Our 250-year-old farmhouse near the village of Bourgeville is straight out of Madame Bovary, except life is anything but boring and I haven't, as of yet, taken any lovers. We play petanque in the yard, swing from the willow tree, feed Neddy the Contentin Donkey with table scraps and wake up with the roosters. We have pastoral Normandy all around and feel perfectly situated to explore the region.

When we started planning our trip, I asked James Beard-nominated chef Renee Erickson (of Seattle's The Walrus and the Carpenter, Barnacle, The Narwhal, The Whale Wins and The Boat Street Cafe) for recommendations because she hosts a Normandy Dinner every year. Her excellent new cookbook A Boat, A Whale and A Walrus features a full page photograph of her friend Stephane Lebozec, an oysterman from the town of Dives-sur-Mer on the coast of Normandy. He wears a blue and white striped fisherman sweater and a mischievous smile. Renee suggested I contact him and when I did, he invited us to Sunday lunch at his home the day after we arrived in France.

We drove 15 minutes to Dives-sur-Mer, the pretty little harbor town from which William the Conqueror set off for the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. We arrived at Stephane and Martine's home at noon to find a table set under the white apple blossoms in their yard, which is really more of a mini-orchard. Venetian-masks adorned the trees. We were welcomed warmly with kisses and a glass of cider. Two more friends, Gerard and Marie, arrived to make a party of six adults. Out came the oysters. Next, in a leisurely pace: Sancerre, salade, roast chicken with frites, a cheese plate with Pont L'Eveque, Camembert and cheve, apple Tarte Normande and coffee. It was the holiday weekend of Pentecost, but I get the feeling they eat like this everyday.

We then donned masks and strolled one block into the historic town center to watch the annual parade celebrating Les Mascarades. Below, Martine, Stephane and me.

After the parade, we went back to the house for more oysters with champagne, spider crab, another cheese plate and Martine's perfect apricot clafoutis. And then, incredibly, a tasting of four Calvados around the fire. Stephane poured us four different bottles of Calvados to try: moonshine, 2-year, 8-year and a 50-year. We kissed our new friends goodbyes near midnight.

Thank you for the introduction, Renee. What a lovely welcome to Normandy. Mille fois merci, Stephane and Martine!


The best thing to do upon arriving Charles de Gaulle Airport after a long overnight flight with two small children is to drive straight west to Giverny and flop down in the grass at the bottom of a field of blooming poppies. Play pretend baseball with your three-year-old son and work out the kinks. Stroll slowly through the village peeking through gorgeously-weathered iron gates. Have a cup of tea and an ice cream cone. Walk through Claude Monet's home and garden by the opposite route recommended to avoid getting stuck behind tour groups. Sit under a weeping willow tree, take in the waterlilies, listen to frogs croak and eat biscuits offered by friendly Finnish women. Offer to take photos of others and ask them to take photos of you. Continue driving west to the pretty farmhouse you've rented for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room in Paris. Despite being deliriously tired, push on and go to the local creperie for a quick gallette. End up staying for an unbelievable three-course meal and close down the restaurant. Fall into bed, sleep a solid 12 hours and wake up on French time.

Monet Refuses the Operation

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent.  The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases.  Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

~ Lisel Mueller


Mother and Child

Mother and Child on a Couch by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, step-mothers, godmothers and caring mother figures. Happy Mother's Day to my own beautiful, spirited mother. Happy Mother's Day to me.

Whistler's watercolor from the Victoria & Albert Museum depicts one of the things I love most about being a mother:  that little body curling into mine for a perfect fit. The instant a child calms when they are in your arms, their whole being relaxing into you. You make them feel safe, they make you feel calm. Snuggling is the meditation of motherhood.

Enjoy this day. Enjoy all the days.

There are Times in Life When One Does the Right Thing

There are times in life when one does the right thing
the thing one will not regret,
when the child wakes crying "mama," late
as you are about to close your book and sleep
and she will not be comforted back to her crib,
she points you out of her room, into yours,
you tell her, "I was just reading here in bed,"
she says, "read a book," you explain it's not a children's book
but you sit with her anyway, she lays her head on your breast,
one-handed, you hold your small book, silently read,
resting it on the bed to turn pages
and she, thumb in mouth, closes her eyes, drifts,
not asleep when you look down at her, her lids open,
and once you try to carry her back
but she cries, so you return to your bed again and book,
and the way a warmer air will replace a cooler with a slight
shift of wind, or swimming, entering a mild current, you
enter this pleasure, the quiet book, your daughter in your lap,
an articulate person now, able to converse, yet still
her cry is for you, her comfort in you,
it is your breast she lays her head upon,
you are lovers, asking nothing but this bodily presence.
She hovers between sleep, you read your book,
you give yourself this hour, sweet and quiet beyond flowers
beyond lilies of the valley and lilacs even, the smell of her breath,
the warm damp between her head and your breast. Past midnight
she blinks her eyes, wiggles toward a familiar position,
utters one word, "sleeping." You carry her swiftly into her crib,
cover her, close the door halfway, and it is this sense of Tightness,
that something has been healed, something
you will never know, will never have to know.

~ Ellen Bass, from Our Stunning Harvest