Monday, 31 May 2010

I went to sea to see the sea. And what did I see? I saw the sea!

   A couple of weeks back we went to the seaside to stay in the house of my husband's grandmother.  A lovely place, built by my husband's great-grandfather, it sits wrapped around a creaking wooden staircase, with heavy furniture, old photos almost as old as photography, a dumbwaiter, and strange old devices with needles to measure and print out barometric reports.  To go to the seashore and back in time, what could be better? 

   We spent our days walking ceaselessly up and down the coast, exploring tide pools and sea caves that are only accessible at low tide (and where korrigans, a sort of Breton fairy, are said to have their halls filled with treasure).  We explored tiny chapels and enchanted forests, watched boats come into harbours, ate loads of galettes (buckwheat crêpes), picked clams and cockles, jumped in the sea, and were very happy indeed.

Every now and then we came across little fishing stations. I don't know the name for this in English, I've only seen them in Brittany, but surely they exist elsewhere too.

There were a lot more animals washed up on the beaches than I've ever seen before. 

Usually, every time we go to the sea I bring a flashlight and try to convince my husband to come out at night so we can peer into tide pools, in hopes of spying an octopus or two creeping around hunting the little fish and crabs that get trapped in there.  I know that's probably a little bit odd, but I find octopuses fascinating.  Anyway, I was very dismayed to see, in addition to this huge jellyfish and various other things, about forty octopuses lying dead on the beach.

Inside a sea cave:

   There was no one around when we went into this cave, but when we came out there was a woman standing before us.  A moment later, people started appearing around the edge of a cliff face that hung out over the ocean.  Apparently this family of eight or nine had decided to spend their day climbing their way around all of the cliffs on the coast.  It looked as if everyone was there, from the youngest to the oldest member of the family.
   Another time, when the coast seemed deserted, we saw two identical brown dogs swim past. They didn't have anyone with them, and didn't stop to come ashore.

They passed us on land a while later, going in the opposite direction, running home I suppose.

   We also took a trip to Île d'Yeu.  Before going to the port town where we caught the ferry, we went on the Passage du Gois which is a long road that is only accessible during low tide, and which goes to the Île de Noirmoutier.

Along the road there are little towers that you can climb up if you should happen to find that you are still here when the tide comes in.  This photo was taken from the top of one of these towers.  There are lots of cautionary photos posted around of cars being taken over by the tide as people watch anxiously from the towers.

We ate lunch on Île de Noirmoutier, next to the Bois de la Chaise:

After that, we took the ferry to Île d'Yeu.  My husband's great-grandmother came from the island, from a long line of tuna fishermen.  My grandfather had a rest period here during WW2, while he worked as a telegrapher in the Canadian navy.  It was the only place that he really talked about that he saw during the war... probably because it is unbelievably gorgeous. 

It looks as though it can't have changed much since he saw it.

Down by the main town, was a house covered in seashells!

We took a last look around, and then we sailed on home.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Prints and Puddles While the Big Church Looks On

(Just before midnight at the Nuit de l'Estampe Contemporaine)
   It has been a little bit mad over here the past couple of weeks.  I was pulling my prints for Tuesday's show right down to the last possible moment that the studio was open.  And I wasn't alone, there were 12 other people and all of us were locked into our little workshop, sharing a deadline and a press in the most intolerable heat imaginable.  But everyone managed to get out alive, somehow.
   Tuesday evening the weather broke, the anxiety passed, and the hot, dry weeks of May came to an end as we all huddled into our booth to escape cords of rain. 

(Looking out at the rain, which doesn't really show up in the photo)

(Looking in at the stand when the rain let up for a minute and the crowd had thinned out somewhat.)

   But it didn't rain the whole time, and I think all of us had a good time.  When ten people share a stand, there is always plenty of conversation, food, and wine to be had.  And it was an honour to be part of a show which had such a high standard of work on display.  Everywhere I looked, the stands were brimming with printed marvels of all descriptions, and from every discipline of printmaking.  I'm not sure how many times I wound my way through the little city of stands that were gathered around the fountain at the Place St. Sulpice, but every time I found something new and lovely to consider. 

   And I was not alone, this charming fellow dropped in for a visit to a stand a little ways away, and stayed on quite a while, seemingly completely unperturbed by the people that surrounded him:

   And then there is a blurry photo of me, who is camera shy and didn't want to be photographed. But in the end it is fine and good to be in a picture, because you can see beside me two etchings which I have already posted about before, but you can also catch a glimpse of three plates I made to accompany a long poem written by a friend of mine, which is called The Island of Bread... 

... and maybe you can just pick out, in the lower left-hand corner, a new plate which I finished only just in time for the show.  While I was working on it, I wanted the image to have a roughness to it, but then at the last minute I was afraid that I shouldn't show it because people would think it wasn't polished enough.  In the end though, two people liked it enough to buy a print, so I was pleased as punch.


   I've spent a lot of time describing what a changeling is in French since I started working on this plate; I don't think there is any specific translation of it in French.  Even with the movie of that title that came out a while back it, the title in French was 'the exchange', which isn't the same thing at all.  I usually just say that it's an idea found in folklore in a lot of Europe that sometimes children were believed to be taken by the fairies (or trolls, etc. depending on the country), and that the fairies would leave something behind instead of the child.  What they leave behind of course varies -- it could be a log that is enchanted to look like the child, leading the family to believe their child is dead, rather than stolen; or it could be a fairy child; or even an elderly fairy left behind. There are stories of babies that suddenly speak with an old man's voice, asking for a light for their pipe, for example.  But it's not necessarily a child that will be stolen, it could be an adult, usually a beautiful young bride, but sometimes even men are taken.  I try to limit what I say about the topic because there seem to be quite a few variations on this theme and I could go on and on if I'm not careful.
   I find this topic absolutely fascinating.  While I was at university I wrote a paper about Ireland's transition from Gaelic oral culture to literate, English modernity (I was in Celtic Studies).   I was aided immeasurably by Angela Bourke's book The Burning of Bridget Cleary which is about a criminal case involving a woman who was believed to be a changeling in Ireland in the 1890s.  Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and neighbours who all claimed to believe that she was not herself, but a changeling, which they were only taking traditional precautions against (though traditions on this vary greatly -- many people believed that the fairies' treatment of their loved one would reflect the way they themselves treated the changeling), and defended this belief in criminal court.  Normally I hate reading about murders, but this book was fascinating, and was far more about a collision of two world views than a grisly retelling of a crime.
   Rather than quickly dismissing this type of belief as preposterous and backward, Angela Bourke considers belief in changelings as an alternative outlook on issues concerning mental and physical illness, which allowed people to address these sensitive subjects openly and without any sense of shame or blame.  The traditional ways of dealing with changelings tended to fall into two extremes: try to rouse the person back to themselves, or (as seems to be more often the case, at least in stories) to keep the person safe and cared for until the time when they might come back to themselves.  The idea of the changeling not only removes awkwardness from the conversations of those who might have a need to discuss a family member, but ensures that the person who might one day 'come back' will maintain their dignity.  Another writer who has explored the coded, symbolic way oral culture in Ireland deals with critical issues, both in her poetry and her essays, is Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (I would also recommend her extremely highly. She is brilliant!).
   Many scholars who have worked with stories involving changelings have pointed out the signs which identify a changeling coincide with the symptoms of various diseases, which have been identified in more recent times, which would seem to go along with Angela Bourke's theories.  But aside from oral culture, vs. literate culture and the interest that has for me... I think this particular subject resonates with me on another level as well.  It speaks quite loudly to the deep fear that things are not what they seem.  When I was young, without any knowledge of changelings, I used to fear literally just that.  I can remember a few occasions where I was in trouble for something which I felt was unjust, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with the belief that the parent who seemed to be scolding me was not in fact my parent at all.  I can remember crying and pleading with the thing that was not my mother (which was my mother) to give me back my real mom... and I can remember her confusion at my distress and bizarre behaviour.  I used to also have big anxiety about leaving my dog out at night, for fear that it was not her that would return, but only a thing which looked like her.  As childish as these particular worries may be, the idea that someone is not what they seem to be is distressing enough at any age.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Geese and Grey Days

   The hours and minutes are still rumbling and flashing by, but I have been trying to make the best of them.  Today I have a tiny piece of time to write before we all fold ourselves into my in-laws' car and head off to Brittany to stay for a few days in my husband's grandmother's house which sits by a beach watching the sea.  Then everything will be out of my hands.
   But for now, I'll show you the painting I finished a couple of days ago. 

 Communion (click to make larger)

Again, the photo isn't very good.  It's been rainy here and so there's a white glare/fog and the colours appear rather more grey than the real thing, but I wanted to post it here before I went away. 
   This was another painting that sat around for much longer than it should have without being worked on.  I managed to dig out some photos from the very beginning stages of the painting... from early November of last year, it turns out.

 (under-painting from last November)

And though I started painting then, I know the inspiration for the image came from the time I spent last August in Ukraine, and I can't say exactly how long the impulse for it has been kicking around.  So, now that it's done, it's as if there is one less thing needling me from behind.  I thought I'd sleep a bit easier once it was done, but the night I finished it I spent the whole night tossing and turning, and when I did sleep I dreamt of painting.

   But I had better keep this short.  I also wanted to mention that I will be showing a few etchings, along with some other people I know, at La Nuit de l'Estampe Contemporaine which runs from 2pm-12am on the 25th of May at la place Saint-Sulpice (and is free!).  

Just look for the stand of the Atelier de Gravure de Belleville and you will probably find me shyly mistaking the genders of my nouns, and forgetting to employ the subjunctive, and possibly worse if I am nervous.
   And now to get ready for a long weekend by the ocean! The springtimes of my childhood spent swimming in Canadian lakes just after the ice had melted will no doubt serve me well.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Hill of Witches

   Since it's that time of year, I have been thinking of May eve.  I've always heard a lot about Bealtaine and the things that went on in Ireland at that time of year.  If you read old Irish stories, it doesn't take long to notice a pattern -- it seems like practically every strange or remarkable happening takes place either on Bealtaine (May eve) or Samhain (Halloween).  So that is all very familiar -- familiar in a marvellous and unfamiliar way, of course -- but what I don't know much about at all is Walpurgis night.  Both of these are very interesting to me, since my father is German, and my mother's side of the family is from Ireland, and I love to think of my family of long ago dancing around outside on spring nights.
   Irish things are very accessible to an English speaker these days, and I was even lucky enough to get a scholarship while I was in university to go off and live in the Ghaeltacht  (Irish-language speaking area of Ireland) for a summer, to make things even more accessible... but German things are vaguer for me.  I tried to learn German at school, so I could understand what was going on at my Oma and Opa's house, but all my standard school German was nothing on their Schwäbish dialect, and as a child I just got discouraged and gave up.  So, sadly any books written about things like Walpurgis night have not been read by me... and while I know that there was a saint Walpurga and that witches were said to dance on hills, I don't know much else.
   But with all my day dreaming, my thoughts turned to a place that I had been before... the Curonian Spit, a long, bridge-like stretch of sand that is half in Lithuania and half in Russia these days.  It is a magical place where sand dunes grow taller than pine trees...

  (if you click, you can see the dunes above the trees in the far away part of the photo)

and where you can bike all day through forests, along beaches, and past the brightly painted wooden houses of fishermen.  And, it should be mentioned, that the Curonian spit had an impressive beginning as well, as legend says that it was created by Neringa, a giantess.  Of course, I should mention that tourism has definitely taken its toll on the spit... lots of resorts and expensive hotels have cropped up filled with people who don't mind the signs which tell them to keep to the paths, and off of the very ecologically sensitive dunes.

   But the reason that I've led you down this winding, circling path of a post, is to bring you along the spit to the Hill of Witches (Raganų Kalnas in Lithuanian), in the village of Juodkranté.

This deeply forested hill used to be the site of midsummer gatherings, but now is home to 71 wooden statues depicting characters from Lithuanian folklore.  The statues were created in the 1970s by artists drawing on a long local history of wood carving.

Paths wend their way up and around the hill with statues emerging unexpectedly at a turn in the path, or just a little way down a lane, making it feel as if each meeting with a sculpture is an encounter rather than just a passing view.

   True to it's name, there are a number of witches to be found here...

 but also dragons,

and even thunder,

and the gateway to hell.

   While I was looking around for more info about the Hill of Witches, I found an interesting story about one of the statues.  According to the story, the devil sometimes attends dances, and when he does he takes on the appearance of a regular man.  I suppose he still had hooves hiding inside of his shoes though, because the way to find him out was to step on his foot... an empty shoe would give him away.

   Maybe you can just make out that in the statue on the left, there is a man and woman dancing, and the woman is stepping on the man's foot?
   The story goes on to say that the woman, realizing who she was with, decided to trick the devil.  At the end of the evening when he asked her to join him in his carriage, she replied that she would love to, except her skirt wasn't proper.  When he supplied her a fine skirt, she said her jacket wasn't nice enough, and so on... until dawn came and the cock crowed and made the devil, but not his presents,vanish.
   While I was there I remember really wishing that I knew what stories were behind the statues, since I suppose that some of them are meant to be instantly recognizable, and others have labels carved into them.  But even without the official stories, they are very evocative, and the forest is gorgeous, so it's easy to dream them up.
   In addition to the statues pictured here, there are many others, and a couple of people have posted photos here and here.  There were some statues that had moving parts as well, and a few that were meant for children to play on... like the one below.  If only all slides were as enchanted as that one!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

May Day

    Just a quick hello today to wish a Happy first of May!
   In France it's traditional to give a bouquet of muget (lily-of-the-valley) today because, given on this day they are a 'porte-bonheur', a lucky charm.  On street corners and near the stairs going down to the métro people will be selling these flowers by the bunches today, as it is a public holiday and, for once, French laws relax a little and anyone can sell them without a license, but for today only.  So there will be lily-of-the-valley pushed through the button holes of jackets, tiny bunches in long hair, children walking around with them in bouquets, and here and there a forgotten flower laying on the street.