Wednesday, May 25, 2011

following the heart

 I think one of the best things about being on vacation is the space it allows for your heart, for your senses.  Wherever your heart pulls you, you go.  There’s nothing to hold you back. Yesterday after painting all morning, I walked to the village to get some bread.  Before I got to the market, I heard organ music, and followed the sound into St. Malo’s cathedral.  The organist was practicing, and the notes echoed around the soaring stone arches of the ceiling and against the tall, old walls.  And bending my neck back trying to drink it all up, I remembered when I worked for the Orange Review and how one day the photographer had showed me his living room, which had just been remodeled to have a mock cathedral ceiling… I remember it was raised a little with recessed lighting and the walls were all white… and it looked a little bit like we were in the middle of a low-budget stage set for a space ship.  The photographer told me that he wasn’t sure if it had been worth it to do, because it had been so expensive, and that he would be in debt for it for a long time, but that he hoped it had made his wife happy. 

In the market, I bought half a chocolate cake, orange zest-chocolate financiers, 2 pears, bread, and a Neufchatel cheese shaped like a heart.  There are writings about Neufchatel that date to the year 1035, and in the Middle Ages, girls would offer the cheese in the form of a heart to someone they had a crush on.  But the cheese wasn’t discovered by Parisians until the beginning of the 19th century!

the neufchatel

On the way home, there was a harpist playing in the road.  I was going to keep walking because street musicians make me sort of nervous, but it was such a warm day and the wind was blowing just a little and shadows and light were flickering all around and I didn’t want to walk away from the music.  When I talked to the harpist, he asked me if I wanted to try playing, so I sat on his stool and placed my fingers on the strings in the proper way my harp teachers had taught me.  He said it was not good to play classically, because the rigid fingers trap the resonance of the strings.  He said the best teacher he ever had was a little boy. 

His harp was plugged into a tiny amplifier, and he turned it up and we waited for the wind to blow.  And when it did, we heard the wind play the harp.  He told me to play the harp like that, to gently find the notes, with intuition, like the wind.    
a portrait of the harpist
A little bit further down the road, I saw that an antique shop I’ve been wanting to go into was finally open.  Inside, hanging almost out of sight on the back of a chair, I found an old night shirt trimmed with handmade lace.  It didn’t have a price on it, so I asked the shop keeper how much it was.  She held it up and looked it over and then she said it was 10 euros.   I took it home and washed it in the sink and hung it on the line to dry in the sun.  Then I ate Neufchatel and bread and drank a little glass of Alsatian beer.  The cheese was mild and creamy, the bread a little bit salty, and the fizzy beer stung my tongue and the back of my throat.  And after that, I went up to paint the vegetable garden at La Maison de la Grande Vigne.  

morning mist 

Tomorrow night, Les Amis de la Grande Vigne are coming to choose one of my paintings for their collection. I don't want my time here to be over!

I've upgraded from Nancy Drew!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

a dance

Henri Polles (Wikipedia Image)
Friday night there was a flute concert at La Maison de la Grande Vigne.  The house is just as Yvonne Jean-Haffen had it when she lived there, so they just set up rows of folding chairs with red velvet seats in the sitting room.  It was nice to be up on the hillside in the evening, looking out over the valley through the big wavy-glass windows.  The flutists, two young women, were very talented, and they set up their music stands in front of the fireplace. Behind them in the corner was Yvonne Jean-Haffen's chaise longue with a round, lace-covered pillow that I really liked, and I'm going to try to find one like it.  It was a lovely evening except for the fact that I don't like the flute very much.  It's such a cold and eerie instrument... without any warm resonance of wood.

Saturday I went to Rennes to walk around and explore, but I forgot my camera, so I don't have any pictures.  I saw an interesting exhibit on the Breton writer Henri Polles.  Aside from being a writer, he also collected books, and gave 30,000 of them to the city of Rennes.  The books and bindings and photographs on display were so exciting... I think prowling around his house would've been paradise.  I'd like to find English translations of his books, but I don't know if there are any.

But the best thing of all was the dance I went to last night.  A traditional Breton ball called a fest-noz.  It was held in a room like an elementary school auditorium.  Except the walls and floor were all black. And there was smoke, and whirling lights... I guess to appeal to the young people of Brittany who want to keep the traditions alive.  But there were plenty of old and middle-aged people there too.  Everyone was concentrated, enthusiastic and sweaty, and the music was loud and went straight to your bones.  I think the dances originated during a time when the church forbade face to face dancing, so many of the dances were done with everyone standing in a big ring and locking pinkies.  It's a funny feeling, but it grows on you.  And then there are lots of rhythmic steps and everyone moves their arms in and out and the circle goes around and around.  There are also other dances in which everyone intertwines arms... I think the chain is supposed to alternate between men and women, and the men lock their fingers together and the women lace their arms through the men's, and the chain winds snake-like all around the room.  It's all very repetitive and choreographed, (I think the original purpose of the dances were to prepare the ground for the foundation of a building... so imagine a deliberate, tramping-down-the-earth type of dance) but the tribal nature of the music makes the repetition very exciting and satisfying, and once everyone is whirling along to the rhythm, the energy is very strong and your heart is soaring.  There are also some beautiful dances for pairs, where the girls hop around like fairies!  More than reading a Henri Polles novel, I want to figure out how I'm going to  learn these dances once I get home... and how I'm going to attend another one!  Maybe I'll try to start a traditional Breton dancing club in Orange...


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A little history and a few watercolors

My bicycle bell

The little person who holds
up the shutters of
La Vignette

Saturday night I attended a lecture at the castle about the evolution of cartography and geographic knowledge.  On display (plainly on the table, no glass case!) was a beautiful Portuguese world map on parchment, made in 1632.  It was remarkably accurate and had lovely illustrations.  There was a little demon on North America.

I painted on Sunday, and I did enjoy spending the day outside in the garden, but I didn’t like my paintings at all.  So I didn’t enter them in the contest.  But I got to be a judge!  I was the only woman juror, along with the minister of culture, other old men in the arts, and two young men curators.  The president of ‘Couleurs de Bretagne’ who organized the event, was a very mischievous and funny, and he kept calling on me, “Mademoiselle!”, to make the final decisions.  I had so much fun.

Temple de Mars
 Monday, the curator Frederic was kind enough to take me to do some site-seeing.  We saw the ruins of a Roman temple to Mars, and Le Chateau fort du Guildo, whose foundation was built in 1000 AD.  The Chateau is now in ruins, but it was very exciting to walk around and take the steps up to the top of the tower overlooking the Arguenon Estuary.  Then we went to a nearby beach strewn with big black volcanic boulders known as the ringing rocks because when you tap them they sound the same as when you hit a cast iron skillet with a wooden spoon.  And then in the evening, sitting in Frederic’s back yard next to his potato patch, not only did we hear a cuckoo bird calling, but we saw an owl alight on a telephone pole and we watched it swooping for prey until it disappeared.
Arguenon Estuary when the tide is out

Le Chateau Fort du Guildo

A painting by Mme Jean-Haffen
of La Maison de la Grande Vigne and the Vignette

And another painting of the grounds by Mme Jean-Haffen

And now, as promised, a little bit of history surrounding La Maison de la Grande Vigne and its gardens.  I know it might look dreary to read all the italics, but I didn't think I could summarize it any better than Mme Jean-Haffen said it herself.  If you read it, I think it will make you happy.

La Grande Vigne means ‘the great vineyard’ and the name is due to the fact that 300 years ago, there were vineyards all over the slopes that rise up from the river, stretching as far as the site where the house is now. The house wasn’t built until 1830.   According to Mme Jean-Haffen, “its construction is probably connected with the major work carried out on the Ille-et-Rance Canal, opened in 1833.  This huge site with its quays, slipways and locks would have needed building materials and the construction of the lime-kiln is probably related to this period.” (See a picture of the lime kiln, which butts the back wall of La Vignette, in the previous post).

The house had a few different owners and tenants, and one of the tenants was a Scottish woman named Miss MacCallum, who ran the house as a finishing school.  Madame Jean-Haffen said:

Miss MacCallum knew how to bring the house to life and vitalized it by receiving young English ladies who wished to improve their French and introducing them to the young people of Dinan.  Gaiety and exuberance reigned.  English residents in Dinan were also invited for tea-parties, bridge, and Shakespeare evenings.  Science and astronomy were not forgotten.  At the house sale I recovered a microscope and an astronomical telescope, both well-used.  Dances were held in the evenings.  Miss MacCallum’s brother, well known in London as an author and lyric actor under his stage name of Charles Coburn, sometimes came to entertain these gatherings.  Miss MacCallum became so attached to the house that when it came up for sale in 1924 she wanted to buy it at all costs.  This she did, with the help of her brother Alexander and a Mr. Granger.  Alexander, a retired accountant with a practical mind, couldn’t get used to La Grande Vigne and didn’t get on with Mr. Granger.  He went back to London, where he died.  Mr. Granger on the other hand, who was an artist and a bit of a poet, shared Miss MacCallum’s passion for her home.  He lovingly tended the gardens, building paths and rockeries which we were to uncover later.

Mme Jean-Haffen's self-portrait
I can't say I like it much...

Mme Jean-Haffen and her husband purchased the house in 1937. 

I still wonder by what mysterious chance or secret inspiration my husband and I were guided to this spot…I shall never forget that Whitsun eve in 1937, walking along the little track on the way out of Dinan with an employee from the agency.  We had to climb over the boundary wall as the key had been mislaid, and landed in the most overgrown and unexpected domain.  We finally made our way to the big house on the crag overlooking the Rance valley.  It was in a pitiful state, covered in leprous rough-cast.  The ground floor was still garnished with old English furniture and smelt of damp and dust.  Upstairs, in the huge lofts, you could see the sky through the gaping holes in the roof.  I didn’t stay long inside the house, drawn outside by the mysteries of the garden brambles, nettles and weeks were spreading everywhere, but in the midst of the undergrowth some surviving roses were peeping through the greenery.  At the bottom of the garden great ancient elms formed a mysterious and attractive little wood.  Alas, as they were dead and had to be chopped down.  And then the view of the viaduct and the steeples of Dinan, the river, the old bridge, the quays, the farm, the mill, and the singing of the valley of the Argenteel.  I was literally enchanted.

During that summer, Mme Jean-Haffen and her family members would visit the house. 

Our major occupation was tidying up this extraordinary garden.  As in a virgin forest we advanced hacking through the brambles and creepers to discover, hidden by the undergrowth, walls and towers which we took for fortifications, a well, stone troughs… How happy we were with our discoveries!  And then we came upon the traces of the paths which had once been so well-kept, with their little box hedges and steps leading from one terrace to another.  What an exciting game those holidays were!
I came on my own to supervise the [structural] work [on the house] and spent several sinister stormy nights in Winter.  The rain got in everywhere, the wind howled through the bare rafters, and the mice and rats led a merry dance.  One would have thought the house was haunted! I didn’t let myself be frightened by the ghosts, and the work continued.

And now the house is a lovely public museum with rotating exhibits of Madame Jean-Haffen’s work, and anyone can climb the steep winding paths and ramble through the gardens.  Frederic the curator says he thinks Madame Jean-Haffen’s ghost is still in the house… and I think I agree with him… there is a strong spirit here... you can really feel the presence of years of love and creativity.  Frederic also told me that Mme Jean-Haffen was one of the few people who could speak English in Dinan during World War II, and so she went to meet the American soldiers when they first came to liberate the village.  It gives me the shivers!

And I wish I had been more careful when I took the pictures so they wouldn't be so dark, but here are a few of the paintings I've done here:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Two days late, lotsa dollars short

Vegetable garden, La Maison de la Grande Vigne
Things from the Thursday morning market

The kitchen in La Vignette
 I missed the day I was supposed to update because in the morning I went to the market, and then once I got home, the gates to La Maison de la Grande Vigne were open, so I followed the stone steps up and up and up.... The gardens on the hillside surrounding the house are twisty-turny with flowers growing up in unexpected places and a mysterious mix of bright sun and shadows playing over the paths and under the trees and throughout the different textures and shades of green, and
                                                                                                       there is the happy feeling of being way up high with the river flowing and sparkling peacefully below.   In my next entry, I will include Yvonne Jean-Haffen's description of uncovering the gardens after years of neglect.  I intended on bringing her description with me, but of course I've forgotten it.  I spent a long time wandering in the garden, until the doors of the house were opened by the curator Frederic, and along with two local television reporters, he gave me a tour of the house.  I talked with Frederic for such a long time, that I was just barely able to run back down all the stairs to La Vignette, take a bath and change into a dress for the reception, which marked the formal opening of the new exhibit of Y. Jean-Haffen's work.  The reception was filled with all sorts of kind elderly French people, and I met the niece of Yvonne Jean-Haffen, who spent a lot of her youth at the house and is the subject of some of Mme Jean-Haffen's paintings.  After the reception, I went to dinner with Frederic and several of the girls he works with in the Dinan museums.  I didn't get home til midnight, so the blog fell to the wayside.  And then I tried to update it yesterday, but something was the matter with blogger and it wouldn't let me sign in.

Attempting to paint Mme Gaillais's roses

Looking down into the huge old  kiln that is directly
behind La Vignette... my patio wall is the backside of
this kiln.  The gardens of La Maison de la Grande Vigne
jut right down to the roof of La Vignette.  Which explains
why I hear animals (I think cats) scuttling around on the
roof of La Vignette every night.  Thankfully, I'm
used to the cats running on the roof at home,
so it hasn't been too disconcerting.

Typical little apartment along the main road up
into the village

Spying on old men playing that game I don't know the name  of

Another view of the garden of La Maison de la Grande Vigne

I like this petunia

Roof of La Maison de la Grande Vigne

Inside La Gallerie de l'Occasion

Steeple of St. Sauveur
Last week, I met another witchy shop-keeper.  Her shop is nothing but vintage  thread,  fabric, and linens.  I really wanted to buy some old white cotton curtains that were embroidered  in green with heads of cabbage and carrots and onions... but as I was looking at them, the shop-keeper came and took them from me and told me she was taking them to Italy for a show.  And a few minutes later, I heard her whispering about me to her shop assistant.  I guess she thought I was deaf.  Aside from the way the shop reeked of mildew, and the way she seemed so conniving (one minute smiling and telling me to be sure to look inside the drawers and dig for things, the next minute brusquely telling me the things I was interested in were very difficult to deal with because it hadn't been priced yet, or were about to be packed away for the trip to Italy), I really did want to buy something.  She had a whole basket of wooden spools of cotton thread from the 1930s. I might go back when she returns from Italy, but I haven't decided yet.  I told her I was looking for old silverware, and she drew me a map and suggested I go to a place called 'Gallerie de l'Occasion.'  I walked there on Wednesday.  It is an enormous warehouse, filled with towering old wooden wardrobes with misty mirrors, stacks of antique china, piles and piles of chairs... and even a little room with second-hand clothing.  I did find some old silverware there.  It was heavy and tarnished, lying on an upper shelf of an old bookcase.  But it gave me the creeps and I decided not to buy it.  I fully acknowledge that this is a ridiculous notion, but I felt that the silverware was haunted and I didn't want to buy it or be near it in any way.  Maybe it was because the tines of the forks were completely worn down on the left sides, showing they had been used for many, many years... showing the effect of the way the person(s) had held the fork and manipulated the food on his/her plate... and I couldn't help but imagine all the years and all the mouths the forks had served and I could hear them scraping on the plates, and maybe even on the teeth of the people eating... and I had the idea that these forks were used in days before teeth-brushing was a daily routine, and then (of course) I imagined all those people now in their graves, and wondering what portions of their skeletons might still remain.  I don't know why I was thinking that way, but I was, and there's nothing I can do about it.  I left the forks behind.

Tomorrow, there's a big all-day event at La Maison de la Grande Vigne.  Artists from all over Brittany will come to paint in the gardens, and I'm going to do it too!