The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present


Everybody (even French children) has read or heard about ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. I’ve read it at least a thousand times and I still do from time to time. I love the story, the three Spirits and Tiny Tim and Scrooge of course because in the end, he starts a new life. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not really ‘dickensian’. But that’s ok. I love the story.

«‘I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me... Scrooge was better than his word... His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.’»

In our Judeo-Christian world, Christmas should be a time of rejoicing, a time of giving, a time of forgiving, a time filled with happiness.

Our lives should be bursting with joy and good will.

This is probably the reason why Christmas can also conjure up painful memories. Why else do we tend to suffer more from the unfairness of life and feel so deeply hurt by it when it is Christmas time?

We’ve had many very happy Christmases. But you tend to remember more how hurt you felt when things went awry at Christmas. I guess it seems terribly unfair. Christmas caroling which I love so much doesn’t fit worries and stressing times.

I’ll never forget Christmas ‘05. We went to some very good friends’ home to wish them a very Happy Christmas. There was a brand new beautiful granddaughter there and lots of happiness.

But we also had to let them know that cancer had struck back and that I needed to undergo surgery again as soon as we’d get back to Paris. Somehow the blinking lights of their Christmas tree didn’t seem very cheerful.

This year, we were getting very excited because we’d be spending Christmas with our son who had managed to get a few days off from Caltech, in our refurbished home in Brittany. We were delighted my cancer tests had come out more than perfect... We were talking about getting my sister over for a few days too.

But little did we know that Christmas would be this teary and sad.

On December 17th, at 8 a.m., my sister was getting ready to cross the road, right in front of the high school where she works. A car stopped to let her cross. But a second car going too fast didn’t stop and hit her so badly that she did a somersault, fell back on the windshield and hit the ground, a few centimeters away from the sidewalk.

By then she had lost consciousness and she was so badly hurt and bleeding so much that the main witnesses to the accident did not realize who she was even though they knew her quite well.

She spent 10 hours in a hall in the main hospital in Béziers, waiting for radios, scans and medical attention, waiting, waiting and waiting, all alone. She had no means to let us know about her plight. 10 hours. This is the way it goes in French public hospitals especially in a provincial town.

One of her sons who was in Paris at the time finally got a phone call very late at night but no explanations whatsoever about what had happened. By then we only knew that she had been very badly hurt.

He left Paris in the morning and called me as soon as he got to the hospital. (I couldn't go along with him because I still had appointments at the AmH.) She was suffering from a shattered pelvis and an open skull fracture (which required 30 stitches). And she couldn’t see at all. (Her vision came more or less back 4 days later.)

The following morning, I got to talk to her. She was conscious and not under sedatives because of the risk of coma. She told me not to come because she had many friends around. She was afraid too much stress could be bad for me.

So I stayed in Paris, waiting for my husband to come back from Bulgaria. I was very restless because she had started telling me about severe abdominal pain. I did everything I could to get in touch with her doctors  because I knew that such a trauma could induce internal bleeding.  Who hasn't heard about a ruptured spleen? I kept asking for a scan of her spleen, liver, etc. They did laugh at me, saying that she was just suffering from post-traumatic stress.

On the 23rd, we were in Brittany. I called my sister in the morning, something I’d been doing for the past 5 days (I called her several times a day). No answer. I called again. Still no answer. Then someone got on the phone: a nurse who said that they were taking care of my sister and ‘Please, call later.’ End of phone call. So I called the hospital later, again and again. Nobody knew anything about her. She had disappeared just like that.

By then, her son had left to spend Christmas with some friends 500 kms away. I was frantic with worry. I knew something was terribly wrong.

I finally managed to talk to the lady who was sharing her room. She told me to get in touch with the ICU. I really broke down right then.

She no longer was in the ICU. She was having some last chance surgery (which lasted over 4 hours). Ruptured spleen. Very bad internal bleeding. I was going out of my mind. The doctor I talked to had the nerve to tell me then and there: ‘We are very sorry. We only thought about bones.’

People, please wake up. I had been calling the hospital for the past 5 days, feeling that she couldn’t have suffered such an impact without any damage
 to her organs. And I am not a doctor.

She was extremely lucky to go into shock while the nurses were washing her and not during the night.

So Christmas wasn’t really Christmas, this year.

Swee'Pea had the hardest time to get to Brittany. He flew from LA to Paris through Chicago which wasn’t a very wise choice in wintertime. But he got here safely, 28 hours later.

Popeye and I, we had decorated our Christmas tree while we were waiting because we were feeling so down and lost that we needed to cling to happiest Christmases. And happiest Christmases included a Christmas tree with Christmas decorations dating back from Swee'Pea's childhood.

Meanwhile I was allowed to call ICU twice a day but only after they had made sure I was my sister’s sister! The exchanges were very short: ‘How had her night/day been?’ ‘Has her temperature gone down?’ ‘Please tell her I love her.’ And the line would go silent.

Her son came back yesterday only to discover that someone had burglarized the house. A few things were missing. Among them, the few jewels she ever possessed. She doesn’t know anything about it yet but I’m terribly afraid of her reaction. It almost feels good to know that she won’t be out of ICU before a few days still, protected from a cruel world.

When she still was in her room, we had a few ‘long’ talks, as ‘long’ as they could be. One of them was about surviving and not feeling the same ever, living a different life, actually a much better life.

I’ve had a few close calls myself during those past few years (and I’m not talking about cancer). I almost died from a DVT after surgery, etc. And I remember thinking: ‘This is the first day of your life. Try to make the best out of it.’

So now, my sister and I, we both are survivors... never the same again but bonding a lot more than before.

But I still wish all this hadn’t happened at Christmas time.

Next Christmas will be better... no doubt about it.

Remember old Scrooge: ‘His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.’

Happy Christmas to all of you, wherever you are.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


SNCF on strike...

How nice it is to live and/or to travel in a ‘right-wing-socialist’ country!

France is a really surprising country to live in. Even if you don’t really live there anymore. And how mysterious and unbearable it has to be for foreigners and tourists!

Ever since November, France has been experiencing strike upon strike. Who is going on strike? Well, mainly the state employees.

It started with the museums. Which museums? Can’t tell!
Strikers are tricky. It’s just like a big game.

You want to go to the Louvre. Well, it’s closed. For how long? Nobody knows.
The Louvre reopens but two other museums go on strike. For how long? Guess what? Nobody knows.
Why are they going on strike? Nobody knows either. The reasons vary from one newspaper to another one. The unions keep mum.

Sometimes it is because people are retiring and not replaced. Sometimes it is because they feel they’re not getting enough money. Who is? Especially going through such a terrible financial crisis. Most of the time, it is because they are afraid they may loose outrageous benefits inherent to their civil servants’ status.

Strikes used to be very popular in France but this is changing a lot. People are getting tired... Those who are not civil servants, that is. Those who want to go to work and are terribly worried that missing one day of work is going to cost them their job in a stricken and restrictive work market notwithstanding the exhaustion of everyday life!

There is one fast subway line called RER A. Everyday, more than one million people use it to go to work and to school to Paris and back. If its employees go on strike, what happens? Just imagine.

When all means of public transportation quit working, the government does its best to defuse the crisis, which is to say: ‘Ok, you guys, sorry. We were wrong. So let’s go back to work, pleeeeeaaaaase!’

But nobody goes back to work. There is to be a show-off like: ‘We are really strong and united. You made a mistake playing with our benefits. Now we’ll show you!’

This is how at the end of this week, our train system was almost at a complete standstill even though the unions had negociated ‘successfully’ with the government and had won their way back to old regulations!

Why the end of the week? Quite obvious, my dear Watson.
Most people who work in Paris and other big cities do not live there permanently so they leave home to go to work on Monday morning and get back home on Thursday or Friday afternoon.

Let’s take one example: Brittany.
Lots of Bretons work in Paris and commute twice a week.

Well, the railway employees announced last week that they would go on strike starting on Thursday. All of a sudden, unions and government officials entered quickly into negociations. Things usually go very fast... when you get close to a week-end and/or holidays.

Two days later, all unions announced that they had reached a favorable agreement and the strike was over. The announcement was made on tv, radio, internet...

So people started to resume their life and journeys. They were going home on Friday night, as usual.

Hold on, hold on! We have unwavering civil servants in France. Their unions had agreed to go back to work but not the workers, at least some of them, enough of them to keep part of the country crippled. ‘Ah, ah, we’ll show them.’

Whom did they show their teeth to? The government officials? Oh no!

Hundreds of people, not to say thousands, were stranded all over France, just the way it happened at the Montparnasse station, trying to go back home. I know about Gare Montparnasse because we were there.

Our train was the only one to leave. We had reservations on it so we were lucky to have a seat... The train carried people standing up in every car, squashed like canned sardines since it was the only train to go to Northern Brittany from Paris. Trains going to Southern Brittany had stopped running once and for all. Too bad.

Lucky adventurous us. We got very late to Les Tertres since the TGV stopped at every station on the way. But we got home allright.

The Milky Way was very beautiful.

By the way, we still don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to go back to Paris on Monday night... since now we have ghost strikes.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


A tribute to Copenhagen 2009 - Christmas 1999 - Hurricane upon Les Tertres

Once upon a time, Les Tertres were surrounded by trees. They had been planted by the former owners. All of them were conifers, very trendy at the time because their growth is very fast. They actually are completely unsuitable in Brittany because they don't fare very well in storms. Brittany is often swept by winds exceeding 80 miles per hour, summer and winter alike.

In 1999, we were at Les Tertres at Christmas as usual. We had friends over. Strong winds had been blowing and temperatures fell.

On December 25th, around 9 p.m., it was so stormy outside that we decided to go take a walk on the quay in Val André. We went there allright but all we did was to watch huge waves crashing on the quay. The sea was raging.

So we went back home, feeling really weird. We spent a couple of hours talking about storms, of course and then we went to bed.

In Brittany, you'll find a barometer in almost every house. It's very useful when you're planning a boating trip or whatever anyway! We checked ours before going to bed. It was falling allright but what could you expect with such a stormy weather.

Around 4 a.m., we awoke to a sudden blood-curling shriek followed by some kind of explosion that shook the house from bottom to the top. The cats scurried away from our bed and went instantly into hiding, one under the bed and the other one in a cupboard.

Then silence, long enough for me to keep cool and check the outside temperature. It was quite wintery when we went to bed: 40°F (5°C). I just couldn't believe the number I was reading and I remember thinking: 'This is IT'. The outside thermometer displayed 77°F (26°C). So I ran to the barometer a few feet away from our bedroom. Well, it couldn't fall any lower!

And then, everybody came running downstairs (the guests' rooms are upstairs. Ours is on the first floor.)
'Any idea of what's going on out there?'
'Nope and nobody is going outside to check.'

There were several young adults with us who were extremely excited about the whole thing. But when it started again, the shrieking and the blows and punches against the southwest side of the house, everybody fell quiet. Someone lit a candle (the electricity was out already) and we huddled together on the sofa.

I remember watching the shutters swelling, almost to the point of being pulled out from the house. 'Is this really happening? In Brittany?'

We all knew that once the shutters would be torn away, the windows wouldn't resist very long either. We talked about getting down into the basement except that we didn't know whether the windows were still holding down there... (afterwards, we discovered that some of them hadn't).

We stood there, frozen with, well, with fright. The whatever was going on outside kept on going for more than two hours... A lifetime...

When the monster gave signs of moving away, one of us went to the bathroom (on the northern side of the house) and opened carefully one shutter. Lo and behold. He came back and said: 'Well, Marie (one of our friends), I don't think you'll be able to leave today. There are fallen trees all over the place and I'm pretty sure some of them are jamming the gate.'

Around 6 a.m., we got our flashlights and out we went! The house was allright so was the roof (thanx to the way the former owner had built the house) but outside, there were twisted trees, broken trees, uprooted trees, trees that looked like they had been thrown away like javelins... It was a terrible sight.

But we were alive. The house has weathered the hurricane. Of course we had lost more than 80 trees, all of them over 50 years old. I remember I cried.

We walked back to the house: no phone, no electricity. The lines had been buried when the house was built. Good idea except that the roots had uprooted the whole system! Well, anyway, all the lines were down.

Then we heard people calling. Our friends had come over. They knew we had to be 'rescued' somehow. Some had walked over since the roads were covered with fallen trees. One of them had driven his tractor through the fields, hoping to help towing the trees away. Well, he did open a breach in the fence. Yes, we had a fence (a very short one but long enough to prevent us from getting out).

It felt so good. We all went back to the house and while Marie was packing, now she could drive through the hole in the fence, we talked about the night and tried to assess damages. Most of the roads were closed. A few houses had lost their roofs. There were lots of damages in the harbors, of course. But there had been no fishing that night, being so close to Christmas. Nobody had been killed (at least in our area) since it had happened in the middle of the night.

We were told that the hurricane had hit France from our coast on a 150 kms (90 miles) width and was still at it at an average speed of 200 kms/hr (125 miles/hr). It hit Les Tertres while going at 232 kms/hr (144 miles/hr). We know because there is a meteorological station very close to our place.

Then it badly hit Paris and part of France then went on to Germany. But at the time, we didn't know anything about it.

Pretty soon, our friend and 'gardener' came with his team and started getting rid of what was packed in our way. It took days and days. And there was no other way than to burn everything right there.
Night and day... Day and night...
Trees were burnt everywhere... I still remember the smell lingering for at least two years later. There is nothing else you can do with that kind of conifers.

Hurricanes were quite unknown in our area but ever since 1999, France has been severely hit several times, again and again. People have started to talk about these events as proof of global warming effects. All I know is that our storms in Brittany are getting more and more violent.

What I want to remember tho from such an experience is the fact that there was a great fit of solidarity and generosity. At least in our area. While Yves was working on our trees, Popeye went to help Bernard on his farm. Henri and Jean, even tho they were a lot older than most of us, helped around. People came from all over France to rebuild the electricity and phone lines. And so on and so on! It was a great lesson of life.

Was this hurricane (named Lothar by the way) a direct consequence of global warming?  I still don't know. But if it was caused by global warming, we do have a lot of worries on our hands. I know I've become much more concerned about environmental issues ever since. We've been trying to change things at Les Tertres which is our personal environment but what we did may have an influence on global environmental issues. Remember the importance of fluttering butterflies on the other side of the world (it's a nice story anyway).

Two days after the hurricane, we saw this incredible rainbow I want to share with you maybe as a token of hope.

(to be continued)

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


'Les Tertres'

Everytime someone comes to 'Les Tertres' for the first time, we always hear: 'Wow! I've never seen anything like it before. What an incredible place!' (Meaning a house with such a view.)
We do agree. The scenery is amazing. And we never get bored watching the sea.

The house stands on a cliff, 30 meters above a vast and mostly deserted beach. Right below, the sea is studded with tiny islands or should I say, clusters of rocks which mostly appear at low tide. Every one of them has a name of course. Further away, you may see a remote coastline since this is a bay.
On wintery days when the air is crisp and limpid, the coastline gets so distinct you can see trees outlined against the sky, 20 miles away from you. It is magical.

At night, from the other side of the bay, villages send funny flickering signals, showing people are indeed living there. You also see quite a few twinkling buoys because beauty sometimes hides terrible dangers for boating, mostly fishermen.

 Twenty years ago, we wanted badly a 'family home' where we could put family roots down once and for all. We wanted a 'happy' house where we'd welcome our friends, our friends' children and our son's friends. It took us a long time to find the right place.
One day we saw the 'perfect house' in a real estate agent's window. It had been for sale for three years. We went and took a tour of the estate (at the time, the house stood over 15 acres of gardens, woods, moor and small fields and boasted one private access to the beach, on a completely protected natural site).
Sounds perfect like a dream come true, doesn't it?

Well, actually, as soon as I got there, even tho the scenery was appalling, I got scared!
What? Are we going to live in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the earth? (The closest village is three miles away even tho we see the church steeple from the house.) I pictured poor me with several children lost in the wilderness during school holidays. And I just couldn't say yes! I loved the place but it took me one long year to surrender!

 I remember our first summer there, the house filled as anticipated with 'tons' of friends and children... running back and forth, I should say up and down from and to the beach with our shepherd dog, Branwen.

During the day, it was allright. Anyway, nobody seemed to fear anything around there. Half a mile from us, our closest neighbours left their doors and windows open day and night...
It started getting hard at night, especially when a full moon started shining all over the rocky moor.
I can't remember who was the first one to ever talk about 'the hatchet man' who'd be coming up the cliff from the sea and... someone, usually a child, would start screaming: 'He's coming! He's coming!'
The moon and the rocks would create weird and scary shapes... and since we have huge picture windows on the first floor, guess who'd get scared and tried to remain as calm as she could be (and sometimes didn't quite succeed at it)?

I don't like to feel like a coward so I decided to make the best out of our 'home'. (It no longer was 'our house in Brittany'.) I did manage to stay there on my own with the children and I ended up loving it after all.
We proudly discovered we belonged there during the first winter when we weathered a few very strong tempests and survived!

Later on, it became a truly safe place for all of us, safe from problems or illness or worries, despite several burglary attempts (times were changing), all of them while we were away and despite the 1999 hurricane (we were there).

Now I go live there by myself without fear. We no longer have a dog but I still keep forgetting to lock the doors.

We no longer are considered as 'summer vacationers' (the worst insult ever). We have many friends in the area who come to visit us in Brussels and Paris. Imagine!

We do belong to 'Les Tertres'. We do.

(to be continued)

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


All by myself in Paris - not quite, I'm with Byerly

Well, it's been one of these days. And it's an interesting night... with not much to do!

I'm all by myself in Swee'Pea's apartment in Paris.
It's getting quite late. Not many cars on the boulevard. But still enough of them to remind me I'm in Paris.

It's been raining all day long with strong winds and it's getting quite wintery (since it was very springy until two days ago...  you kind of forget summer and fall). All of a sudden, no leaves on the trees. People hurry by, holding broken umbrellas.

The homeless people under the elevated subway bridge have been huddling together for warmth, all day long. They are suddenly very quiet which somehow, I don't like at all.

So Swee'Pea's cat, Byerly, and I, we have also been cuddling up a lot today, feeling blue, I guess. But mostly kind of cold... I hate rainy days!

See how cold it's getting to be! End of November! Unbelievable! Byerly needs my reading lamp to get his beauty sleep.

Today, Swee'Pea called several times from Chile. Once before leaving La Serena and once when he got to the Observatory which is 'one of the most wonderful places in the world' (he should know by then).

Lucky us! (Byerly listens to Swee'Pea's calls too. When we talk on Skype, he tries to find his one and only love behind the computer screen.)

Popeye also called several times from Bulgaria, as soon as he got there from Rumania. Bulgaria is the only place in the world where they need a "chauffeur" except maybe China. It's not a very safe country. And then he called me in-between meetings. Did I sound this pathetic? Probably!

Well, something is happening to-night, at last! Byerly has found one of his old rubber balls! He just brought it to me, which means: 'Ok, ol' girl, let's play now. Let's have some fun!'

So let's play for a short while! Thank goodness there are cats in our lives...

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


IDRIS - Born Today in the Gaza Strip

Welcome, Idris!

Welcome  to a world we hope will be kind to you. You are a handsome boy and all your family’s friends from all over the world are rejoicing over your birth.

Welcome, Idris. And may your life be beautiful and very long and wise.

For those of you who don’t know, Idris’ father is Suleiman Baraka.

Suleiman is a very good friend of our son. They are like brothers.

Suleiman got his PhD in astrophysics in Paris a couple of years before Swee'Pea. He went back to Gaza to spend a few weeks with his family before flying away to Virginia where he had a postdoc with NASA waiting for him. The family would follow later.

But politics can be cruel. Suleiman could not leave Gaza until much later, very much later. We took him in at his arrival in Paris. He was very tired but very hopeful. Then he left for Virginia Tech. This was in October 2008.

Then tragedy struck. We are still grieving. Let just say that Ibrahim, Suleiman’s second son, was killed by an Israeli missile in January. Actually Ibrahim died in Cairo in Suleiman’s arms but when his body was sent back to the Gaza Strip, Suleiman could not go along with him. Ibrahim was 11 yrs old and a very nice and bright boy, a top student.

We took Suleiman back in for a few days in Paris. He was a very broken man but not hateful, still believing that peace could happen somehow on a long-term basis. Then he went back to the States.

It’s a long story and today is a day of rejoicing. But it is hard not to think about Ibrahim.

People united their wills and efforts. Suleiman’s family was allowed to leave Gaza to go live in the States. Suleiman’s wife, Iman, and the three remaining children (Mohammed, Waad and Dawoud) arrived in Virginia by the end of February.

Then we got great news. Iman was expecting a child. Very quickly we learnt that the baby to come was a boy.

In August though, the family made a decision. They wanted to go back to Gaza in order to be part of a peaceful rebuilding of Gaza.

Suleiman and Iman strongly believe that the peaceful future of their country lies in goodwill and education. They also wanted Idris to be a symbol of this peaceful future. They wanted him to be born in the family hometown.

So they went back to Gaza.

I cried a lot because it was hard to understand such a decision. We were frightened. They were very brave.

Communications can be difficult at times, even tho Suleiman is teaching and creating an Astrophysics Center in Gaza.

But we manage. We communicate. It’s like a big chain... You get news... You spread them!

So welcome, Idris to a better world.  We all love you.

This day is truly a day of great rejoicing for your family and all of us, all over the world.

°Idris is the arabic form of Henoch. He’s known in the Quran as being the father of writing and astronomy.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


My Three Canadian Sisters

I have three Canadian sisters: Colleen, Arlene and Myrna. I still love them a lot. We became sisters when we were much younger, at least 40 years ago. (0ops!)

I met them when I spent a long summer in Alberta. I was invited to stay at their home.

I remember the first time I met my Canadian family at the Calgary Airport. I was very tired and frightened... My English was far from perfect even though I was majoring in English at Montpellier University.
I had heard that in Alberta, there were very few French people around and I was feeling very French, so totally French and so lost!

Besides they were living on a farm and even though part of my family had been farming a long, long time ago, I was a city girl.

At the airport, there were only five people waiting for me but they seemed like a crowd! It shows how scared I was.

Well, it was almost love at first sight. By the time, we reached Taber, we were getting more comfy. Since then, I’ve heard hilarious but very touching stories about how the whole family had been planning very seriously to make «the French girl» feel at home.

We bonded so easily that by the end of the summer, we were very, very close. I was the oldest one, I should have been the wisest one but I loved having fun very much. And so we did have a lot of fun together.

We talked about everything... We did thousands of things together. We did enjoy being together, we really did!

It was summertime which is always a very busy time on a farm. And we worked a lot. I didn’t mind working. I thought it was interesting and fun. You see, the French farms I knew were very small. Theirs was huge... and I was discovering very modern farming. I was flabbergasted (I love this word!). I really was.

So there was a lot of work like hoeing the  sugar beets (I mean the weeds in between the beets even tho from time to time I’m sure I hoed a couple of beets off, sorry!). It was so hot that we kept drinking salty water. Another cultural shock!

Then there was moving the spinkler-pipes every so often... and this was hard on my arms at first. By the end of my stay, I was much stronger. For the first time in my life, I developed very muscular arms and legs.

We had to get up during the night to go with Dad who was a darling man to open the irrigation gates when our turn had come to get water from the ducts.

I asked many times to go along because we’d have very profound talks, the kind of sharing thoughts that’s easier to do during the night than during the day. I used to love being around my sisters’ dad because he was a real father and such a kind man. I learnt a lot from him besides opening irrigation gates.

Then came harvesting time. We got some help from a couple of boys! So much fun! But we did a terrific job! This was done very close to the end of my stay and by then, we had really grown to be more than sisters.

I almost forgot to tell about sorting the cows to send the chosen ones to the auction market! Quite interesting since I did it barefeet. Cows are kind of heavy beasts, you know. Being scared as they were, there was also a lot of dung on the ground! Good lesson for me.

So there was a lot of work... But there was a lot of fun too. Lots of giggling and laughing. Lots of music and singing in this house. Another amazing experience for me.

I still remember the day when Dad brought us back from the fields in the bucket of his backhoe. I think that our (delighted) screams could be heard at least 10 miles away!

I didn’t have a driver’s license but I was allowed to drive the tractor, the backhoe, the pick-up. I even drove the cows to the auction market in what seemed to me quite a big truck! I felt so happy but I became quite a wild driver.

The harvest was almost over and there were a few bales left to take back to the farm. So we loaded the back of the pick-up and off we went. I was driving of course.

There we were, at top speed on a track, laughing our heads off as usual. I can’t remember what happened next except that we went down below somewhere in another field after a double somersault, I imagine, since we were back to ‘normal’ except that we were huddled together in a very weird way inside the pick-up. A few very unusual minutes (seconds?) of silence.
And then:
‘Are you hurt?’
‘You sure?’
‘What happened?’
‘Don’t know!’

We looked around. The bales were no longer where they were supposed to be. They were scattered all over the field.
And it suddenly hit us:
‘Oh no! What will Dad say?’
Somehow, we got back to the farm. Guess what? Dad was wonderful. He didn’t get upset at all since we were alive and unhurt.

That summer was really filled with fun.

Poor Myrna didn’t get half the fun tho because she was mostly staying home helping Mom to fix lunch or supper and then cleaning the dishes. She probably felt left out from time to time.

Sometimes we were really mean to her because she was the ‘baby’! But she was allright. She knew how to fight back! She was so ‘petite’ compared to me! She made me laugh a lot. Yes, she sure was fun too!

We did go camping with her at Waterton... We loved every minute of it.

And we sang all together at their cousin’s wedding... They got me to sing and act. Well I loved to act but I hated to sing! We did create quite a strong impression on the audience tho!

Well, so many good and sweet memories!

And now we’re slowly getting older.

Our children meet from time to time... bonding again sisters from far-off lands.

*Good Night, and Good Luck"


I used to believe Walt Disney's stories were real!

Aeons ago, I loved Walt Disney’s cartoons. Somehow I feel now the Walt Disney studios have turned kind of phoney... Of course, I’m a little bit older, this explaining that, I guess.
My inner child (how cute) would rather watch «Antz» or «The Ice Age» one hundred times than «A Bug’s Life». And my older self (less cute) does watch «Antz» and «The Ice Age»!
I admit I still love some Walt Disney’s cartoon movies without feeling pathetic!

Walt Disney’s productions had something magical because they were more than cartoons. They told stories I knew so well and loved a lot.

As a child, I did not have an easy life. Very soon, I discovered that in order to ward off the «unpleasantness» of our family everyday life, there was reading. And so I started reading and reading... and dreaming, dreaming... in the soft cocoon I had created for myself.
So I knew almost by heart every tale by the Grimm brothers, Andersen, folktales and many (translated) books by English authors.

The  first great movies by Walt Disney were based upon my favourite readings. But the drawings, the voices (very carefully chosen in French), the songs, all added to a very magical feast.

This was a time without television. The only way to watch a movie was to go to the movie theater. I was lucky enough to live in a city. So every once in a while, there would be a Disney movie coming up, especially at Christmas time or during school holidays.

For a start, going to the movies didn’t happen very often. So it really was a happy moment in our lives. (At the time, I had one younger sister and one  even much younger brother.)

Going to the movie theater meant something else: a few hours of peaceful and enjoyable time. Our parents would quit bickering/fighting at least for a while as soon as we were seated... and there would even be happy times when we’d bring back the movie/story over and over and we’d sing the songs you could hear on the radio. A Walt Disney new movie was quite big news in France.

I could have fallen for Cinderella or Snow White. Well, I did... What could be more wonderful than to sing «Someday my Prince will come» when you get into your teens? You’d sing the song and then a big sigh! After all, I was 13 or 14, maybe 15.

Actually, not 15. This was the year of "The Sound of Music".

Back to Disney. So I loved all his movies but one of them did strike a chord in my heart: «One Hundred and One Dalmatians».
When the birds help Snow-White clean the dwarfs’ home, it’s wonderful but not quite believable. Kind of cute tho.
But so many lovely dogs and one delightful cat, this was a real feast!

I had always liked cats and dogs but we never had any, except twice and the two of them met a very early, untimely and awful end which I don’t even want to talk about.
So no dogs and no cats. Until one day...
I was 13 and I don’t know why my mother said I could have a cat. Wow, miracles do happen.
Our neighbours’ cat had had kittens. And I got to choose an adorable female kitten. Our plain European breed. Yesterday, I tried to find a picture of her and couldn’t.
But she looked just like this one except that I keep remembering her in black and white like the few pictures I had of her.      

And guess how I called my pretty female cat: Sgt Tibbs. You can feel that somehow I was already going through a very strong streak of feminism!

In French, it sounded like: «Sergent Tibbs»... which actually was very quickly shortened into Tibbs! And Tibbs liked her name and she loved me.

From time to time, when things got really messed up at home, I’d grab Tibbs and tell everybody: «Ok, Tibbs and I, we are fed up. So we are leaving. Bye.» Of course we did not leave and so my mother would turn the whole thing into a joke. But it really was not a joke... But in the 60s, in my family background, you couldn’t grab your cat and a bag and run away.

So Tibbs and I, we stayed together. She loved books. Most cats love books, letters, homework, everything that contains words and thoughts! You don’t believe me? Think hard. How many writers live with dogs? Some have dogs but lots have cats which spend the day/night curled and asleep on their desk or writing table.

Happy months went by. And then, one day, Tibbs went missing. I looked for her everywhere... I felt miserable, so miserable. Seeing your pet die is never a good experience but when it goes missing, it is terrifying because you don’t know what happened to it/her/him.
Four days later, Tibbs came back, ravenously hungry. She looked exhausted too. But what do you know when you are 13, especially in the 60s?

Of course, she started putting on weight and 9 weeks later, guess what? I don’t remember how many kittens were born. Tibbs and I, we got to keep one. (The others were probably «cleared» by Cruella De Vil.)

Tibbs was delighted... So was I. Except that it was getting harder to run away! Try to grab a mother cat, her kitten and a bag filled with books... Of course, I could have opened the bag, put Tibbs and her kitten in it but then I would have felt like being Horace and/or Jasper revisited! (Watch the movie, you guys!)

Summer came. We started to pack our suitcases because it was time to go stay at Bon-Papa and Bonne-Maman’s place.

The day before we left, I was told that Tibbs would be coming along but the kitten had to be given away that very night. I think I threw a tantrum (small word, I imagine). Tibbs got very upset too... But to no avail.

We left as expected. I kind of remember the trip being hellish with Tibbs meowing like crazy all the way up to Arfons and me crying my heart out.

When we got to the house, I made sure Tibbs was securely locked up in my room because she was still looking for her kitten and acting very crazy.

But of course, someone (I won’t tell, I could but I won’t) let her out, making sure to show her the way to the street and the wild.

She left grieving about her kitten. She left me.

There was no way I could find her. The village was small and surrounded by fields and woods and a huge forest. Besides we were 125 miles from Béziers where we had left her kitten.

And then, being such a dreamer, I started lighting matches to keep the cold and sorrow and fear away like in Andersen’s tale.

I thought a lot about the «101 Dalmatians»... Hope came back slowly. After all, Pongo and Perdita had found their 15 puppies along with 84 other stolen ones.

I also relied on the «true» stories of cats and dogs finding their way back home.

Tibbs had not left me. She had left to go back to Béziers and find her kitten. I’d find her on our door-step in September.

I kept dreaming and crying and hoping and crying.

When we got to Béziers, no one had seen Tibbs again and her kitten was happily growing up in his new home.

After all, «The Little Match Girl» dies at the end of the story.

Mr Walt Disney, I loved you but I definitely quit believing your stories. (And don’t tell me it was just about time!)

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


It's November 11th, Bon-Papa.

My dear Bon-Papa Mathieu,

Today, you would have proudly displayed the French flag from your bedroom window, the one over the village square. Then you would have stood to attention with tears in your eyes.

You would have put on your best jacket, pinned your medals over your heart and then, you would have said: «Time to go, children».

No need to tell us, Bon-Papa, we knew where we had to go.

To the small square, 500 meters away from your home, the one that’s very close to the graveyard. There, as if to part the tiny «townhall» with its enclosed one-room school and the small village church, a granite war memorial was standing. An awful long list of names was engraved there in golden letters (young men’s names when in 1914, there were less than 200 people living in Arfons). You knew them very well of course, all of them being your cousins and your friends.

All the villagers were there since almost every family had lost a loved one! Old people who had lived through this terrible war. Younger people whose father or uncle had died then. The children who had never lived through a war.

Someone would then blow the bugle. It sounded so sad and heart-wrenching!

Everybody would join in singing the hymn we sang at the time: «Le chant du départ» and not «La Marseillaise».

Being the oldest survivor, my Bon-Papa would step up and set down a funeral wreath with a blue, white and red ribbon on which golden letters said «To our brave heroes».

And then, we would all stand there in a profound silence for one minute.

I was not always staying at my grand-parents’ home in the village at the time but the ceremony which was compulsory for us, schoolchildren, was held in every village and city.

Bon-Papa, I have some news for you. I don’t know whether or not you’ll like them but you were a man of peace, deep in your heart.

We still hold «November 11th Memorial Services» in France. Only a few people attend them. Now we listen to «La Marseillaise» and there is no one around anymore from the «War to end all wars».

Somehow we truly have become Europeans and we’ve come to think about «14-18» as a slaughter that should never have happened.

But I’ll never forget you, my grand-father, standing so straight in front of the war memorial with tears in your eyes, remembering.

«Never more». Isn’t it what they said at the time?

You’ll be happy to hear that I almost had a baby boy on November 11th, 1979. My waters broke in the evening. But he chose to wait until the 12th to really come into this world.

We called him Jean-Christophe as in «Jean-Christophe» by Romain Rolland, the humanist, who worked so hard all his life to find a way to establish a non-violent world, a world of men in communion with other men.

I guess he's part of the first European generation. I just realized I never taught him "Le Chant du Départ". I don't even know whether or not he knows how to sing "La Marseillaise".

But you'd be proud of him. We truly think that he really is a man of peace.

Peace on earth and good will to men, Bon-Papa.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


My Travel Book - The Nice and Calern Observatories - A Few Thoughts About Astrophysics

When we are at Les Tertres, our home in Brittany, and night falls and it’s not raining or should I say «cloudy», we are blessed with a very beautiful view of the Milky Way since there is almost no light pollution.

The very dim and solar-powered «landing spots for friendly aliens» someone insisted upon scattering in the garden don’t count. They really don’t... poor aliens!.

So we have this wonderful sky and a XIXth century telescope which kind of probably helps us to see the planets and the stars the way they were 100 years ago or so if it works backwards which I doubt but you never know.

Anyway, we have this completely romantic and poetic view of limitless skies, sea and wilderness...

Swee'Pea never asked about a brand new telescope. So we were at a complete loss when he started talking about studying Astrophysics which being JC, he embarked upon as soon as he got his mind set.

He went to graduate school at the Paris Observatory, one of the oldest in France, built at the beginning of the XVIIth century, if I remember right,  at a time when it was still quite far away from the city of Paris and when electricity hadn’t been invented yet!  The astronomers did have a lot of fun there, I imagine! Well, they loved what they were doing so they had to have a lot of fun.

By the way, never even think one second that Astrophysics is this hard and painful to study and that it makes you completely different human beings. Astronomers and astrophysicists can be very friendly people, a little bit on the weird side tho but not always!

Back to the Paris Observatory, it’s still kind of used nowadays. Lately it was given a nice touch of paint with alien cabalistic signs only understood by physicists bright minds and hopefully by aliens too.

When I look at it, I hear the music from Spielberg's Close Encounter of the Third Kind and I hope that our little green men will be as nice as his.

Once he got his PhD, Swee'Pea moved to Nice to another Observatory. I have to admit that it’s a very incredible place! You see it as soon as you get to Nice, on top of «the mountain».

Once you’ve mastered the many sharp twists of the «road» that climbs up to the Observatory, well, I don’t know what it’s like up in the sky at night from there but what you see from up there down in the valley below, wow!



I spent at least half an hour watching the Corsican Ferry maneuver to get into the very small Nice harbor without sinking any of the cruising yachts there. Wow again.

It’s nice being an astronomer in Nice because you can watch so many boats and ferries during the day... and still go back to your stars and galaxies at night.

(We were lucky to stay in Nice the very week-end the Calern observatory site is open to the public. Swee'Pea was scheduled to give a lecture there.)

So there we are in Nice. The weather is beautiful. Hundreds of people frolic around in a very warm sea.

But we climb aboard our son’s very old Land-Rover and up we go. It’s getting colder and colder. It starts raining. It’s not a road anymore but a track full of potholes due to snow that starts falling early september until Easter!

And we get to Calern... Once again, we are not this much into astrophysics so we don’t grasp the magnitude of the studies done there...

Despite the rain and cold, we are really filled with wonder by the scenery, which may not be this satisfying for Swee'Pea after all. But he’s a forgiving son! Besides we love his lecture, as usual! He makes it very easy to travel through time and dimension.

The rain stops when his lecture is over and so we take a walk through the facilities.

By then the fog is coming up but it gives such a mystery to the whole place even tho hundreds of people are swarming around, some with huge telecospes at the rear of their truck... It’s stargazing night, you guys! This place is open to whoever wants to learn a little bit more about our universe. Once a year!

So we move from building to building, listening to very friendly lecturers about this and that... Swee'Pea seems to know an awful lot of people there! And he looks certainly much happier than if we had insisted upon spending the day at the beach!

And then I come face to face with the most amazing structure I’ve ever seen. It is supposed to be the perfect standard home for the moon! How poetic can astrophysicians be! Antoine de Saint-Exupery himself could have drawn it for the Petit Prince.

I’d spend my whole life on the moon in such a funny house...

Well maybe not.

After going inside and looking outside, no way... Just imagine a lunar scenery from those portholes? All your life?

I’m very sorry, Swee'Pea but I don’t think I’m quite ready to leave my beloved Brittany yet and go spend the rest of my life on some distant star and certainly not on the moon!

Please, let’s go back home. Let’s goooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

A few links:

*Good night, and Good Luck*


My Travel Book - France - All about (French) trains

This entry is dedicated to a very good friend of Swee'Pea who’s part of our family now. For a lot of reasons, he loves trains so much that he’s able to even think of travelling by train all the way from Southern France to Brittany. It’d take him more than 24 hours  but I’m sure he’d love to death to do it!

It’s also dedicated to another good...(blah, blah, blah) who only travels by car! (His.)  You’re missing a lot, my friend.

Back to my story:

I had an uncle who loved trains to distraction.

He created a very famous and international company but we remember him at his best when we start talking about his home basement.

We, women, we tend to think that deep inside a grown man, there is a small boy who likes to stay young, very young sometimes! Well, my uncle, this big important man, was a very endearing, small boy at heart.

His basement was a miniature/huge rail network (depending on your age)... complete with stations (freight and passengers), mountains, tunnels, switches, lights, «people» and of course, miniature trains always running on time and very safely since each one of them was worth a fortune.

In between his managing job and working in his basement, he’d go on trips (train trips of course) in very exotic places like the Andes or he’d be travelling aboard ancient steam trains running on rehabilitated tracks in the middle of nowhere.

Well, I love travelling by train. It’s fast, usually safe, very nice (which means that you get to talk to other passengers... or work on your computer... or read... or get your beauty sleep while travelling very fast.)

Swee'Pea created himself quite an international network while coming to visit us in Brussels (but not by TGV. We have our own international Thalys going from Paris to Belgium, Holland and Germany and very fast to boot: over 300 kms/hr. This way it does get very hard to do better by car!)

Plus you get right from the heart of one city to the heart of another one. (So do you by car but I was thinking about planes... Sorry!)

Whenever we don’t have too much luggage and our cat decides to stay home with his cat-sitter, we go to Brittany by TGV. It takes 3 hours (plus 20 mns to get to our house by car) door to door from Swee'Pea’s Paris apartment to Les Tertres.
By the way, in case I didn’t make it clear and I don’t think I did, TGV means Very High Speed Train.
Which allows people to make easily fun of the TGV logo!

So taking the Northern Brittany TGV has become quite a habit for us. Usually we take a «direct» TGV which means that it’ll only stop once in Rennes, the historical capital of Brittany, before getting us to our final destination. But sometimes, our TGV will stop definitely in Rennes or it will go farther to Southern Brittany. Then we have to climb aboard what we call a TER.  They are not always as brand new as the one I found on the web but they're clean and interesting!

TER means it’s a regional «fast» train - French snail eaters do have a good sense of humour. Try eating snails and you’ll see what I mean. It’s much safer than hallucinogenic mushrooms. (Sorry, just checking if my English was good enough to spell this «h....c» stuff.)

Well, getting on a TER in Rennes can be a pain in the neck if you carry tons of luggage because  the TGV platforms are not very close to the TER platforms...

Besides, the TER will usually stop at every station along the way, even the tiniest one. You see, it’s kind of an ombilical cord from rural Brittany to «the» city.

But once you’re aboard the TER, it’s actually delightful because it’s a wonderful means of discovering what you can’t see from the TGV railway system and of course what you’ll never see from your car driving on the freeway. Small villages and very small towns. Farmyards. Woods. People enjoying walks in very nice rural settings. And lots of peaceful animals in the greener than green fields.

The TER usually stops at stations you didn’t even know they existed. Our own exotic railway trip. Much less now since we end up using the TER a lot! But well, there is always a place you have forgotten! And then, you shake your head and wonder: «Have we ever been there before?»

We have, of course. In France, they don’t build forsaken train stations overnight! They tend to close them.

Oh yes, by the way, if your time schedule is not close to school and work schedules, there is no one waiting on the platform and no one ever gets off the train. Amazing! But the train stops nevertheless... And you are not in a ghost station. There may be a station master ready to whistle the train away from the tiny platform! And sometimes, he gives a parcel to the train driver who gives it to another station master a few miles away. Kind of cute!

So now that I have told you how idyllic it is to travel by train in France, let’s face the reality!

Never, ever buy a train ticket to go anywhere in France and/or Northern Europe (my two fields of experience) when ---

     it’s the day after the first morning of a school holiday or the day before school starts again.

     it’s a school holiday.

     it’s the start or the end of a week-end, especially an extended one.

     it’s winter time and the weather gets very bad.

     it’s summer time and France gets invaded by all sorts of foreign people, young and old! (In Brittany, a foreigner is someone who was not born in Brittany... That’s the way it is, sorry about that.)

So let’s get back to the subject!
I know, it took me a while but I hope I kept you entertained. If you decided to leave my blog before this point, just too bad... for me. I’ll have to improve my storytelling.

Yesterday, I went to Brittany to give my approval about some tiles our architect had chosen. How nice to be the one to approve such an important thing! I can’t believe how gullible I can be! Well, I have to admit that Philippe was very busy!

At 7 a.m., on the way to Brittany, everything turned out so perfect. The train was almost empty due to school holidays which will be over on Thursday.

I even got to choose my own seat (over at least twenty other possibilities). Your seat number is stamped on your ticket when you buy it but you still have the possibility to try another one if there are empty seats. (At least I do but only because I’m a seasoned traveller and I’m so unruly and so very French!)

I just couldn’t believe it. I even started freaking out. Oh my, this is the crisis knocking down our beloved train system! The Monday 7 a.m. train to Saint-Brieuc is usually quite crowded.

Allright so I did approve everything... I even managed to have a few good ideas (I was feeling good and relaxed!) Then our architect invited me for lunch at our very best friends’ restaurant in Saint-Brieuc. (I was feeling even better and more relaxed.)

Popeye (who is my husband, believe it or not) had taken care of my tickets so I trusted him... He knows me... Well, sometimes, you are in for big surprises!

I got my first shock getting onto the train platform on time for the 3 p.m. TGV from Brest. The platform was swarming with people, children, dogs, huge suitcases.

And when the TGV stopped, it was already overbooked (a nice French way to make you pay full price for your ticket and seat reservation... and then you end up travelling standing wherever you can. But you are on the train because the ticket inspector tells you that you may find a seat anyway!)

Well I was lucky not to have an overbooked «seat» otherwise I would have been real, real, real mad!

But it was quite a trip. It took us almost 5 hours to get to Paris because we stopped at every (big) station for the longest time ever and in Rennes, we had to wait to get hooked to the train coming up from Nantes.

Children were crying. Grand-parents/parents were getting nervous.

The woman seated in front of me kept falling asleep (good for her). One major problem though: as soon as she'd fall asleep, she’d start snoring and worse, she'd keep on stretching her legs out... sort of fighting me out of my seat space! Then she’d wake up and shoot mean glances at me. (Well, there was no talking this time. I promise I never kicked her, not even once!)

I’m so glad Apple happened to create this marvellous thing called ipod. After a very short while, I gave up on trying to work on my website and I clamped my earphones on my ears and flew away into a much happier world, filled with the music I love. Too bad I couldn’t lift my legs too.

You can’t have everything in life, can you?

*Good night, and good luck.*