Category Archives: Explore Europe

Happy Christmas 2020

My new favorite Nativity scene is probably in an empty gallery this year. It’s “Madonna in the Rose Arbor,” by Stefan Lochner, 1440-1442. It’s in Cologne’s Wallraf-Richardtz Museum, three glorious floors plus a fine cafe, no doubt empty in the great pandemic of 2020.

The caption explains “the Lord God is in the details” of the painting. The Virgin’s halo, for example, is a version of the lunar cycle and points to the medieval link between astronomy and theology. And the brooch she is wearing features a unicorn, a traditional symbol for Christ. Who knew?

As for me, I just love the gentle expressive faces, the delicate roses, and the child-angels gathered around, as though waiting for a play-date with the child.

Just before Christmas 2019, I was in Germany, stuffing my days and nights with lights and music and holiday cheer.

The Angel Market in Cologne was populated with angels and happy mortal folks.

A few blocks away, we attended a sublime choral concert at St. Gereon Church.

This pandemic year, there’s none of that. There were no grandchildren at my house, no in-person Christmas service, no gatherings at all.

Of course my cats thought 2020 was the best year ever because we mostly hung around the house with them.

We had more wildlife visits even than usual.

It was still Christmas in the Rocky Mountains and we counted our blessings. Someone went around to our homes a few days beforehand and videotaped us holding Christmas Eve candles. On the night, we watched our online service and then went in family groups to leave our candles in the snow outside the church. We wore masks and gave our friends air-hugs from a distance.

We’re looking forward to a brighter 2021, to traveling again after a good long time of dreaming and planning. Wishing health and happiness to all!

Happy 245th Birthday, Jane Austen!

If Jane were alive today, she would be isolated like the rest of us, but she would still be able to take one of the long country rambles that she loved in the Hampshire countryside around her home at Chawton. I wish I could tag along.

I’m recycling a post from a few years ago. It’s about an art exhibit that Jane attended. It’s a pity that Jane herself was never painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was not rich enough or grand enough, even though she had recently published one of the most beloved novels ever written in English, “Pride and Prejudice.” Of course the author was listed as “A Lady,” not Jane Austen. But lots of people eagerly read her work. My post was from 2013, which seems a tumultuous age ago. Here it is:

Through the wonders of technology, we are all invited to stand alongside Jane Austen at an art exhibit she attended on May 24, 1813–two hundred years ago. The date was just a few months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Jane mischievously told her companions that she fully expected to see her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in a portrait. Elizabeth had just become Mrs. Darcy, of course. “I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow,” Jane wrote to her sister.

Jane Austen

The exhibit was a retrospective of work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been painting the rich and famous for decades. In 1769 he was knighted by King George III, who appreciated the “Grand Style” in which Reynolds painted his mostly wealthy subjects.  When he painted unnamed allegorical or mythological figures, the models tended to be rich and/or famous, and everyone knew who they were. As it happened, Jane did not find a likely image of Elizabeth.  She joked later that surely Reynolds had painted her, but Mr. Darcy must have valued the portrait too much to put it on public display.  Jane did, however, enjoy mingling with the celebrities who crowded the exhibit.  We could think of this exhibit as the very first edition of the tabloids we all see in grocery checkout lanes (and read as a guilty pleasure). Everyone who was anyone wanted to fall under the gaze of Reynolds, just as our celebrities hire publicists to get themselves on the covers of magazines. Sir Joshua Reynolds was also renowned for tender portraits of children. My very first post described one of my favorite paintings by Joshua Reynolds, “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” painted in 1776. The post is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2012/11/20/winter-as-a-child/. ‎The portrait is in private hands, but I saw it in a special exhibit at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum two years ago.

This child was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen. I like to imagine that Lady Caroline attended the same exhibit, and maybe rubbed shoulders with Jane. We tend to think of Jane Austen as a country mouse, a spinster who spent her days waiting on her family and shyly writing her novels in secret, in her spare time. Actually, she was fun-loving, always ready for a dance or an outing. She knew all about balls and country homes because she attended many balls, large and small. And she had relatives with grand country homes. To enter the exhibit, go to http://www.whatjanesaw.org/. The complete original catalog of the exhibit is there. If you click on a picture, an enlargement comes up, along with a description. If you have trouble getting into the site, go to the article below and click on the link. Historians at the University of Texas at Austin meticulously recreated the original exhibit, using accurate historical sources. So we can see the arrangement of the actual paintings in the 3 rooms of the exhibit. We can try to imagine Jane’s assessment of each painting–I’m hearing pithy comments, aren’t you? There’s an excellent article about the online exhibit in The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/25/books/what-jane-saw-is-an-online-trip-for-jane-austen-fans.html?_r=0

Even during the great pandemic of 2020, I’m sure Jane has some respectful visitors at her final resting place in Winchester Cathedral. I’d like to hear her comments on how we’re all behaving, or not behaving. And I’m hoping for better times, when people can go to work and school and restaurants and shops and parties. Jane would be the first to say we all need to get out more.

I am thinking right now that even though I can’t travel, I’ve been to a lot of places. Time to catch up on posts!

Join me next time for more explorations in the places and faces of Europe and the British Isles!

My Artsy Pandemic Year

My last trip was way back in December. It seems like yesterday, and also like it was years ago. I happily rode trains around Europe: Amsterdam, The Hague, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Haarlem, greedily looking at every piece of art along the way. No more of that for awhile. So in pandemic isolation, I’m making my own art. I’ve always been an occasional Sunday painter. Now pretty much every day is Sunday, so I’m working on becoming a better Sunday painter. Springtime in the Rockies of Colorado, fruit trees were in glorious blossom and skies were blue. I got out my brushes and tubes, aiming for a small painting a day. Pretty soon, Colorado Columbine were in bloom. Aspen leafed out and we took a lot of long sunny walks.

I filled my deck with flowers, managed to keep them alive, and set up my easel.

Late in the summer, a pretty little visitor stood outside my door early one morning. I think she would have come inside if I’d invited her. One of my cats demanded a portrait too. I’m waiting for a bear to raid the crabapple tree outside my window. Its leaves are just now starting to turn, and local bears are stuffing themselves again. This one spent most of a day a couple of years ago having at the crabapples. I realize how lucky I am to spend this pandemic year in a beautiful place creating whatever modest homemade art I can. I don’t take anything for granted. But I’ll be very happy if and when the day comes that I can wander again on planes, trains and automobiles, looking at art much better than mine.

Lawrence of Arabia, Incognito in Dorset

National Trust guidebook, detail of Augustus John’s portrait of Lawrence, 1919, now in the Tate Britain museum.

Given the chance, I always make a beeline for the home-turned-museum of any writer, whether I like the writer or not. Why? Because writers hardly ever made much money (most of them still don’t, truth be told) and lived quite ordinary lives. But a few became famous enough that their admirers somehow preserved their homes. My theory is that wandering around the home of a writer is one of the few ways to see how ordinary people lived back in the day.

Clouds Hill in the rural reaches of Dorset was once the home of a very non-ordinary man, T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. I had a vague memory of him from the 1962 movie starring Peter O’Toole. I saw the movie on a high-school date in downtown Minneapolis. But what I really remember is Peter’s electric presence on the screen. And those piercing blue eyes! My date was probably a very nice boy, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about him.

How did a world-famous war hero end up as a humble Private on an Army base, with special permission to escape during his free time to this tiny cottage?Why had he enlisted under assumed names as an airplane mechanic and later in the Tank Corps? Why did he want to disappear? What was the big deal about him in the first place?

The questions intrigued me enough to download and read Michael Korda’s biography while I was still traveling. I have to admit just skimming quite a bit of the intricate military and political detail. What I wanted was to understand the man, but he was so eccentric and so private that I think nobody ever really understood him. I think he liked it that way.

The following summary of Lawrence’s life is vastly over-simplified, but it at least begins to explain how he became what, with all due respect, I’d call a very strange dude. Korda’s book, the National Trust guidebook, and displays at the cottage are my sources.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born an outsider in Victorian Wales in 1888. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, had left an unhappy marriage, four daughters and prosperous estates in Ireland and run off with the family governess, Sarah Junner. She was herself an illegitimate child whose father was unknown to her. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence” although they were never free to marry because Lady Chapman would not agree to a divorce. They had a small but steady income from investments, and raised their five sons together.

T. E. Lawrence had a fraught relationship with his parents. They tried to keep secret the fact that they were “living in sin.” His mother in particular underwent a radical religious conversion which she tried to impose on the family. She beat her most strong-willed son and by his account, tried in every way to get him to behave like her idea of a perfect child. (Good luck with that). He was glad to escape to Oxford, where he won First Class Honors in modern history in 1910. He went off to Syria to work on excavations run by the British Museum. Then World War I broke out.

The war found Lawrence serving as a Colonel in British Military Intelligence in Cairo. At the time, the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled most of what we now call the Mideast. In 1916, the Arab Revolt began. Lawrence encouraged the uprising and quickly became one of its leaders, becoming adept at guerrilla warfare. He had a fine time of it, racing around the desert in Arab robes, blowing up railway lines, and earning the trust and friendship of Arab leaders like Prince Faisal. Finally, in 1918, Lawrence helped the rebels capture Damascus and the power of the Ottoman Empire was broken.

Lawrence had agreed to do all this because he believed passionately in Arab self-determination. But far above his pay grade, politicians had secretly planned all along to divide the Mideast into French and British sectors. He had been used.

Lawrence went back to England and wrote about his war experiences in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” But his fame dogged him. And it seems he suffered from what we would now call post traumatic distress syndrome–no surprise, since during the war he had been captured, tortured and raped. He needed a safe haven and anonymity. Friends helped him become a humble enlisted man, although his real identity was never much of a secret.

Lawrence was not rich, but he had enough money to gradually turn his cottage into a fine man-cave. He had a special reading chair built. He was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches (Peter O’Toole was well over 6 feet). During the twelve years Lawrence occupied the cottage, he had a large library which was actually his most valuable possession, sold after his death.

He slept in his quarters on the military base, but lounged and listened to music in his cottage while he read and wrote. Besides his own writing, he worked on translations which brought in a little income.

He entertained friends and eventually built a sort of pantry with a bunk bed for visitors. He built a fine bathroom and figured out how to fill his tub with hot water, although the cottage never had proper running water. The cottage never had a kitchen. Lawrence made do with food from the Army mess and nearby cafes.

Another luxury was a series of expensive motorcycles which no mere enlisted man could afford.

Sadly, Lawrence crashed his last beloved Brough Superior on May 13, 1935 and died six days later without regaining consciousness.

There’s a lot to think about in Lawrence’s story, There’s the constant tension between high-level politics and the military people who try to carry out orders which might not have been truthfully explained to them. There are the lifelong physical and psychic wounds of warfare. There are the demands and pitfalls of fame. Lawrence’s strict Victorian upbringing looks in hindsight like it seriously damaged him, but it was probably not so unusual for the time. In his brief 46 years, Lawrence lived a full life, if not a happy one.

The 1962 movie is still well worth watching. In it, Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes are as piercing as ever.

Quarantine in Paradise, 2020

When I travel in Europe, I love to regale city dwellers that I meet with pictures of the wildlife outside my windows in my Rocky Mountain home. I always start with the yearling bear who tried to open my door and get in a few years ago.

No, you can’t come in!

He and his mother and brother were awake and hungry after a long winter of hibernation.

They found some ant traps outside (the green gizmo on the ground). I was worried that I’d carelessly poisoned them. A wildlife officer set my mind at ease. She said that if a bear ate about a hundred ant traps, s/he might feel a little bit peckish.

Springtime in the Rockies

I live on a ridge in a house perched above my smallish town. Seeing wildlife is always a thrill. Neighbors call each other about sightings, but we miss a lot of them as life goes on for the animals who were here first.

I live on the edge of a protected wildlife area. Moose are some of my favorite visitors, winter and summer. They drop by often to feast on my trees and shrubs.

My strictly-indoor cats like them, too.

This lady moose hung around for several days this spring. She was especially pretty and gentle. I’m still hoping she might return with a calf.

I am not so fond of mountain lions. I can tell if they stroll alongside the house in the middle of the night because my cats go wild. In winter, they leave tracks. Their long tails drag in the snow.

They’re big, they leave big tracks, and they pretty much eat what they want. That would include my cats, or (shudder) possibly me. I don’t go strolling around alone at night. But they are not known to stalk humans in these parts, at least so far.

Mountain lions are magnificent animals, but I don’t particularly want to see the one that’s been hanging out in my neighborhood lately.

I love foxes, though.

I hope they always feel welcome in our tall grass which we never mow.

My last trip to Europe was in December, before the pandemic grounded me and everybody else. The ski mountain shut down on March 15 and the town went on lockdown. The normally-bustling spring break season was a bust. I’ve never seen the town so empty. Everything closed, and locals hunkered down. Our hospital has only 42 beds, so we could not afford an outbreak. Our assisted living/nursing home had several cases of the coronavirus and several cherished elderly residents died. But compared to other places, we’ve been lucky.

During the Great Quarantine, most of us stuck close to home and waved at each other on frequent walks in our neighborhoods. We amused ourselves as best we could. One of my neighbors encouraged Silly Walks. Where’s John Cleese?

We’ll get some snowy days. In fact, last summer I arrived back in town after a trip in a blinding blizzard that dropped two feet of snow on June 25. But right now, the snow is mostly melted. Rivers and streams are rushing.

In the past couple of weeks, the valley has turned green and all the fruit trees have burst into blossom. Shops and restaurants are beginning to open. Most of the locals cheerfully wear the still-mandatory masks in the grocery store. The health-care and grocery-store workers, and fire and police personnel, are our friends and neighbors. We are deeply grateful to them.

I’d love to get on a plane and wake up in Paris or London or Vienna or Copenhagen. Or anywhere, really. But for now, I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am to ride out the pandemic in a peaceful mountain town, my idea of Paradise.

Chateau de Fontainebleau, Favorite Digs of Napoleon Bonaparte

Of the many facades of Fontainebleau, the grand double stairway where the defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said goodby to his loyal troops is the most famous.

But on my visit a few months ago, a temporary fence stood maddeningly in the exact spot I’d need for a good photo with the French national flag flying above it. Maybe someone was tired of tourists taking selfies there.

Inside and out, renovation at Fontainebleau goes on constantly. It’s impossible to see everything on one visit.

Invariably, parts of the chateau are closed. It’s not particularly visitor-friendly, either. English is used very sparingly inside. There’s an audio guide at the ticket window, but on one visit a request for one was met with a Gallic shrug. All the used audio guides were piled up at the exit and there seemed to be no plan to haul them to the entrance. So I had to wing it with my marginal French to read placards. (I generally figure that I can read about one word out of three. I’m way worse at understanding spoken French). Still, I’d go to Fontainebleau any time.

In early spring, people lounge around Diana’s fountain. (When it’s turned on, her hunting hounds pee big arching streams into the basin).

Napoleon 1er, painting by Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaise, 1812

For me, the most interesting part of the huge chateau is the wing devoted to Napoleon, his family, and his exploits. It’s hard to get good photos of the portraits without glare in the long family gallery, but the effect is very grand.

Napoleon placed his nearest and dearest on thrones all over Europe.

Pauline, duchesse de Guastalla et princesse Borghese, Marie-Guillemine Benoiste, 1808

They all had a fine time while it lasted. I think Napoleon’s sister Pauline had the best time of all.

Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious, photo by Architas, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Pauline married a Borghese and as a princess, was sculpted by Antonio Canova between 1805-1808. When asked if she was uncomfortable posing nude, she replied that it was fine: there was a stove in the studio. Also, it was reportedly her idea to pose nude; she liked being talked about. (The exquisite statue is in the Villa Borghese in Rome, where tourists are not allowed to take photos).

Madame Mere de l’Empereur et Roi, Francois Gerard, after 1805

Here’s Napoleon’s mother. What mom could be more proud of her boy?

Napoleon knew how to dress for an occasion. This was one of his many dressing-up outfits.

He liked his help to look sharp, too. This was a coat worn by one of his household staff.

But by all accounts, Napoleon was happiest on military campaign, in his campaign gear.

Of course, the great man was not about to rough it while conquering Europe. He traveled with several wagons full of what he needed for the style to which he was accustomed. His personal tent had a comfy folding canopied bed and a separate work area.

Even on campaign, Napoleon had everything he needed to look good at all times.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Robes, Francois Gerard, 1804

Napoleon attributed a lot of his good fortune to his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais. Sadly, she could not produce the desired heir, so he reluctantly divorced her.

Napoleon himself announced that he was “looking for a belly.” He replaced Josephine with the Habsburg Princess Marie-Louise in 1810. (I think this portrait was painted by Gerard).

King of Rome, painted by Francois Gerard, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honor

Cradle of the King of Rome (one of several)

Marie-Louise did produce a male baby, duly named the King of Rome, but his life was short and sad. Things were going downhill for the Emperor.

In his heyday, Napoleon received visitors in his Fontainebleau throne room. His throne featured his emblem, the honeybee. He chose it for its virtues of being constantly at work, constantly producing (honey), diligence, and orderliness.

But military defeats ended it all. On April 13, 1814, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau at this very table. Then he was off to exile on the island of Elba.

The rest of Fontainebleau is a strenuous trek through previous centuries of French history.

Above, that’s Francois I, his fire-breathing salamander, and a nice Diana the hunter that he commissioned.

The grandeur is actually a bit much to take in. And a lot of rooms are either closed or full of scaffolding.

I can see why even the royals of the past needed a little breathing room, as in the spacious balcony where they attended Mass in a chateau chapel. I read somewhere that the congregation of nobles below them were seated facing the royal balcony, their backs to the altar. It seems their job was to watch their betters watch the Mass.

I can see why Napoleon’s Roman-inspired Empire style was a breath of fresh air in his time. Above, that’s a daybed and working desk in Napoleon’s private study.

Fontainebleau is one of the best places to wander through French history, coming face to face with the personalities that shaped it. The town is fun and lively, too. I’d go back anytime!

Christmas Travel Memories

We always travel in early December, so we get a feel for how Christmas is for other folks. Over the years, many pre-Christmas trips have produced fine memories and given us new perspectives on the holiday season. Above, that’s Siena, Italy, heading toward the beautiful shell-shaped central square. The lights are modest by American more-is-more standards, but they have a special glow in narrow medieval streets. And those streets are free of the choking crowds of summer.

What also stands out in memory is seasonal bugs. A transatlantic flight is a good place to catch one, sadly. That scarf doesn’t exactly look debonair, but it felt good around my husband’s jet-lagged sore throat. I’m sorry to report that on that trip, he came down with a fever and wore the scarf all night. But hey, we could easily be sick at home, right?

I love European store windows. They’re low-key, elegant but not gaudy. Always tempting, of course.

In Assisi one year, we attended a ceremony and procession for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It refers to Mary’s conception, and it is a national holiday in Italy. We just barely understood what was going on, but we felt welcome.

Who knew that Hieronymus Bosch painted a nativity scene around 1515? It hangs in the fine art gallery in England’s Petworth House. I just enjoy the weirdness, but it’s part of Britain’s national heritage, and the National Trust provides a helpful scholarly summary at http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/486154

I especially liked the nativity scene in stained glass in the beautiful chapel at Castle Howard near York, England. It was designed by Edward Burne-Jones and no doubt he used his artistic friends as models.

Castle Howard’s chapel, refurnished in the later 1800s, is a feast for admirers of William Morris.

William Morris was a close friend of the 9th Earl, who got to redecorate even before he inherited the title and the castle itself.

British pubs are especially cozy in winter.

One of my favorite post-nativity scenes is in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It’s Maurice Denis’s “Mary with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John,” 1898.

Of course Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is the place to be in early December. It’s covered by the Museum Pass and it’s right in the middle of town, so the thing to do is to brave the crowds and pop in daily.

So is it a letdown to be back at home at Christmas? Oh, no! There’s snow, and family and friends.

One of our neighborhood moose paid us a visit today. Seeing these magnificent animals up close never gets old.

Moose and elk look docile, but they’re not. They’re welcome to munch on our shrubs and trees, but we watch them from safely inside.

The Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written in Austria exactly 200 years ago. There’s an article about it at https://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/silent.htm

Our Christmas Eve service always ends with candles and “Silent Night.” I wish every place in the world could be as “calm and bright” as my mountain home. Merry Christmas and hopeful wishes for a peaceful New Year!

Merry Christmas to All Including Dancing Dogs and Sleeping Cats!

My very favorite Christmas image is this shepherd with his dancing dog.

They’re part of a lunette fresco rescued from the monastery of Santa Giuliani in Umbria, painted between 1370 and 1390. So Italians had bagpipes! Who knew? The shepherd’s buddies are talking about the bright star above Bethlehem, and one is even shading his eyes. What’s going on?

Even one of the sheep notices the star. He’s bleating for joy, don’t you think?

What’s left of the two sides of the semicircular lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. The left-hand side has a nativity scene with a shrink-wrapped baby, angels, and adoring cattle.

At my house in the mountains of Colorado, we slept in, but we’ll get moving after another cup of coffee.

We went with three small Christmas trees instead of one big one. By the time we arrived, all the big ones were sold and we were way too lazy to drive out to the National Forest to legally chop one down. But I like having a tiny forest in my living room. I’ll do this again! (In my town, we take our used trees to a giant shredder where they’re instantly turned into mulch for the parks. So there are no sad orphaned trees next to trash cans).

There’s plenty of snow. The deck was a bit of a chore to shovel yesterday, and today there was more.

So everybody is heading out to the mountain to ski. Well, almost everybody.

Merry Christmas to all!

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth, because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage. It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.

https://chawtonhouse.org/

Paris Snapshots, November 2018

Paris is always old and always new. The real sight is just the city itself, where there’s stunning architecture and art at every turn. Medieval Notre Dame Cathedral? It never fails to thrill.

In November, it’s not crowded inside the cathedral. The present structure was built between 1163 and 1345. It still feels deeply spiritual.

A Paris Museum Pass is the best bargain. For one thing, there’s no waiting in ticket lines. For about $15-20 per day, depending on number of days chosen, we take our heavy-duty culture in small doses. The Louvre is not intimidating (or exhausting) if we duck in for only an hour or two a day.

“La Nymphe au Scorpion,” Lorenzo Bartolini, 1777

The statue above? That’s me, checking my sore feet while looking out at I. M. Pei’s spectacular pyramid in the courtyard. (But we never stand in the horrendous lines at the pyramid entrance. It’s much better to go in through the underground shopping center, the Carousel du Louvre).

Goddess Nemesis, Egyptian, 2nd Century B. C.

We see way more by making just short forays into the Louvre. I especially liked the statue of a goddess, only about two feet high, in a little hallway alcove. She is Nemesis. The caption explains (I think) that she punished any kind of excess with an implacable reversal of fortune. She’s casually holding a little Wheel of Fortune. I can think of people who could use a reminder not to do anything to excess. Of course after eating excessive French pastries, I could use a reminder myself.

Puzzlement: Nemesis doesn’t look Egyptian. And did the Egyptians even have a concept of a wheel of fortune? I’ll always have things to learn. (Most of the captions in the Louvre are in French only, which means I probably get a lot of things wrong).

In November, even the crowd-stopping biggies have very few people standing around them, especially on the Wednesday and Friday evenings that the museum is open late. Here’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, standing in her very own grand gallery–and without people jostling to take selfies.

I’ve never before seen the Mona Lisa with a crowd only two or three deep in front of her. Usually the entire room is a jostling mass of humanity, and nobody is even looking at all the other fine paintings on its walls.

The Louvre now has nifty and free glass lockers for visitors to stash their stuff. In high season, I imagine these fill up. But we had our pick.

The Orsay also takes the Museum Pass. And special exhibits are always included. This trip, we had a couple of leisurely looks at Picasso’s Blue and Pink periods. I’m not the biggest fan of Picasso, but I liked this exhibit. That’s a detail from the exhibit’s centerpiece, “La Vie,” 1900.

Detail from “La Balancoire,” Pierre-August Renoir, 1876

I do mostly like Renoir, although I think he was terrible at painting hands, and some of his women look like they were painted by someone way more nearsighted even than I am.

There was a nice exhibit about Renoir and Jean Renoir, his film-making son. Jean took inspiration from the joyous life his dad portrayed in his paintings. It was fun to watch old film clips next to the paintings.

The regular galleries of the Orsay were wonderfully uncrowded, even the Impressionist rooms.

Femmes au Jardin, Claude Monet, 1866

After trudging through some of the Louvre’s rooms of correct-but-boring earlier French painting, it’s easy to see why the Impressionists were first ridiculed, then finally embraced for bringing in more light and color and joie de vivre.

La Famille Bellilli, Edgar Degas, between 1858 and 1869

When the Orsay is uncrowded, it’s possible to stand in front of paintings and ponder things like family dysfunction, as well as masterful technique. In the family above, I’d choose the girl on the left as my friend. The other people look too standoffish, even to each other. And the dad looks pretty much absent.

Time to escape museums and wander the streets of the Left Bank. Shop windows are as artful as anything. Yes, I’ll have that bird.

Florist shops are enchanting, and they spill out onto the street even in November. It’s not that cold, with highs of 45-50 in the daytime. Of course it helps to have a sunny day–which I’ll admit might be rare.

Help! My bike broke down. No worries, there’s a mobile bike repair shop to call: L’Atelier Velo Sur Votre Route.

At almost any time of the day or night, I’m up for crepes. I especially like Creperie des Arts in the Latin Quarter. All right, I’ll admit the resident cat is a big part of the attraction. He knows me now.

So this is November 2018 in Paris, sadly marred by violent Saturday protests.

By the time I left, Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe was looted and smeared with rude graffiti.

But Paris has weathered worse. When the dust settles, I’m sure I’ll be back. I still expect to see a little repair scaffolding at Notre Dame. After all, the building has stood through eight centuries of ups and downs in Paris.