The Six Nations Rugby matches have begun, an annual competition between Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland, France, and Italy.  For my US friends:   Rugby is something like American football except that you can't pass the ball forward, you can only run forward with it; the scrimmage is called the scrummage, no protective pads, and they never stop except for an injury or penalty, which means they don't get to rest much.

I like watching it, but found myself rooting for Wales, which my English husband wasn't too happy about.   But then, I am an inveterate cheerer for the underdog, as well as  devil's advocate. Give me an unpopular cause, and I'm like a bulldog.  

England won, but only after a very tense game.

Whichever team wins the most points in the whole series wins, so  even if a team loses one game, they can still win the trophy. Today, Ireland beat Italy (poor old underdog), and the Irish are playing the French in Paris.

It means several days of continuous rugby in our house; in France we used to have rugby parties, like Americans do on Superbowl Sunday, and everyone seemed to root for a different team. No fisticuffs though, even between the Brits and the French.

(Sandy, can't help thinking of you. You would love it. )

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Hereford and beyond

The county of Herefordshire lies 2 and a half hours’ drive from Surrey, where we live, but is a world away.  The county is only 842 sq miles, with a population of 180, 000 and a population density of 0.8/hectare.

  Surrey is beautiful, but a much larger county, 23, 800 sq. miles, with a population of 1,100,700 people, or 6.4 /hectare.  You can scarcely go half a mile without seeing another village, and the traffic is heavy in the larger towns, lighter out in the country, where we live, but still,  there are lots of cars.  Consequently, the roads in the country are  not so good, and the one lane roads can be a nightmare to negotiate, dodging potholes and oncoming cars.  . 
2010 June Hereford, Wales, Ludlow Malvern 011

Herefordshire is beautiful and unspoiled, the roads are nearly empty, they are clean (we saw not a single can or wrapper), and very good.  The city  of Hereford, well, it is dazzling, spacious, livable, and clean.   

Yet, few tourists go there.  It’s off the beaten tourist track, which helps keep its pristine nature.  Yet, Hereford Cathedral contains the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map showing the known world of the time, a “chained”library of ancient books, the earliest from the 7th century, and a copy of the first book to come off the Guthenberg press.  

It is a “transitional”cathedral whose original structure was Norman, and subsequent building, Gothic.  It contains 3 modern tapestries, a painting of the crucifiction by a painter belonging to the Royal Academy, Craigie Atchison, and, in the Lady Chapel, 3 exquisite stained glass windows, modern, intriguing, and much more moving to me than traditional stained glass, by a man called Tom Denny.  So you get the sense that this cathedral is very alive, very much a part of contemporary life.  

We spent the morning there at the cathedral, first  walking along the river in the shade of enormous chestnut trees , then crossing an ancient bridge across the Wye, walking off the delicious dinner of the night before at the Castle House Hotel.  Most memorable:  a starter of confit of rhubarb, licorice ice cream, and smoked duck breast.  

Syria and Jordan, Part 3

Haitham, our Syrian guide, led us up to a small chapel capping the castle. Rather, it used to be a chapel and became a small mosque or prayer room after the crusaders were thrown out. Stairs led up to a platform where the Imam would have spoken, and a niche in one of the walls next to it contained, on this occasion, a small boy. We lined up in front of him, a captive audience. A sweet, strong voice filled the chapel, enveloping us, compelling silence, as the boy chanted his song. We all stood enraptured by the sound, shivers prickling our skin and tears glistening in our eyes.

This treat was to demonstrate the extraordinary acoustics of the room, and when the song was finished, Haitham tipped the child, who wanted more, but then gracefully retired until we left the room.  He then followed us with his hand out. I'm afraid I tipped him, too; it was worth a lot more than the pittance he received.

Palmyra is a well-preserved late Roman ruin. Columns and walls and lintels over a vast area give you an idea of how large a city it was. Sellers of jewelry, fabrics, and camel rides descended upon us when we stepped out of the bus, but among them was a family of the most beautiful children I've ever seen. The eldest sold jewelry, the second, camel rides, and the little one, maybe 5 or 6, postcards. The camel boy saw how I gushed over his little brother, and asked me how much I would pay for him, a little joke between us, so eventually, after we had looked around the site, I had to ride his camel. It was my first ride,  and hardly graceful, but now I've done it, that is that.

Somewhere along the way we used the facilities of the Baghdad Café, and passed within a few kilometres of the Iraqi border.

We crossed the border into Jordan after a long delay. All our passports had to be presented to the border police, and one of our number had joined us late so didn't have her group entry stamp. Fingers crossed that she would be allowed to continue with us, but a little bakshish seemed to solve the problem. Even Haitham was a little nervous, though, and he was visibly relieved when he turned to say goodbye to us.

Our new guide, Walid, joined us later. We saw so much that was wonderful – Jerash, another Graeco-Roman ruins which gave the best idea I've seen of how large the towns were. It stretches over many acres, was as large as present day cities, and is a repository of many cultures; Persian, Nabatean, Byzantine, Jewish, and Ummayed. Walid showed us why it wasn't completely destroyed by the earthquakes which periodically ravaged the town. San Francisco engineers, take note: The columns were built to roll with the movement of the quakes and so not break.

We visited an ancient hunting lodge in the middle of the desert, where the men went to frolic with toothsome young women, and a nearby caravansary which sheltered traders and their animals on their way to sell their goods. We went to Mount Nebo, the memorial of Moses, to Madaba and a Byzantine church with an ancient mosaic map of the region. And much more.

But the highlights for me were Petra and the Wadi Rum.



Syria and Jordan, the end

Before I move on to Petra and Wadi Rum, I want to tell you about some Jordanian children. I think we were inJerash, but I'm not sure. We climbed to a hilltop overlooking the ruins, when Walid called us together. A boy of about 10 stood with his armload of postcards. At a signal from Walid, he began to ask us to buy postcards – in twenty languages, including Japanese. He rattled it off like a chant, and the wonder of it is that he could pick out which language the tourists in question spoke and ask appropriately. It seems a sad waste of talent that such intelligence is wasted on selling postcards to tourists.

Elsewhere, I again sat sketching while the rest of the group went inside a temple. A four- or five- year old boy dressed in the simple  brown robe they all seem to wear, came to watch. He asked if he could see the pictures. I showed him some watercolor sketches I had made in Tahiti, of sailboats and the ocean. He asked if he could have one. I told him they were worth nothing, he could not sell them, and he said I know, but held out his hand. I gave it to him, and he carefully folded it and put it in his pocket. He wanted it for himself, something of his very own, not money to be given to parents, nor any "business"at all. His little sister, maybe 18 months, stood not far away in diapers and a little shirt, chewing on postcards wrapped in plastic holders, occasionally holding it out to a passer-by in imitation of her older siblings.
Everywhere we went, it was the children who touched me the most

Petra is all you have ever heard about it. You approach it by a corridor between two pink stone cliffs, which are striped with layers of color, from creamy to burnt sienna. Troughs have been gouged into the rock on either side, formerly for water to flow down. IMG_0326 At the end of the passage you walk into a plaza surrounded by buildings sculpted from the rock, the facades with a strange mixture of Greek, Roman, Nabatean influences. Donkeys and camels and young boys and men stand at the ready to take tourists up the hill, and there is a Bedouin shelter to one side, along with a stand selling jewelry and artifacts.IMG_0352

But it is the color which bedazzles, the marbled streaks of earth tones, looking more like they were painted by an abstract painter than by mother nature.
I only regret that we didn't experience the candle light entrance we have been told about. We were there in the daytime, and though the impact is great, I can imagine entering by candlelight between those immense cliffs.
Petra's success was due to its position on the trade route for incense, including frankincense and myrrh from southern Arabia, copper and iron from Arabia, medicines, spices, gold and ivory from India and China. The city dates from the 6th or 7th c. bce. It's skilled hydraulic engineers built dams, canals, under ground water conduits, and irrigation systems, to develop towns and cities in the desert. But as the Romans took more control of the area, Nabatean power declined and an earthquake in 363 AD finished off Petra. (That is your history lesson, in a nutshell).

We left on the backs of donkeys, a seriously uncomfortable beast, worse even than the camels, and looked down upon the hidden, protected valley of rock.
On the road again, we passed a man training a young camel. The calf's two front feet were bound so it could only take small steps. His terror was obvious. He tried to leap, to buck, trying to escape the encircling rope, twisting and turning. Two adult camels were at his side, trying to comfort him, to calm him. It was difficult to watch, but I suppose it is not so different from training young horse.

 We passed a field of black iris, so the bus driver stopped to let us have a closer look at the national flower of Jordan. It is really very dark purple, but I found it a little sinister. I don't want one in my garden, exotic though it is. . Black Iris two

We reached Wadi Rum through countryside more like  I imagine deserts to be, all rolling dunes and scrubby bushes. Wadi just means valley, and this one is spectacular.Wadi (Valley) Rum The colors and forms on such a vast scale are breath-taking.
A convoy of jeeps met us, and we climbed into them, three or four to a jeep, for the ride deeper into the valley. Red rocks with prehistoric drawings scratched into them stood at the bottom, and across from them, a black Bedouin tent awaited us with strong, delicious mint tea and little sesame cookies. Inevitably, jewelry and scarves were for sale, but very few children accosted us here. I'm not sure why that is so.

Earlier in our trip we stopped at a Neolithic settlement  in Wadi Gilrat dating from 12,000 to 9,000 bce. It has been carefully excavated, and reveals the earliest known formally planned architecture in the world. It was inhabited at the beginning of the domestication of wild crops, and the beginning of agriculture. In this part of the world, those crops included pistachios, sesame seeds, olives, and honey. And it still does. Our leader David later talks about it in his lecture that night. He thinks that agriculture, and its consequent farms, with the need to protect your crops and territory from others, was the beginning of the end of our war-like culture. In the history of the world, we are a failed evolutionary  experiment, heading for self-destruction.

But the nomadic Bedouin culture is alive in this part of the world, with families living in those movable tents, as they have for thousands of years, following water.  Hard to imagine here in England, where floods and rains are common, but maybe we don't all need as much water as we think we do.



Ordovician observationist

IMGP5855   My son, Nathan, wrote this to his son, Nico, my first grandchild. .  It tells you a lot about both of them. (Photo:  Jurrasic Coas, Dorset, UK)

Last Sunday, at a neighbor's easter egg hunt, I noticed my son
Nico squatting in the planted bit of dirt between their house and a
walkway to their front door. This, while the other 10 kids were running
around the yard chasing… something. They were playing, yelling,
etc… I was concerned about my boy, sitting there by himself in such
an odd place, so I went over to see what was up. I noticed he was
softly stroking a small, nascent plant, only a few inches tall. I asked
him what he was doing. He said, "This is a fern, it goes back to the
dinosaur age." It was only then that I saw that it was indeed a baby
fern, barely recognizable as such, with its small arms starting to
uncurl. To him, it was a physical touchstone to a world we can scarcely
imagine, and he was enraptured by it. He was absolutely right to be so,
and I was thankful that he took me to that space. Ferns, sharks,
molusks and other ancient creatures, have, as a species, made a couple
of spins around our Milky Way galaxy, a single one of which takes about
250 million years.

This from a boy who gets quite excited when I confuse animals that
existed in the Ordovician period with those from the Devonian (Do you
know when Jaekelopterus existed? He does. And he can pronounce it

Nico was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. He still has trouble
propelling himself in a swing, and he's no prodigy with a baseball bat,
and, yes, he sometimes acts, completely unlike his father, 'weird'. But
his mind is already racing to the far corners of our universe. I only
hope that as his father that I can be a worthy guide.

Why I haven’t been writing in my blog —

Yuba River
Reading in the Garden
Tourettes, view from Les Restanques
I have been concentrating on oil painting lately, between life events, and am thoroughly immersed in learning to put on canvas, paper, or board what I see.  Maybe some day I'll be an artist — see the photo album, Recent Paintings. 

By the Yuba

Sara and Spring

The little bird who tapped on my window was leaving me a message. I began to notice isolated bird song cutting improbably through the fog, and now patches of Snowdrops are popping up in meadows and woods, sometimes with purple crocus alongside. I haven’t examined the bare branches of our Japanese maple or rosebushes yet, but I expect they are preparing their entrance, too.

It has warmed up a little. Our temperatures are in the 40’s instead of 30’s, and some days have been brilliant with blue sky and sunshine. Not today, though. Gusts of wind disturb the fir trees, and the dawning day is misty and dark. I hope it improves for my visitor from California, here for only a few days, bringing the breath of home and evidence of the continuity of life and relationships.

For Sara has been the midwife to my life as a grandmother. We met through the internet. Six years ago, I was looking for a place to stay when my first grandchild, Nico, was born. Her house overlooking San Francisco Bay is 10 minutes from the house my son and his wife lived in at the time, close enough for me to be a nuisance, or help, depending on whom you are talking to, and on which day. We worked out a house exchange, her dramatic home in Oakland for stays at my then-house overlooking olive groves in France.

I stayed with her many times after that, on my frequent visits to learn how to be a grandparent and mother-in-law. And then another grand child came along, Nico’s little sister Gabriella, and another small creature to get to know and love. Then David married Holly and began a family. Now there is Malia and Sage, as blond and fair as Nico and Gabriella are brunette and olive skinned, and all the while, Sara and Sara’s house in Oakland was a refuge from the sometimes difficult, always humbling, always rewarding time learning more about love and relationships than I thought I would ever learn.

Without Sara’s reminders that the world outside my little family was still going on, that it was interesting and exciting and full of beauty, I would have completely lost perspective, though I did sometimes lose it anyway.

Now she is here in our old world house, connecting me to the teeming vitality of that time, arriving with the first signs that winter will soon be over.



Pilates and a frosty morning

Helen, our local physiotherapist, teaches Pilates several mornings a week to the ladies of the parish. Not only do I make the 5 minute walk to the Village Hall, where the classes are, but also spend an hour gently stretching and pulling and using those deteriorating “core” muscles so I can stand up straight, and fight the plunging senior belly . The classes are composed of people – we have one male – who live in the surrounding area, many of whom I already know. It’s friendly and comforting to feel an inclusion I rarely achieved in France. Helen also helps keep Bernard’s excruciating back pain under control, as well as the aches and pains of the rest of us over 50’s. She used to treat Olympic athletes. Now she’s stuck with us.

This morning’s walk will require shoes with traction. The snow is mostly melted, although patches remain in sheltered spots, but cold nights have rendered the sidewalks icy and slick. Shiny frost glitters in the morning sun and, as it melts, coats the leaves and grass with twinkling light.

This morning, most magically, the big roof windows of our summer room are glazed with arabesques and curlicues, beaded strands weaving up and around and over the glass in white and glorious trees of life. We took pictures, which I will try to post later, as they are in this case really worth a thousand words.

And then, as I sit at my desk looking out the window, an little yellow and gray bird looks in at me, wings fluttering, before perching at the window, as close to me as the length of my arm. We look at each other, sharing our hopes for an early spring, before he swoops down to the garden to scratch for seeds.


Record cold, record heat, record rainfall, record high winds – is this a new phenomenon, triggered by global warming? In the past 20 years I have lived in both southern France and southern England. In the land of milk and honey, the south of France, surrounded by olive groves, it snowed nearly every year. Every year people acted like this had never happened before, that it NEVER snowed there. In the summer, in late July and August, there were nearly always a few days when it was hotter than it had ever been. Or it was the worst drought of all time, or too much rain at the wrong time so the fruit crops were ruined. The locals, people whose ancestors were buried in the ancient cemetery behind the church, were more pessimistic doom-sayers than the ex- pats and second homers. They come to the south of France to find sun and glamour, and complain when it is hotter, grayer, or colder than their expectations. Maybe the locals want to drive them away.

Now that I live in England, the same thing happens. Floods, every year, from “record” rainfall. Extraordinary cold spells, like now, or no real summer, all come with much shaking of heads and concerned tones. Mind you, I’ve only lived in England for 3 years, as opposed to 14 in France, so I can’t make a definitive judgment as to the consistency of these anomalous weather events. It is obvious, though, that Great Britain is surrounded by oceans, nearly as far north as Sweden, and close to the vagaries of the wind, sea, and temperatures. You plan a garden party in the summer with great caution and daily consultation with the weather Gods. The supplying of canopies and tents is a booming business here.

Where it the truth? Only in official weather statistics, I am sure. Observations of weather are mostly subjective wherever you live, seemingly based more on expectation, wishful thinking and whatever it is in we humans that wants to exaggerate to enhance our self-importance.