Esteban and I were supposed to arrive in Rome today.

I say “supposed to” because when our flight took off yesterday we were still at home in our pajamas, eating French silk pie and watching reruns of Big Bang Theory.

There were some omens our trip might be doomed, like the public buses that caught fire just days after we bought our plane tickets. “We’ll just stick to the subway,” Esteban said. But then an escalator malfunctioned, piling a couple of dozen people at the bottom. “No problem,” I replied. “We’ll walk!” Or sprint, maybe, to outpace the wild boars.

But in the end, it wasn’t the flaming buses or killer escalators or rampaging boars that finally did us in; it was an infection that needed surgery.

Esteban and I weighed the risks of going anyway — because maybe the antibiotics would at least keep the infection in check. But maybe wasn’t good enough for me. “The only thing worse than sepsis is sepsis in Italian,” I reminded him. So last Sunday we reluctantly cancelled everything, just four days before our scheduled departure.

Last night we consoled ourselves by sharing memories of the few days we spent in Rome in 2007. There were the usual touristy shots of the pseudo-gladiators and the spot where Rome was founded …

Rome psedogladiator BLOG

Rome first settlement CC BLOG

And there was the ancient Forum, of course. It took little effort for us to imagine tens of thousands of Romans milling about in this former center of commerce, government and worship.

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One of our most vivid impressions of Rome was the coexistence of old and new.

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Absolutely everything was steeped in centuries of history, from the fountain the courtyard of a police station to the hand-carved street signs.

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Rome ancient street sign CR CL BLOG

Esteban also pointed out that some of the pavers in the Forum still bore grooves from the centuries of chariot traffic.

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We also remembered the excavation of Largo Argentina, which jutted like old bones out of the city’s belly.

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And Trajan’s column — which celebrated his many exploits in battle — next to an 18th-century basilica. (Yes, an 18th-century basilica is considered modern in Rome.)

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… or a different but oddly similar basilica, flanked by Constantine’s Arch.

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I wish I had taken more photos of the sculpture that adorns many of the ancient monuments, like these beautiful statues on Constantine’s Arch.

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In fact, there was sculpture everywhere in Rome.

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But some of the most beautiful was arguably in the Vatican.

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Esteban and I were overwhelmed by the scale of the Vatican, in fact — like the chairs set up in the piazza, ready to welcome the faithful to a not-quite-personal audience with the Pope.

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And here is one tiny bit of St. Peter’s Basilica to give you a sense of scale.

Rome Vatican inside 1 CC CR BLOG

In fact, 11 years later my most lasting impression of Rome is one of scale — because this city wasn’t built for humans, but rather for posterity.

Rome Vatican columns 2 CC CR BLOG

Maybe it’s because the individual Roman was an afterthought that the Eternal City overpowers visitors to this day with an almost crushing sense of history,
reducing us to mere ants among the glory of her ruins.

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Rome Colosseum tunnels CC CL BLOG
To give you a sense of scale: That’s a group of some 20 people inside the red box.

Although Esteban and I are disappointed not to be in Rome today, what we had most looked forward to was time together. So we’ve decided to take a week off work anyway and be tourists in our own town. (Yes, we will wear fanny packs.)

Maybe I’ll bring your a few stories next week about what we did when we were not in Rome.


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. I hope longtime readers will forgive my republishing this piece, but I can think of no better way to honor the soldiers who died than to keep their memories alive.
I am immensely and forever indebted to Gilles Thomas and Gilles Chauwin for having given me this truly extraordinary opportunity. Merci infiniment.

“Excuse me,” I said in French, “but could you please pull over?” We were about an hour out of Paris and the car seemed to be spinning slowly to the right, even as I kept my eyes on the horizon. I got out and paced along the side of the road, trying to focus on the gravel beneath my feet and the sun-dappled, golden forest around me. Fall had come late this year, but I welcomed the crisp air.

“Tout va bien?” asked Martine, Gilles’ friend and our driver. Gilles’ girlfriend Jeannine shot me a sympathetic look in the back seat. “Oui, merci” I said. “C’est parti.”

About a half hour later we were walking through the old castle gate and into the medieval town of Laon.

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I had commented earlier, when we’d glimpsed the town in the distance, that the original settlers had chosen their spot wisely: Perched atop a hill, they would have seen trouble coming from miles away. But not in their darkest nightmares could they have imagined the violence that would unfold a few hundred years later in the verdant valleys below.

Picardy looks peaceful today, dotted with tracts of woods and farm fields full of potatoes and beets. But during World War I this stretch of land — the “Chemin des Dames” — was literally soaked with blood between 1914 and 1918 as battles raged continually for control of the strategic crossroads.

Laon bears scars from some of those conflicts: Barely upon entering the cathedral, Gilles pointed out several columns full of scrawled messages from both World Wars. “En esperant être reunis et des jours meilleurs,” wrote one person (“In hopes of being reunited and of better days”). I wondered how many people had sought solace in this sanctuary over the centuries.

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Outside, the sun was dazzling at its mid-day peak, and we squinted as we walked around the corner in search of lunch.

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In his characteristic generosity, Gilles pulled several books and DVDs from his backpack and began to distribute them. “T’es un véritable Père Noël,” (“You’re a regular Santa Claus”) I joked, as I accepted his presents and thanked him for lunch. Little did I know that he was about to give me an even greater gift.


The gift of discovery

Gilles had told me months ago about the Carrière de Braye (Braye quarry), which lay just a half hour’s drive away. It was a source of limestone as early as the middle ages, but it found new purposes — as a shelter, dormitory, field hospital, and storehouse — during World War I. Since then, however, these man-made caves have sat largely untouched.

I’d seen photos of some of the artifacts and inscriptions the soldiers had left behind, and I was eager to experience the history first-hand. Still, waves of apprehension washed over me as Martine negotiated the winding one-lane road: Would I feel claustrophobic, with only my headlamp to light the way? And what if the vertigo returned?

But soon there was no going back: We’d reached the quarry.

“I present to you Gilles Chauwin,” said my friend Gilles Thomas. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, Mr. Chauwin set off to open the entrance.

The Braye quarry — located near the village of Braye-en-Laon, in the French department of Aisne — is one of several hundred man-made caves in the region. Locally the quarry is known as “la creute des Américains,” or “la creute des Yankees,” but I soon came to think of this one as “Mr. Chauwin’s quarry.” He’s been exploring and researching this quarry for more than 40 years, and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the events that surrounded it and the men who took shelter inside.

In fact, even while we were still on the surface Mr. Chauwin’s devotion was evident: With his own hands, he had created a memorial sculpture at the entrance — as well as a locked, double-gated vestibule to protect the quarry from intruders and vandals.

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“Over there is where the canal came from,” my friend Gilles said, turning in the opposite direction and gesturing down the hillside. He had told me in the car that a river of sorts used to run directly through this quarry, and that for a while the Germans actually had barges that brought in supplies through the partially subterranean canal.

A couple of hunting parties — complete with shotguns and baying beagles — interrupted our history lesson. I watched the men in bright orange vests tromp toward the woods and wondered whether they knew what lay underfoot.

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Now it was my turn to see for myself. I felt a pang of fear as I approached the entrance and saw a ladder descending into the darkness. I was comforted to see that Mr. Chauwin had tied the ladder off at both ends, to prevent it from slipping. But wait! Was that a landing in the middle, with a gaping hole below it? My heart pounded. “You know how to climb a ladder,” I told myself. “You can do this.”

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War-time pastimes

Any misgivings faded the instant I stepped off the last rung. Some 30 feet below the earth, the air was cool and moist and quiet. I fiddled with my headlamp as I followed my new friends into a narrow passage.

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I was astounded by the wealth of artifacts that lined the walls and lay in heaps on the ground. Though thoroughly rusted, the old helmets still kept their shape — and judging from the stacks of bottles, drinking was a big pastime.

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So was drawing and carving. “Look at this,” Mr. Chauwin said in French, pointing at the wall. The inscription was in German: “ERRICHTET, 31-7-1917.” The German soldier who made the inscription had likely been there for the Second Battle of the Aisne, in April of 1917.

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To weaken the German defenses, French general Robert Nivelle had pelted the Germans for six days with some 5,300 artillery guns. But what he didn’t know was that the Germans had holed up in these quarries.

On April 16th the French infantry and some colonial Senegalese troops advanced, only to be stopped by intense fire from the Germans’ new MG08/15 machine guns. The French suffered more than 40,000 casualties on the first day alone — and over 120,000 in the next 12 days.

Just as the numbers are staggering, so were the methods of war: Although poison gas and longer-range weapons were making their debut, many of the conflicts were still fought hand-to-hand — by musketeers, like the one who wrote a lengthy inscription in pencil.

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“It is crossed out by the person who took the picture to say, ‘I am the last person who took this picture,’ ” said my friend Gilles. It was only the first of many vandalized or missing inscriptions I’d see during our two hours underground. No wonder Mr. Chauwin had installed two gates.


A descent into hell

At various points we passed mounds of rusted barbed wire. “That was to keep out the rats,” Mr. Chauwin said. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the soldiers’ need to ward off pestilence as they slept among their injured and dying comrades.

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There was also the risk of cave-ins and collapses. We passed one section where the roof had disintegrated, and another where a cave-in killed a quarry worker and his son in 1838. I felt like I was disturbing a tomb when I crawled through a narrow hole to read their memorial; their bodies still lay next to me, somewhere under the pile of rubble.

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Even today there are unstable areas that need to be reinforced.

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These subterranean dangers — and the terror that reigned above the ground — took their toll on the soldiers. “They were afraid,” Mr. Chauwin said, as he pointed at a skull one soldier had carved into the soft stone.

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The men who took shelter here — whether German, French, British, or American — knew that death might find them at any moment. Some seemed to accept their fate, like the man who wrote the gladiatorial motto, “We who are about to die salute you.”

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Many were obviously proud of their contribution to the war, like the soldiers of the First Platoon Company C Signal Corps, 101st Field Battalion, who created a detailed plaque listing the date of their service and their commanding officers. “They even spelled out ‘Massachusetts!’” I quipped.

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Other soldiers memorialized their units, their friends, and even their horses.

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But the vast majority of the men were keenly aware that they likely were creating their own memorials, and their thoughts turned to what they cherished most.

“Merciful Heart of Jesus have mercy on us,” wrote one.

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Another felt it important to record what looked like baseball game results. But maybe the “Red Sox” and the “Yankees” were code names, and it was a different kind of score?

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Some soldiers pledged allegiance to their Masonic temples, or drew harps and clover leaves to celebrate their Irish heritage. A few dedicated their inscriptions to their women back home — and a handful even listed their complete address, perhaps in hopes that news would reach their loved ones if they didn’t survive.

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Through their beautiful drawings and carvings, I felt a deep personal connection to the humanity of these men.


A project of the heart

It was evident that Mr. Chauwin felt a deep personal connection the men who left their traces here, too.

Mr. Chauwin pointed out a carving by Corporal Earle Madeley. “Look at the bottom,” he said. “He was one of the few who wrote his age.”

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Earle William Madeley, of Plainville Connecticut, was 20 years old when he was killed on July 21, 1918. On the ground beneath Earle’s inscription sat a photograph of his grave at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.

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In trying later to learn more about Corporal Madeley, I stumbled upon the memoirs of Charles Leo Boucher — “Lucky Charlie” — who provided a first-hand account of his time in a nearby quarry:

On the last day of our hike from the Aisne Front … we saw nothing out of the ordinary till a large opening on the side of this hill came into view. This proved to be one of the openings or entrances to the famed “Chalk Mines of Soissons.” As we marched down a slope, which led us into the mines, thousands of lights came into view and routes leading in every direction.

Allied troops were coming and going — British, French, and Italian. Guides from the French Army took over and led us into a section that had been assigned to us till we moved on the next day. Our bunks for the night were formed by using four pieces of two by four, two long and two short, and after they were nailed together, heavy screening was attached then the forms were placed on sturdy legs.

Then, I began to explore our new surroundings. Well, it didn’t take long for me to get myself completely lost. I had located a French canteen and as soon as I had made my purchase, I turned to go back to our location. Oh! Brother! There were plenty of routes but I wasn’t sure which was the right one.

In the meantime a French Sergeant saw me and realized that I was lost so, with a little French I had picked up plus a bit of English he understood, he first took me to his outfit where a good sized party was underway. One of the non-commissioned officers had just been promoted and a celebration was in order and I was invited as their guest.

Plenty of food and wine was consumed and then, I was guided back to my outfit. I was told that there were over twenty thousand troops billeted in this particular section of the mine and, without guides, one could travel all night without getting to your destination so once again, I was just “Lucky Charlie.”

Other portions of his memoir painted a much darker vision:

The barrage lasted till dawn began to show and then our first casualty was discovered. He was almost completely covered with earth and the blood was pumping from his mouth, ears, and eyes. Nothing could be done for him so he just choked up and passed on.

Then Corporal Coe got a bullet in the guts and we laid him on the parados. He kept hollering “Charlie! Oh! Charlie! For God’s sake, do something for me.” I gave him some water from my canteen. Then, I ripped open his shirt and there was a hole in his belly. Then a piece of shell hit him in the neck and decapitated him completely so his misery was over.

Charles Boucher himself was twice gravely injured, and almost lost a leg to gangrene — but he survived the war and came home. “Lucky Charlie,” indeed.


First-hand accounts

A surprising number of similar first-hand accounts still survive. But perhaps one of the most compelling was the collection of sketches Mr. Chauwin had urged me to look up online.

C. LeRoy Baldridge published “I Was There With the Yanks on the Western Front” in 1919. Now available through The Gutenberg Project, this collection of visual memoirs literally put a face to the names I’d been seeing in the quarry.

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But, for all the beautiful simplicity and expressiveness of Private Baldridge’s sketches, I was especially touched by his opening words:

It has been a keen regret to me that my artistic skill has been so unequal to these opportunities. The sketches do not sufficiently show war for the stupid horror I know it to be.



The stupid horror of war

As we approached one of the quarry’s dead ends, we reached a small shrine with three black crosses propped against the wall. Above them, in an alcove cut into the stone, hung the British, American, French and German flags. We all fell silent and an air of reverence overtook us as Mr. Chauwin distributed votive candles. One by one, we lit our candles and placed them beneath the flags.

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I stood there for a few moments, in the warm glow of the flickering candles, and thought of the men who had stood on this very spot a century ago … and who had then died, cold and wet in a field somewhere, far from their families and friends, fighting “the war to end all war.”

And I thought of the stupid horror that is war. I thought of the strange amnesia our species has, that even as we mourn the senseless losses of generations past, we continue to slaughter and maim and destroy.

Still … I continue to hope that one day we’ll finally overcome our seemingly innate mandate for self-destruction, and that one day we’ll come to see places like Mr. Chauwin’s quarry as museums of a time we temporarily went mad.

Je vous remercie encore, Gilles et Gilles — de tout mon coeur, et pour toujours.


Friends think I’m macabre (or maybe just weird) when I urge them to visit Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But this is no common graveyard: It’s a living museum, filled with the stories of more than one million souls.

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The luminaries’ names span the centuries — from the 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abélard to the 20th-century Lizard King (Jim Morrison). Frédéric Chopin and Gertrude Stein are here. So are the writers Honoré de Balzac and Marcel Proust, the dancer Isadora Duncan … painter Eugène Delacroix … the list goes on and on.

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Chopin’s tomb is always adorned with flowers and little Polish flags.
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And it’s all set in 110 acres of contemplative, tree-lined cobblestone streets.

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Père Lachaise is so vast that if you wander along the walls — or pause atop the hills — you may even forget you’re in a cemetery.

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How it all started

Père Lachaise was born out of necessity when Paris’ other cemeteries became insalubrious and overcrowded. Under Emperor Napoléon’s authority, a magistrate named Nicholas Frochot annexed a parcel owned by some retired Jesuit priests (whose order included Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, for whom the cemetery is named).

When Père Lachaise opened on May 21, 1804, its first burial was five-year-old Adélaïde Marie Antoinette Paillard de Villeneuve — the daughter of a bellhop in Faubourg St. Antoine. Sadly, her family didn’t buy a plot “in perpetuity” and all traces of her have disappeared.

Parisians mostly shunned the new cemetery, however, until Nicholas Frochot had a stroke of marketing genius: In 1817 he decided to reinter of the beloved 17th-century French authors Molière and Jean de La Fontaine — and soon Père Lachaise was the place to be dead in Paris.

Héloïse and Abélard were also reinterred as part of Frochot’s plan, though there is considerable doubt that the remains actually belong to the star-crossed lovers. But who cares? It’s a lovely monument, and it keeps their story alive.

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In fact, Père Lachaise contained mostly modest family plots and communal pits until the first sculptural tombstone was installed in 1809 — a mother’s tribute to her fallen son.

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After that, the race was on to keep up with the (dead) Joneses. That’s when Gothic family chapels of all sizes started popping up …

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… and funerary statues became a thing.

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The stories of one million lives

In addition to being beautiful, many of the sculptures at Père Lachaise are also meaningful. Some tell us who the person was in life, like this simple homage to a painter-poet.

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Other memorials are more ornate, like this sepulcher for Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Under the stage name Robertson he performed a “phantasmagoria” show with optical illusions so shocking that his audiences would faint. He was also a keen hot-air balloonist, although sadly there are no balloons among the bats.

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Then there’s the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach, whose flair for drama and romance extend into the afterlife as he climbs out of his tomb, clutching a rose.

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Victor Noir’s tomb is known for romance and drama of an entirely different kind. Born Yvan Salmon, Noir adopted his pen name when he went to work for La Marseillaise newspaper in Paris. In January 1870 he was sent to arrange the details of a duel, but instead got into a scuffle with Prince Pierre Bonaparte and was shot dead on the spot.

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Sculptor Jules Dalou sketched the scene and — *ahem* — “erected” a life-sized statue of the fallen 22-year-old. Legend says that rubbing the statue’s manhood will bring fertility, enhance your sex life, or fetch a husband within the year. So many women have molested the poor statue that it may soon need repair.

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Of course, stories like these aren’t always so evident: Only recently did I learn that Oscar Wilde isn’t alone in his tomb, for instance. Next to him — in an urn — are the ashes of his friend Robert Baldwin Ross, who commissioned the monument but is not mentioned on the statue.

I also read somewhere that the groundskeeper of Père Lachaise found the enormous “member” on the statue so scandalous that he chiseled it off and used it as a paperweight. I wonder if it has turned up on eBay yet — and if so, what keywords one might use.

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More recently, thousands of women (and presumably some lipstick-toting men) have paused here to kiss Wilde’s tomb. The practice was halted a couple of years ago with the installation of plexiglass barriers, but now visitors are smooching the plastic. Things like this must drive the city officials mad.

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Hidden among the more obvious tributes are many smaller, symbolic gestures — like the simple Star of David that adorns Marcel Marceau’s grave. Before he was world-famous as a mime, he joined the French Resistance against the Nazis and with his brother Alain saved dozens of Jewish children.

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Another tomb that contains hidden symbolism is that of Théodore Géricault, the Romantic painter whose huge Raft of the Medusa is among the most-visited paintings in the Louvre.

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But why is he shown bald and reclining? As a wealthy young man, he had two loves: painting and horses. Because these passions were sometimes at odds, though, he would have a servant shave his head so he’d resemble a convict (and be too ashamed to go out, so he would therefore stay in and paint).

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Sadly, a series of serious equestrian accidents left him disabled and eventually claimed his life. Perhaps that’s why he is shown unable to stand, reclining with his palette for all eternity.

The sheer number of stories like these is so overwhelming that you’re bound to miss a few of them on the first (or ninth) visit. This memorial had always caught my eye, for example —

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— but not until yesterday did I learn that it’s dedicated to Jean-Joseph Carriès … a fine sculptor and miniaturist himself. He was only 39 when he died of pleurisy.

Jean-Joseph Carriès. by Nadar

Although a few of the tombs have been classified as historical monuments, most are private property — which is why they’re in various degrees of (dis)repair.

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Still, enough vestiges remain of even ordinary lives to provide a tangible and compelling connection to the past.

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And this is why I come here: To be reminded that no matter how small — or how large — our lives may be, each of us has a story. To be reminded that our actions will influence how we’ll be remembered … and that the most permanent and worthwhile of all achievements is to love and to be loved.

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Are you dying to see Père Lachaise for yourself? You’ll find directions at the bottom of this post.

But if you desire a more permanent stay, you may be disappointed to learn that Père Lachaise has officially been full for 60 years. There are still a handful of burials every month, however.

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If you can cough up the €16,000 for a plot and meet the criteria — belonging to a family that owns a tomb “in perpetuity,” keeling over in Paris, or having an address in Paris when you cast off your mortal coil — you, too, could be buried among the luminaries at Père Lachaise.

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Admission to Père Lachaise is free.

Hours are seasonal: From November to mid-March it’s open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 5:30, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. From mid-March to October it’s generally open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 6:00, and Sundays and holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. NOTE: To enjoy a leisurely visit, please give yourself at least two hours before closing time.

Maps of Père Lachaise are for sale at many of the florists surrounding the cemetery, or you can download one for free from the city’s website. This same free map is also available at the office (“Conservation”) near the Porte Principale on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Para personas de habla Hispana, este mapa también se ofrece en Español.

Getting there is easy via public transportation. Located in the 20th arrondissement, Père Lachaise has two entrances. The main entrance is on the Boulevard Ménilmontant, with nearby Métro stops at Père Lachaise (lines 2 and 3) and Philippe Auguste (line 2). You can also take bus routes 61 or 69 to the main gate.

The second entrance is on the rue des Rondeaux, served by the Gambetta Métro station (line 3) or several bus routes (26, 60, 61, 64, 69, 102).

Still want more? Here’s a feast of Paris cemetery trivia, and Paris’s official web-guide to its municipal cemeteries.

I wouldn’t blame the casual reader of this blog for concluding that Minnesotans talk about nothing but the weather.

But when you consider that our temperature range here is a whopping 174 degrees (and that it once dropped 71 degrees in a single day), perhaps you can understand all the fuss. And boy, was last weekend fuss-worthy!

A week ago Friday I visited the Quaking Bog, near Eloise Butler. This is one of my favorite fall hikes in the Twin Cities because it has such a mix of color — golden aspens, red maples, deep-brown oaks, evergreens.

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And although those colors were still patchy on Friday, they were brilliant in the late-afternoon sun.

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I was sad that several pines had been vandalized, though (because even with peace symbols, the paint is still toxic to the trees). People are so weird sometimes.

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Saturday brought a stroll through the Como Conservatory in St. Paul. It does my soul good to visit these huge greenhouses where it’s always summer.

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In the beautiful Japanese Garden, however, it was definitely fall. I loved how the yellow maple leaves highlighted the stone paths and … well, pretty much everything.

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And what about these Japanese maple leaves, dancing in the wind?

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The Como Conservatory also has a vast and gorgeous bonsai collection, which by itself is worth a visit. I was especially smitten on Saturday with the tamarack grove — perhaps because it reminded me of my recent trip to the North Shore.

Como Japanese garden 1360249 BLOG

Maybe because I had bonsai on the brain I was drawn to a little ficus in the gift shop, looking unkempt and neglected. I forgot to take a “before” photo; but here’s how Gus looked after his first haircut.

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On Sunday I had planned to drive north for one more shot at the fall color, but instead got distracted by the snow.

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Isn’t that crazy? I can’t remember the last time I saw snow pile up on flowers and still-green leaves.

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The photos really don’t do it justice.

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But by that afternoon we were back in the 40s. That’s when I became inexplicably fascinated with water drops on oak leaves. (Let’s just all be glad that photography provides a harmless outlet when these things capture my attention.)

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Perhaps I’ll entice Esteban out for one last peek at the fall colors this weekend. Or perhaps not. Either way, I promise to move on soon to other topics. Like Rouen. Mont Saint-Michel. And maybe a preview of our trip to Rome!

Thank you, as always, for stopping by.





When we last left Minnesota’s North Shore, it was snowing. On October 5! I guess that’s what you get when you drive almost to the Canadian border.

Map of Norh Shore BLOGThe blue star marks the Twin Cities, and the red star is where we ended up.

But remember what I said about the changeable weather along Lake Superior? 24 hours later it was sunny and comparatively mild, so my friend Uta and I headed out for some hiking. I was so excited to see the sun that I even snapped photos through the (dog-spit-covered) windshield.

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Oberg Mountain Trail

Our first destination was Oberg Mountain, off Highway 61 (see directions below). It’s a favorite spot for fall color … as the full parking lot attested. Sigh.

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The signs weren’t kidding when they warned of sheer cliffs.

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And parts of the trail were rugged, with lots of rocks and roots on which to sprain your ankles.

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But the light filtering through the birches and maples was a gorgeous distraction.

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And the reward of these vistas was well worth the climb:

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Uta on Oberg Mountain 1350486 BLOG

Some of the overlooks were overcrowded, but it still warmed my heart to see so many people out enjoying nature.

Oberg crowded at the top 1350508 BLOG

Even after a three-mile loop through the woods we weren’t sated, though, so we drove south on Highway 61 toward the lake.

Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center

It’s a good thing Uta has such sharp eyes — and knows the area — because I would have sailed right past the unassuming turnoff at marker 73. I was surprised that just five minutes later we were gazing out at Lake Superior.

Uta and Heather feet 1350605 BLOG

Uta by Lake Superior 1350594 BLOG

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Lake Superior tide pool 1350652 CC BLOG

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We didn’t hike to the famous pebble beach because there was a family there with 782 children. (Or at least that was our estimate, from all the yelling and carrying-on.) But we did spot one of the old mooring rings that remain from the harbor’s logging heyday.

Superior anchor 1350628 BLOG

On our way back to the car we also spotted this portly red squirrel — the only wildlife we saw during our entire four-day weekend.

Superior squirrel 1350664 BLOG

Illgen Falls

“I know of a secret spot,” Uta said as we hopped back in the car and backtracked north on Highway 61. Again, I would have missed the unmarked parking lot … but I could already hear the waterfall.

A short hike took us to the edge of Illgen Falls, which were spectacular after the previous days’ rain and snow. Yes, I did walk right to the edge to get these photos.

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Uta was even more brave: She actually lay down on the edge.

Uta on the edge 1350702 BLOG

She also took me upstream to her favorite swimming spot, where a way-more-fancy-than-me photographer was futzing with his tripod.

Illgen Falls 1350721 BLOG

When we finally returned to the cabin, the rapids in Uta’s back yard were running pretty vigorously too.

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Beaver Creek Falls

On our way home the next day I asked Uta to pull off Highway 61 one more time for a parting look at the Beaver Creek Falls. There was no hiking required for these views:

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Back in the Twin Cities, I’m already missing the birch trees and pine forests of the North Shore. But I’m grateful to live in such a beautiful state — and to have such a wonderful friend with whom to share it.

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••• IF YOU GO •••

Oberg Mountain Trail
From Tofte, take Highway 61 North about 4.5 miles. Turn left onto Onion River Road (Forest Road 336). Proceed for about two miles to the parking area on the left.
• Three-mile moderate hike on dirt trails, with significant vertical changes.
• Keep children and dogs from the edge of the cliffs.
• Waterproof shoes with good tread recommended.

Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center
Located lakeside on Highway 61 at mile marker 73 (9096 West Highway 61, Schroeder, Minnesota).
• About a half-mile, easy hike to the lake on maintained trails.
• Staffed welcome center with gift shop (hours vary by season).
• Active research area; don’t disturb plants, rocks, or wildlife.

Illgen Falls
From Highway 61, take Highway 1 toward Finland, proceed 1.6 miles, and park on the gravel pull-off on the left side of the road. Look for the sign that says “Illgen Falls, Devil’s Rock” at the head of the short gravel path.
• About 0.3-mile walk to the edge of the impressive 35-foot drop.
• Waterproof shoes with good tread recommended.
• Accidental-death insurance coverage also recommended. (Kidding.)

Beaver Creek Falls
The Beaver Creek Falls bridge is just east of Beaver Bay on Highway 61. There’s a parking lot at the intersection of Lax Road and Highway 61, adjacent to the bridge.
• Easy stroll from Lax Road lot is less than one-tenth of a mile.
• Panoramic view of four torrents running a course of approximately 300 feet.
• Access to rustic hiking trails that take you down to the waterfall’s edge.

For even more information on fall colors along the North Shore, visit this wonderful website.

My friend Uta has invited me countless times to the cabin she and her husband bought three years ago in northern Minnesota, near Lake Superior. Her persistence finally paid off last weekend when we sandwiched a visit between winter storms and work obligations.

Yes, you read that right: winter storms.

The North Shore is famous for its changeable “lake effect” weather — and for even longer, harsher winters than we endure in the Twin Cities. Still, neither of us had expected to look out the window and see this on Friday morning:

View from back yard 1340679 BLOG

I bundled up (because I had packed poorly in my haste to leave town) and headed out for a stroll … but stopped on the front steps. Even the utility shed was beautiful under its white blanket.

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Outhouse 1340699 BLOG

Farther down the gravel road, the trees and leaves were frozen in their fall glory.

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But apart from the tiny footprints of a bird (probably a dark-eyed junco, on its way south) I didn’t see or hear any wildlife.

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The only sound, in fact, was the soft murmur of the Baptism River’s rapids. No cars, no airplanes, no lawnmowers or snowblowers. Bliss.

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See the copper color of the water?

Baptism River 1340777 BLOG

Someone once told me it was from the soil’s high iron content (this is in the Iron Range, after all). But Uta thought it was due to tannins from all the leaves. Whatever the case, the brownish-tan color even leached through the tire tracks on the road.

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It was still snowing, so it didn’t take long for my fingers to become red and numb. I was relieved to spot the garage as I walked back up the steep road.

Garage 1340709 BLOG

In the back yard, the lawn furniture and barbecue looked as frozen as I felt. I was grateful to have a cabin to retreat into, instead of just a tent.

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Back of cabin 1350060 BLOG

By the time Uta and I finished breakfast, the snow had turned to rain — and my hopes of seeing any fall color were fading by the hour.

But remember what I said about the changeable weather? In 24 hours, the landscape would change again. I’ll leave you with this photo as a little hint.

Fall color 1350439 BLOG

Our North Shore adventure will continue in a few days.



It now looks and feels like autumn in Minnesota, with highs only in the mid-40s (4.5 Centigrade). But before we embrace the fall colors, here’s one last look at the summer of 2018.


Thanks to haze from the blazes in California, the sunrises take on an eerie red glow.

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So do the roads, which are practically illuminated by fluorescent orange cones in the ubiquitous construction zones.

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The lupines bloom, even as the daisies and coneflowers begin to fade.

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As if on cue, the oak trees drop their acorns almost overnight. One enterprising young neighbor decides to capitalize on the windfall. Sadly, his supply far exceeds the demand.

Carl's acorns IMG_9229 BLOG

Esteban and I go to the Renaissance Festival.

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It’s the same as ever: lots of pottery …

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… and music …

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… and pottery and music …

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… elaborate costumes …

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… ballerinas masquerading as unicorns …

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… ponies masquerading as unicorns …

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… audience participation …

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… and being wanted by the wenches. (With extra points awarded for the jaunty tricorn hat.)

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September brings even shorter days, but — paradoxically — warmer weather. Esteban and I brave the sun and visit the State Fair. To my dismay, we speed through the horse barn and miss the heifer judging.

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But at least we get a hands-on demonstration of the restorative power of goats and sheep.

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State Fair sheep 1330770 BLOG

And to my delight, I somehow manage to convince my husband to join me on the Sky Ride (shown below, on the left of the frame).

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Never mind that our gondola lists precariously toward Esteban’s side — or that the roofs below us are inexplicably covered in underwear. (Fitting tip: If your bra or underpants fall off spontaneously, try a smaller size.)

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From our dangling perch we see — and hear — the Giant Sing-Along. Predictably, the enormous karaoke machine is playing Twist and Shout.

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The Sky Ride also gives us a bird’s eye view of the food options. (Schnitzel strips! Corn dogs! Strawberry smoothies! Funnel cakes!!)

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But because we have already gorged ourselves on cinnamon rolls, pork chops, turkey drumsticks, fried pickles and mini donuts, Esteban and I resist the temptation.

We waddle over to the Fine Art building where we find a Van Gogh …

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… and a snowy Minnesota landscape where no van should go.

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It’s only 11 a.m., but the fairgrounds are already at capacity. We call it a day.

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On our way out we encounter another man with dubious taste in t-shirts. Good for you, buddy!

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Back at the office, a newsletter glides across my desk on its way to publication. My friend and colleague Tom notes that there are no more summer months on the calendar. Unfazed, our client says it’s still summer.

Optimism? Or tragic denial? Either way, I don’t argue.

Insight IMG_9056 BLOG

It went by so fast that in my mind it’s still summer, too.

How is the weather in your neck of the woods?

It’s officially fall in Minnesota — as I will show you soon. But first, here are a few more memories from my unintentional summer vacation.


June brings us the summer solstice — which in Minnesota means days that stretch from before 5 a.m. to well after 9 p.m. Although my photos don’t do it justice, the light is spectacular!

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June is also lady slipper season, so I make the annual trek to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden to see my state’s official flower.

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The cattails are already taller than I am, even when the elevated walkway gives me an extra six inches.

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I continue my habit of forest-bathing, too — until a cloud of horseflies turns my strolls into involuntary interval workouts, with much sprinting and shouting and waving of the arms.

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June also heralds another beginning: a sneak preview of the new Bell Museum. I am thrilled to see the restored dioramas by Minnesota painter Francis Lee Jaques (and grateful to my friend Tom for teaching me about Jaques).
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But it’s a bit disconcerting to see other things still in storage, like these pheasants in a plastic bin.

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With much (well-deserved) fanfare, the Bell Museum opens to the public on July 14. I don’t know what it says that my favorite part of the big celebration is a poorly taxidermized squirrel.

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Plus the stunning building, of course! If the architects designed it to reflect its environment, they succeeded in spades.

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July also takes me back to Frontenac for another visit with my friend Pam. It’s blistering-hot again, so we stick mostly to the woods.

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But I do manage to spot an elusive damselfly among the leaves, and a hummingbird moth in the neighbor’s garden.

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During one of our strolls Esteban and I stop to admire our neighbor’s kids’ sidewalk art. (Note the sea turtles and starfishes. These are not native to Minnesota.)

Sidewalk art IMG_8771 BLOG

During another stroll, Esteban and I happen upon a juvenile hawk that seems to have an injured eye.

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Juvenile hawk 1320709 BLOG

We consider taking it to the Raptor Center for evaluation, but realize it’s already quite sharp and pointy — and that one does not simply pick up a bird of prey.

Bird of prey meme BLOG

When we come back the next morning it is gone. I fear the worst … until I see it high up on its perch a few weeks later. It sees me, too. (Sorry for the crappy phone photo.)

Juvenile hawk IMG_9010 BLOG.jpg

During a visit with my friend and neighbor Mary, I note through her stained-glass window that the days are getting shorter already.

Mary stained glass IMG_9241 LIGHTER BLOG

And soon it will be August …

It snowed in northern Minnesota yesterday — so it seems OK now to kiss the summer of 2018 goodbye. Here are some of my favorite moments from my unintentional summer vacation.


Dense fog forms as the dew point rises faster than the temperatures.

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Gibbs Farm Museum looks like a literal ghost town, shrouded in the mist.

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But the poor visibility doesn’t impede the sheep’s eyesight in the least. I am so excited as they gallop toward me: Many wet sheep will be pet this day!

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Alas, it wasn’t me they were after, but food — and I have none. Many wet sheep will be disappointed this day.

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A couple of weeks later I go morel hunting with my friend Pam and our mutual pals David and Marie. Now it’s almost 100 degrees — 37 Celsius — so we don’t spot a single mushroom. But David is intrepid enough to knock on the door of the long-abandoned Locust Lodge (as Pam eggs him on).

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I am relieved no one answers; everything on this property seems dead.

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We are not disappointed to leave without mushrooms, though, after last year’s unexpected bounty in a most unexpected place.

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The flowers are blooming in earnest now — peonies and moss everywhere, and hybrid lady slippers.

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The bugs are blooming, too! See if you can spot the cloud of larval mosquitoes enjoying the lovely sunset.

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And see if you can spot the hairs on this frisky, friendly fly.

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The sudden cornucopia of bugs inspires me to deface the quotes on my teabag tags — like this one, which reimagines Lord Byron’s immortal words, had he lived in Minnesota.

Ticks in woods IMG_8807 BLOG

Well, that’s about it for May. I’ll be back soon with June and July …


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“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”  — Anne Lamott

I didn’t set out to unplug this summer. It happened organically, thanks to meandering morning walks that took longer than expected — and work deadlines that came up faster than expected, too.

I felt guilty at first for neglecting my blog and Facebook friends. But when I realized my absence made no difference, I reveled in the recaptured time.

There’s been some photography and a bit of writing. Mostly I’ve spent the summer reading, though — sometimes devouring whole books in one bite.

Here are 10 of my favorites; maybe one of them will speak to you as well. (If my selections seem a bit eclectic, blame my neighbors’ ubiquitous Little Free Libraries.)

Little Free Libraries BLOG

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
“Luminous.” That’s the word that comes to mind again and again for this poetry disguised as a novel. The chapters of Andreas Eggers’s story accumulate as gently as the snow in his native Alps. But then it all crashes down like an avalanche and you stumble away, dazed and transformed. Few books have stuck with me like this simple story of a humble life.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
This classic is billed as a “must-read” for all writers, but I’d expand that to include all living human beings. It’s full of fantastic advice (see the top of the post) — and it somehow radiates hope and encouragement, too. I expect it will remain the most dog-eared and highlighted book on my shelf for a long time.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
If you’re distressed about the state of the American union, pick up this book. It was born in the aftermath of the author’s divorce — which is maybe why his longing for understanding and connection seeps through in every sentence. He’s a master of written dialect, too, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself calling your car a “sumbich.”

City of Thieves by David Benioff
This book is so close to being a screenplay that you can almost picture the camera directions. So what? It’s meticulously researched and richly imagined, complete with a heartbreaking ending. One caveat: The author is also a Game of Thrones co-creator, so expect lots of sex and violence and blood and transgender chickens. (Yes, you read that right.)

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
I’ve never read anything like this one-sitting gem. At first blush it’s a collection of random thoughts — quotes, memories, casual observations — that read like entries from a diary. But then they coalesce into a story of friendship, marriage, and betrayal. No new ground is broken here, but the ingenuity of the narrative structure makes it well worth digging into.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This sprawling, 775-page novel won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Some friends question whether it deserved the honor, but I couldn’t put it down. Tartt creates vivid characters and then seamlessly weaves their stories together against a backdrop of art theft, antique restoration, drug addiction, Vegas … well, you have to see for yourself!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
“What the hell is happening?” It took me about 20 pages to realize that — like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense — I has crossed to “the other side.” I can’t say I enjoyed this book per se, but I did love the stunning originality of its narrative device. Plus, I learned a lot about President Abraham Lincoln through his contemporaries’ writings.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands
This collection of 32 essays is somewhat uneven in its quality, but I did enjoy learning how these writers came to Paris for the first time, how they were seduced, when they fell in love. As with all love stories, there are bittersweet moments and disappointments. But overall you’re left with a mosaic of fond memories as diverse as the city that inspired them.

The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo
Here is another quiet little book about an ordinary life — this time, a young woman in Japan who is banished to a leper colony in the 1940s. Talarigo’s imagery is so vivid that you can practically hear the surf and smell the brine, but the real protagonist here is the human spirit in all of its relentless tenacity.

Rubicon by Tom Holland
Some academic writers use their prose to belittle your ignorance; others speak to you as an equal and then elevate you with their knowledge. Tom Holland is among the latter. With his crisp writing and dry wit, he has somehow turned the demise of the Roman Republic into a page-turner that makes figures like Marius and Pompey feel like old friends.

Well, time to plug back in. I’ll return soon with the obligatory summer recap (with 30% more goats!). And I look forward to seeing what you’ve been up to, as well.



In spite of his casual dress and soft southern accent, Windrow intimidated me when I first joined the news desk. He was whip-smart, often funny, sometimes gruff. He was also an experienced editor and a commanding presence in the newsroom.

That’s why I snapped to attention when I saw his name on my phone’s display. “Give me everything you have on sea monkeys,” Windrow drawled. The internet didn’t exist yet, so I scurried to the archives in the basement and found two clips (TWO clips on Sea Monkeys!), which I left with pride on his desk.

Minutes later, a message blinked in bright-green letters on my ATEX terminal. Only Windrow wasn’t thanking me: “What we have here is a failure to communicate. Snow monkeys. White. Furry. Live in Japan.”

He could have written me off right then as an idiot who couldn’t tell brine shrimp from macaques — but he didn’t. Instead, Windrow patiently read my halting drafts of a dozen small writing assignments. He corrected my split infinitives, my malapropisms, the occasional factual error.

I never got over the intimidation (because the more I worked with him, the more I respected his command of the craft). I never got to be part of his inner circle, either — he already had lots of friends and a devoted staff. But I did grow to like him and admire him greatly.

Windrow taught me a lot about writing, and storytelling in particular. He was a prodigious teller of tales, drawing from his youth in Tennessee, his Navy days, his early jobs and teaching gigs. (He was also a restless soul who once hopped a Polish freighter to Rotterdam, then spent a year crisscrossing Europe.)

Back in the U.S., Windrow used his GI Bill to complete a Masters in Journalism at the University of Missouri and took work at the San Antonio Light in Texas. I’m fuzzy on how he ended up in Minnesota, but I’m sure that too was a colorful story.

And that’s how I would describe Windrow: colorful. Hilarious. Boisterous, sometimes, and wise. Kind, giving, complicated but authentic. Larger than life.

Larger than life … yes. But not immortal.

I checked Windrow’s Facebook page last night when I learned of his passing, planning to express my condolences and belated thanks. But instead I found a gift: one last story of his, inspired by the exploits of Minnesota’s world-famous skyscraper-climbing raccoon.

He posted it publicly, so I hope it’s OK to pass it on here.

A few winters ago my sisters and I were going through the stuff in my Cromwell Square condo’s attic, deciding what to toss and what to keep.

We found a packet of love letters my father sent my mother in the late ’40s. Paul was home from the war in Europe and farming with my grandfather. Bo was a student at a women’s college in Georgia.

Every letter started out “went coon hunting last night.” Sometimes he was eating breakfast in his hunting clothes as he penned the letter, having spent the entire night pursuing the wily Procyon lotor (as the scientists call him).

He would mention who accompanied him, certain hounds that distinguished themselves, how many coons they bagged, what dark parts of Hatchie Bottom he ventured into.

I would not consider this a particularly effective way to woo the fair sex. Nevertheless during their engagement, she went coon hunting with him.

“I was standing in freezing water up to me knees,” she told me. “Shining the light on the coon, way up in the top of the tree. The dogs were howling and frothing at the mouth. The coon sailed out of the tree, landed on me, knocked the flashlight out of my hands and I went down into the water. Then all the dogs jumped on top of us,” (her and the coon).

Bo Kinney hunted the raccoon no more, but she married Paul anyway.

Many people fancy raccoons, probably because of their appearance: the cute masked faces; inky black, inquisitive eyes; paws that resemble little hands; long ringed tails.

This panda resemblance does not guarantee a genial nature. My Great Uncle Frank once gave me a young coon for a pet that I named Zip. The first thing Zip did was bite me.

A Minnesota raccoon found fame recently. The coon, probably looking for pigeon eggs, started climbing the 25-story UBS Plaza building in downtown St. Paul. Once it passed 100 feet and reached the 20th floor, crowds appeared in the streets.

I quote the New York Times:
Gawkers flooded the streets below UBS Plaza. Some brought binoculars. A girl clutched a raccoon stuffed animal. A marquee on Minnesota Public Radio’s building across the street flashed the breaking news: St. Paul’s downtown raccoon reaches new heights.

The saga was online in no time, trending on Twitter. “The internet went bananas,” CNN reported.

I learned early on in the news business that people love small animals, and like to pull for the little guy.

The St. Paul raccoon embodied this story. Eventually she topped the 25th floor where animal control folks lured her into a cage baited with cat food. (She was very hungry after her Mount Everest moment.) They released her unharmed into the wild.

I liked coon hunting when I was young, but never shared my father’s zeal.

I liked sitting by the fire out in the woods at night listening to the men tell stories, but my enthusiasm waned when we were slogging through icy slews, standing under huge cypress trees shining lights up into the treetops. You spot the coons by their bright eyes. Some coons are so smart they put their paws over their eyes (or so I was told).

Paul said when he got too old to coon hunt he would fox hunt. It’s easier on you, he explained to me. You sit by the fire and listen to the dogs run the fox. You never catch one. That sounded great to me.

Paul brought me home after midnight once half frozen and drenched to the bone on a school night. I was about 12. My mother sat up waiting for us and had a fire going to warm me.

It was the only time I ever heard her speak sharply to him.

May you live on in your friends’ memories and stories, Windrow. And may angels sing you to your rest.

A squall blew through the Twin Cities this afternoon, dumping as much as six inches of rain in one hour — and turning the storm sewers into geysers.

On the plus side? I can probably skip watering the flowers tomorrow.


I seldom write about politics here — because in a democracy everyone is entitled to their beliefs. But when children are being deliberately brutalized for political gain, it becomes a moral imperative to speak up. My hope is that some of you will call your representatives in Congress and ask them to please support more humane ways of enforcing our nation’s laws.

Yesterday we celebrated Father’s Day in the United States. But thanks to the direct actions of the government more than 1,000 fathers spent the day separated from their kids. And at least one of these fathers — Marco Antonio Muñoz — will never see his children again, because he’s dead.

Muñoz and his family were apprehended at the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station on May 11, where they were arrested under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April.

According to a Border Patrol official, “… Muñoz ‘lost it’ after Border Patrol told the family they would be separated. ‘The [Border Patrol] had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.’” Muñoz later killed himself in his jail cell on May 13.

Although Muñoz’s case is extreme, it’s hardly unique: The Trump administration separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults between April 19 and May 31, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said last Friday.

McAllen Texas immigrant arrestA child cried as her mother was searched and detained in McAllen, Texas, this past week.
Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

The officials could not confirm whether parents are allowed to say goodbye to their children before they are separated. Some reports have alleged that parents were told their children were being taken to a separate facility for a bath; others have described children screaming in the next room as their parents were being arrested. In some cases the parents have even been sent home without their children.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he is simply enforcing the law. But there is in fact no law mandating that parents must be separated from their children at the border.

DHS officials have also said they have “no choice” but to separate parents and children, claiming that the only alternative option is to ignore the law. (Never mind that previous administrations have found other ways to keep migrant families together as they wound their way through immigration court proceedings.)

Meanwhile, Trump is blaming the Democrats for this “forced family breakup.”

Twitter democrats

In fact, it was President George W. Bush who initiated the “zero tolerance” approach for illegal immigration on which Mr. Trump’s policy is modeled.

In 2005, Bush launched Operation Streamline, a program along a stretch of the border in Texas that imprisoned all unlawful entrants and expedited assembly-line-style deportation trials. However, exceptions were generally made for adults who were traveling with minor children, as well as juveniles and people who were ill.

But it’s really not about whom to blame, is it? What matters is that this systemic child abuse masquerading as law enforcement must stop. And the cold truth is that if Trump “hates separating families” as much as he claims, he himself can end it — today — with a single phone call.

Children should never be used as pawns for political gains, especially when it will cause them irreparable, permanent trauma.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, saw some of the detained children in April. “It was really devastating to see,” she said. “The first room we went into was a toddler room and there was a little girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old who was just sobbing and crying and was inconsolable.”

And beyond the trauma our government is deliberately inflicting on these children, we are also harming ourselves and our standing in the world.

Remember how shocked the nation was to see Otto Warmbier coming home comatose from North Korea, after being detained for taking a pamphlet from his hotel room? We will no longer have the moral high ground or the right to be outraged over such mistreatment of American citizens if we ourselves are doing irreparable damage to those we detain.

As a society we would be horrified if a police officer pulled over a car for a moving violation and proceeded to beat up the children who were riding in the back seat. Isn’t it just as horrifying to beat up children psychologically under the pretext of enforcing the law?

We can — we MUST — do better than this.


I’ve been searching for the perfect Father’s Day gift, and for a brief shining moment today I thought I’d found it in KSBeth’s post.


Yes … can you believe it?! A HOT-GLUE GUN FOR CHEESE!

Alas, the reviews were less than stellar …

Well, it was a good idea. Hot cheese on demand? Heck yes! Unfortunately it just doesn’t work well. It heats up about one squeeze worth of cheese and then you have to wait for 2 mins for more heat. This is not fat guy approved. Thanks for crushing my dreams of assembly line nachos. Dream killers.

… so I decided to keep looking.

But like a solicitous sales clerk in the sock department at Macy’s, Amazon wasn’t about to let me leave empty-handed. “Customers also shopped for …” it suggested hopefully.

Before I knew it, I’d gone down the rabbit-hole of Weird and Inappropriate Gifts.

CUSTOMERS also shopped for

My dad is a fantastic cook, but somehow a “Creepy Cage Face Mug” or a package of Augason Farms Funeral Potatoes wouldn’t exactly set the right tone. The reviews were pretty amusing, though:

Sometimes I get a hankerin’ for gramma’s potato casserole, but I get tired of waiting for one of the family or friends to die. Thanks to Augason Farms, I can bring the taste of sorrow and loss, along with awkward hugs from distant relatives I didn’t know I had, to my freezer anytime I want it.

Hmmm. Maybe a practical gift instead — like a fanny pack for his morning strolls? Amazon suggested this men unisex waistpack with adjustable belt. Because nothing says GIFT like a hairy, pinkish neoprene man-paunch.

Belly fanny pack

My dad doesn’t (yet) own a chicken, so he probably wouldn’t have much use for a chicken harness and leash, either.

Chicken harness

But again: the comments!

I’m still working this out. I think my bird is less “hen size” and more “monster bird” size, but this isn’t offered in mutated science experiment size. My girl is a pretty tolerant bird, she let me fuss it onto her, but she was able to scrunch up and get her head out the top. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. It’s still fairly cold for walking so I’ll give an update on what my neighbors think of me in spring.

Sadly the squishy fried egg stress reliever didn’t have any reviews, but this word-salad of a description made up for 100 glowing testimonials:

Egg yolk brother vent egg pinch whole package tricky weird decompression toys. Durable Polyurethane Foam has Memory Foam-like characteristics for a super squishable experience. Great Gift Idea: Perfect to entertain,

Oh yes, my friends … I will entertain you now with my weird decompression toys squishy egg!

Squishy egg

But I will stop my narration for a moment and just let you imagine the look (surprise? delight? you are never welcome in this house again?) on your loved ones’ faces when you give them a build-your-own simple pine casket or set of 10 tiny hands.

Casket on display


Finger hand puppets

Ummm. Two of the hands are Mexican and the remaining 8 are Caucasian. This item isn’t eligible for return, so…I guess I’m stuck with a random assortment?? The photo showed ten matching hand finger puppets. That is not what i got. Boo.

And let us not forget about the pets — they are members of the family too, after all!

Cat Yoda

This is cool, but the strap is way too big for any cat. I think this was made for an infant’s head and they just cut holes in it and marketed it for cats. Otherwise the cat they tested it on must have had a HUGE head, but then again I’ve never been to China so maybe cats look like chupacabras out there.

Okay … I must interject again for just a second. YOUR CAT IS GOING TO KILL YOU FOR THIS.

Cat Yoda kill

Speaking of our furry friends … what could be cuter than a squirrel wearing a horse head? Totally worth $19, even if the top reviewer is right in observing that “squirrels always kill what they love.”

Squirrel horse head

We got one of these for the yard and it is super awesome. We smeared the inside of the snout with peanut butter and filled it with the finest squirrel blend, then set it up and waited. It did not disappoint. The additional preparations we had made for the Squirrel Viewing, which I shall not bore you with here, only enhanced the hilarity of the inevitable squirrel-in-a-horsehead shenanigans. The only downside is that once the squirrels overcame their fear of the giant disembodied floating horsehead, leering down at them like a vision out of what I can only imagine would be a squirrel’s most fevered nightmare, they tore at it like deranged zombies and turned into something resembling the steed of a White Walker. I can tell you that it was a bit unsettling the first time it rotated towards us on its string, in a seemingly innocent fashion, then suddenly revealed its ravaged and skeletal other side. You’ve won this time, squirrels.

I also got maybe too much glee out of the “My first fire” play kit. The front of the package seemed innocent enough … but just look at that photo on the back. Better start saving for Timmy’s bail!

My first fireMy first fire backWait … what was I doing? Oh, yes. Looking for a gift that expresses the love I feel for my father, and the debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay.

Maybe I will just call him and tell him that instead.







Not many sports can trace their origin as decisively as basketball: Fans know the first game was played on December 21, 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

But few Americans are aware that the oldest surviving basketball court is in Paris, inside an unassuming building at 14, rue Trévise in the 9th arrondissement.

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The entrance, in a promotional brochure from the 1930s

The building felt almost abandoned when Esteban and I first walked into its small lobby with our friend Gilles Thomas last April. A single shaft of light from the serpentine stairs illuminated the tile floors and the old posters on the walls.

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It seemed a strange setting for the first recorded basketball game on European soil, which took place here on December 27, 1893.

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A plaque commemorates the first basketball game played in Europe

But Sylvie Manac’h — the director of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris — would soon show us that very spot (and many less-well-known) in this remarkable structure.

A video shoot was in progress when Sylvie led us into the historic basketball court. But in spite of the pink lighting, balloons, and young actors that filled the gymnasium, I still felt like I was stepping into a time machine.

YMCA shoot 1260602 BLOG

The gymnasium in Paris was almost identical to the original in Springfield, which unfortunately was destroyed by fire. As in its American twin, the two baskets were suspended from a slanted wood track that circled above the court.

Piste-gymnasePhoto courtesy of UCJG Paris

Below, the antique exercise machines hinted at the building’s age: it opened less than two years after James Naismith invented basketball at the Y.M.C.A. in Springfield in 1891.

YMCA exercise equipment 1260635 BLOG

I wondered whether the original gymnasium in Springfield had also featured cast-iron columns in the middle of the court.

Gymnase1Photo courtesy of UCJG Paris

Sylvie explained that the creaky parquet floor was original too, made of wood imported from the United States.

YMCA floor 1260637 DIF BLOG

In fact, the entire building seemed like a testament to the special friendship France and the U.S. have shared since the American revolution:

• James Stokes, a millionaire philanthropist from New York, financed half of the construction to honor General Lafayette’s role in the revolution.

YMCA Lafayette plaque 1260680 BLOG

YMCA Lafeyette detail 1260684 BLOG

• The architect (Émile Bénard, a student of Gustav Eiffel) traveled to America to study Y.M.C.A. buildings for inspiration.

• An American named Melvin B. Rideout became the first athletic director, bringing basketball to Paris.

But perhaps even more revolutionary were the ideals of the Y.M.C.A. (Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Gens, or UCJG), which linked physical health and community with spiritual well-being — a concept that was unheard of in France at the time.

In addition to a chapel and a cafeteria …

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YMCA Gilles railing 1260868 BLOG
Gilles asked why the railing on the stairs was so high. “So people could lean against it and read the newspaper while they waited in line for food,” Sylvie explained.

… the new building featured an American-style bowling alley and France’s first indoor swimming pool. Sadly, the bowling alley (shown immediately below) and swimming pool have fallen into disrepair.

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But many of the other rooms are still in use — including the auditorium, which has found new life as the Théâtre Trévise.

The upper floors also still provide housing for some 40 residents (most of them young men under 25) in modest dormitory-style rooms with fantastic views.

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YMCA view 1260783 BLOG

I was fascinated by the winding stairs that served the dormitories, and by the cast-iron fire escape. Was it just my imagination, or did the latter show some Eiffel-like influences? It looked in excellent condition, considering its age.

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YMCA fire escape 1260749 BLOG

Alas, other parts of the building were much worse for wear, including a few rooms that were practically in ruins. Sylvie lamented that it would take hundreds of thousands of euros to make all of the needed repairs — money the Y.M.C.A. simply doesn’t have.

YMCA ruins 1260807 BLOG

That’s why the association has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to restore the basketball court and renew interest in saving the building, which was registered as a historic landmark in 1994.

It is my hope that a few kind, generous Americans will once again extend a hand of friendship by helping preserve this historic venue, and this living symbol of the Franco-American bond.

I extend my deep and heartfelt thanks to Gilles Thomas for arranging our tour, and to Sylvie Manac’h for so graciously sharing her knowledge and time with us. Je vous remercie infiniment !

Want to know more?

Help save the building with a donation of any amount.

Discover how you can tour this building through the European Heritage Days program.

YMCA patrimoine 1260871 BLOG

Learn more about the history of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.

See more photos on Atlas Obscura.

Become a sponsor of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.



One of my favorite things about WordPress is its community of kind, supportive people. And one of those lovely people is Jessica, whose blog I fell in love with instantly because of this post. She is a superb, deeply perceptive writer and a marvelous photographer. I promise that if you take one virtual stroll with her — maybe in inappropriate shoes? — you’ll fall in love, too.

So what an honor it was to read her latest post and see that she’d nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award (merci infiniment, chère Jessica !). I sometimes turn down these awards because they can have a “chain letter” element — and I don’t want my blog friends to feel pressured or obligated to continue the thread. But in Jessica’s honor I will gladly accept.

Ready? First, let’s start with the rules:


• Thank the blogger who nominated you.
• Answer the 11 questions asked.
• Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
• List the rules and include the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.


And now, the goods:

What inspired you to start blogging?
My friends Pam, Laurie, and Derek. I loved how freely and unselfconsciously they wrote about their lives and thought “maybe I should try that too.” Which is weird, because I am an intensely private person.

Sadly, none of their blogs is active anymore but I do owe them all a debt of gratitude.

What do you hope to accomplish with your blog/writing?
I have so far failed miserably in my aspirations to attract one billion subscribers, eradicate flatworms, or start a cult. But I have stayed true to my stated mission of sharing my love of the absurd (fluorescent marmosets!) and the beauty I find all around me.

In hindsight, though, my blog’s greatest accomplishment has been introducing me to incredible people all over the world, many of who have become cherished, real-life friends.

Have you ever experienced culture shock?
Oh my, yes. The worst was when my family moved to Minnesota. In spite of my efforts to look like the cool girls, I became an outcast and a target for bullies — and my classmates branded me a liar because of the fantastical stories I told about Peru.

It wasn’t all bad, though: Being on the outskirts made me a keen observer and taught me a lot both about my fellow humans and myself. I also learned that even if you do fit in, conformity exacts its own price.

Since then I’ve made a point of deliberately exposing myself to culture shock from time to time. Yes, it can be intimidating and even scary. But it can also be liberating and reassuring to be reminded that people are fundamentally the same the world over.

Describe the most memorable meal you’ve ever had OR the worst date. Or both.
Most memorable meal? I’m fortunate that a dozen contenders flicker across my mental movie screen. So instead I’ll tell you about the worst date. (Scroll to the very bottom of this post if you’re really interested.)

What is something you wish you were better at?
Small talk. I can never find a happy medium between “I like potatoes,” and “When you think about it, even the universe will die someday.”

What cities/countries have you lived in, and do you have a favorite?
I live in Minnesota now but grew up in England, Mexico and Peru — and they’re all dear to me for different reasons. But Paris is my favorite city (although I technically haven’t lived there). It has an intoxicating blend of history, culture, beauty and grittiness I find irresistible.

Where do you find inspiration?
In nature. Whether I have writer’s block or the blues or feel “stuck” as a photographer, a walk through the woods or prairie always makes it better. Pausing to hear the birds or study the bark of an ancient tree reminds me that I’m part of something much bigger, much more powerful, and much more beautiful than my little human brain can even imagine.

What is your travel philosophy?
When my sisters and I were little my parents bought us all matching red backpacks, and the rule was that you could bring whatever you wanted on vacation as long as it fit inside. This taught me to make tough choices and travel light.

But the philosophy that has served me best as an adult is that, “At some point the trip you plan will become the trip you’re on.” You’ll lose your wallet. You’ll get stranded in Rome. Or fall down a flight of stairs. You won’t always have a choice in how your trip unfolds, but you will always have a choice in how you respond when the unexpected occurs. (Those last four words are for my friend TO’S.)

What is something you think is completely overrated?
Paris Hilton! That was the first thing that popped into my head. But also microbrews, Frapuccinos, avocado toast, manbuns … pretty much anything that’s wildly popular.

What’s your drink?
Kombucha. It’s a bit of a problem, actually. I may be addicted.

Describe a piece of art (in any medium) that changed the way you saw the world.
Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica. I saw a photo of it in Delta Airlines’ Sky magazine (“Experience Spain,” read the inexplicable tourism ad). I stared at those faces for a long time: women, horses, bulls, children … all screaming in terror. Men lying motionless on the ground. It was one of the most powerful and stark depictions of human suffering and inhumanity I’d ever seen — all of it expressed in just a few spare, almost-abstract shapes. It not only taught me about a tragic episode of history but also gave me an appreciation for Picasso, whose work I had never really understood before.

And if you’re still interested in my reading about my worst date, don’t forget to scroll to the very bottom of the post.

Now, here are my 11 questions for some of my other favorite bloggers, in no particular order. Please don’t feel compelled to respond — but know that I appreciate you and all you bring to this community.

Alys at Gardening Nirvana
Hanna at Hanna’s Walk
Marcus at Streets of Nuremberg
V.J. at One Woman’s Quest
Patti at Learn More Every Day
Kate at Ankhor You
Suzanne and Pierre at Paris Expat 2012
Anthony at Today’s Perfect Moment
Corey at French Frye in Paris
Beth at I Didn’t Have my Glasses On
ME Lewis at France Says

What inspired you to start blogging?
What are you most proud of?
If you won the lottery, on what would you splurge?
Where is the last place you traveled to? Would you like to go back?
What is your favorite book? Why?
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
What is the silliest thing you ever saw or heard at work?
What is your favorite childhood memory?
Have you ever gotten hopelessly lost? What happened?
If you could have dinner with any famous person, whom would you choose?
What hopes and dreams do you have for your next 10 years?

My worst date

It was my husband’s and my fifth anniversary — or maybe our sixth? — and to mark the occasion we decided to go camping.

We got up early on the appointed day and loaded up the dog and the tent and the sleeping bags and the freeze-dried food and the camp stove (can you tell I married a former Boy Scout?) and the drinking water and the miniature chess game and a travel-sized bottle of schnapps and drove 200 miles north to Split Rock Lighthouse.

We hiked maybe a mile into the woods, located our campsite, and pitched our tent. But we hadn’t even sprung the last pole when the insects found us. And by “insects” I mean literal clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies, all of them craving our precious blood. We instructed the dog to pee and beat a hasty retreat into the tent.

Have you ever tried to sleep with a mosquito in the room? Imagine three dozen inside a tiny, stuffy tent. We swatted at the darkness … until a flash temporarily blinded us. Lightning!

Soon the wind started buffeting our tent. Then came the heavy raindrops. And then, the creaking of tree branch rubbing against tree branch. “Widow-maker!” exclaimed my Boy Scout. It sounded like a huge branch — and it was right above us. We had to get away. Fast.

It was pouring now, and the thunder was deafening. We took turns comforting our terrified dog as we shoved random gear into our packs. Then we slogged a mile through the mud and whipping branches and piled our poor soaked dog and belongings into the car.

“Thank God we got out of there,” said my Boy Scout. It was almost midnight and the visibility was terrible, but at least we were out of the weather and on our way back home.

“Rrrrr,” said our car. “Rrrr, rrrrr …” The strange sound was sporadic, but the loss of power that accompanied it made our hearts race. We decided to aim for Sandstone and pull into the parking lot of Banning State Park.

“OOOOH! A MOTEL!!” It was right across the highway from the state park, and the Vacancy light was on. A red-and-blue neon miracle!

I felt terrible for the woman we got out of bed at 2 a.m. to check us in. “Do you have any dog-friendly rooms?” I asked. “Is the animal clean?” she shot back, eyeing the two soaking-wet, mud-splattered, twig-covered humans who stood before her. “Oh yes!” I replied with unnatural enthusiasm.

We let Arrow in through the back door of the motel, trying to wipe the mud from his feet and belly as he pulled us down the hall. Confident that he was finally clean enough to enter the room, we threw open the door and removed his leash.

Arrow was so overjoyed to be indoors that he slammed his butt onto the carpet and scooted the entire length of the room as Esteban and I looked on, horrified at the brown skid mark the dog was leaving in his wake. (That’s how the phrase “I believe you’ve met our dog, Scooter?” became one of Esteban’s and my most enduring pet jokes.)

But we haven’t done much camping since then, for some reason. Maybe it’s time we gave it another try? We have another anniversary coming up, after all …



I was planning a return to Como Lake last weekend to see how our young eagle was coming along. But then I got distracted by the sunrise.

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As I passed the Gibbs Farm Museum I couldn’t help wondering how many spectacular sunrises Jane DeBow Gibbs had watched from this same spot some 170 years ago.

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The goats were out, so I went over to say hello. Mom and dad came over first and demanded a vigorous petting before allowing the youngsters to approach me.

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Only when I was completely covered in snot and goat hair did I notice the sign: “Please do not feed or touch the animals.” I had just touched ALL OF THE ANIMALS.

[Intermission: In which yours truly flees the scene, wiping goat snot on her hair-covered jeans in a vain attempt to hide the evidence of having touched ALL OF THE ANIMALS.]

In the small marsh a little further down the road, the red-winged blackbirds were out in full force. I wondered whether a male’s virility is reflected in part by the height of his perch.

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Or maybe they just enjoy trying to stay upright on the brittle, swaying reeds

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I also noticed the blades of grass (as one does). They looked like they had been showered in sunlight.

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Fast-forward to this weekend, when I once again intended a return to Como Lake. But this time I was thwarted by acute hypersomnolence, so instead I went for a forest bath in the woods near my house.

The dappled light filtering through the leaves was delicious.

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But a good ways down the path a strange noise gave me pause. It sounded larger than a squirrel, and it seemed to be coming from the canopy. Was it an injured red-tailed hawk?

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Just then, the animal righted itself and glared at me, as if to shame me for my intrusion.

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It was an owlet! And I was witnessing perhaps its first day of flight school — which, frankly, wasn’t going too well.

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I left it to the watchful eyes of its mom and sibling … and when I came back this evening to check on the wobbly youngster they were all gone.

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But that’s OK. Soon he will be gliding like a whisper through the woods. And even if I can’t hear him, I’ll know he’s up there somewhere above the canopy of green.

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I had a wild weekend. Not in the “Dad, can you please post my bail?” kind — more in the John Muir sense:

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet …

On Friday evening I strolled through the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden,  which opened unusually late this spring due to our unusually late winter.

It looked drab an uninviting at first, until I noticed a group of colorfully clad children clustered around my favorite tree.


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Even as the fall leaves still clung to their branches, new siblings were being born.


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The bloodroot flowers seemed almost bashful about revealing themselves, like divas shrouded in velvety green robes.


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And from among the forest’s brown understory the tender fiddleheads were starting to emerge.

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Some people harvest the young ferns and sautée them in butter, but I couldn’t stand the thought once I noticed the delicate young leaves. (Plus, harvesting plants is forbidden in the park.)

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I couldn’t identify this prehistoric-looking plant, though. Can any of my gardener friends out there help?

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Sunday brought my first walk of the season around Como Lake, which was considerably more colorful thanks to some creative soul with way too much time — and yarn — on his/her hands.

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I also loved the new critter condos, with platforms for nests and holes for insects and slats for bats. Talk about communal living!

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Unfortunately, the wildlife itself seemed rather scarce. I surveyed only one woolly bear caterpillar

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… a muskrat that left an outsize wake as he hurried to shore …


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… a photobombing great heron …


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… and a juvenile bald eagle plucking a catfish out of the lake.


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The eagle was HUGE — at least 100 times the size of an Airbus A-320, as you can see in this photo.

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But maybe the most satisfying wild moments came from wandering around my own neighborhood, buzzing like a bumblebee from yard to yard.

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Some of the flowers were still barely emerging.

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But others were starting to fade already.

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Which made me all the more glad I’d stopped for a closer look, and that I’d noticed the variety of species that hide inside those blankets of blue.

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On Saturday morning two maniacs decided to use our neighborhood as a racetrack, so I fled into to woods to escape the revving engines and squealing tires.

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That’s how I met Owen Wilson (the dog, though I suppose he might also be an actor).

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I could ramble on about the fleeting beauty of spring in Minnesota and the repose of the green deep woods … but I’ll leave you for now with a couple more moments of quiet reflection from my weekend walks on the wild side.

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It’s been only two weeks since the record-setting late-season hyphenated-expletive snowstorm, but it already feels like a lifetime ago.

Plow driver kid 1830354 BLOGOur plow guy’s son pretty much summed it up.

Last weekend brought temperatures in the 60s (15.5 Celsius) and a thaw so rapid you could literally hear the ground sucking in the snowmelt. I was giddy to see the first patches of green, and my first robin.

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Esteban and I went for a walk one evening and marveled at how late the sun set.

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Since then it’s been cool again, but the sunlight has still encouraged the little things to molt and pop out of the earth and end their hibernation. So yesterday I put put on the close-up lens and recorded my first blade of grass …

Blade of grass 1840832 BLOG

… and a downy feather …

Fallen feather 840942 BLOG

… and the first delicate bluebells blooming in a neighbor’s lawn. (Never mind the awkward moment when she and her son came home from soccer practice to find me lying belly-down on their lawn; totally worth it.)

Bluebells 1850059 BLOG

On my way home I noticed more bluebells growing among another neighbor’s forgotten rake. Did he give up in the middle of his fall raking and never venture back out, I wonder?

Rake 1850106 BLOG

Back at home, I paused for a closer look at the plants and flowers I pass every day in the hallways. There’s something to be said for living in a building full of green thumbs.

Attempt one 1850220 BLOG

Buds of some kind 1840077 BLOG

Chlorophyll 1840401 BLOG

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I got a bit obsessed with the drop of dew on this lily.

Drop of dew 1840475 BLOG

Drop of dew 1840514 BLOG

And I wondered what on earth would possess and insect to crawl into an orchid. Isn’t it kind of terrifying?

Orchid 1840110 BLOG

But if you look closely enough, I suppose the same could be said of most flowers.

Pink petals 1850233 CX BLOG

As evening fell, the tags from Esteban’s and my teabags summed up the wisdom of the day. Nature has not hurried this year, but spring seems close — and maybe soon the earth will laugh in flowers.

Emerson and Tsu quotes 1850176 BLOG

This post is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to my friend Gilles Thomas, for his knowledge of Paris’ history — and for his generosity in sharing it.

Paris’ history is full of unsung heroes whose names have largely been forgotten. One of these is Charles-Axel Guillaumot.

Charles-Axel Guillaumot
Charles-Axel Guillaumot, “the man who saved Paris.”

Esteban and I had the privilege of walking in Guillaumot’s footsteps about a month ago, when our friend Gilles led us on a tour of the Cochin quarry (under the Cochin hospital, in the 14th arrondissement).

Cochin quarry 1210279 BLOG

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The Cochin quarry is not far from the official catacombs. But it’s a lot harder to get into: On this Saturday our little group followed Gilles into the hospital, past an underground garage, and through an unmarked door to reach the entrance.

Behind the door was a classroom of all things underground, with maps of tunnels and photographs of the men who dug them. Gilles described the “squirrel wheels” that were used to bring huge chunks of stone to the surface — and the voids those stones left behind.


Sometimes those voids would collapse, Gilles explained, and anything on the surface would fall into them. This happened in 1776 — one week before Christmas — when a quarter-mile-long trench opened on the Rue d’Enfer and swallowed an entire block of houses.

Fearing more collapses, the young King Louis XVI appointed our hero Charles-Axel Guillaumot to be the first Inspector General of the quarries. But ironically, because of bureaucratic delays, Guillaumot didn’t actually start work until April 24, 1777 — the date of the next major cave-in.

A descent into the past

Our heads filled with visions of calamity and collapses, we marched single-file past Guillaumot’s portrait and down a long concrete stairway.

Several of Jérôme Mesnager’s exuberant “white bodies” adorned the walls — a stark contrast to the remnants of a 1930’s civil-defense shelter that greeted us when we reached the bottom. (Pardon the quality of the photos; I took them while walking.)

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Cochin quarry stairs 1210532 BLOG

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Cochine Mesnager 1210537 BLOG

Cochin gas masks 1250012 BLOG

Like the official catacombs, the Cochin quarries also serve as a museum (restored and operated by the S.E.A.D.A.C.C. association). But unlike the catacombs, the Cochin quarries are not generally open to the public — nor do they contain human remains.

I was anxious about how Esteban would react, because it was his first time underground. (He’s tall, and I worried he would feel claustrophobic from all the hunching.)

Cochin tunnel 1210501 BLOG

But to my delight he seemed as fascinated as I was.

Cochin Esteban 1210412 BLOG

Gilles showed us the tools the quarry workers had used to extract the stone, and one of the wells where they had drawn water to mix concrete.

Cochin tools 1250133 BLOG

Cochin Gilles demonstration 1210285 BLOG

Cochin well 1250018 BLOG

He also pointed out the markings. Some corresponded to the street names directly above our head. A few were made of soot from the quarrymen’s torches. Others were left by the inspectors, indicating their initials and the date of the inspection.

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Cochin malheur 1210342 BLOG

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Cochin soot 1210368 BLOG

In the footsteps of Guillaumot

Traces of Charles-Axel Guillaumot were everywhere. (The G in the inscriptions denoted his name, along with the pillar number and the date.)

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Cochin Guillaumot 1250117 BLOG

Cochin inscriptions 1210513 BLOG

But traces of the king who hired him were harder to find. Once ubiquitous, now only 10 inscriptions of the royal fleur de lys survive. One was on display near the entrance; another was inaccessible due to flooding from the Seine.

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Every engraving had a date, but I saw none for 1789 — the year of the French revolution. That’s in part because Guillaumot was removed from his position and imprisoned due to his royal appointment. Fortunately, he was released in 1794 and given his job back.

There were also some traces of Antoine Dupont, a mathematician who preceded Guillaumot. Dupont built some 100 pillars in areas that showed signs of stress. Alas, the April 24 collapse proved the inadequacy of his efforts.

Cochin quarry 1210403 CL 2 BLOG

That’s why Guillaumot decided to shore up the walls, too, in some especially vulnerable parts of the quarry.

Cochin fontis 1210448 BLOG

Cochin signs 1210400 BLOG

But in spite of his valiant efforts the ceilings continue to crack …

Cochin Guillaumot 1210361 BLOG

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… and in some cases, collapse. We passed one active cave-in that was slow enough to be considered stable, but that still motivated us to walk a bit faster.

Cochin fontis 1210521 BLOG

Esteban and I also hurried past this old patch, just in case.

Cochin fontis 1210429 BLOG

Cochin fontis 1250245 BLOG

“Fontis” inscriptions indicated other cave-in sites — like this one, which has long since been reinforced.

Cochin fontis 1210465 BLOG

In a couple of other spots, we paused to survey the service wells the quarry workers used to bring down supplies. It wasn’t hard to imagine their soot-covered faces gazing at the pin-dot of light, maybe hoping for a better life or thinking about a loved one.

Cochin puit 2 1250036 BLOG

Cochin puit 1250218 BLOG

Just as it wasn’t hard to imagine Charles-Axel Guillaumot standing in the same spot, inspecting his work.

He was still the Inspector General of the quarries when he died in 1807 — and it took nearly a century after his death to complete the work he had begun.

Guillaumot was buried in the Sainte-Marguerite cemetery, but was soon lost forever among the hundreds of graves that were transferred to the very catacombs he helped create. Within a few generations, only a handful of people remembered his name.

But he was never completely forgotten. In fact, on October 4, 2017 the city of Paris inaugurated the Esplanade Charles-Axel Guillaumot in his honor at the corner of the boulevard Saint-Jacques and the place Denfert-Rochereau.

esplanade BLOG

“He saved the capital from collapsing,” reads the plaque. But the epitaph Charles-Axel Guillaumot truly deserves is, “He saved Paris.”



“Le mal des carrières est celui de plusieurs siècles ; il ne peut donc pas être réparé dans un petit nombre d’années. Ni moi, ni mes coopérateurs n’en verront la fin. D’autres auront cet avantage ; mais j’ai lieu de croire que nous leur avons frayé la route, et qu’ils n’auront rien d’essentiel à changer au système que j’ai adopté.” — Mémoire sur les travaux ordonnés dans les carrières sous Paris, et plaines adjacentes; et exposé des opérations faites pour leur reparation, par C. A. Guillaumot

“The problem of the quarries goes back many centuries; it therefore can not be repaired in just a few years. Neither I nor my colleagues will see the end of it. Others will have the opportunity; but I have reason to believe that we have paved the way for them and that they will not need to make significant changes to the system I have adopted.” — Memoir on the ordered works in the quarries below Paris, by C. A. Guillaumot




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