Tuesday, what more can I say?

It is almost noon and I must face facts, I am lazy today.  I told MK and Mike this morning at breakfast, before heading out to the gym that I was having a “Rich Day.”  Mary Kay laughed and said that a “Rich Day” is nothing more than a day I spend in running around the house doing things.  She is right, but I am not sure what I should have called it. 

I am still in my leather easy chair but I do have my beloved laptop with me.  I have spent the morning messing around with blogorganization, making sure that I have everything properly documented and filed.  I have done some e-mailing and also a short translation from French into English for Christine in France, who requested that I go over something for a special “Fair Trade” exhibition taking place in a Strasbourg church in the near future featuring bronze statues from Burkina Faso.  It amazes me that a small piece of my work might soon be sitting in a French church.  It also just occurred to me that I forgot to mention to Christine, although with her English I am sure she is aware, that I used the American spelling of mold which would be mould in British English.  Oh well…

Yesterday was absolutely wonderful with Samantha but for some reason it flattened me a bit!  I fell asleep in my chair during her afternoon nap, something I don’t do all that often.  I thought about it and realized that I have really been terribly busy, so why not just have a plain old lazy day?

I had a great workout at the gym early in the morning.  Mike’s was less successful as he was dealing with Charlie’s somewhat unexpected exercise routine that “confused” his own a bit.  Mine was going along just fine, some cardio, my shoulder/chest machines, and then a “super” cardio finish because somehow having Michael next to me on a treadmill had me working harder than I otherwise might have. 

So, I came home, did some organization, a bit of translation, and am quietly sitting finishing up the herbal tea I prepared.  Lunch, perhaps?  Darn, I am going to have to prepare it myself!

I also did some work for MK’s upcoming birthday.  As usual, I will set some “grenades and bombs” of confusion about what will take place and about what she might be receiving for this particular “big” birthday that she wants no hubbub about.  I love the element of surprise and the stress as one wonders exactly what is going to happen.  Honestly, I haven’t done much planning…or have I?  Since she reads this blog, perhaps I am setting her up from this vantage point.  On the other hand, is her birthday this month or next month?  She knows me too well, I am not the normal husband, I remember these things.  My mother trained me well, Queen of Hallmark that she was!

So, although I am blogging later in the day than normal, at least I got to it!  Still keep wondering…the day is young, there are all kinds of mischief I can get involved in!

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Soufflenheim and its pottery

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France is obviously a very important part of my life.  My first view of it was through Paris and of Tours, living in the latter for an academic year of college.  I thought that I would always prefer Tours and the Valley of the Loire, but I was mistaken.  Although I frankly adore it all, I am particularly smitten by Alsace and Strasbourg.  So much so that when I am in Paris I have been asked if I am “from the East.”  They noticed that I was using some vocabulary and also had a trace of an accent from the eastern portion of France.

Having spent more than ten years of yearly two weeks or more stays in the environs of Strasbourg, I grew to love the area. I created many close friendships and had many a good time there.  Because of the nature of the exchange program I worked with, I lived each time I went to France, with a teacher/colleague who exposed me to all aspects of the Alsatian/French culture while treating me like a king.

I remember early on falling in love with the everyday dishes my friends would serve me on.  During the daily trips we would take in the area with students, one of the stops was always the lovely town of Soufflenheim.  While there we would visit the local pottery shops and get to see the making of it as well.  In my visits there I became enamored of the blue variety you see in my pictures.  I decided that we needed to have a set of it.  I even have my favorite potter’s studio of Philippe Lehmann.  One of the things I like best about it is the fact that there are variations in its production, they are not perfectly alike.  From potter to potter there are variations as well. 

Supposedly potters have been in the area since almost 400 B.C.  The local potters were given the rights to use the local clay from the nearby Haguenau forest by the Emperor Barbarossa.

The large dish/plate/tray with my name and Mary Kay’s was a gift from my dear friend, Martine, one of my teacher/colleagues who stayed with us and then we stayed with her family while in France.  That was quite the lucky stay since it was a Boulangerie/Pâtisserie Artisanale, which means that it was truly on top of the heap in terms of honors and they were well deserved ones at that.  Needless to say, we had the most amazing culinary time you could imagine soaking up all the amazing bakery items imaginable, all while visiting with a most amazing family.

Martine and my other friends, Nicole, Catherine, and Fabienne, spent much time with me and my family and exposed me to so many aspects of Alsace and Strasbourg.

One thing I found out right away is that the pottery from Soufflenheim could not be easily gotten in the U.S.  When I asked about shipping it, they told me that they just don’t!  I checked into shipping it myself and my friend, Martine, told me that I risked getting it back home smashed to bits because the postal workers were notorious for not treating packages well.  I therefore set about, in my stays there, to picking up plates, mugs, assorted pieces, bit by bit and transporting them on the plane as carry ons.   Little by little, mostly just by myself, but with family members when they were with me, I picked up enough pieces to have a set of fifteen dinner plates, salad plates, etc.  We use it when we feel the need for a “pick me up” because it always gives us pleasure using it.  This year we decided it is our official Thanksgiving set of dishes to be used with the dirylite cutlery we have.  It all looks amazing together.

In France, it is advertised as being safe in the dishwasher, oven, and microwave although we take more care with it than to do that.   The blue is the secondary color of Soufflenheim, I believe, the mustardy yellow being more popular.  What we purchased is pretty traditional in style; they have advanced to modernizing it a bit.

One of these days I need to visit the town of Betschdorf, the other famous Alsatian town for pottery.  I think it is beautiful as well, it is a gray/blue combo, but it just doesn’t have the pull for me that Soufflenheim’s does.

Soufflenheim is also known for being close to Sessenheim, a town where a young lady lived, who was pursued by Goethe.  I believe that Goethe was known to have visited Soufflenheim with the young lady as well.

One of the pictures has a piece that looks a lot like a Bundt pan.  It is the mold for a Kougelhopf, a special Alsatian cake that can either be made as a dessert type with some sweetness and almonds or a more savory apéritif type variety with cheese and bacon.

I know many people who have a piece or two of the beautiful Soufflenheim pottery, but don’t know of any other family beyond our own who has an entire set of it.

At the present time, one of our salad plates bit the dust, I think I may just have to go to France and pick up another!

Dinner chez Marcia

True to form, we make plans to do things. When the moment arrives, sometimes one thinks, “Why did I make these plans, the weather is crummy, I don’t feel like going out, etc.” True to form as well, one arrives on scene at the engagement made and realizes that despite feelings that it would be best to stay home, that the scenario turned out to be a memorable moment.

Going downtown can be a tiring experience; the part of it I like least is the traffic one has to deal with in order to get there in the late afternoon to early evening. I am an on-time person and I find it hard when I cannot easily plan within the framework affected by erratic traffic. As it turns out, despite our plans to leave at 5:15 PM to get downtown for 6:30, we didn’t get out of the house until 5:37 PM. Having Samantha in the house beforehand is enough to cause the delay. As usual, I avoided the main highway, which was a major parking lot, and took the Sheridan Road to Lake Shore Drive, seemingly slower, and yet not at that time of day.

Our invitation was at Marcia’s, a dear colleague from the French Homestay/Exchange I was involved in for over ten years. Dinner chez Marcia is always entertaining and the culinary aspect approaches that of the finest French restaurants. Marcia is the consummate hostess.

Going to Marcia’s is always interesting because the discussion is with intelligent people from different backgrounds who have somehow had some involvement with the program in France. After the experience of being with them, one realizes how inferior some of our social connections can actually be. There isn’t a moment where one is bored and the time passes oh so quickly. At the end of the evening, we looked at our watches for the first time and realized that it was well past eleven. There was no fatigue reminding us of the hour, no moment of thinking about when we would be able to leave. The conversation is always scintillating, hitting all sorts of subjects, and always engaging.

The evening started out with French champagne and appetizers. We were the last ones to arrive (oh so French, though not on purpose) and we had the appetizers, so we were keeping the festivities from beginning. The mood was relaxed and congenial. It was oh so nice seeing people we hadn’t connected with in so long.

My biggest surprise of the evening is that this blog is being read by more of my friends/acquaintances than I ever would have imagined. When I think back to last September, when I started blogging on a personal whim, not having any idea where this might be headed. My entries brought about conversation regarding things going on chez les Koerner, which I view as a good thing. I found it interesting that in some areas, I had no explaining to do regarding what has been happening, as everyone already knew!

After a nice conversational moment the word was that we were to go to the dining area and we sat down in places selected for us, nicely separating spouses and friends for good conversation. There were ten of us in total. We started out with three different foie gras, whose origins were explained to us. Personally, I liked Jean-Frédéric’s (the son of our good colleague/friend in France) the best! There were several white wines to go along with the course. Honestly, had we stopped the evening as early as that point, it would have still been a major success.

The next course was prime rib which was served rare, as I believe it should be. That always makes me happy. Red wine, of course, was served along with it. Ratatouille made by Marcia and cassoulet, If I remember correctly, were served as well.

The wines were amazing, they were always accompanied by an explanation/story of their origins, the food was explained, conversations about the food and other issues ongoing. This is the way a meal should be.
Following this, and the removal of the plates, the next course came out, that of salad (which was delicious, as expected) and the different varieties of cheese (I think all were French) served with a great multi-grain bread.

As the table was being cleared I became a bit confused as I was asked my age and/or whether Mary Kay was younger than I am. This cleared itself up as the Galette des Rois (the traditional Epiphany cake of France) was brought out. This came accompanied by a crown. The person receiving the fève (a tiny statuette) in his/her piece of the the galette would then wear the crown as the King or Queen and receive its accompanying good luck. The fève, for this occasion, was a miniscule statuette of a traditionally dressed Alsatian woman).

The reason I was asked my age is because the youngest person has to go under the table until everyone is served and call out the names of the the attending people as the hostess asked the question, “Pour qui est-ce?” This means, “For whom is the piece of galette?). Luckily, my memory of names was not hampered too much by the wine, although I almost forgot Mary Kay’s (lol!) and was reminded of it. It was strange being under the table. Is this perhaps my new place to be?

After the galette was served to all, we started eating and Marcia became the reigning Queen, a title which she well deserves for all of the wonderful things she does and the amazing job she has done culturally for both the Americans and the French at working with our friend Christine (and others) in France to create the programs we have so much enjoyed for so many years.

Along with the galette were served amazing chocolates Marcia had procured in France from the best chocolate makers (and that is no joke!) and other delicacies. Naturally, at this point several “digestifs” (after dinner drinks) were served.

Although one would think that the amount of liquor would be deadly, I felt, in fact, no ill effect as I had not really imbibed all that much at any point in time and what I did ingest was taken at intervals with the courses being eaten.

As I said, the time just flew by and the conversation and friendships re-invigorated were so much enjoyed. Marcia is truly the consummate hostess and so knowledgeable in so many different areas. As an aside, Mary Kay and I truly miss her sister, an intelligent woman who had some interesting opinions, many of which we don’t and didn’t share. One time she came with us to a dinner chez Marcia (we asked Marcia if she minded, and of course she didn’t) and in discussion with Marcia actually admitted that she was speechless and realized she just had to be quiet. That is the only time I ever witnessed that reaction. We so enjoyed that moment.

A special thanks to Marcia and all of our friends. Apologies to all if we haven’t been as able to be as social as we would like, yet I know that everyone understands. Events like this are reminders of the beauty of the variations within people and personalities and the richness they all bring to life’s table. That was one amazing evening! We feel so blessed.

Gaenseliesel (Gänseliesel) revisited

I just received a message from a very good friend in Strasbourg reminding me what my sometimes weary mind has forgotten. 

I am convinced that all things happen for a reason although we are not always privy to the reasons why.  Christine reminded me that in the beautiful Orangerie Park in Strasbourg that there is a a statue of Gaenseliesel.  As my wife reminds me, there are many spellings for this Goosy Girl named Liesel, Lisl, whatever.

So in 1978, I first came in contact with her and then I met her in Strasbourg.  Strasbourg is truly a French home away from home.  I so miss Strasbourg and am trying to figure out when to make my next trip there.

So here is a picture of my Liz!

A lifechanging event…

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When I was 19 ½, I flew from Cleveland to New York (Idlewild, now JFK airport) and then from there to Paris. It was a monumental trip for me. Upon leaving, my mother said to me, “You’ll never last!” Actually, her words were not far from reality. I was a relatively sheltered, shy, reserved young man who had decided that his love of French and the French language should take him to France for the year. While there, I was a part of my university group which also included students from Ohio University (my school), its sister school Bowling Green of Ohio, a few students from Miami University and finally one from Toledo, I believe, and Ohio State University.

When the plane touched down in Paris, as I looked out the window, I felt a shiver go down my spine. To this day, each time I land in France or Europe (because it is a given if in Europe I shall go to France), the same thing occurs. There is something magical about the moment. France for me is something incredibly special, perhaps the bellwether for me and signaling my imminent departure from a person and background I needed to shed. Like the caterpillar that spins its cocoon, I emerged ever so different from the person before.

Upon arrival in Paris, I met up with the main portion of the group I would be spending the year with. I don’t remember many details other than we had a long bus trip which took us from Paris to Tours, southwest of the city. I recall with fondness Dr. Barnes and his beautiful French (Corsican) wife who were the leaders of the trip. Dr. Barnes was an amazing man, an African American with American Indian built in, who was a social studies professor at the University.

I do have some remembrance of finally arriving at destination, to the Le Saux’s family house in St. Cyr sur Loire, just north of the city of Tours. I remember being in a situation that was somewhat scary. Fatigued as all get out and in a situation which demanded my utmost attention as I needed to speak in French, a French which was nothing more than school French. The TV was on, blaring, in fact, and the family was asking many questions. It was difficult and I remember what welcome relief it was when I settled into my room (I had the single, my two American counterparts there had the double) and went off to a well needed sleep.

Yes, this momentous occasion in which I made sure to deny my mother the satisfaction of being right, was a moment in which I used to make positive changes in my life and to make certain that I knew which career I was headed into, the teaching of French. My roommates, housemates, whatever, and I made a very difficult pact to always speak in French to each other, and we kept it. I managed to stay the entire time from September until June when my mother arrived and I accompanied her and her friend to Paris, London, and Dublin. And my shy self bloomed as I went from my school French to a communicative one that I have been building my whole life, to the point that people do not ever think I am American, nor do I have an American accent.

I had the ultimate freedom while in France, even managing to grow a beard, something I had never before felt comfortable doing as my family was so ridiculously anti-facial hair! I ate up the atmosphere! The food was amazing; the classes were satisfactory, all in French from classroom to oral and written final exams. My French mom provided me with a daily class in adult French and my new friends and peers were amazing as well giving me the family I had left at home in Cleveland.

During this year I slimmed down, though I didn’t really need to, eating like a horse and yet walking like crazy. I learned to finally let loose a little and to finally smell and drink the coffee. I realized the importance of relaxation, of enjoying myself, and , I believe, how to put it all into perspective. And, thanks to Madame Galliéni and her little soirée at her house, I fell in love with Scotch. Not so much because I then liked it, I did my best to impress this beautiful Phonetics teacher into thinking I was cosmopolitan! I have loved it ever since!

The French were and are amazing. They taught me and still teach me so much. That isn’t to say they know everything but they do have a civilization that is quite old, successful, and still blossoming. They are so much like us and we love each other so much that we often cannot stand to be around each other. We are like siblings. I understand that and I have no issues whatsoever with them. I am more than tired of explaining to people how wonderful they are. I don’t even have enough negative experiences in France or with French people to count on my one hand, and trust me, I could go way beyond that count in my own back yard. To think of the countless ignorant people who say they don’t like the French. How can they say that? Most of them have not spent any time with anyone French. Many just stay with their stereotyped ideas and just don’t give anyone a chance. I figure that if my German Teacher wife can fall in love with them and my sometimes hard to please sons, then that says it all!

I learned how to enjoy a meal. I learned how to spend quality time with people discussing anything and everything and revel in the differences that we all bring to the table. Culturally, I learned so much and it has helped me in dealing with my students and with any ethnic group. I learned respect and tolerance.

I have been criticized by some, even In my own family, because I guess I might sometimes give off the impression that there is nothing in France that I don’t like and that I cannot criticize them at all. This is not true. My feeling is that we can all learn so much from each other.

To me, in the ideal world, I would be able to spend half the year in the U.S. and the other half in France.

Due to my involvement with the New Trier in France program, I have had many French people in my house and exposed my entire family to my experience. They would most certainly reiterate what I am saying here and they don’t all speak perfect French. Speaking perfect French in France is the ideal but the French, overall, are more than happy if we just try. The reality is that we often don’t even do that, we act like everyone should speak our language, we are proud of ours, but remember the French are proud of theirs as well. I have been embarrassed more than once in France by the actions of one of my fellow citizens and have apologized profusely to the French and tried to explain the problem.

One of my most interesting experiences was the year that Mary Kay and I were able to take all three boys and our then future daughter-in-law to France. We had been given a gift by a student’s family of a week in their home on an island (the île d’Oléron), off the western coast of France, not far from Bordeaux. I told my French friends that due to distance that we would probably just do Paris and then go west, not head east to the Alsace region near Germany. The reaction was that of great friends extremely disappointed and this reaction says it all. They made it very clear to me, that if we made that choice and didn’t hit Strasbourg, that “I was dead to them.” I took it to heart and we changed plans. That change was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me and my family. Our weekend in Alsace was, as Mary Kay has so aptly put, “St. Richard’s arrival in France.” They went crazy, housing us with them, the kids in the dormitory of the school our exchange was with and showering us with a huge potluck party with amazing gifts, dinner engagements, and they drove us to all the main scenic sites in the area. Missing that would have been a major mistake and it so reminded me that the French truly love us. They may not always agree with us, but they love, respect, and appreciate us.

So, each time I land, it is the most amazing feeling for me. The shiver goes down my spine and I thank my lucky stars that I had the good fortune to find my love and career and that it has continually blessed me and my family with experiences that would knock anyone’s socks off!