Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dekalog VII - Krzysztof Kieslowski part 01/06

Genre: Drama

 Krzysztof Kieslowski, the internationally renowned filmmaker best known for his TROIS COULEURS trilogy (BLUE, WHITE, and RED), created perhaps his most ambitious work with this ten-part series produced for Polish television in 1988 and 1989. Each of the ten segments, running between 53 and 58 minutes in length, takes place among the inhabitants of a Warsaw apartment complex, and focuses on a moral and ethical quandary inspired by the Ten Commandments, of which Kieslowski said, "For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right, and yet we break them every day." After TV showings in Europe and many international film festivals and art-house screenings, THE DECALOGUE was released on home video in the spring of 2000.  (review from Rotten Tomatoes)

 You can now find each episode on You Tube in 10 minute segments.

I have been watching this series of Dekalogs this week on DVD.  I am up to Dekalog 7 and like a good book, I don't want the series to end.

  Decalogue is an amazing body of work: a series of filmed morality plays if you will.   Kieslowski charges each episode with a distinctive quality, creating spare, human dramas like tone poems. Each of the ten parts of the series is a keen observation of everyday life, with all its  fundamental conundrums and choices, and therefore its human frailties.  Each is lovingly rendered by a director who claims that he wants to make films about what brings people together instead of what separates them ( nationality, religion, politics, history etc. ) 

I can say that Kieslowski achieves this ambition. What I find immensely satisfying is that each dekalog poses more questions than it answers.  The provocative nature of each film means that you are left dwelling on the story long after the popcorn box is empty.  (In fact popcorn is too frivolous an accompaniment for these serious, philosophical studies.)  And it is gently provoking that one is never even sure which of the commandments is being portrayed.  There are no pat answers to be deftly tucked away, no Hollywood resolutions, but instead one is left with a searing glimpse of human behavior with all of its ironies, tenderness and cruelties.

 Kieslowski's choice of actors is fascinating. These are ordinary, but extraordinary people.  The true sign of talent and sensitivity in the craft is that one doesn't think that they are actors at all. There are few players in the series, however, that one doesn't remember for his face, his intelligent acting choices and his authenticity.  The craft of acting is hidden by these professionals.

The stories of the dekolog are universal in a way that is seldom seen nowadays for Kieslowski is an achingly sensitive film-maker. There is a melancholy or darkness that runs through all of them and perhaps that is the personal experience of the writer /director disaffected with life in beleaguered Poland.... but what shines through the pieces is what it means to be frail and fallible, what it means to be human at any time in history, at any place.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Black Bean Soup


There is nothing like a bowl of black bean soup on a rainy day.  I have been making this staple for as long as I can remember and although it is not a French dish,  I know you can find the beans here in Nice at the Asian markets.   Just ask for haricot noir and I'll bet you'll find them.

Once you have located your beans:

1)   Put 1 1/2 cups of dried beans ( soaked means quicker cooking) into a large pot.

2)   Add  1 onion, a chopped carrot, 1 celery rib, a bay leaf, fresh oregano and 6 cups of water to the pot               over high heat.

3)   Boil,  lower the heat, cover and simmer until the beans are soft .  THis takes at least an hour, maybe more.  Add more water when necessary.

4) When done to your likeness, season the beans with salt and pepper and chili powder .

5) Garnish with chopped cilantro and either sour cream, creme fraiche or yoghurt to your taste.

Sometimes when I am in a hurry, I use a pressure cooker.    I saute the onion and a few tablespoons of chopped celery first and then use 3 cups of chicken stock instead of all the water.  I may add orange peel (1/2 t. grated) and a 1/4 cup of sherry and a few chopped garlic cloves.   All these are added to the beans before closing the cooker.

Another trick if you like a thicker soup is to mash some of the beans with a potato masher to mix with the "bean juice" before serving.

Both recipes give a filling soup.  If your system can't take too many beans you may wish to serve fewer beans over brown rice along with some  fresh, ripe chopped tomatoes.  Season with fresh dill and  a splash of vinegar.  I think this recipe is from Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe which, if you are as old as the hills, you will remember as the bible for food combining which came out in 1971.

But regardless of the health benefits of beans, I just love good country cooking.  It reminds me of my "pioneer" mother's repertoire.  This was not one of her recipes but it might have been on my father's side.  After all he was a southerner and in the States the famous black bean recipe is from Charleston.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Italianate friezes in Nice

                                           Example of sculpted Frieze work in Nice

There is something special about houses here in this part of the world which is not found in many other places.

 When the local villas were built, often they had a painted or sculpted horizontal band just under the eaves or between the windows.  I call this the Italianate frieze.

 Now that most of these old houses have been repainted many times over, many of these charming decorations have disappeared.  It costs quite a lot of money to have the work repainted or touched up and despite the subsidy given by the city , it is not enough for residents to want to restore them.

 However, when my husband and I put all our chips on red and bought our house, I knew that a lot of the appeal for me was that it has one of these friezes.

 The decorative architectural frieze seems to be an idea from Italy.   For years Nice was an Italian dominion, only becoming part of France in 1860.   Culturally and architecturally enriched over time, today Nice still has a small sampling of these homes with the friezes intact.  In 20 years I cannot say that any of them will be left however.  But it so happens that a few of these decorated homes are in my own neighborhood of Fabron.   This one with it's painted irises is on the corner.

And this one is across from it.

Ours is nothing like these.  It is a much smaller house which was a bit of a ruin when we found it.  It had a hole in the eaves where bats and rats had found a home.  The exterior had huge rivers of plaster falling off.  We found out that this was due to the osmosis effect of beach sand that had been used in the 1920's to mix the plaster.  When we went to fill all those holes in , we too, were ready for a new paint job.   But the painters  ( not frenchmen )WANTED TO PAINT OVER the freize in order to guarantee that their job would last.

 I had about as close to a conniption fit as can be recorded.  I told them in no uncertain terms were they to touch the frieze until I had found an expert to advise me.

This I did.  I found  Grahame Menage  www.grahamemenage.com/  , an Englishman who specializes in fresco and paint work and has done restoration work on many important buildings in Italy and throughout the USA and Europe.

 He perched on a scaffold in the dead of winter with fingerless gloves and patiently repainted all but one panel of our frieze   I asked him to leave one unpainted so I could tease my friends with it.  He has done such a good job that no one can tell the original panel from the repainted ones.

  A friend of mine says that my little yellow house is in danger of looking like a Bonbonierre (candybox) in the Spring when you see frieze, wild irises and cherry trees all competing with the creamy yellow house with its faded blue shutters.  But I think this is what Madeleine must have wished for in the 1920's when she built it.    The bonnbonierre will definitely help take the blues away on a rainy March day.

 I don't want gnomes or painted turtles , just leave me my frieze, please.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fine linen at the flea

                   Sheets and pillowcases of handkerchief linen found in Nice at the "Puce"

Monday is the day to browse through the Cours Saleya old town flea market and look for more objects of desire than you really need.  Yes, it is all about want and not about need.    But it is a material girl's pleasure to go there from time to time on a sunny day....especially if there is a friend in town.

 Flea (puce) is one of those words that the French use as a term of endearment to their children.  That and " petit chou" or  little cabbage.  But it is still not clear where the term "flea market" comes from.  I prefer the story that it comes from the  dutch term "vlie"  or valley used for an 19th century New York  Market  which was located , presumably, in a valley.  The word which is pronounced like "flea" evolved into the present term "flea market".  Or maybe it is just that there can be a lot of  flea bitten rubbish at these bric a brac sales that is  not worth a sou.

Here is a set of fine cotton damask napkins we found for 6 euros each.  The necklace was conceived by my friend Ellen and put together from city pearls (from farmed oysters) and an Indian medallion found at the Flea market.

In my opinion, the best buy at the "march aux puces" is linen...or more specifically hand worked napkins, tablecloths or sheets which can be used everyday not just collected for their beauty.  Of course, you have to be willing to iron the embroidery in the future to get the real thrill out of the fine stitches.  But I am just that kind of a modern/old fashioned woman who likes to iron the borders of my sheets. ( Or should I say, likes to admire the job when I have done it. ) 

Take a look at this reversible stitching on my full sized sheet bought here in Nice.  These sheets were most likely embroidered a hundred years ago by girls sewing for their trousseaux.  The linen may be as fine as a handkerchief or of sturdier stuff for winter.   No polyester blends here!

 On many examples, one finds Initials of the owner or family...... which can be fun even if they aren't your initials.   Some of these linens have never been used.  Alas, the war ,perhaps, destroyed dreams and plans of marriage of a generation of young people.  Nowadays for a reasonable price,  a luxury like this  can be yours to dream on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What's up?

                                Photo by Bruce Bethany.  Window photographed in Rome.

Leslie writes:  Where r U?

Well yes, where am I and where was I when I got sidetracked?

I am starting to see that there is a downside to all of this social inter-action once removed.  I see a lot of inspirational sentiments and interesting art, news and videos....some I put there myself.   I love connecting fleetingly with people that I may not have an opportunity to see or feel the need to see in person.  Sometimes it is enough to have a tenuous connection for whatever reasons.    But I  also see an awful lot of unhappy people trying to justify themselves in print on Facebook, blogs, twitter.  I see a lot of people spending hours and hours online and I wonder if that is the best life they can live.

  It gives one pause.  I ask myself, what am I doing here writing my little stories etc.   Is this an ego exercise, am I growing, am I part of the problem; part of the solution.... is it getting me where I want to go?  Am I even being paid for the time I am spending online? And if so, in what currency?

 Internet Technology is absolutely changing things for all of us.  It is changing the way we see each other, how we see letters ( vanished) how we see invitations ( e-invites only) how we see greeting cards (  vanished)  how we see landline telephones  ( as an intrusion or an alarm bell)   how we see thank you's ( emails).   In short it is changing the way we see the world.

 I now eat my breakfast and then head for the computer to look at my mails and the online newspaper.  Somehow it seems urgent.  But really what did I do before I had this machine?

  I have been skipping the gym lately because the email seduces me and I am late setting out after flipping through another powerpoint of cute kittens or places in the world that I will never visit but feel like a real visit.    Don't get me wrong.  I will continue to play this game as long as it is still fun... but I have to tone it down a notch.

This last week I have been moderating my life online with my life " out there".  For me it just got unreal all of a sudden.  So instead,  I have had a few good one-to-one talks with girlfriends;  I have rootled in the garden; I have given a luncheon party for a few friends on a sunny day on the terrace.

 And I have spent some hours talking to my husband about stuff:  films, ideas, photos, philosophies.  I need often to have a conversation which is not about fears or practical considerations of our life together.   AndI have talked long and hard to my sister who is one of my lifelines.

 In addition I have been tutoring a young girl in English who wants to go to Cambridge. It is a pleasure to be of service to her and it is hard work.  It also helps that I am well paid.  I am good at teaching.  That is the only thing I know for sure.    The rest is an experiment.  Sometimes it is good to go back to something you know for sure in order to see what it is that is so satisfying about it.

 Bear with me.  I am not giving up my blog.  The blog (hated term) helps me put my life in perspective but I can bring more to the table if I don't sit at it all day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oranges and the birthday week!

I lost my serenity this week.  Even though it was my birthday week which is an annual celebration where I mostly just indulge myself....  not doing lots of work but instead blogging, biking, reading or painting, I did none of those things.  I didn't get a dinner or a cake and I 'm ashamed to admit that I felt sorry for myself, princess that I am.

  The first problem I had to solve is that I had double booked my studio apt when I was in Spain.  I had failed to mark it in the book when a couple from Holland asked later if they could take extra days.  With two parties arriving together that meant that I had to pay for a hotel for one of the parties for two nights and to salve my conscience I decided to put them in a nice hotel and give them a free day in the studio.   I wasn't sure they would still want to come anyway.  People don't usually like change they don't sign up for.

 Last week there was also occasions to call out the plumber, and the electrician for breakages in the apartments.  And the gardner finally agreed to come who I had been trying to get for a few months.   It was a full, non-stop week of  stuff to handle.  But I had it all wrong, these were not real problems.  A real problem is one where you can't see a solution.

As it turns out the couple from Holland were the jolliest and cleanest I have ever had in my apt.  And when I went to the hotel to pay for my guest's rooms, the receptionist waived the tax because we had such a good laugh together.

 When the couple left they refused to reclaim their deposit which put back almost half of what I had lost in revenue and they left the apt spic and span so that I only had to spend a half hour to have it ready for the next party.

 Piet and Ina were so much fun that I hung out with them several times during the week, drinking Tunisian wine that they had found at the corner market.  They are a retired couple who manage apartments in Holland. He sings and plays in a band  .  She plays tennis and bridge. They are both so full of energy they don't sit still for very long.  All 10 days they took bikes up and down and around to nearby towns regardless of the weather and they are 5 years older than I am!

So what an interesting birthday week I had.   I got to hang out with my other tenant/friend next door and drink screwdrivers and laugh and talk into the night.  She made some great snacks and we played with her felines.

I got the pleasure of meeting new neighbors when I distributed the oranges to other households. About 1000 oranges were collected when the gardner did his thing to cut it back.  We were out there harvesting every last one.  I was given a box of kiwis in return at one household and a thank you card by another.  People were amazed and pretty thrilled about it.  As I have said, neighbors more often keep to themselves here and most of the trees in the area are for bitter oranges instead of sweet like ours.

Yes, after the gardner left , with his three bags, we are all still drinking a great deal of orange juice! When you think about it,   at this extremely high quality , orange juice is one of the most amazing liquids that one can pour down one's gullet.

So in answer to your question,  I had a fantastic birthday week.  And I even found my serenity.  It must have been hiding around the place and just popped back out yesterday.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Are the French Friendly: Part 2

I found this cat in a restaurant near the border of Spain in St Jean- Pied- de- Port. 
 Isn't this pose called the downward facing dog? 

  In connection with whether the French are friendly, I want to  tell you about my local gym. ( I have changed all the names to protect my identity : )

The place is small,  only machines, no classes .    There are all types and ages and just two smallish rooms for the various torture instruments, not counting the tiny dressing room.

 At the gym a while back Vincent ( in his forties) brought in a fantastic gingerbread full of grapefruit peel and orange pulp and we all had at least two pieces.  He brought the first piece right to my machine while I was pumping iron and urged me to try some.  He asked me to take some home to my husband.  Everyone stopped working out in reverence to such a French moment.  There is of course a table and a coffee machine so we can linger and read the Nice Matin or visit a bit. 

 I get greetings when I come in, kisses before I start the treadmill.  You could say that the" kiss kiss" thing in France is a nuisance.  But I like it and people respect the limits of it in the gym. After all you are well ...sweating!
                                                                           Push ups?

  I  greet certain people who are the old crowd at the gym and I introduce myself to people from time to time. The old crowd (mostly retired) started in this gym together before it changed owners a year ago.  Now we have a young, hip owner that has painted the walls fuchsia and has two tvs doing MTV...we are still all coming and now we all have fushia t -shirts with the name of the place.

  Jacque,  a distinguished man in his sixties, a reserved, athletic guy,  told me that he is a recent widower.  Recently he begun training for Triathlons.  I don't know how he does it but he is there when I come and there when I leave, always working hard.  He is there to work out so I don't like to bother him, but I often stop and have a quiet word with him.  He came to my exhibition last year and I was grateful for that gesture.

Marie Claire has a husband who is not well, but she is always there to crack a joke.  She is a retired teacher like me.  Jean Marie is so tall that I refuse to kiss him unless he is sitting at the machines or I am on the top step. We have that joke going.  He is very polite and says goodbye to both rooms before he leaves. Christian, my age, very attractive, is a favorite, as he teases, "Tu es belle!".  Lots of teasing goes on, I do my part of it.

  The manager,  David always comes to my treadmill for his greeting. "Marie: "Tu es-t-en forme?" and his kisses.  He is attentive to all of us.  I have met his lovely partner and now they have a new baby boy.

  Julian is an attractive, retired guy I met on the first day, who has come to two of my exhibitions and taken me on sight seeing trips around.  He is always tan and nattily dressed.  I call him the man in Black.  He and  his girlfriend  had a party not long ago , as have Michelle and her husband and Amira, a beautiful young Algerian woman.  I was invited three times, in fact.  I went to two soirees and had a great time.  I could probably have a whole social life just from the gym, if I had the time and fortitude.
There are always lots of dinners going on.

I met Delphine last month.  She has lovely white hair and a young face. She revealed quietly , after our smiles connected, that she had been in a coma for five of her 51 years.  She has had 2 operations on the brain and 2 on her eyes.  She has to take 20 pills a day and she is always smiling, grateful for each day.

During the holidays, a young girl, Cynthia, came and asked me how to make a pumpkin pie from scratch. She said later, that the pie had turned out great and next time she would bring me a piece.

  I always plunge in with my French language such as it is , I may smile first and sometimes initiate the conversation.   I noticed that the French, like the English, don't invade people's privacy without tacit permission.  That sounds logical to me, now. 

 And yes, this gym, like my life , is full of French people.  Frankly, this gym is about as friendly as I can stand,   maybe a bit too friendly if I want to work on my abs.  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Are the French friendly? Part one

                                                                                                    photo by Insomniac's Lounge

 When I meet up with fellow foreigners here in Nice, there is often a new story of how frustrating it is  to get along with the French .  Many people give up on trying to integrate and just hang out with their "own kind".

It has been claimed by some that the French are not friendly.

TRUE...... by American standards, they are NOT!

Here is what I think:

There are examples of French individuals just not liking strangers coming in droves to their beautiful country and buying up prime properties.  In Nice for example, the natives not only have all the Parisians and others who want to retire here but they also have the Pied- Noir and the Algerians who immigrated here after the war in Algeria.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algerian_War    And they also have every rich person that can afford to have a secondary residence on the Cote d"Azur.    A city of strangers makes it hard on the local population. especially in towns where foreigners go about in packs like so many loud and obnoxious dogs.

A major impediment in integrating into a new country is language skills...YOUR OWN.    If you have poor skills in French, you will feel insecure, you will hold yourself back and miss some opportunities in joking, making small talk etc.  So it will seem that there is no friendly contact .  This will change dramatically when you have some facility with the language.

What the french will seldom do is welcome you as "the new kid on the block".  Most assume that we foreigners are tourists.  And if your french is not really good you will not be brought into a conversation easily.  It is demoralizing to have a subject you introduced, hijacked by others while you are left standing on the tarmac unable to keep up, feeling somehow invisible.

 This seems unfriendly to us.   We expect to be brought into the circle.  And we expect people to initiate conversation.  If you have language you will bring yourself into the circle, if not you won't.    Even if we are trying our best, it is often not enough to get included.  This is a huge source of frustration to those from countries who have a more open style.  It is a cultural difference, I feel, not just about language.

It  helps to be in a bonding situation to get a conversation going.  Then you will see the french friendliness quicker.

Once I was on an airplane and a man was putting his luggage overhead.  In his hand was a gorgeous bouquet...maybe from a wedding,  maybe to offer someone   ... but he began stuffing the bouquet into the overhead space like it was a BAG OF DIRTY SOCKS.

 The well dressed French woman in front of me turned around and whispered, "definitely, not a woman"...which made us both break out in peals of laughter.  This was a small moment of bonding.

Another time, years back, before they had many pedestrian lights up along the Promenade des Anglais and one had to wait for a break in traffic to get across.....I was standing with a man and his wife.... elderly looking, but really only about 10 years older than I was.  Finally I said,  "On ose pas"  sort of "do we dare?..." which is all the french I could muster at the time.
The man looked at both of us women and said in french, " take my hands", and we crossed the street all together.   When we reached safety,  I said " Merci Papa"  since I felt so protected by this stranger.  "NO,  NO, grand-pere!"  he demurred,  meaning he thought that he was old enough to be my grandfather!

 I don't remember what I responded but we had a lovely moment of complicity.   It was another bonding situation.  Now if you dare not speak up, you won't get these little jewels and see the friendliness that is here in its own guise.

It does take longer to make friends in France, I believe.  There are different distinct categories;  acquaintances, co-workers and friends.  I think we blur these lines in America, starting out with first names right away, which makes the Europeans think of us as phony friends.  Things are more formal here.

 I mentioned once that it took me 7 years to get people in my neighborhood to talk to me other than the obligatory" bonjour madame".    It is true that they probably just thought of me as a passing tourist for a while.  These things take time here.  I suppose after we helped neighbors start their car, picked up trash we saw in the street, painted out the graffiti, and found the neighbor's bunnies that had escaped, word got around that we were ok .

 Whenever I come back to Nice from the States, I still feel left out for a few days or a week until my Frenchiness kicks in.  Being a foreigner is not for sissies.  But there are perks.  I will tell you soon about my gym.    It is sort of my little laboratory to test my hypothesis about friendliness.