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Grief like a Geyser

I’ve always had an intensely strong sixth sense. It is not uncommon for me to think of someone right before they ring me on the phone, and I’ll answer and say, “I was just thinking of you!”  At times, it’s so uncanny that it unnerves me and leaves me forever pondering the universe.  As Susan Sarandon says in Bull Durham, the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.  Sometimes I’ve thought, that would be a relief.

We’ve been in Europe for the last three months on Sabbatical, and are two days shy from going home. Nearly two weeks ago, almost simultaneously, Bruce and I both began to feel like it was time to go, and that we were ready to get back to our home and to our family and to our cat, Nigel. Neither of us mentioned it at first, as we’d made a promise that we’d invested in this trip, and we were going for the full Monty, the trip of a lifetime, living for three months in Europe. A couple of days later, we both finally admitted it, when Bruce said he’d had a dream about Nigel.  We both sensed we needed to get home.

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Three days later, on Thursday of last week, our beloved Nigel passed away, wrapped in a heating blanket in an incubator at our local veterinarian. He’d had severe anemia and had gone into shock from blood loss due to flea bites, brought on by a flea infestation, which had taken rapid hold of him over the preceding days. At fourteen years old, his body simply could not recover.

He was laid to rest in our back yard, by our girls and some friends. We’d spent two frantic days trying to deal with the situation from afar as we looked for ways to get home sooner.  Devastatingly, we were not there for him.

It seems forever ago that I wrote the following in July before we left …

“My mania on leaving our cat, Nigel, for four months has had me fraught with anxiety. Every day, I look at him and I think, how do I convey to you that it’s only for a little while? We’re not abandoning you. I know you will think you’ve been abandoned, but we’ll be back. Have faith!”

Like all things in life, there are no do-overs. There are only lessons learned. My sixth sense told me not to leave him, repeatedly, and despite all we did to ensure his well being, it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t have predicted this outcome in our worst nightmares.  My regret at leaving him will stay with me forever.

He’d become more complicated in his older age.  He was far needier, less invincible, more fearful.  In retrospect, I also know that he was aging, and that he’d have had an alternate fate some day, for everything has a season, and there is a time to every purpose under heaven, so says Ecclesiastes 1:3.

There was a morning a year or so ago when I awoke very early, before dawn. It must have been spring or summer because it was warm enough for me to take my cup of coffee and go out onto the darkened deck. Nigel had done his traditional circling of the house, which he did every morning when we went out. He would head one way or another sniffing, marking, and verifying the perimeter was as it should be. When he returned to sit at the edge of the deck with me, dawn was only just breaking deep beyond the woods to the east.

imageSuddenly, I heard a rustling in the hostas to my left. In the deep twilight, I could just make out what I thought was a baby deer approaching. But then I zeroed in on the low creeping movement of the animal, its eyes trained on Nigel, about five feet away. It was a fox. The scraping of my chair sent him turn tail, and I screamed like a banshee as he fled into the western woods. On that morning, one alternate choice, one step inside to warm my coffee would have changed his fate. It was not yet his time.

In 1999, my 16 year old Siamese cat, India, who was the love of my life, passed away on a Sunday night, surrounded by her family. She simply fell over of a stroke or heart attack. It was a wrenching sadness, and yet, in retrospect, a beautiful way to go. She was old, and her body hurt, and she spent most days sleeping. But on that day, she’d been outside for a little bit, a rare privilege in her life, with four of us surrounding her every movement to keep her safe as she pondered a bug hidden in the tree bark. Hers was a good and pampered life, and she was the smartest and funniest animal I’ve ever know.  She was an old soul.

A couple of months later, in October, as we were driving through town, Bruce unexpectedly pulled into the pound, just to look. I couldn’t have imagined another cat at that time, but we went inside anyway, and there was a whole room of them, all crying out, hoping for a chance in the lottery that is animal life.

imageThere was one little kitten, maybe two months old, who wasn’t crying. He was just sitting in a cage watching us, his little head cocked sideways, with those huge eyes. He was a gray tabby possessing just a hint of orange on his belly, with large ears and paws, and already showing signs that he was to be long haired. I distinctly remember saying, what about this little guy?

We took him out of his cage and held him while he purred and pawed at Bruce’s beard, so we set him on the floor a moment and he scampered about, chasing a fly in the room. He was beyond adorable, and that was that.

We were told his orange siblings had been adopted and he was the last of the litter. We were also told that he was a she, so he spent about four days named Sylvia, until the vet confirmed the error, and then he became Nigel, named after the Thornberry’s cartoon, a favorite of the girls at the time.

I remember when the girls came home that evening, and Heather freaked for a moment when a little gray thing ran 100 miles an hour between her feet. She turned rapidly to see him flying about, being his kitten self and chasing things only cats can see. He was to become a source of constant joy, affection, humor and silliness.  One thing is for certain. He was a loved and pampered little prince.

imageOne winter, when the girls were young, there came a ponderously beautiful, deep snow, the kind that mushrooms every surface and every twig. Out we all went to make a snowman, and I’ll never forget as the snow fell in droves, Nigel literally leaping feet into the air, trying to catch snowflakes while the girls laughed and chased around him.  In the early years, he would also climb under the Christmas tree and hide, and you could find him peeking out from underneath, his eyes all aglow in the magical light.

There are a million memories of his life, but I recall so much how he would bury his little head in Bruce’s beard all the time, using him as a scratching post, sometimes to the point of annoyance, but he was really just paying homage to his dad, the King Cat.

imageHe remained a kitten his whole life. Certainly, he’d slowed down some, but oh how he loved the days when Bruce and I would go out onto our large deck. It didn’t matter what we were doing, he came to do it with us.

If we were gardening, he’d be in the garden too, shuffling through the forest that was his world, looking for his bugs and the occasional mole. Sometimes, he’d climb to the top of the eight foot garden gate, and would ride as we opened and closed it. If Bruce went up into the attic, up went Nigel, and we’d have to leave the stairs down until he emerged some hours later. Same with the crawl space under the house. If we were in the pool, he’d climb the steps, coming just to the edge to say hi. Or he’d climb the banisters and claw and reach, swatting at imaginary objects, just to make us laugh.

We have a weathered trampoline in the back yard, long past its prime, when the girls were young enough to bounce around. They used to take him on there, and he’d suffer through their playing and jumping with him. He hated things that moved, including cars, so he’d eventually make his escape.

But in these last years, you could find him out there most days, watching nature, and listening to the woods, with pollen strands and who knows what caught up in his long fur. I’d walk out near dusk to get him, and he’d patiently watch me come, knowing it was time to go in. I can still feel his heft, as I’d pick him up and preen the flotsam and jetsam from his fur as I took him inside for the night.

imageBirthdays and Christmas were his favorite days, and ours, as he would bury himself in the wrappings and play with the bows. There isn’t a birthday recorded that you can’t find him buried somewhere in the picture, inside all the crinkly paper or inside a bag or inside a box.

In his later years, he became much more human like. As a young cat, he rarely meowed or spoke. But as his age progressed, he became much more vocal, sometimes to great annoyance at 5:00 in the morning, when he wanted everyone to know it was time to get up.

He joined the family for every event from games on the floor to his sly attempt to join in for Christmas prime rib dinner.

image I think it’s his later routines we will miss the most. We have an eight foot jetted bath tub, which we use every single day. We make a French Press of coffee, fill the tub, and together, have our half hour of morning time talk before the busy days take their toll. Every morning, he would come join us, sitting on the edge of the tub to play with water droplets I would lay up there for him to catch. And then he’d wander around to the back where Bruce would fill his shaving mirror with cold water from the tap for his “morning drink”. image

I will desperately miss him beside me, in the big chair where I work with my laptop. He had developed a routine where he would stand on the arm of the chair, and literally do a practiced half inverted flip dive to wind up beside me in the chair, on his back, where he would sleep while I worked. That is until it was time to go over to Bruce on the couch. He’d creep to the edge, ponder Bruce for just a bit, calculate the jump, and then up he’d go, landing with a plunk right on his stomach, creating a resounding Umph! He’d splay himself out along the length of Bruce’s torso, snoozing until Bruce’s arm would go to sleep.

He was a member of our family, and adored beyond measure. We are dreading what we face at home, but we know its time to go home and face it.

Many friends have offered words and thoughts of comfort. It is perhaps my old friend Ginger’s message that resonates the most, for she is and has always been, an animal whisperer.

Fragile Circle

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.

Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.

We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.

-Irving Townsend

How utterly beautiful. How completely true.

Our grief comes in huge waves, at times so fierce, as to be uncontainable, much like a geyser that emits boiling steam high into the sky, a pressure valve releasing from depths unknown. We can only trust in time and the universe as we move forward and try to make sense of this terrible loss.

France has treated us kindly these last few days, if you discount the drivers. Two days ago, we encountered double rainbows twice as we drove for hours through the countryside trying to clear our minds and our hearts.

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Yesterday, in the land of wine and honey, we were treated to patchwork quilts in glorious colors of crimson and ochre, as we wound for hours through the vines of October. image

We were on a walk late Sunday evening, when a beautiful, golden eyed, long haired tri-colored tabby visited us near dusk on an otherwise empty street in our medieval village. He circled and loved and rubbed on us until I picked him up, at which point he nudged my chin with his face and tucked his head in the crook of my neck purring deeply, just as Nigel would do.

Hannah’s kitten Ollie has begun to try to drink from the faucet at home, and Heather’s cat Data has been laying hangdog over the arm of her chair, behaviors neither cat exhibited previously.

As Ginger also said, there is a thin veil between worlds for animals, and I know their spirits move in mysterious ways. I think he’s visited upon us, letting us know he is ok, and that he knows of our great love and deep sorrow.

Today is Halloween, and we’ve read that children do go trick or treating here in France.  We drove past little spooks on their way to a party as we headed home yesterday. So we are prepared for tonight, just in case, with a pumpkin to light their way, hoping for little witches and cats under the crescent moon. We have a bag of Kit Kats at the ready. How fitting is that?

Rest peacefully, sweet Baby Nigel. You will forever remain a kitten in our hearts.

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Lorie McMillin, France, October 2013

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Pilgrimage in Burgundy

We came to live in France for six weeks in the Burgundy countryside with idyllic thoughts of drinking wonderful wines, shopping the markets so we could cook with local ingredients, and enjoying our days living life as locals.

Bruce's Boeuf Bourguignon
Bruce’s Boeuf Bourguignon

Burgundy was to be the last half of the European leg of our four month sabbatical, a place to stop for a while, unpack and slow down. We’d been on the move for the previous six weeks, living in London, Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam and Belgium, which, even writing those words, just blows my mind. I’m a kid from the farmlands of Missouri. I don’t even know how I got here. But time compressed in those locations at a shocking speed. Everyone knows that vacations are that way. You head out thinking ten days sounds like forever, and before you know it, you’re back at work. But three months seemed like a summer vacation, the kind that stretches out forever when you’re a kid.

Not the case! We have less than two weeks remaining in our European odyssey, and thoughts of suitcases and logistics are already creeping back into our minds, especially since there’s a magnum of champagne that Bruce fully intends to bring home! I couldn’t help but notice that there are suitcases for sale at the Intermarche, the French version of your local grocery store of choice.

Bruce says I tend to lament. Would of, could of, should of. I suppose I’ve always done that to a certain extent, comparing alternatives, what are the best options, what are the things we must see. And while I’m an extreme planner, I didn’t lay down that many plans for Burgundy, which has surprised him. He’s used to arriving in a city, and I tell him everything there is to see and do, like one of those guides, droning on and on during a bus tour. But this was far too big of a journey to plan things out “in 15 minutes increments” as he likes to say.

View of the ramparts in Semur en Auxois
View of the ramparts in Semur en Auxois

So France for me has been a series of unexpected and extraordinary experiences. Certainly I read about the major regional sites, and I naively thought we’d have time to take adventures far and wide, such as a couple of days down to southern France to Grasse, the International Perfume Capital, or even down to the Dordogne region, about five hours south of here. As it turns out, there’s no way! There is so much history, even 100 years from us, that we’re having a hard time getting much beyond our own back yard, especially with a view of the city walls beautifully lit at night, and nearly two dozen ducks visiting our riverside home daily, quacking for handouts!

I guess I didn’t expect to be so enthralled with all of the ancient history, which seems counter intuitive, since we landed in a rental house right in the middle of a medieval city, Semur en Auxois. I actually googled “Middle Ages” and “Medieval” last weekend for an extended history lesson. True fact. Who hasn’t heard of the Middle Ages, but when you grow up in a country where history is only really marked by the last 250 or so years, the concept of things still existing from the 5th century to the 15th century, until you actually see them, is just a concept. Some vague recollection from a chapter in a history book when you were 16 years old, or from religion class in parochial school when you were 8 years old.

Winding street in Semur en Auxois
Winding street in Semur en Auxois

But here, that history and those structures are alive and well. People live in these ancient buildings, they work in them, they restore and preserve them. Every single town you drive through is an enchanting mix of fountains, war memorials, and vine covered stone buildings often with a portal above the door containing the blessed virgin, set amidst narrow, winding, cobbled lanes.  Villages compete for the title of “Most Beautiful Village in France”, or “Flower Village”.  The Ministry of French Cultural Affairs has filled the highways with large historical markers letting you know what the towns along the way are all about.  Coming from a culture that tears down and rebuilds constantly, this is a revelation.

Our Gite rental in Semur
Our Gite rental in Semur

Our own rental, according to our local language teacher, sits in the heart of the oldest part of the city. That’s saying something since Semur’s Notre Dame Cathedral dates back to the 12th century. But our exterior walls are measured in feet, and the house is supported by massive wooden beams more than a foot tall, which are shaved out a little in places, for people to walk under. If I have one real lament, it’s that my 6’7″ husband has to duck constantly through this house, but we both agree, we wouldn’t change a thing, with our view of the ancient ramparts and fortress towers.

I took a long drive up to the town of Chaource a couple of weeks ago to see a sculpture I’d read about, located in the crypt of the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Known as “The Entombment of Christ”, this was perhaps the most beautiful sculpture I’ve ever seen in my life. The unbearable pain on Mary’s face was extraordinary. It is not known for a fact who sculpted this marvel, known only as the Maitre de Chaource, although some scholars point to sculptor Jacques Bachot. Being alone in the church and with this sculpture, I fully spent over a half hour down there marveling at the beauty of this magnificent life size work.

The Entombment of Christ, Chaource, France
The Entombment of Christ, Chaource, France

On another day, I visited the Abbaye of Fonteney, the most intact and preserved Cistercian Monastery in all of Europe. The Abbaye is an entire complex of buildings, covered in russet vines as fall arrives here in central France. Again, I found myself alone, wandering along dirt floors within the towering church, and through the cloisters where monks lived and prayed for centuries. The Abbaye is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is mostly for tourists.  It’s a thing of beauty, and I felt privileged to visit.

Abbaye of Fontenay
Abbaye of Fontenay

When we were planning a trip to Spain last year, I read a lot about the “Way of St. James”, which is an ancient religious pilgrimage trail, crossing many parts of Europe, coalescing in Northern Spain, where there is one path, east to west, crossing the entire country, to reach Santiago de Compostela, a massive cathedral and the burial place of St. James. Pilgrims have walked these trails for centuries in search of spiritual atonement and religious enlightenment. I can’t imagine it really. I’m lucky to lug my way up into town here, let alone to walk across France and Spain. As it turns out, the pilgrim trails and Christian relics for parts of the French routes are all within an hour or less from us.

My husband will tell you that if there is a cathedral within reach of any town we visit, that I have to stop and ponder, walk through and take pictures. And he would be correct. By right of marriage, he has seen some of the greatest cathedrals in the world from Rome to Paris to London, and now rural France. Perhaps it’s my Catholic heritage, but I’m enthralled with the history embedded in these old churches and cathedrals. Throughout the ages, many, if not most of a town’s artisans, masons, carpenters and money were put into building and maintaining these massive, beautiful structures, sometimes taking centuries to build. They have survived wars, revolutions, pillage, neglect, restoration, and other tests of time.

Basilica of Mary Magdalene
Basilica of Mary Magdalene

When my sister Deb and her partner Lori visited our first week here, we went to the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay, a ponderously beautiful, powerful, towering stone cathedral, and former monastery. As we wandered through, whispering in awe at the scale and beauty, Deb and I had one of those sister moments, like we just couldn’t believe we were there. Down in the crypt are the relics of Mary Magdalene, so we quietly made our way down and back up, as individuals sat huddled in prayer and contemplation.

Cathedral of St. Lazarus
Cathedral of St. Lazarus

On another day, Bruce and I visited Autun, a former Roman fortification, with town walls and the ruins of an amphitheater dating back to the first century. That’s 1st Century, the time of Caesar Augustus!! Seriously incredible. Climbing way up a hill in the city like pilgrims before, we reached the Cathedral of St. Lazarus, reported to house his relics. There are varying accounts of how his relics wound up there, as the brother of Mary Magdalene, including the fact that town leaders realized that Vezelay was making a lot of money so they built their cathedral on the pilgrim route. Regardless, the church was magnificent with splendid sculptures on the capitals that support the vaulted ceiling. I felt a great sense of peace in that church.

Most recently, and perhaps most profoundly, we took a long drive through the Morvan National Park to the city of Nevers, also on the pilgrimage route, which houses the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette, formerly of Lourdes. In the mid 1800’s, Bernadette had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the grotto at Lourdes during which time a spring spontaneously sprung up at the site, which continues to flow to this day. There are 69 confirmed cases of inexplicable healing amidst the millions of sick who visit the site annually. As one might imagine, there was a lot of pressure and political infighting amongst city officials on what to do about the situation, so Bernadette eventually made her way to a convent in Nevers, where she lived to the young age of 35, succumbing to asthma and tuberculosis.

Thirty years after her death, the Catholic Church decided a Beautification was in order, so they exhumed her remains, finding her body completely intact, or as its known, “incorruptible”. They placed her back in the grave for 10 years, only to find her in the same state. They removed small relics from her body for Lourdes, and placed her in a crystal coffin in the church at Nevers, where she has lain undisturbed since 1925. Her outer skin had suffered a little from the washings they had done to her body after exhumation, so they hired a French artist to place a very thin film of wax on her face and hands. Otherwise, her body remains intact to this day.

St. Bernadette of Nevers and Lourdes
St. Bernadette of Nevers and Lourdes

Not being the summer pilgrim season, we had some time to sit near her, just the two of us alone for a little while. It was beautiful, peaceful and miraculous to see her lying there as she has for decades. We watched The Song of Bernadette, the other night after my friend reminded me of the old 1943 film. Hers is a remarkable story. I did a little research and found there are a few incorruptible saints in existence such as St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Cecilia.

The village of Chateauneuf
The village of Chateauneuf

I think it will be a long time before I fully absorb and realize all that I have been privileged to see and do. Yes, we’ve had lots of wonderful Burgundy wines, and we have shopped and cooked the local markets. We’ve taken a few French lessons with a local language instructor living in an old convent across the road from us. We’ve visited Roman Ruins, a Burgundy Truffle Festival, toured the Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, and wandered the fairytale streets of the village and Castle of Chateauneuf.

And so, without a lot of planning, I have found myself on a pilgrimage through time and place, amidst countless reminders of war, religion, and miracles, in the most beautiful and ancient of settings in the French countryside.

Lorie McMillin, Burgundy, France, October 2013

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François Pompon and the Quest for the Polar Bears

I have been on a quest on this sabbatical to have a photo taken of myself with three polar bears. My fascination with polar bears didn’t begin until my late 20’s. Of course they’re pretty and all, but it wasn’t until my beloved friend Rose Anne gave me a pink “Snuffie” bear that I began to think polar bears were really wonderful. She and her husband Ben had a collection of Snuffies, and they all had names. Not classical bear names, but numbered names. Number One, Number Two, and so on. My last recollection was they had 7 or 8 of them. And they each had their very own personalities and facial features. Ben could manipulate the face and body of a Snuffie to just make you weep with joy, turning their little heads sideways, and waving their little paws at you.

Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar
Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar

When Ben went for his anthropology Ph.D. research in Madagascar to study lemurs, Rose Anne joined him about halfway through his journey. This was no ordinary trip by the way. I’m joining my husband on sabbatical and we are living quite civilized. By comparison, Rose Anne joined her husband in a jungle wilderness, where things go bump in the night, and where they were sleeping in a tent, and eating raw berries from trees, and there were NO mens or ladies facilities. She reminded me recently that she once badly sprained her ankle out there, and Dr. Sports Medicine was nowhere to be found.

I was with her for the packing decisions on what should go into her luggage, which had to make it all the way into a jungle. Besides Lorna Doone cookies, the most important decision … which Snuffie got to go because they ALL wanted to go. She’ll have to remind me who won out, but I think it was Number Two.

The story of my pink snuffie is that I decided I desperately had to have one, and I wanted a pink bear. What can I say, I’m girly! I couldn’t afford it though, and after I bought her, and she came home with me, I sadly returned her because I was just flat out broke, probably from buying a 12 piece place setting of Noritake Conservatory china. I do have my compulsions! And then, a few days later, Ben and Rose Anne came by with that pink snuffie for me. They had gone back and got her, the very same one. I still have my adorable little pink bear, and I’ll never forget them doing that for me.

So now, I too love polar bears. I have many that we set out at Christmas time. One large one sits sparkling amidst the presents under my tree, a very knowing bear! Another set, a mother and her baby, walk along one of my side tables during the holiday season. One year, Bruce, my master packer, had packed them separately when we were taking down Christmas. I didn’t know it until the next year when we were putting things out and we couldn’t find the mother, and so the little baby bear was crying. I was frantic at the loss of the momma bear. So Bruce climbed through the attic, and the back room, and finally, thankfully, he found her in a box of things we were not going to set out that year. There was much rejoicing at the uniting of momma and baby bear, and we’ll always be sure they are packed together!

So when researching about things to do in Dijon, France, which is very near our house in Semur, I read that the sculptor Pompon had a large polar bear there in a park. It turns out, there are many identical bears in the world that he sculpted, but as far as I can tell, only three that are life size. One is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, one is in a park in Antwerp, Belgium, and one is in the park in Dijon. And I knew I had to see all three! It’s a quest for me, and it’s a quest in honor of my dearest friends, Rose Anne and Ben, because they taught me that polar bears are magical!

According to the Musée d’Orsay website…

“For many years, Pompon was one of the most sought-after assistants in Paris, hewing blocks of marble for Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. But after 1905, in reaction to Rodin’s expressionism, Pompon abandoned the human figure and turned to the animals that he observed at the Jardin des Plantes. Polar Bear is the finest achievement in this vein; when it was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1922, it brought the artist tardy recognition, at the age of sixty-seven.

Stripping away the trappings and details, he abandoned any realistic rendering and focused on “the very essence of the animal”. This economy of means gives the work a presence which draws its true force from its monumental scale. Far from the anecdotal, it reveals a search for timelessness and permanence: under the silent outer appearance of fullness, the smooth sculpture nurtures an aspiration to universal form. “I keep a large number of details that will later go” said Pompon. “I first do the animal with almost all its trappings. Then I gradually eliminate them…” Colette was struck by the “thick, mute” paws of his animals.

Pompon’s sculptures are characterised by an intuitive understanding, rounded forms, a refusal of geometrical shapes, and a taste for traditional materials. “I love sculpture without holes or shadows” he used to say, preferring pale stone with nothing to stop the smooth flow of light over the volumes.”

So the Polar Bear sculpture at the Orsay should have been easy. I remember seeing the bear when we were there in 2010. At that time, you could take pictures in the museums of Paris, but they are now forbidden, probably because of the craze of young girls needing to be caught “jumping” in photos, sometimes while making a victory sign. I can only imagine the museum curator’s horror as girls jumped in front of a Monet. Or the clashing mobs of people trying to get their photo in front of their favorite world famous paintings, while others are simply trying to just get near enough to see the painting. In theory, I actually agree with this new ruling. Trying to get near the Mona Lisa at the Louvre was like being caught in a mosh pit with cameras being slung all around your face.

Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

But I had to have a photo with that bear, and I had to insist that Bruce break the law to get it. Bruce is NOT a rule breaker. If it says don’t do this or that, he Will Not do it. He was once very upset with me for sneaking photos of the exquisite mosaic ceilings in the Sacre Coeur church on Montmartre in Paris, because they weren’t allowed. He even moved to another pew, lest he be caught and scolded by a Nun. Me, I went to Catholic school for eight years and am used to such things!

So, I found the bear, and snuck a couple of photos before I insisted he take my phone, pretend he was reviewing email, and then quickly snap a photo of me with the bear. He was not happy, but he did it. Grimacing and taking rapid fire photos, he then turned tail and took off like a scared rabbit. But I got my photo with Pompon Polar Bear Number One, which is the original that Pompon debuted!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Two sits near the entrance to the Middelheim Museum, a large outdoor sculpture park in Antwerp, Belgium. Having fallen into a canal boat the previous Sunday in Amsterdam, and badly hurting my knee, I assumed there was no way this polar bear quest could continue, as we were just trying to get ourselves moved out of one hotel in Amsterdam, and safely make it to our next one in Ghent, Belgium. But by the time we left, I was up moving about, and just limping a bit with my cane. So Bruce insisted that we find the bear, since we were going through Antwerp anyway.

Now, Google Maps could find the park, but it had us stopping on the interstate, saying we had reached our destination. So after pulling over twice, and looking at maps, and driving in circles, we finally found the park. It was just after 6:00 p.m., and as we walked up to the park entrance, I could see the gates were open. Oh thank heavens, we weren’t too late! But then we were accosted by a park ranger, who spoke Flemish to us, which translated to “We’re closed”. I asked if he spoke English, and he said, “Closed”.

No Way could this be our luck! “But we’ve come all the way from the United States, just so we could see the Polar Bear!”, I exclaimed. “The Ice Bear?”, he asked. “Yes! Yes! The Ice Bear. Please?!! Could we just take one photo by the Ice Bear, and then we’ll leave. We promise. Please??!!” And I used my big brown eyes look, which I only use in desperate times. He pondered this, and glanced around, and then said, “Ok.”, and he led the way towards the Ice Bear.

Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium
Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium

And there it was! Pompon Polar Bear Number Two, looking lovely and Knowing, as Bruce likes to say. And so we snapped many photos, and I kissed the bear on his nose, and we headed back to our car. I stopped to explain the story of the three bears, but I don’t think the ranger understood much, but he smiled and nodded and then closed the gates behind us. As we drove off, I gave him a great big smiling wave, and he smiled and waved back with a big grin, and I’m sure he thought, crazy Americans, coming all the way from the United States, just to see an Ice Bear!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Three on my quest was a fairly easy gig, since the Jardin Darcy in Dijon, France, was open and photos were legal. We drove over to Dijon on Sunday, and found the park first thing, and there he was! The “Polar Bear in Stride” is another common name for the bear, And so we snapped the photos with the grand bear and went about our happy way.

Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France
Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

But things are not so simple it turns out. In researching the bear the night before, I came across a lovely blogger from Alaska, who has a marble copy of Pompon’s bear on her coffee table, which is cast from the same mold as one of Pompon’s smaller bears, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. AND, it turns out, she had visited the Dijon Polar Bear, and later discovered that it is not actually cast from Pompon’s original mold. One of his friends sculpted the bear in an hommage to his great mentor. It is as identical as one could be, although Bruce said he thought the expression may have been a little more Knowing on this bear.

In addition to the park, there is a Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, which has a smaller original Pompon bear in the Pompon room. We wanted to get by there, and I still hope to, but the day got away from us.

And lastly, Pompon is from Saulieu, France, which is very near us. They have the Musee Francois Pompon, with a large collection of his work, and I believe there is a replica of the polar bear there, in addition to many of his sculpted animals. Bruce commented the other day that he wanted to go to that town to see a cow sculpture. Turns out, it’s Pompon too!

And so… I have achieved my original quest to be photographed with the Three Polar Bears. But will I see every single Pompon Polar Bear in the world? Most likely not! But that’s ok because everyone knows that Polar Bears are magical creatures and can turn up anywhere, anytime, striding proudly through a park, or in a museum, or walking across someone’s coffee table in Alaska!

Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, October, 2013

Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.
Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.
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Chocolat!

For years now, Bruce and I have celebrated Valentine’s Day by watching the movie Chocolat, accompanied by Chocolate in various forms from chocolate martinis to chocolate based meals, to the real deal, usually Godiva. So one of the things we really wanted to see here were the towns where the movie was filmed.

Recently, we visited the town of Flavigny sur Ozerain, which is where the exterior of the chocolate shop is located, along with the church and many of the street scenes. Flavigny is a medieval touristed town as it has many ancient artifacts well beyond it being a movie location. The factory where the little Anise flavored candies are made is located here, along with an old abbey, and a roman crypt. We had a wonderful time walking around the little village.

In the movie, the river scenes and the approach up into town when Juliette Binoche and her daughter are arriving with the clever north wind, wearing their red capes, were filmed down in the Dordogne region, in Beynac, near Sarlat. That will be a different adventure!

Lorie McMillin, Flavigny sur Ozerain, France, September, 2013

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The Autumnal Equinox

The Autumnal Equinox officially arrived in France at 9:44 Sunday night, during the time that Bruce and I were snuggled in by candlelight, watching the movie Chocolat, after our first day in Semur en Auxois. That means yesterday was the first full day of Autumn, and for the next six weeks, we’ll be watching the leaves turn gold, russet and copper, while the brisk, cooler weather settles into the Burgundy countryside. I’ve read there will be the smell of burning chestnut branches on the wind. We’ll have to wait and see about that. We’re well outfitted for the fall, with our cottage fireplace, and plenty of wood stacked beside the house. Remaining on our quest is an outdoor chiminea or copper kettle in which to burn our own little fires “en exterior”, but first, we have to figure out how to describe such a thing in French.

Sunday also marked the Equinox or halfway point of the Europe leg of our sabbatical, and my how the time has flown! We’ve been startled by how quickly the weeks have progressed, and other than missing our girls and Baby Nigel Joseph McMillin, we’re not really homesick, which also surprises me. Months went into planning each locale, things to do, places to stay and to eat, all carefully stored in “Evernote” for quick reference. Half of those notebooks are now obsolete, at least for now.

imageBut not obsolete are the incredible memories we’ve made so far. Two delightful weeks in London along the Thames, followed by a week in Paris with our girls. We all ended that week a little worse for wear with colds, but Paris was a delight. For me, the best was the family picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens, and then sitting by the Medici Fountain with Heather while she tried to knit, but was distracted by the people milling about, and the ducks swimming about and nibbling against the moss on the wet stone, while Bruce and Hannah wandered off to the Catacombs.

A couple of days later, Heather was down with a fever, and Bruce had his own terrible cold, so Hannah and I ventured out on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. I realize those look terribly touristy, but I have to say, they are a total delight. We sat up top, watching the beautiful streets of Paris go by and completely enjoying ourselves, while having several giggles of silliness along the way, as girls are known to do. We disembarked at Galleries Lafayette so Hannah could seek out a lovely plaid cashmere scarf for her amour. I bought a scarf for myself from the same men’s section, in muted colors of navy, gray and lavender. I’m thinking it will be perfect with a pair of jeans.

On our way back, knowing that nobody would feel like going out, Hannah and I stopped for the most fabulous quiches from the little brasserie right next door to our apartment, which was also to be our boulangerie for the entire week. Hannah is not an egg person, and had never tried the “Madame Fromage” quiche I make at home, a decadent creation full of eggs, cream, bacon and caramelized onions. But she ate the quiche from Paris with gusto, and has been dreaming of it, along with the croissants, ever since. I told her that once you see Paris, it stays with you always, a longing that doesn’t go away.

After Paris, we had a quick two weeks in the Oslo, the highlight of course being the Aurora Borealis in the Lofoten Islands. Many people in Oslo, who’d lived their whole lives there, said it was rare to see them, and that we’d been very lucky. We couldn’t agree more! I won’t forget it for the rest of my life.

We had a very quick, albeit unsettling four days in Amsterdam where I fell into a tour boat within three hours of landing. But a house call from a sports medicine doctor, who declared me stable, but perhaps clumsy, helped to calm us back down. A lot of Rest, Ice, Compression & Elevation had me walking a couple of days later, although I’m still on the mend, and Bruce is guarded at all times about me being Careful. The result is that I no longer have to help lift the 270 pounds of luggage or carry in groceries! But all was not lost as we got out for a second attempt at a boat tour along with a visit to the Van Gogh Museum.  We then spent three days in the magical Belgium cities of Ghent and Bruges, which are filled with fairytale canals, architecture and chocolate.

imageAnd so on Sunday, with our hopes high, we drove south into France, passing through the champagne capital of Reims, arriving at our little rented house, or Gite as it’s known in France, for the rest of our Europe sabbatical.  Finally, a place to completely unpack the luggage and stop for a while.

Sunday was a trip into town for the farmer’s market, and yesterday, I literally did nothing. Bruce did some work and had a couple of conference calls, and I tried to write, but mostly, I just looked out at the river, which shimmers reflections onto the living room ceiling, and listened to the ducks and the cathedral bells, while doing some PT on my knee. Last night, with the chilly night air coming in, we streamed the movie Sleepy Hollow wide onto our living room wall with our little traveling projector, a perfect ending to a peaceful day.

In the movie “Under The Tuscan Sun”, she recommends taking your time to introduce yourself to a new house. Go slowly and get to know each other. It’s true. The house has low beams where Bruce has to duck a little, and there are steps in every direction, so I’m taking my time, getting to know the lights and the shower and the cubbies and the dressers. The house creaks in the night, so I wonder if there are ghosts or just the movement of the tide along the river. It’s all good. It’s a really nice place to be.

Today we ventured back out for a big shop in town. Our first stop was at L’Epicerie Chez Serge, a magical little French speciality shop in town full of local produce, jars and tins of everything imaginable, racks of wine, and some more cheeses. We spent some time explaining that we were renting a house for six weeks, and they warmed up to us fairly quickly. By the end, Serge even threw in some complimentary sausage for us to try and will call us tomorrow morning with the price of Dover Sole from the fish market in Dijon. He explained that sole is expensive here this time of year.

imageOur second stop was to the local butcher or Boucherie for a few items including bacon (porc de fume), Jambon ham, and chuck for a little Boeuf Bourguignon later in the week. The woman warmly told us she could speak English, but we tried our hardest to continue on in French. Her husband came out to cut the beef for us, turning to see if he had the right amount. As we left she wished us Au Revoir!

And then on to Auchon, a larger grocery store, where nobody seemed to speak English, but we got by with our best pigeon French. We forgot to weigh our own produce so the woman helped us out. The man checking us out kept asking for a passport, and in the end, we think he meant we needed to wait while someone was doing a price check. It was very confusing, but we made it out alive, and our kitchen counter is now full of bottles of wine and the larder is stocked.

We had planned to venture out later to see the nearby village of Flaviney sur Ozerain where parts of the movie Chocolat was filmed, but in the end it will have to wait for another day, as we’re back at our little place relaxing by the river. For lunch, Bruce roasted whole “Rose Trout”, accompanied by local heirloom tomatoes and just a little Pouligney Montrachet. After a nap, he fed our little group of ducks beside the river.

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Thursday, my sister Debbie and her partner Lori arrive for four days. They’ve been in Paris for a week, and I’m sure will be ready for a little down time by the river too, along with a little drive through the Burgundy countryside.

So, as we head into the autumn, we’re very relaxed and just happy to be here. The ducks are happy we’re here too! And who knows what adventures await us next!

Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, September 2013