legs on the ottoman, and watch her knit.

NigelBruceHannah would keep him running back and forth and back and forth, sending his rolly balls in all directions as he chased about like the wind.

Bruce would get his attention in the evenings when it was time to stretch out long across his body, both taking in a good snooze.

And me, well, wherever I would go, he would usually follow, because we had an unbreakable bond. A card arrived today from Debbie and Lori, which stated correctly that even soul-mates can have tails.

Next week we head out for the second and last leg of our sabbatical, a month in New Zealand, in the land of Mordor, where Orcs roam the hillsides, where the Misty Mountains tower in majesty to the south, and where Frodo and Sam will save us from the One Ring in the Fires of Mount Doom. We will seek out the Light of Earendil, a most beloved star, and a light in dark places when all other lights go out.

For as The Lady of the Wood, Galadriel of Lothlorien whispers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Go now and rest, for you are weary with sorrow and much toil. Tonight you will sleep in peace.”

Lorie McMillin, Rolla, MO, November, 2013

Grief like a Geyser

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I’ve always had an intensely strong sixth sense. It is not uncommon for me to think of someone right before they ring me on the phone, and I’ll answer and say, “I was just thinking of you!”  At times, it’s so uncanny that it unnerves me and leaves me forever pondering the universe.  As Susan Sarandon says in Bull Durham, the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.  Sometimes I’ve thought, that would be a relief.

We’ve been in Europe for the last three months on Sabbatical, and are two days shy from going home. Nearly two weeks ago, almost simultaneously, Bruce and I both began to feel like it was time to go, and that we were ready to get back to our home and to our family and to our cat, Nigel. Neither of us mentioned it at first, as we’d made a promise that we’d invested in this trip, and we were going for the full Monty, the trip of a lifetime, living for three months in Europe. A couple of days later, we both finally admitted it, when Bruce said he’d had a dream about Nigel.  We both sensed we needed to get home.

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Three days later, on Thursday of last week, our beloved Nigel passed away, wrapped in a heating blanket in an incubator at our local veterinarian. He’d had severe anemia and had gone into shock from blood loss due to flea bites, brought on by a flea infestation, which had taken rapid hold of him over the preceding days. At fourteen years old, his body simply could not recover.

He was laid to rest in our back yard, by our girls and some friends. We’d spent two frantic days trying to deal with the situation from afar as we looked for ways to get home sooner.  Devastatingly, we were not there for him.

It seems forever ago that I wrote the following in July before we left …

“My mania on leaving our cat, Nigel, for four months has had me fraught with anxiety. Every day, I look at him and I think, how do I convey to you that it’s only for a little while? We’re not abandoning you. I know you will think you’ve been abandoned, but we’ll be back. Have faith!”

Like all things in life, there are no do-overs. There are only lessons learned. My sixth sense told me not to leave him, repeatedly, and despite all we did to ensure his well being, it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t have predicted this outcome in our worst nightmares.  My regret at leaving him will stay with me forever.

He’d become more complicated in his older age.  He was far needier, less invincible, more fearful.  In retrospect, I also know that he was aging, and that he’d have had an alternate fate some day, for everything has a season, and there is a time to every purpose under heaven, so says Ecclesiastes 1:3.

There was a morning a year or so ago when I awoke very early, before dawn. It must have been spring or summer because it was warm enough for me to take my cup of coffee and go out onto the darkened deck. Nigel had done his traditional circling of the house, which he did every morning when we went out. He would head one way or another sniffing, marking, and verifying the perimeter was as it should be. When he returned to sit at the edge of the deck with me, dawn was only just breaking deep beyond the woods to the east.

imageSuddenly, I heard a rustling in the hostas to my left. In the deep twilight, I could just make out what I thought was a baby deer approaching. But then I zeroed in on the low creeping movement of the animal, its eyes trained on Nigel, about five feet away. It was a fox. The scraping of my chair sent him turn tail, and I screamed like a banshee as he fled into the western woods. On that morning, one alternate choice, one step inside to warm my coffee would have changed his fate. It was not yet his time.

In 1999, my 16 year old Siamese cat, India, who was the love of my life, passed away on a Sunday night, surrounded by her family. She simply fell over of a stroke or heart attack. It was a wrenching sadness, and yet, in retrospect, a beautiful way to go. She was old, and her body hurt, and she spent most days sleeping. But on that day, she’d been outside for a little bit, a rare privilege in her life, with four of us surrounding her every movement to keep her safe as she pondered a bug hidden in the tree bark. Hers was a good and pampered life, and she was the smartest and funniest animal I’ve ever know.  She was an old soul.

A couple of months later, in October, as we were driving through town, Bruce unexpectedly pulled into the pound, just to look. I couldn’t have imagined another cat at that time, but we went inside anyway, and there was a whole room of them, all crying out, hoping for a chance in the lottery that is animal life.

imageThere was one little kitten, maybe two months old, who wasn’t crying. He was just sitting in a cage watching us, his little head cocked sideways, with those huge eyes. He was a gray tabby possessing just a hint of orange on his belly, with large ears and paws, and already showing signs that he was to be long haired. I distinctly remember saying, what about this little guy?

We took him out of his cage and held him while he purred and pawed at Bruce’s beard, so we set him on the floor a moment and he scampered about, chasing a fly in the room. He was beyond adorable, and that was that.

We were told his orange siblings had been adopted and he was the last of the litter. We were also told that he was a she, so he spent about four days named Sylvia, until the vet confirmed the error, and then he became Nigel, named after the Thornberry’s cartoon, a favorite of the girls at the time.

I remember when the girls came home that evening, and Heather freaked for a moment when a little gray thing ran 100 miles an hour between her feet. She turned rapidly to see him flying about, being his kitten self and chasing things only cats can see. He was to become a source of constant joy, affection, humor and silliness.  One thing is for certain. He was a loved and pampered little prince.

imageOne winter, when the girls were young, there came a ponderously beautiful, deep snow, the kind that mushrooms every surface and every twig. Out we all went to make a snowman, and I’ll never forget as the snow fell in droves, Nigel literally leaping feet into the air, trying to catch snowflakes while the girls laughed and chased around him.  In the early years, he would also climb under the Christmas tree and hide, and you could find him peeking out from underneath, his eyes all aglow in the magical light.

There are a million memories of his life, but I recall so much how he would bury his little head in Bruce’s beard all the time, using him as a scratching post, sometimes to the point of annoyance, but he was really just paying homage to his dad, the King Cat.

imageHe remained a kitten his whole life. Certainly, he’d slowed down some, but oh how he loved the days when Bruce and I would go out onto our large deck. It didn’t matter what we were doing, he came to do it with us.

If we were gardening, he’d be in the garden too, shuffling through the forest that was his world, looking for his bugs and the occasional mole. Sometimes, he’d climb to the top of the eight foot garden gate, and would ride as we opened and closed it. If Bruce went up into the attic, up went Nigel, and we’d have to leave the stairs down until he emerged some hours later. Same with the crawl space under the house. If we were in the pool, he’d climb the steps, coming just to the edge to say hi. Or he’d climb the banisters and claw and reach, swatting at imaginary objects, just to make us laugh.

We have a weathered trampoline in the back yard, long past its prime, when the girls were young enough to bounce around. They used to take him on there, and he’d suffer through their playing and jumping with him. He hated things that moved, including cars, so he’d eventually make his escape.

But in these last years, you could find him out there most days, watching nature, and listening to the woods, with pollen strands and who knows what caught up in his long fur. I’d walk out near dusk to get him, and he’d patiently watch me come, knowing it was time to go in. I can still feel his heft, as I’d pick him up and preen the flotsam and jetsam from his fur as I took him inside for the night.

imageBirthdays and Christmas were his favorite days, and ours, as he would bury himself in the wrappings and play with the bows. There isn’t a birthday recorded that you can’t find him buried somewhere in the picture, inside all the crinkly paper or inside a bag or inside a box.

In his later years, he became much more human like. As a young cat, he rarely meowed or spoke. But as his age progressed, he became much more vocal, sometimes to great annoyance at 5:00 in the morning, when he wanted everyone to know it was time to get up.

He joined the family for every event from games on the floor to his sly attempt to join in for Christmas prime rib dinner.

image I think it’s his later routines we will miss the most. We have an eight foot jetted bath tub, which we use every single day. We make a French Press of coffee, fill the tub, and together, have our half hour of morning time talk before the busy days take their toll. Every morning, he would come join us, sitting on the edge of the tub to play with water droplets I would lay up there for him to catch. And then he’d wander around to the back where Bruce would fill his shaving mirror with cold water from the tap for his “morning drink”. image

I will desperately miss him beside me, in the big chair where I work with my laptop. He had developed a routine where he would stand on the arm of the chair, and literally do a practiced half inverted flip dive to wind up beside me in the chair, on his back, where he would sleep while I worked. That is until it was time to go over to Bruce on the couch. He’d creep to the edge, ponder Bruce for just a bit, calculate the jump, and then up he’d go, landing with a plunk right on his stomach, creating a resounding Umph! He’d splay himself out along the length of Bruce’s torso, snoozing until Bruce’s arm would go to sleep.

He was a member of our family, and adored beyond measure. We are dreading what we face at home, but we know its time to go home and face it.

Many friends have offered words and thoughts of comfort. It is perhaps my old friend Ginger’s message that resonates the most, for she is and has always been, an animal whisperer.

Fragile Circle

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.

Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.

We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.

-Irving Townsend

How utterly beautiful. How completely true.

Our grief comes in huge waves, at times so fierce, as to be uncontainable, much like a geyser that emits boiling steam high into the sky, a pressure valve releasing from depths unknown. We can only trust in time and the universe as we move forward and try to make sense of this terrible loss.

France has treated us kindly these last few days, if you discount the drivers. Two days ago, we encountered double rainbows twice as we drove for hours through the countryside trying to clear our minds and our hearts.

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Yesterday, in the land of wine and honey, we were treated to patchwork quilts in glorious colors of crimson and ochre, as we wound for hours through the vines of October. image

We were on a walk late Sunday evening, when a beautiful, golden eyed, long haired tri-colored tabby visited us near dusk on an otherwise empty street in our medieval village. He circled and loved and rubbed on us until I picked him up, at which point he nudged my chin with his face and tucked his head in the crook of my neck purring deeply, just as Nigel would do.

Hannah’s kitten Ollie has begun to try to drink from the faucet at home, and Heather’s cat Data has been laying hangdog over the arm of her chair, behaviors neither cat exhibited previously.

As Ginger also said, there is a thin veil between worlds for animals, and I know their spirits move in mysterious ways. I think he’s visited upon us, letting us know he is ok, and that he knows of our great love and deep sorrow.

Today is Halloween, and we’ve read that children do go trick or treating here in France.  We drove past little spooks on their way to a party as we headed home yesterday. So we are prepared for tonight, just in case, with a pumpkin to light their way, hoping for little witches and cats under the crescent moon. We have a bag of Kit Kats at the ready. How fitting is that?

Rest peacefully, sweet Baby Nigel. You will forever remain a kitten in our hearts.

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Lorie McMillin, France, October 2013

Pilgrimage in Burgundy

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We came to live in France for six weeks in the Burgundy countryside with idyllic thoughts of drinking wonderful wines, shopping the markets so we could cook with local ingredients, and enjoying our days living life as locals.

Bruce's Boeuf Bourguignon

Bruce’s Boeuf Bourguignon

Burgundy was to be the last half of the European leg of our four month sabbatical, a place to stop for a while, unpack and slow down. We’d been on the move for the previous six weeks, living in London, Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam and Belgium, which, even writing those words, just blows my mind. I’m a kid from the farmlands of Missouri. I don’t even know how I got here. But time compressed in those locations at a shocking speed. Everyone knows that vacations are that way. You head out thinking ten days sounds like forever, and before you know it, you’re back at work. But three months seemed like a summer vacation, the kind that stretches out forever when you’re a kid.

Not the case! We have less than two weeks remaining in our European odyssey, and thoughts of suitcases and logistics are already creeping back into our minds, especially since there’s a magnum of champagne that Bruce fully intends to bring home! I couldn’t help but notice that there are suitcases for sale at the Intermarche, the French version of your local grocery store of choice.

Bruce says I tend to lament. Would of, could of, should of. I suppose I’ve always done that to a certain extent, comparing alternatives, what are the best options, what are the things we must see. And while I’m an extreme planner, I didn’t lay down that many plans for Burgundy, which has surprised him. He’s used to arriving in a city, and I tell him everything there is to see and do, like one of those guides, droning on and on during a bus tour. But this was far too big of a journey to plan things out “in 15 minutes increments” as he likes to say.

View of the ramparts in Semur en Auxois

View of the ramparts in Semur en Auxois

So France for me has been a series of unexpected and extraordinary experiences. Certainly I read about the major regional sites, and I naively thought we’d have time to take adventures far and wide, such as a couple of days down to southern France to Grasse, the International Perfume Capital, or even down to the Dordogne region, about five hours south of here. As it turns out, there’s no way! There is so much history, even 100 years from us, that we’re having a hard time getting much beyond our own back yard, especially with a view of the city walls beautifully lit at night, and nearly two dozen ducks visiting our riverside home daily, quacking for handouts!

I guess I didn’t expect to be so enthralled with all of the ancient history, which seems counter intuitive, since we landed in a rental house right in the middle of a medieval city, Semur en Auxois. I actually googled “Middle Ages” and “Medieval” last weekend for an extended history lesson. True fact. Who hasn’t heard of the Middle Ages, but when you grow up in a country where history is only really marked by the last 250 or so years, the concept of things still existing from the 5th century to the 15th century, until you actually see them, is just a concept. Some vague recollection from a chapter in a history book when you were 16 years old, or from religion class in parochial school when you were 8 years old.

Winding street in Semur en Auxois

Winding street in Semur en Auxois

But here, that history and those structures are alive and well. People live in these ancient buildings, they work in them, they restore and preserve them. Every single town you drive through is an enchanting mix of fountains, war memorials, and vine covered stone buildings often with a portal above the door containing the blessed virgin, set amidst narrow, winding, cobbled lanes.  Villages compete for the title of “Most Beautiful Village in France”, or “Flower Village”.  The Ministry of French Cultural Affairs has filled the highways with large historical markers letting you know what the towns along the way are all about.  Coming from a culture that tears down and rebuilds constantly, this is a revelation.

Our Gite rental in Semur

Our Gite rental in Semur

Our own rental, according to our local language teacher, sits in the heart of the oldest part of the city. That’s saying something since Semur’s Notre Dame Cathedral dates back to the 12th century. But our exterior walls are measured in feet, and the house is supported by massive wooden beams more than a foot tall, which are shaved out a little in places, for people to walk under. If I have one real lament, it’s that my 6’7″ husband has to duck constantly through this house, but we both agree, we wouldn’t change a thing, with our view of the ancient ramparts and fortress towers.

I took a long drive up to the town of Chaource a couple of weeks ago to see a sculpture I’d read about, located in the crypt of the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Known as “The Entombment of Christ”, this was perhaps the most beautiful sculpture I’ve ever seen in my life. The unbearable pain on Mary’s face was extraordinary. It is not known for a fact who sculpted this marvel, known only as the Maitre de Chaource, although some scholars point to sculptor Jacques Bachot. Being alone in the church and with this sculpture, I fully spent over a half hour down there marveling at the beauty of this magnificent life size work.

The Entombment of Christ, Chaource, France

The Entombment of Christ, Chaource, France

On another day, I visited the Abbaye of Fonteney, the most intact and preserved Cistercian Monastery in all of Europe. The Abbaye is an entire complex of buildings, covered in russet vines as fall arrives here in central France. Again, I found myself alone, wandering along dirt floors within the towering church, and through the cloisters where monks lived and prayed for centuries. The Abbaye is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is mostly for tourists.  It’s a thing of beauty, and I felt privileged to visit.

Abbaye of Fontenay

Abbaye of Fontenay

When we were planning a trip to Spain last year, I read a lot about the “Way of St. James”, which is an ancient religious pilgrimage trail, crossing many parts of Europe, coalescing in Northern Spain, where there is one path, east to west, crossing the entire country, to reach Santiago de Compostela, a massive cathedral and the burial place of St. James. Pilgrims have walked these trails for centuries in search of spiritual atonement and religious enlightenment. I can’t imagine it really. I’m lucky to lug my way up into town here, let alone to walk across France and Spain. As it turns out, the pilgrim trails and Christian relics for parts of the French routes are all within an hour or less from us.

My husband will tell you that if there is a cathedral within reach of any town we visit, that I have to stop and ponder, walk through and take pictures. And he would be correct. By right of marriage, he has seen some of the greatest cathedrals in the world from Rome to Paris to London, and now rural France. Perhaps it’s my Catholic heritage, but I’m enthralled with the history embedded in these old churches and cathedrals. Throughout the ages, many, if not most of a town’s artisans, masons, carpenters and money were put into building and maintaining these massive, beautiful structures, sometimes taking centuries to build. They have survived wars, revolutions, pillage, neglect, restoration, and other tests of time.

Basilica of Mary Magdalene

Basilica of Mary Magdalene

When my sister Deb and her partner Lori visited our first week here, we went to the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay, a ponderously beautiful, powerful, towering stone cathedral, and former monastery. As we wandered through, whispering in awe at the scale and beauty, Deb and I had one of those sister moments, like we just couldn’t believe we were there. Down in the crypt are the relics of Mary Magdalene, so we quietly made our way down and back up, as individuals sat huddled in prayer and contemplation.

Cathedral of St. Lazarus

Cathedral of St. Lazarus

On another day, Bruce and I visited Autun, a former Roman fortification, with town walls and the ruins of an amphitheater dating back to the first century. That’s 1st Century, the time of Caesar Augustus!! Seriously incredible. Climbing way up a hill in the city like pilgrims before, we reached the Cathedral of St. Lazarus, reported to house his relics. There are varying accounts of how his relics wound up there, as the brother of Mary Magdalene, including the fact that town leaders realized that Vezelay was making a lot of money so they built their cathedral on the pilgrim route. Regardless, the church was magnificent with splendid sculptures on the capitals that support the vaulted ceiling. I felt a great sense of peace in that church.

Most recently, and perhaps most profoundly, we took a long drive through the Morvan National Park to the city of Nevers, also on the pilgrimage route, which houses the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette, formerly of Lourdes. In the mid 1800’s, Bernadette had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the grotto at Lourdes during which time a spring spontaneously sprung up at the site, which continues to flow to this day. There are 69 confirmed cases of inexplicable healing amidst the millions of sick who visit the site annually. As one might imagine, there was a lot of pressure and political infighting amongst city officials on what to do about the situation, so Bernadette eventually made her way to a convent in Nevers, where she lived to the young age of 35, succumbing to asthma and tuberculosis.

Thirty years after her death, the Catholic Church decided a Beautification was in order, so they exhumed her remains, finding her body completely intact, or as its known, “incorruptible”. They placed her back in the grave for 10 years, only to find her in the same state. They removed small relics from her body for Lourdes, and placed her in a crystal coffin in the church at Nevers, where she has lain undisturbed since 1925. Her outer skin had suffered a little from the washings they had done to her body after exhumation, so they hired a French artist to place a very thin film of wax on her face and hands. Otherwise, her body remains intact to this day.

St. Bernadette of Nevers and Lourdes

St. Bernadette of Nevers and Lourdes

Not being the summer pilgrim season, we had some time to sit near her, just the two of us alone for a little while. It was beautiful, peaceful and miraculous to see her lying there as she has for decades. We watched The Song of Bernadette, the other night after my friend reminded me of the old 1943 film. Hers is a remarkable story. I did a little research and found there are a few incorruptible saints in existence such as St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Cecilia.

The village of Chateauneuf

The village of Chateauneuf

I think it will be a long time before I fully absorb and realize all that I have been privileged to see and do. Yes, we’ve had lots of wonderful Burgundy wines, and we have shopped and cooked the local markets. We’ve taken a few French lessons with a local language instructor living in an old convent across the road from us. We’ve visited Roman Ruins, a Burgundy Truffle Festival, toured the Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, and wandered the fairytale streets of the village and Castle of Chateauneuf.

And so, without a lot of planning, I have found myself on a pilgrimage through time and place, amidst countless reminders of war, religion, and miracles, in the most beautiful and ancient of settings in the French countryside.

Lorie McMillin, Burgundy, France, October 2013

François Pompon and the Quest for the Polar Bears

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I have been on a quest on this sabbatical to have a photo taken of myself with three polar bears. My fascination with polar bears didn’t begin until my late 20’s. Of course they’re pretty and all, but it wasn’t until my beloved friend Rose Anne gave me a pink “Snuffie” bear that I began to think polar bears were really wonderful. She and her husband Ben had a collection of Snuffies, and they all had names. Not classical bear names, but numbered names. Number One, Number Two, and so on. My last recollection was they had 7 or 8 of them. And they each had their very own personalities and facial features. Ben could manipulate the face and body of a Snuffie to just make you weep with joy, turning their little heads sideways, and waving their little paws at you.

Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar

Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar

When Ben went for his anthropology Ph.D. research in Madagascar to study lemurs, Rose Anne joined him about halfway through his journey. This was no ordinary trip by the way. I’m joining my husband on sabbatical and we are living quite civilized. By comparison, Rose Anne joined her husband in a jungle wilderness, where things go bump in the night, and where they were sleeping in a tent, and eating raw berries from trees, and there were NO mens or ladies facilities. She reminded me recently that she once badly sprained her ankle out there, and Dr. Sports Medicine was nowhere to be found.

I was with her for the packing decisions on what should go into her luggage, which had to make it all the way into a jungle. Besides Lorna Doone cookies, the most important decision … which Snuffie got to go because they ALL wanted to go. She’ll have to remind me who won out, but I think it was Number Two.

The story of my pink snuffie is that I decided I desperately had to have one, and I wanted a pink bear. What can I say, I’m girly! I couldn’t afford it though, and after I bought her, and she came home with me, I sadly returned her because I was just flat out broke, probably from buying a 12 piece place setting of Noritake Conservatory china. I do have my compulsions! And then, a few days later, Ben and Rose Anne came by with that pink snuffie for me. They had gone back and got her, the very same one. I still have my adorable little pink bear, and I’ll never forget them doing that for me.

So now, I too love polar bears. I have many that we set out at Christmas time. One large one sits sparkling amidst the presents under my tree, a very knowing bear! Another set, a mother and her baby, walk along one of my side tables during the holiday season. One year, Bruce, my master packer, had packed them separately when we were taking down Christmas. I didn’t know it until the next year when we were putting things out and we couldn’t find the mother, and so the little baby bear was crying. I was frantic at the loss of the momma bear. So Bruce climbed through the attic, and the back room, and finally, thankfully, he found her in a box of things we were not going to set out that year. There was much rejoicing at the uniting of momma and baby bear, and we’ll always be sure they are packed together!

So when researching about things to do in Dijon, France, which is very near our house in Semur, I read that the sculptor Pompon had a large polar bear there in a park. It turns out, there are many identical bears in the world that he sculpted, but as far as I can tell, only three that are life size. One is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, one is in a park in Antwerp, Belgium, and one is in the park in Dijon. And I knew I had to see all three! It’s a quest for me, and it’s a quest in honor of my dearest friends, Rose Anne and Ben, because they taught me that polar bears are magical!

According to the Musée d’Orsay website…

“For many years, Pompon was one of the most sought-after assistants in Paris, hewing blocks of marble for Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. But after 1905, in reaction to Rodin’s expressionism, Pompon abandoned the human figure and turned to the animals that he observed at the Jardin des Plantes. Polar Bear is the finest achievement in this vein; when it was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1922, it brought the artist tardy recognition, at the age of sixty-seven.

Stripping away the trappings and details, he abandoned any realistic rendering and focused on “the very essence of the animal”. This economy of means gives the work a presence which draws its true force from its monumental scale. Far from the anecdotal, it reveals a search for timelessness and permanence: under the silent outer appearance of fullness, the smooth sculpture nurtures an aspiration to universal form. “I keep a large number of details that will later go” said Pompon. “I first do the animal with almost all its trappings. Then I gradually eliminate them…” Colette was struck by the “thick, mute” paws of his animals.

Pompon’s sculptures are characterised by an intuitive understanding, rounded forms, a refusal of geometrical shapes, and a taste for traditional materials. “I love sculpture without holes or shadows” he used to say, preferring pale stone with nothing to stop the smooth flow of light over the volumes.”

So the Polar Bear sculpture at the Orsay should have been easy. I remember seeing the bear when we were there in 2010. At that time, you could take pictures in the museums of Paris, but they are now forbidden, probably because of the craze of young girls needing to be caught “jumping” in photos, sometimes while making a victory sign. I can only imagine the museum curator’s horror as girls jumped in front of a Monet. Or the clashing mobs of people trying to get their photo in front of their favorite world famous paintings, while others are simply trying to just get near enough to see the painting. In theory, I actually agree with this new ruling. Trying to get near the Mona Lisa at the Louvre was like being caught in a mosh pit with cameras being slung all around your face.

Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France

Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

But I had to have a photo with that bear, and I had to insist that Bruce break the law to get it. Bruce is NOT a rule breaker. If it says don’t do this or that, he Will Not do it. He was once very upset with me for sneaking photos of the exquisite mosaic ceilings in the Sacre Coeur church on Montmartre in Paris, because they weren’t allowed. He even moved to another pew, lest he be caught and scolded by a Nun. Me, I went to Catholic school for eight years and am used to such things!

So, I found the bear, and snuck a couple of photos before I insisted he take my phone, pretend he was reviewing email, and then quickly snap a photo of me with the bear. He was not happy, but he did it. Grimacing and taking rapid fire photos, he then turned tail and took off like a scared rabbit. But I got my photo with Pompon Polar Bear Number One, which is the original that Pompon debuted!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Two sits near the entrance to the Middelheim Museum, a large outdoor sculpture park in Antwerp, Belgium. Having fallen into a canal boat the previous Sunday in Amsterdam, and badly hurting my knee, I assumed there was no way this polar bear quest could continue, as we were just trying to get ourselves moved out of one hotel in Amsterdam, and safely make it to our next one in Ghent, Belgium. But by the time we left, I was up moving about, and just limping a bit with my cane. So Bruce insisted that we find the bear, since we were going through Antwerp anyway.

Now, Google Maps could find the park, but it had us stopping on the interstate, saying we had reached our destination. So after pulling over twice, and looking at maps, and driving in circles, we finally found the park. It was just after 6:00 p.m., and as we walked up to the park entrance, I could see the gates were open. Oh thank heavens, we weren’t too late! But then we were accosted by a park ranger, who spoke Flemish to us, which translated to “We’re closed”. I asked if he spoke English, and he said, “Closed”.

No Way could this be our luck! “But we’ve come all the way from the United States, just so we could see the Polar Bear!”, I exclaimed. “The Ice Bear?”, he asked. “Yes! Yes! The Ice Bear. Please?!! Could we just take one photo by the Ice Bear, and then we’ll leave. We promise. Please??!!” And I used my big brown eyes look, which I only use in desperate times. He pondered this, and glanced around, and then said, “Ok.”, and he led the way towards the Ice Bear.

Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium

Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium

And there it was! Pompon Polar Bear Number Two, looking lovely and Knowing, as Bruce likes to say. And so we snapped many photos, and I kissed the bear on his nose, and we headed back to our car. I stopped to explain the story of the three bears, but I don’t think the ranger understood much, but he smiled and nodded and then closed the gates behind us. As we drove off, I gave him a great big smiling wave, and he smiled and waved back with a big grin, and I’m sure he thought, crazy Americans, coming all the way from the United States, just to see an Ice Bear!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Three on my quest was a fairly easy gig, since the Jardin Darcy in Dijon, France, was open and photos were legal. We drove over to Dijon on Sunday, and found the park first thing, and there he was! The “Polar Bear in Stride” is another common name for the bear, And so we snapped the photos with the grand bear and went about our happy way.

Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

But things are not so simple it turns out. In researching the bear the night before, I came across a lovely blogger from Alaska, who has a marble copy of Pompon’s bear on her coffee table, which is cast from the same mold as one of Pompon’s smaller bears, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. AND, it turns out, she had visited the Dijon Polar Bear, and later discovered that it is not actually cast from Pompon’s original mold. One of his friends sculpted the bear in an hommage to his great mentor. It is as identical as one could be, although Bruce said he thought the expression may have been a little more Knowing on this bear.

In addition to the park, there is a Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, which has a smaller original Pompon bear in the Pompon room. We wanted to get by there, and I still hope to, but the day got away from us.

And lastly, Pompon is from Saulieu, France, which is very near us. They have the Musee Francois Pompon, with a large collection of his work, and I believe there is a replica of the polar bear there, in addition to many of his sculpted animals. Bruce commented the other day that he wanted to go to that town to see a cow sculpture. Turns out, it’s Pompon too!

And so… I have achieved my original quest to be photographed with the Three Polar Bears. But will I see every single Pompon Polar Bear in the world? Most likely not! But that’s ok because everyone knows that Polar Bears are magical creatures and can turn up anywhere, anytime, striding proudly through a park, or in a museum, or walking across someone’s coffee table in Alaska!

Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, October, 2013

Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.

Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.

The Autumnal Equinox

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The Autumnal Equinox officially arrived in France at 9:44 Sunday night, during the time that Bruce and I were snuggled in by candlelight, watching the movie Chocolat, after our first day in Semur en Auxois. That means yesterday was the first full day of Autumn, and for the next six weeks, we’ll be watching the leaves turn gold, russet and copper, while the brisk, cooler weather settles into the Burgundy countryside. I’ve read there will be the smell of burning chestnut branches on the wind. We’ll have to wait and see about that. We’re well outfitted for the fall, with our cottage fireplace, and plenty of wood stacked beside the house. Remaining on our quest is an outdoor chiminea or copper kettle in which to burn our own little fires “en exterior”, but first, we have to figure out how to describe such a thing in French.

Sunday also marked the Equinox or halfway point of the Europe leg of our sabbatical, and my how the time has flown! We’ve been startled by how quickly the weeks have progressed, and other than missing our girls and Baby Nigel Joseph McMillin, we’re not really homesick, which also surprises me. Months went into planning each locale, things to do, places to stay and to eat, all carefully stored in “Evernote” for quick reference. Half of those notebooks are now obsolete, at least for now.

imageBut not obsolete are the incredible memories we’ve made so far. Two delightful weeks in London along the Thames, followed by a week in Paris with our girls. We all ended that week a little worse for wear with colds, but Paris was a delight. For me, the best was the family picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens, and then sitting by the Medici Fountain with Heather while she tried to knit, but was distracted by the people milling about, and the ducks swimming about and nibbling against the moss on the wet stone, while Bruce and Hannah wandered off to the Catacombs.

A couple of days later, Heather was down with a fever, and Bruce had his own terrible cold, so Hannah and I ventured out on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. I realize those look terribly touristy, but I have to say, they are a total delight. We sat up top, watching the beautiful streets of Paris go by and completely enjoying ourselves, while having several giggles of silliness along the way, as girls are known to do. We disembarked at Galleries Lafayette so Hannah could seek out a lovely plaid cashmere scarf for her amour. I bought a scarf for myself from the same men’s section, in muted colors of navy, gray and lavender. I’m thinking it will be perfect with a pair of jeans.

On our way back, knowing that nobody would feel like going out, Hannah and I stopped for the most fabulous quiches from the little brasserie right next door to our apartment, which was also to be our boulangerie for the entire week. Hannah is not an egg person, and had never tried the “Madame Fromage” quiche I make at home, a decadent creation full of eggs, cream, bacon and caramelized onions. But she ate the quiche from Paris with gusto, and has been dreaming of it, along with the croissants, ever since. I told her that once you see Paris, it stays with you always, a longing that doesn’t go away.

After Paris, we had a quick two weeks in the Oslo, the highlight of course being the Aurora Borealis in the Lofoten Islands. Many people in Oslo, who’d lived their whole lives there, said it was rare to see them, and that we’d been very lucky. We couldn’t agree more! I won’t forget it for the rest of my life.

We had a very quick, albeit unsettling four days in Amsterdam where I fell into a tour boat within three hours of landing. But a house call from a sports medicine doctor, who declared me stable, but perhaps clumsy, helped to calm us back down. A lot of Rest, Ice, Compression & Elevation had me walking a couple of days later, although I’m still on the mend, and Bruce is guarded at all times about me being Careful. The result is that I no longer have to help lift the 270 pounds of luggage or carry in groceries! But all was not lost as we got out for a second attempt at a boat tour along with a visit to the Van Gogh Museum.  We then spent three days in the magical Belgium cities of Ghent and Bruges, which are filled with fairytale canals, architecture and chocolate.

imageAnd so on Sunday, with our hopes high, we drove south into France, passing through the champagne capital of Reims, arriving at our little rented house, or Gite as it’s known in France, for the rest of our Europe sabbatical.  Finally, a place to completely unpack the luggage and stop for a while.

Sunday was a trip into town for the farmer’s market, and yesterday, I literally did nothing. Bruce did some work and had a couple of conference calls, and I tried to write, but mostly, I just looked out at the river, which shimmers reflections onto the living room ceiling, and listened to the ducks and the cathedral bells, while doing some PT on my knee. Last night, with the chilly night air coming in, we streamed the movie Sleepy Hollow wide onto our living room wall with our little traveling projector, a perfect ending to a peaceful day.

In the movie “Under The Tuscan Sun”, she recommends taking your time to introduce yourself to a new house. Go slowly and get to know each other. It’s true. The house has low beams where Bruce has to duck a little, and there are steps in every direction, so I’m taking my time, getting to know the lights and the shower and the cubbies and the dressers. The house creaks in the night, so I wonder if there are ghosts or just the movement of the tide along the river. It’s all good. It’s a really nice place to be.

Today we ventured back out for a big shop in town. Our first stop was at L’Epicerie Chez Serge, a magical little French speciality shop in town full of local produce, jars and tins of everything imaginable, racks of wine, and some more cheeses. We spent some time explaining that we were renting a house for six weeks, and they warmed up to us fairly quickly. By the end, Serge even threw in some complimentary sausage for us to try and will call us tomorrow morning with the price of Dover Sole from the fish market in Dijon. He explained that sole is expensive here this time of year.

imageOur second stop was to the local butcher or Boucherie for a few items including bacon (porc de fume), Jambon ham, and chuck for a little Boeuf Bourguignon later in the week. The woman warmly told us she could speak English, but we tried our hardest to continue on in French. Her husband came out to cut the beef for us, turning to see if he had the right amount. As we left she wished us Au Revoir!

And then on to Auchon, a larger grocery store, where nobody seemed to speak English, but we got by with our best pigeon French. We forgot to weigh our own produce so the woman helped us out. The man checking us out kept asking for a passport, and in the end, we think he meant we needed to wait while someone was doing a price check. It was very confusing, but we made it out alive, and our kitchen counter is now full of bottles of wine and the larder is stocked.

We had planned to venture out later to see the nearby village of Flaviney sur Ozerain where parts of the movie Chocolat was filmed, but in the end it will have to wait for another day, as we’re back at our little place relaxing by the river. For lunch, Bruce roasted whole “Rose Trout”, accompanied by local heirloom tomatoes and just a little Pouligney Montrachet. After a nap, he fed our little group of ducks beside the river.

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Thursday, my sister Debbie and her partner Lori arrive for four days. They’ve been in Paris for a week, and I’m sure will be ready for a little down time by the river too, along with a little drive through the Burgundy countryside.

So, as we head into the autumn, we’re very relaxed and just happy to be here. The ducks are happy we’re here too! And who knows what adventures await us next!

Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, September 2013

Misstepping in Amsterdam

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I’m a reformed white knuckle flyer. I used to panic days before a flight, and would repeatedly count my little Xanax anxiety pills like Scrooge counting his coins, making certain I had them safely packed with me before we left. On a trip to Florence, Italy in 2006, my girls had to lead me by the hand like a zombie through Charles de Gaulle airport after a particularly harrowing flight over from the US. I’m told it was a sunny day and a smooth flight, so it was only harrowing for me. I don’t even know how many Xanax I popped on that flight. All I know is that I was certain that a fiery death was imminent. I’m also told it was a long walk through Charles de Gaulle, but I have no recollection of that either.

And then one day, I got over it. In 2007, I had to fly to a conference from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and it was the first time I was forced to fly alone, without Bruce, in many years. It was a stormy day, and I waited until every last soul had boarded, and I knew they would close that door soon, so I walked up to the gate, and I was Bawling. The gate agent looked at me, looked at her roster, and said, are you Lorie? Yes, I wailed. She asked if I wanted some Xanax (true story), and I said, No, I’d already had two. And then out walked the flight attendant to verify she could close the door. She was easily six foot tall, a stunningly beautiful and boisterous blond, who looked at me and said, “Come on Darling, I’ll take care of you!” So I followed her down the gangplank, and boarded the flight.

That was it for me, my catharsis, my moment. My favorite therapist once told me you can train your mind, and that’s what I did. I was done being afraid of flying. How ridiculous! I love to travel. I love to plan to travel. I memorize city layouts like a grid in my mind. I scout lovely places to rent, like finding needles in haystacks. I know how to use the public transportation before I arrive, I know which kinds of museum cards to buy, and I know which museums are the best. I spend hours and hours reading travel books, travel blogs, and just dreaming of travel. So that momentous flight was the last time I drugged myself to fly. Well, OK, except for one time in a really bad thunderstorm, but everyone on that flight was scared. I don’t particularly love to fly now, but I don’t panic anymore, and I certainly don’t let it stop me from traveling.

Our flight from Norway to Amsterdam was my sixth flight on our sabbatical, and we arrived safely on Sunday, after quite a lot of clear air turbulence, which, if I have to have turbulence, I guess clear air is my favorite kind. It should have been a sign though that something was amiss, an omen, something was tilting in my universe. I was more edgy than usual.

imageBut then I saw sunflowers outside the airport! Lovely, strong, tall sunflowers and I thought, this is a beautiful day. The sun was shining, which for rainy Amsterdam was a good sign, and the temperatures were in the 60’s. Things were looking grand!

We arrived at the Ambassade Hotel, which is situated along the canals in the heart of old Amsterdam, consisting of a series of beautiful old connected buildings, side by side, which make up the hotel. In the olden days, the city taxes were based on street-front real estate, so they built them narrow and tall. We had booked a suite with a canal view and I was very excited until we walked in and right there, in front of me, was a tight spiral staircase heading up to the loft bedroom and bathroom. Now, it’s not that I can’t climb stairs. In fact, I’ve climbed a bunch of them on our five week sojourn across Europe, which has me feeling more fit than I’ve felt in months.

The thing is, three years ago, I tore my left ACL, which is a tiny, little bitty tendon no bigger than your pinky finger that sits in the heart of your knee, and keeps the shin bone connected to the … leg bone. Or shall I say keeps one from sliding off the top of the other. That little tendon is enormously vital, and tearing that little guy is one of the most traumatic things I’ve been through, at least physically. I couldn’t walk in the beginning, as my knee would cave in, and I will never forget the day I crawled into our house because I couldn’t do stairs, and my husband had to dead lift my big sorry butt off the floor and onto the couch, while I cried.  For better or for worse.

That got me motivated, so I found a wizard of a surgeon who put a new little tendon back in there, and a merciless goddess of a physical therapist who made me balance on my wounded leg while she bounced basketballs at me, along with other tortures, which eventually led to my knee fully recovering to 100%. She is my most adored person on the planet. I owe her everything. It was a long and arduous year of hard work and recovery, and I’m very attached to my new ACL. So when I see things like spiral staircases just begging for me to fall down, I gulp, and I think, yikes, be careful.

It was well after lunchtime once we’d settled the luggage, so we grabbed our jackets and walked down the canal on our street to a little restaurant that was serving simple cafe fair of salads, sandwiches, quiches and the like. Bruce and I both ordered spinach quiche and salad, which sounded so good. But then, much to our dismay, the quiche was filled with curry powder. Sigh. I’m just not a fan. When I’m getting curry, I want to know about it well in advance, and plan my way around it. Why they didn’t list spinach curry quiche, I don’t know. So we ate our food, and departed. That’s ok, I thought, we’re just getting started.

Oh the canals are pretty, especially when the sun is glinting off of them. So we decide it would be a perfect day for a canal boat tour. We found the one we wanted to take and headed in that direction. I wanted to leisurely stroll along taking it all in, but it was Sunday afternoon and the sun was out, and the narrow streets that run along the canals were mobbed with people walking, cars trying to navigate, and hundreds, and I do mean hundreds of bicycles flying at breakneck speed and coming at you from every direction. Holy Crap! I turned just slightly to avoid a car, and a bicycle glazed me as a woman flew past, her head down, and legs pumping. She was not stopping, so you’d dang well better get out of the way! There was to be no gawking on that day and you sure as heck better not be in the bicycle lane.

We passed through narrow alleys along the way, filled with cute shops, and I took note of ones to visit later while Bruce was conferencing. We passed “coffee shops” where a familiar, pungent, sweet scent of long ago came wafting out. Marijuana is legal here to smoke, although its illegal to grow it, so how they work those laws, I have no idea.

We arrived at our boat, which was to leave in 15 minutes, and I was so excited. Bruce paid, and they said we could board now if we wanted. I have relived the next few minutes over and over now. Had we waited to board, had I briefly delayed, looking in a shop window, had I stopped to actually look inside at the people smoking pot, things might have turned out differently.

A boat is a boat, and there’s only one way to board, which is down narrow, steep, nautical steps. Many years ago, I spent one of the best weeks of my life on a 125 year old schooner, the Stephen Tabor, sailing up the coast of Maine for the fall colors tour. My bunk was in the galley, which meant down a set of narrow steps, with a ladder. You go down backward we were told, quite emphatically, and you hold onto the ladder. You never take the steps forward facing! The nor’easter woman who ran the galley would have your head on a platter if she caught you taking those steps any other way.

Why then did I take those steps forward facing, I’ll never know. They were steep, and narrow, and no railing to speak of. And I looked up, for just a moment, a brief moment, and then I felt my left foot just glaze the next step, and down it went, and down I went, a cacophony of panic, reaching, grabbing, falling, left knee going up, canting in, sharply up, pain, feeling something give. I landed in a crumble on the bottom step. “Oh my God!! I’ve torn my ACL!!”, I screamed. And I knew I had. I felt it give.

I somehow got up and stumbled to the first seat. We were still alone on that damn boat, and we were both absolutely freaking out. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. Well, my year of surgery and recovery from ACL reconstruction was flashing before my eyes. All that work. All that pain. Poor Bruce. He was my nurse, my chauffeur, my comfort, my Boy Friday all through my recovery. And now I fall, halfway through our sabbatical, and one week before we move to a house in France, which has three levels, with steps, and 142 stone steps up into the town of Semur en Auxois, where there are warm croissants. I chose this town specifically because I knew we would stay fit, amidst the croissants and French sauces we will surely consume.

My next thought was, I have to get out of this boat, and I’m sure my knee won’t work. When your ACL is gone, your knee caves in. So I tentatively stood, and my knee held. It was already swelling, but it held. That’s a good sign, I thought. So I hobbled up the steps, and there was a frantic blur of getting a taxi back to the hotel, and Bruce negotiating a new room without steps, a fabulous room in fact, right by the elevator, with a broad set of windows looking out onto the canal, and a bathroom with a walk in shower. Golly, I thought as I hobbled in, what luck to get this room. That’s how my mind thinks. Even in the midst of chaos, I’m analyzing the room amenities.

imageSo the amazing thing is that while in the lobby, the desk clerk asked if he should call the doctor. Well … sure, that sounds good. Within two minutes, they called Bruce over to the phone, and he described what had happened, and the doctor said, “Well, I guess I’d better come take a look.” They make house calls? To your room?? Bruce thanked the clerk upon hanging up and said in the US, we’d have to head to the emergency room. Everyone behind the counter was shocked.

So within 30 minutes of propping up my knee on three pillows and applying ice, in comes a doctor, a kind, burly man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and speaking perfect English. After describing the whole sordid mess to him, he said, well, your ACL is probably fine because a new one is stronger than the old one. He then did the manipulations on my knee that I’m all too familiar with, to see if the ACL was sound, and said he thought it was ok, but he could see about an MRI, maybe by tomorrow. I tentatively asked if he’d had a lot of experience with ACL’s. It turns out, he’s the chief sports medicine doctor for the Netherlands national hockey team. What?! NO! WAY!  Well, he said, I was just on call today, and I said, well, if anybody knows about ACL’s than it’s you. Yes, he said, the skates used to be less tight, but now, they’re very tight, and the only thing left to give is the knee.

imageHe then proceeded to wrap my knee with elasto-wrap he’d thought to bring, and then he asked if I’d taken any medicine. I have some anti-inflammatory I’d taken, and he said, Oh, I have better stuff, and he pulls out a push pack of five pills. You only need one a day, he said. I looked it up later, and currently, it’s not approved in the US, but I took it anyway. So he patted my knee, and said he would be back tomorrow morning between 9 and 10 for another look. I was flabbergasted! Yes, we had to pay 150 euro for his 15 minute visit, but that’s a whole lot less than if we’d landed in the ER! AND, his fees just went on our hotel room bill, like a nice bottle of wine.

So he came back the next morning, to our hotel room, right on schedule, did more manipulations of my painful, swollen knee, and declared me fine, with a contusion, which translates to badly bruised. Not even a sprain and no MRI needed, in his opinion. He said he would write a prescription for more wrappings, which the hotel would pick up and deliver for us, and he would see about crutches. Well I never! I realize this was just a glance at socialized medicine, but in the end, my experience was a lot less expensive, and a lot less hassle than finding a hospital, and waiting in an ER, and a host of people checking me in and taking my vitals. I’m not trying to make a political statement here, and as Bruce noted, there are broader implications to socialized medicine, including fitness levels, and these people are fit here, riding bikes like the wind. There are 600,000 people in Amsterdam, and 600,000 bikes.  But this was my experience, in a really stressful time, and it was great.

So although I spent my first two days in Amsterdam laid up, I would say I’ve gotten off really lucky. That 48 hours was spent worrying we would have to cash in our chips and go home. Bruce pulling out and reading cancellations policies, which at this late stage, would be a total loss. And me laying there feeling sorry for myself until my sister Jackie said, my advice to you is snap out of it. You can’t let this overshadow the trip of a lifetime. Sound advice from a sage woman! As of this morning, I was walking with a cane, and the swelling was way down. Bruce headed off to his conference and I got myself showered and dressed.

imageSo what did we do this afternoon? We went back for a canal cruise. Crazy, right? Well, I wanted to see some of Amsterdam, and found a boat that has a little handicap accessible elevator. So we took a lovely hour long cruise through the canals. After that, I was feeling good enough that we slowly walked over to the Van Gogh Museum, to see the Sunflower and Iris paintings!

Bruce has a little more conference tomorrow morning, and I may get out and finally walk the canals just around our hotel, just a little, being very careful of steps, cars, bicycles and other hazards. Tomorrow afternoon, we pick up our car and head for Belgium.

And if I ever climb into a boat again, you can darn well bet I’ll be going in backwards!

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Lorie McMillin, Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 2013