Monday, July 26, 2010

How do you say Happy Birthday in Flemish?

Today is my mother’s 80th birthday. And where is she? Is she celebrating this significant milestone with any or all of her five devoted offspring? No. Or with any of her countless grand-offspring? No she is not. She is in Belgium with her second cousin thrice removed who is, admittedly, a far better cook than any of us. Last night they dined on Maigret de Canard and an apricot tart we will be hearing about well into 2011.

Eighty years ago today my grandmother gave birth to her first child in her parents’ house in Schooten, near Antwerp, in a bedchamber newly painted white for the occasion. By the time the birth was accomplished, the walls were splattered with blood, but that was just because of the uncoiling flailing umbilical cord, and everything was actually fine.

Their time in Schooten was brief. My grandmother had spent her pregnancy in Switzerland, where she and my grandfather lived at the time, and if the photographic evidence is to be believed, she spent much of that time sledding in the Alps. She returned to Belgium in order to give birth and having accomplished that, the three of them moved to Egypt, where my mother would spend her delightful childhood and where my grandmother would become the belle of the Costume Balls.
They never moved back to Belgium.
They never again lived in Schooten or even pretended to speak Flemish or attended mass at Schooten’s massive Gothic church of St Cordula. In case you don’t know, Cordula was one of Saint Ursula’s 11,000 virgins. However, when the Huns were ruthlessly beheading the young ladies, Cordula became fearful and hid herself. The next day she repented her cowardice – though some might define it otherwise – and presented herself to the nearest Hun for immediate slaughter. He complied. In the 13th century, her body was discovered in Cologne, smelling sweetly and with writing on the forehead to facilitate identification: Cordula, Queen and Virgin. But this remarkable head is not to be found at Schooten.
Instead of St Codula’s, my parents went to church last Sunday at an Art Deco basilica in Brussels, where attendance has dropped to such low levels that it is now used as a training space for speleologists and climbers.
Schooten’s other claim for notice in the global marketplace is as the site of the first-opened Quick, the Euro fast food chain uncannily similar to McDonald’s.
Eighty years later, will my mother return to Schooten today? Not very likely, and perhaps Quick is partly to blame. Or perhaps it is because she would not understand a word spoken or any written sign, because now Schooten is solidly in the Flemish camp, and my mother is an unrepentent Francophone.
Instead she may visit another bee museum. As earlier noted, Belgium has more bee museums per capita, per square mile and per honeybee than any other country on earth. My parents visited one last weekend and because it was in Belgium, they drank honey beer, and my mother became fast friends with the 2 gentlemen who run the museum and upon whose mutual sexuality my mother enjoyed speculating.
As for her birthday meal, we await the menu.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thirteen hundred and twenty-two years ago today, Saint Wandrille (or Wandregisilus) did not die a gruesome martyr’s death. He was not charbroiled on the pyre and then removed for beheading while having his entrails drawn out on a windlass. He was not thrown into the roiling water with a millstone tied around his neck. He was not mauled by a bear, chewed by a lion, or devoured by a dragon. He was not skinned alive while being forced to watch Mel Gibson’s all-Aramaic “The Passion”. No, in mid July he took to bed with a slight cold, had an ecstasy and died surrounded by his faithful monks.
Before his unmartyred death, Saint Wandrille founded the Abbey at Fontanelle in Normandy, which Maurice Maeterlinck and his lover Georgette Leblanc would rent in 1906, while Maeterlinck was experiencing depression and the two of them were having relationship issues, although they called it neurasthenia. While staying at the abbey Georgette often wore an abbess’s habit and Maurice roller-skated through the abbey’s vast halls and courtyards; he also wrote his great socialist essay, The Intelligence of Flowers.
I am interested in Maeterlinck because he is Belgian and because he wrote one of the most beautiful books ever written about bees, The Life of the Bee. I don’t know what the connection is between those two facts, but I do know that there are four bee museums in Belgium, where most countries have none and others have one. And perhaps while my parents are in Brussels this week*, they will visit one of those four bee museums, although because this is Belgium, it will probably be closed all week and my father will have no memory of the visit two weeks later. But that is fine because he will surely remember the first time he and my mother visited Belgium after they were married in 1951, and they dined with her beloved Oncle Augustín who kept a life size horizontal portrait of his entombed dead son, the great Belgian resistance hero, Paul Brancart, hanging above the sideboard in the dining room. Paul died young to protect the integrity of Belgium, so that it could go on to argue about the supremacy of French or Flemish well into the next century.
How were Maeterlinck and LeBlanc able to rent an entire monastery for their rest cure, you may well ask, and how can I do the same? Sorry. Not this one. In the anti-church hysteria concomitant with the French Revolution (consider the poor nuns in Dialogues de Carmelites), the monastery of St Wandrille was suppressed in 1791 and then sold at auction to become a factory. Later still the Stacpoole family owned it until 1896 when a very religious Stacpoole returned the abbey to the Benedictines; in 1896 they installed their first abbot since the French Revolution.
This does not explain how ten years later, in 1906, the depressed Maeterlinck and his lover were able to rent the place. Roller skating has since been banned in the cloister.

Nor does it explain this passage from Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1882 edition of his Lives of the Saints:
Of [Wandrille’s] relics only two arms remain, one at Fontanelle the other at Bron. Of the noble abbey, the cloisters exist and part of the abbey I turned into a factory. Of the four churches, one the great abbey church, a magnificent specimen of architecture of the 13th century, nothing remains. In 1828 much of this great church existed. Since then the proprietor M. Cyprien Lenoir – let his name go down gibbeted to posterity – has blown it up with gunpowder.

Baring-Gould does not mention the skull of St Wandrille, perhaps because it was not found, in Liège, Belgium, until sometime in the 19th century. And then returned to the Abbey in 1967. Clearly, neither the arms nor the skull were at the abbey when Maeterlinck was roller-skating through its unhallowed halls.
Just now, the Abbey is closed for renovations until Christmas. Which would not be at all surprising if it happened to be in Belgium. But it is not.

*Staying with a second cousin who has planned every meal well in advance. Tonight they will dine on tomate-crevettes, followed by a pheasant Brabançonne with frites, an endive salad, ending with stinky cheeses from Didant.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Even less amusing

Out in the yard the deflated palm trees droop languidly across the stump of the birch tree and discarded grass skirts languish in the crotch of the apple tree, like frat boys and debutantes after a long night of debauchery.
Thus we survived the birthday party. No one sustained major injuries on the Slip ‘n’ Slide, a cheap plastic gizmo designed for the very purpose of encouraging children to do things that will cause injury. There was only one scrum of grass-skirted little girls around the largest palm tree that resulted in tears and Time Out. Being the one who needed it the least, I was probably the only one to finish her plate of cake, lick it clean even. I don’t especially like cake, but I love chocolate buttercream filling.

My daughter, who has previously sworn up and down the steeple that she would never waste her time reading my blog, whose favorite cyber interaction with her mother is to change all the settings on my Facebook page to indicate that my favorite activities include belly dancing and henna tattoos and my favorite musicians are Kesha and Lady Gaga, broke precedent today and read my most recent blog and pronounced it “Not okay. TMI.”
“But you don’t even read my blog,” I informed her.
"It sucks to be the child of a writer," she said churlishly.
She is right of course; it is not remotely okay to whine and complain as I do, especially when blessed as I am with delightful and truthful offspring, the perfectly sweet and perfectly kind CSB and all the dogs, chickens and bees. Not to mention ripe raspberries and peaches.

I like to think that I have respected my children's privacy and refer to them in these pages either obliquely, or in such loving terms that their only objection could be of the eight-year-old's "Don't kiss me in public" variety.
But they disagree. At least my daughter does. My son really does not read the blog.
And her objections fill me with self-doubt and self-loathing. Why do I have to write anything at all that would offend anyone at all, even if they never read these virtual pages?
Mostly I write about bees and books, saints and chickens, but it is true that I sometimes venture into more personal tales. And why is that? In some cases because if you can tell a story about an uncomfortable situation, if you can elicit even a grudging chuckle, then you have mitigated the pain and transformed sheer misery into narration.

In the case of the most recent blog - to articulate one’s fears is to take away some of their power. The worst things are the unspeakable things. I have a – perhaps misguided, perhaps simplistic – belief that talking about a problem is a giant step towards solving it.* If I can simply say: All my blood has drained out and been replaced with liquid panic, then I feel that I have gained a slight edge in the battle with that panic. I have not capitulated to depression’s omerta.

We are fainting and fading in this heat. The chickens glumly stare at the cloudless sky, then retreat to the shadows of Clucker Hall. The grass is as brown as a monk’s habit. The bees beard the outer walls of the hive. The ferns flop like laundry. The tiny black ants would like to move, but instead they are moving the earth.

*Obviously both mistaken and foolish; nothing in my life thus far has proven the truth of this adage, yet I persist.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Don't read this if you want to be amused

First we picnicked on the green lawn & I figured Caramoor must be watering its lawns because our lawn at home is brown as the dust that gathers in the hollow footprints in the basement floor. We dined on cucumber soup, pasta with pesto, lemon chicken and blueberry cafloutis. It was my first cafloutis ever and I was rather pleased with it. Based on that vast experience, I have determined that it is the ideal baked fruit dessert for the non-baker. We were most distinctly not dressed for Glyndebourne, but we weren’t too shabby. Then we ambled across the very green lawns to the white tent, to hear Norma performed in the Venetian theatre. It was about 100˚. We wore the bare minimum for decency and vigorously fanned ourselves with the program. Up on the stage the conductor wore tails, the men wore tuxes, the sopranos wore long gowns and they all sang their hearts out. I waited for someone to faint, but the only expiring last night was Norma’s final act.

All my favorite operas end with death, destruction, and fairly universal misery. That beautiful music, the soaring heart-rending arias, the architecturally perfect duets, the rousing choruses; they all lead ineluctably to the final act when we realize, again and again, that even great love cannot alter the trajectory to the bloodletting and sorrow and eternal regret.
So, given that operatic epiphany - that there is no happy ending possible - I had an especially bad night contemplating the ex-wife locked inside her paranoia more securely than the gold in Fort Knox, & obsessively blaming CSB because she divorced him. Alas, she is more like Medea than Norma, though all possible endings are tragic.

But today is another scorcher, and the lawn continues to be brown.

There are so many great things about having kids that I just can’t begin to name them all.
I can however name one aspect of parenthood I dreaded & dread still: the dreaded ritual of Kid Birthday Parties. Whether at home or at a bowling alley (they used to be quite popular, in fact, were it not for birthday parties, most bowling alleys would go out of business) they involve many children of the same age crazed on sugared food, the birthday child in question having a panic attack, parents who wish they were anywhere else, and at least one accident.
So you may well ask, why am I so looking forward to tomorrow’s birthday party for the beloved grandchild who is now 4, to be held in our own backyard, also home to the brown lawn, 2 dogs, 3 fewer chickens* than yesterday and thousands upon thousands of bees?
Actually, I am looking forward to its ending, when all the guests are gone and we are left with plates smeared with birthday cake from which all the frosting has been licked off.
Not only will this birthday party feature several 4 year old in hula skirts (that is the good part), but there will be a newborn baby, the boyfriend of my daughter (mother of the birthday child, Princess Bowie) and his parents whom I have never met before, and my ex-husband who has hitherto made a policy of insisting on CSB's nonattendance at family events and whose last communication with me involved a snarky letter to the local paper. I am fearful that this will relegate six-year-old boys’ projectile vomiting to its proper place as a benign annoyance.

I am capitulating to some atavistic thirst, and turning on the sprinklers.

*Adios Fez, OJ and Buffy. Gone to Yonkers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Travel is Broadening, Part 15

As if that (the Ursuline Chapel) wasn’t enough, from there we drove east along the coast of Beaupré to the Shrine of Ste Anne de Beaupré. CSB has never before visited a pilgrimage site, and I intended to remedy this lacuna in his experience. True, Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica is huge, and there is a Cyclorama of Jerusalem, and the museum has many wax figure dioramas of Ste Anne’s life, and lots of gift stores selling holy medals, and not one single decent place to eat, but the truth is that all this was classic northern reticence when compared with the Latin and dramatic spectacle of pilgrims approaching the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their knees, from miles away.
Inside the vast basilica, in the Chapel of the Relic, I noted the reliquary in the shape of an arm, with a golden hand and a glass forearm encasing the sacred bone. I said to CSB that I wondered whose arm it was since there was no way it could be Ste Anne’s – she was Jesus’ grandmother for goodness sake so it seemed ridiculous to think her bones were saved.
Of course I was wrong.
And then in the gift shop, not only did I find a basilica snow globe, but at every cash register there were stacks of plastic bottles for 75¢ you could buy and then fill with holy water conveniently located at a spigot right inside the shop. CSB agreeably went to fill the bottle for me, and I made a small prayer of apology to his good Anglican and Episcopal forefathers who would have been horrified at such Papist and superstitious magical thinking.
Then we ate an inedible meal at the Café des Pelerins.
Roll over, ye puritan ancestors.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Great Chicken-Sex Question

Does this look like a rooster to you?

Travel is Broadening, Part 8

I don’t know why other people go to Quebec, though I imagine the food (who doesn’t like French fries smothered in gravy & interlaced with cheese curds, that is, poutine?), the architecture, the very special Quebecois version of French, the ubiquity of maple syrup, and the chance to buy a statuette of a dancing polar bear all figure in the decision.
Those things alone would warrant a visit, but Quebec is also home to The Ursuline Chapel and the Musée des Ursulines. The first Ursulines came to Quebec in 1639, led by a 19 year old widow, Marie Guyart (1599-1672) who was told in a dream that her mission in life was to head for the wilds of Canada, a region populated with bears, beavers, elk and heathens, and teach the heathen girls the finer arts.
The chapel’s altar is one of the oldest and finest examples of woodcarving in North America, and the nuns gilded it themselves. I have heard of beekeeping and brandy-making monks, and teaching and nursing nuns, but never before of gilding nuns. Already back in France the Ursulines were gilding, and they brought the skill with them to Canada. In 1717 they opened a gilding workshop in Quebec City; shipments of gold and silver leaf sailed over from France.
On our first day in Quebec we walked over to the Ursuline monastery & musée and there I beheld the dreaded sing: Fermée. This could have been predicted. When I went to Bruges in January, the Memling Museum was closed for the month. When I was in Florence, the statue of David was undergoing body-toning and getting highlights. I arrived in Santa Cruz a week after the surfing museum washed out to sea. In Rome every building was covered in scaffolding to be ready for the Jubilee Year. In Vera Cruz a renegade Christo imitator wrapped the huge Olmec heads and the whole site was closed to the public.
You can recognize the pattern.
And now this, the Ursuline Musée was closed for renovations. So if you want to see gorgeous painting of Saint Agnes looking like Snow White, or the porcupine quill** boxes made 150 years ago by the jeunes filles of the Ursuline convent, I suggest you try in 2011. The elderly lay sister I spoke to said that she too was desolée it was closed, and then shrugged.
But at least there was the chapel.
According to the sign the chapel was open daily from 10 to 12 and again from 1:30 to 5. At 4 PM I eagerly pulled at the great red door. It was locked.
Poking around and asking, I learned that the nuns* were having a conference, hence the chapel was locked.
Fine, we have time, I thought.
The next day, after dining on mussels and more poutine, we headed back to see the Ursulines. But the chapel was still closed during the hours it was meant to be open. Zut alors! It seems the nuns were still having a conference, but I was assured the chapel would be open tomorrow at 10 or maybe 10:30, no one seemed sure about that.
There are, of course, other things to do in Quebec besides pulling at locked chapel doors, and we did them all afternoon.
The following morning, our last morning, we returned to the chapel at 10 AM. The doors were locked. This was dismaying. I was once again desolée.
It was not meant to be.
We checked out of the hotel, got into the car, and one more time, having driven in three circles, CSB brought me back to the chapel. And mirabile dictu, it was Ouvert.
I went inside. I admired the gilt altarpiece and thought of all those gilding nuns. I tiptoed around the monolithic black granite tomb of Marie de l’Incarnation, formerly Marie Guyart. I wondered at the painting of the Anchorite Pleading for Admission of a Penitent*** to a Convent. I had a very nice chat with the elderly lay sister about woodwork and gout. Then I returned to the ever-patient CSB, and insisted he go inside too. Just for a minute.

*Six of them, it would turn out. Average age: 79.
** This reminds me of the recent preponderance of porcupine roadkill in the north country, and a discussion with CSB about the wisdom of stopping to extract quills from a dead porcupine. He suggested that pulling at the quills might trigger an involuntary reflex by the porcupine carcass that would cause quills to be launched in my direction. I had not considered this possibility.
***The very infamous Egyptian courtesan Thaïs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Two more roosters went to Yonkers yesterday, Tuxedo and Snowflake. That makes four out of the batch of 15 that incubated with the Hoffman boys back in April. What intrigues me is that we heard not a peep from Snowflake until long after Alonso's and Attila's departure for seasoned stewpots. Adios gallos.
And early this morning - though not as early as the crank phone call from the ex-wife - we were greeted with the crowing of yet another male of the avian species. His first crowing was scratchy and tentative, but within minutes he was up to speed and crowing away. Had the other roosters stayed would he have remained silent all along? Would he ever have challenged the supremacy of Alonso, the Alpha Rooster?

Meanwhile the younger chicks (all certifiably pullets) are getting bigger and need to join their older brethren in Clucker Hall. But they need to be introduced gradually into the hierarchy and this is tricky. You thought the politics of academia were cutthroat? Welcome to the henhouse.