Posts by Paige

Bust of Napoleon III

Posted on October 23, 2014

A photo posted by @paigebowers on

I spent part of last week in Atlanta, visiting some of my favorite people, places and things. I love that no matter where I go and what I do, I always manage to find a bit of France. This time: It was Napoleon III in all his mustachioed glory.

Paris in the 1920s

Posted on August 25, 2014

I’ve been sifting through old letters, old songs, old video footage in preparation for the class I’ll be teaching in just a few weeks time. One of the gems I’ve come across is this vintage footage of Paris in the 1920s, a period which serves as the backdrop for a lot of the history and personalities I’ll cover.

The next time I go in front of my students, I’ll be armed with a microphone. As hard as I may have tried to project my voice in the first class I taught this spring, I just never seemed to project it enough. This time, I want to be sure they don’t miss one scintillating bit of my Francodorkery (she says with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek), even the little surprise I’m cooking up for them.

(Tap tap): Is this thing on?

Better yet, is this instructor on?

We’ll find out on September 15…

Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes

Posted on July 23, 2014

saraandgeralddancing

 Photo:  © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I’ve been preparing a new class for LSU Continuing Education that I’ll teach this fall about the Lost Generation. Although it will discuss how World War I impacted the mindset of people in this time and influenced creative disciplines from writing to painting and dance to theater, it will also look at some of the personalities that became so famous — and infamous — during this era.

Obviously, my class will hear about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But it will also learn about Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, the Ballets Russes and many others that were pushing the creative envelope in one of the world’s greatest cities — Paris, France. And it will also learn about some lesser-known, but no less influential folks, like the dancing couple up above. They’re Gerald and Sara Murphy, they were American and well-to-do and they mingled with pretty much everyone who was anyone creatively during this period. Ever heard the saying “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”? Well, Gerald Murphy coined it, and anyone in the Murphys’ orbit knew that few lived better and more interesting lives than that particular duo. Random facts about them: They were perhaps the first people in France to own a waffle iron, they had one of the best private collections of African-American spiritual music (which they sang in perfect two-part harmony at their cocktail parties), and they used to enlist Man Ray to shoot their family portraits.

Here is a 1962 profile written about the couple in The New Yorker.

The bottom line is that these were people you really needed to know. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my class in September.

One of the reasons why I can’t wait to talk about the Murphys is because you don’t really hear about the them a lot, unless you read very deeply about the Roaring Twenties. But you might have come across them (sort of) and not realized it, if you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is The Night.

Many scholars agree that Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver after the Murphys for about the first half of the book, recreating their very charmed life in Paris and on the French Riviera for his readership. In the second half of the book, the Divers seem to become an entirely different couple and I’ll be talking about who that couple was and why scholars seem to think Scott seemed to have no qualms about such a mashup in his manuscript. He dedicated his book to the Murphys, but when they first read it, they felt betrayed.

One year after Tender’s publication, the Murphys were undergoing a terrible family tragedy. At that time, Gerald wrote Scott, saying “I know now that what you said in Tender in the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot…”

The Murphys have a wonderful and ultimately tragic story that I look forward to telling in about a month and a half from now, one that provides an interesting framework for a time and a people who may have felt likewise blundered, scarred and destroyed. If you’re in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you’ll consider taking the class to find out more about them. If not, please stay tuned here as I share anecdotes, pictures, videos and music that I’ll be featuring in the class.

And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask away in comments.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Posted on July 17, 2014

monticello

 

About a month ago, I visited my mother in Virginia for her birthday. Mom is a big Thomas Jefferson buff, and has probably read every single solitary thing ever written about him. So my sister, brother-in-law and I took her down to Charlottesville to visit his home Monticello. As you can see from his tombstone, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for these three accomplishments:

jeffersontombstone

 

I would like to point out that his tombstone says nothing about his gardening prowess, about how he was someone who brought back all manner of interesting vegetables from his travels and exchanged seeds with his neighbors and really lit it up with his green thumbery (a word I just invented to get the snark out of my system).  Although Jefferson was innovative in his garden designs and techniques, he actually messed up a lot of things (just like I do) and, in fact, died in debt because of his storied plots (which I hope not to do).  These facts are deceiving when you look around the grounds of Monticello and see things like this:

monticellogardenvines

 

Or even this:

spanishonion

 

And then you think “Well, why can’t I grow White Spanish onions that get that big and full? Come to think of it, why can’t I grow onions, period?” Hearing the tour guides tell stories about his gardening struggles, you realize Jefferson might have asked himself the same question at some point. And then you kind of like how that little fact brings a certain someone’s favorite founding father down to Earth a wee bit.

Ending thought: I wonder if he struggled with pesky red ants too.

****

My little backyard plot has been producing Ichiban eggplant. I am the only person in my household who will eat eggplant voluntarily, so I’ve been looking for ways to trick the other two folks in this household into eating it too. Otherwise, I will be drawing a lot of uneaten eggplant for the rest of the summer.

Like this:

ichibaneggplantsketch

I found the solution to my eggplant problem Saturday night: Fried eggplant crisps, a small plate on Beausoleil’s dinner menu.

Here’s what you do: You skin the eggplant, then slice it into thin rounds. Then, you prepare three separate bowls, one with flour, the second with an egg white wash, the third with Italian-seasoned Panko bread crumbs. Put the rounds into the egg wash first, then into the flour, then back into the egg wash and then into the Panko crumbs. Fry the rounds in a cast-iron skillet full of hot vegetable oil until they are golden brown. Drain the rounds on paper towels and then season lightly with sea salt. Serve with a tangy marinara.

friedeggplant

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And finally, web addresses of a few things I liked from this Virginia trip that I think you might like too:

* Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The founding father’s home, gardens and family cemetery are open for tours every day (except Christmas). Visit the web site for more details.

*L’Etoile Restaurant. About 10 minutes from Monticello, the restaurant offers French-Virginian style dining Tuesday-Saturday. The menu showcases fresh and seasonal ingredients, so it is subject to change from time to time. When I visited, they had an excellent hanger steak with roasted potatoes and asparagus, a delicious Korean braised pork belly, and a tender seared duck breast with caramelized local peaches. Definitely worth a visit!

* Riverby Books. My mother is also a big fan of Fredericksburg, Va, so we spent the day there the day after her birthday. She and I both like independently owned bookstores and this one is a new addition to my favorites list. There’s great overstuffed vintage chairs, and an interesting mix of used books, old maps, antiques and other little what-nots.

The Power of Habit

Posted on July 15, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with New York Times-bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, who is finishing a new book about habit formation called Better Than Before. Here is a recent post she wrote that distills the ideas she’ll cover in her book, which comes out in March, 2015.

I interviewed Gretchen because I was working on a forthcoming story about exercise for USA Today‘s Best Years Magazine. The story will give pointers on how to get back into the habit once your kids become more independent or leave home altogether. Although I interviewed several excellent health and wellness experts who could speak to reps and research about how 10 minutes of walking a day will benefit your blood pressure, I thought Gretchen would be a good source about starting a new habit and sticking to it.

Some notes from our conversation that didn’t make it into the final piece:

* She got the idea for Better Than Before while she was working on her blockbuster The Happiness ProjectShe found during her research for that book that people who tried to become happier and succeeded could often point to some sort of habit they developed as the reason for their success. It didn’t take long for her to become “obsessed” with how to change habits.

* If you’re having a hard time starting a positive new habit like exercise, she said it’s important to look at the reasons why. Maybe the gym is located in an inconvenient place with bad parking. Maybe you hate the music they play in the gym. Maybe exercise machines aren’t your thing. “Rather than saying ‘I hate exercise,’ you need to face what it is that’s actually the problem so you can see the solution,” she said. “If you hate loud music, find a place that plays music you like or go for a walk in nature. If you don’t have time to shower after your workout, do some sort of exercise where you don’t sweat.”

* Some people say they want to start a new, healthy habit because people say they should, or because there is some other sort of external expectation. But deep down, they don’t really want to make that sort of change, which makes them feel worse. “You really need to look within and see whether this is something you actually want to do,” she said. “It’s better to say [that this habit is] not a priority than to pretend it is and feel like a failure.”

I hope you’ll look for the piece when it hits newsstands this fall, because Gretchen was a lively and fascinating interviewee. In the meantime, have you ever had trouble starting a new habit? If so, what was the habit and why did you have trouble starting it? What steps did you take to make this habit part of your everyday life? Please let me know in comments.

In the meantime, check out Gretchen’s web site  and visit this link to start a Happiness Project of your own.

 

 

Monday Reader: Bastille Day Edition

Posted on July 14, 2014

bastilleday

 

Today is Bastille Day, the French equivalent of our July 4. Here are a few interesting reads and things about it from around the web:

From Deceptive Cadence, NPR Classical’s blog, here’s a quiz about the French national anthem, known as ‘La Marseillaise.’ I scored six out of six on it. But then again, I am just the type of person whose ears perk up and eyes get misty every time this tune is played.  For a wonderful old recording of the song, visit Gallica.fr, the web site of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for this treat from 1908.

From USA Today, an explainer about why Americans should care about France’s fete nationale.

From France24.com, an interview with Christophe Bertonneau, the mastermind of this year’s breathtaking fireworks display, which was fired straight from the Eiffel Tower. If you can get your hands on YouTube video of this spectacle, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of World War I, you won’t regret it.

From The New Yorker’s News Desk, an item about this annual military display and the struggle to acknowledge contributions from colonial troops from countries like AlgeriaThe Christian Science Monitor reports that for the first time ever, three Algerian vets were invited to take part in the parade. But it also gives a good primer on the complicated relationship between the two countries, which has existed since the early nineteenth century.

From cbsnews.com, a slideshow about the celebration.

From The New York Times’ T Magazine Blog, a timely ode to le grand aioli complete with a recipe.

Did you read anything about Bastille Day that you found interesting? If so, what was it? And if you have any questions about Paris, Bastille Day, or France in general, please don’t hesitate to ask me in comments.

 

 

Summer Hours

Posted on July 9, 2014

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

This blog has had a major case of summer hours for the past two months. It’s partly because of travel, partly because of work and partly because of the usual sweep of family life when school is out of session. Since I last posted, I went to South Florida and (among other things) learned how to cook Greek food, sat in a near-deafening bar in my hometown and watched Miss USA contestants wage karaoke war, and ventured deep into the heart of Texas to discover a treasure trove of European historical manuscripts. I’ve sampled microbrews with my mother in a Northern Virginia RV park (Seriously), bought matching French National Soccer team jerseys with my daughter (oh, la tristesse), and done a fair amount of home improvement projects in this old house, which we moved into a little more than a year ago now.

This list is by means a comprehensive rundown of the past few months. But it does paint a picture, no?

Finally, there is the garden, which is producing plenty of tasty treats. One of the most exciting: Butternut squash, which is pictured above. I tried to grow these in my last garden, but an unexpected frost wiped out all of my plants. This year, I was determined to make sure that didn’t happen. So far…knock wood.

More dispatches to come.

The Constant Gardener

Posted on May 21, 2014

tomatoesinthewindow

 

Garden update: I don’t want to jinx anything, but my tomato plants were getting pretty heavy with fruit. So, as much as I love vine ripe tomatoes, I harvested some and have them ripening in the kitchen window.  Pictured above: Half my haul. And also? A cayenne pepper. There’s plenty more where this came from.

Again…not to jinx anything.

squashblossom

 

Another dispatch from the “not to jinx anything” department: The season’s first squash blossom. In my previous house, I tried to grow summer  squash, but never made it very far because of this strange wilt disease that hollows out the stems of the plant and leaves a fungus on the leaves. Once that happens, you can kiss the whole plant goodbye. I saw the first signs of this menace yesterday and treated it with Neem Oil. So I’m hoping that does the trick. Knock wood. If you have any tips on how to foolproof ways to keep wilt disease at bay, please let me know in comments.

cantaloupeThere’s a similar wilt disease that attacks cantaloupes. But I’ve been working hard to prevent it, too. I have three cantaloupe plants growing along the garden fence and two more that I’ve tried to start from seed. I’m hoping that I’ll have nice, honey-sweet melons within the next couple of months.

cucumbers

 

Although that same stinking wilt disease attacks cucumbers, I’ve had far more success growing these in the past. As much as I love fresh tomatoes, I have to say that nothing beats a freshly picked cucumber in the summer months. I’ve got three varieties growing in my garden now: a seedless, snack-sized variety; a larger variety known as a Marketmore; and a long green improved cucumber from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. In the background, you can see organic pellets for fighting off red ants. This is the second time I’ve been under siege in the past month. Those little you-know-whats need to find another vegetable garden to invade.

eggplant

 

And finally: eggplant. I am the only one in the house who will eat these willingly. That’s fine with me.

 

Monday Reader: 5/19/2014

Posted on May 19, 2014

I hadn’t been to Miami in a good, long while. This past weekend made me need to visit it more. More on my South Florida sojourn at some other point this week. For now, let’s check out a few interesting, eclectic and/or engaging reads:

There aren’t many people who’d want to cling to a stained cotton night shirt that has been in their family for centuries. Then again, there aren’t many people who have the last nightshirt that Napoleon I, emperor of France, ever wore. The NYT’s Elaine Sciolino tells the story about how the descendants of the diminuitive emperor’s servant — Achille Archambault — are at odds about whether to auction off the relic or keep it in the family forevermore. As Sciolino writes: “The stakes – and potential profits – are significant. In the last several years, objects linked to Napoleon have attracted global interest and exorbitant prices at auction. In 2007, a gold-encrusted sword Napoleon wore into the battle of Marengo in Italy was sold for more than $6.4 million, quadruple its estimated value, by the Osenat auction house. That same year, a letter written by Napoleon to his then-lover Josephine (later the Empress of France) sold at Christie’s in London for $556,000, five times more than had been estimated.” In a year when Napoleon-mania is as strong as ever (it’s the 200th anniversary of his exile to the island of Elba), the nightshirt would likely command top dollar. It will be interesting to see how the fight between Archambault’s descendants plays out, and whether this storied shirt remains with one branch of their family, or with an entirely different owner.

We’re a couple of weeks away from the 70th anniversary of the D-Day assault, where American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate France from the Germans. Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner writes about war photographer Robert Capa’s iconic images of the assault. Meanwhile, France 24 writes about how American veterans are angry that France won’t be flying them over for a commemoration of the event. France never promised these vets anything of the sort, one unnamed source said. It just said the vets would be welcome to come…at their own expense. Meanwhile, this week the Hotel Lutetia, which was known for housing Nazi officers during World War II, will be putting almost everything inside of it on the auction block this week. The historic Left Bank property will be closed for the next few years as it undergoes an extensive renovation. More than 3,000 objects are up for grabs, from sculptures and wine, to the reception counter and cream pitchers. More than 10,000 visitors have already filed through the hotel in search of treasures worth their bid.

Falling Upwards

Posted on May 7, 2014

hotairballoon

For years, my mother was fixated on taking this luxury hot air balloon trip with a group that promised private luncheons with real-life countesses and afternoons of drifting over Burgundy’s vineyards and medieval castles. When she spoke of it, all dreamy-eyed, it inspired that sort of feeling in me that many eager-to-please oldest children get, the one that screams “Someday, when I’m able to afford it, I will make this dream come true for my mother. Someday I will give her this bird’s eye view of France.”

Years after the fact, I realize that it might behoove me to make a slightly different dream come true for her, because neither of us is so great with heights, let’s just say. But I think we are both understandably swoony about the idea of the idea of a hot air balloon voyage. There’s a certain romance to seeing the world from a different perspective and, well,  drifting aimlessly over verdant pastures with a glass of champagne in hand. There’s also a certain adventurous spirit to getting into a balloon and not knowing just exactly where you’ll land.

fallingupwardsHistorian Richard Holmes captures these sentiments in Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Aira deliciously quirky account of flight before the age of airplanes. He writes:

Throughout history, dreamlike stories and romantic adventures have always attached themselves to balloons. Some are factual, some are pure fantasy, many (the most interesting) are a provoking mixture of the two. But some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly suspended beneath them.

Here’s the narrative basket in Holmes’ book: Balloons have not only been important to our understanding of the world, but crucial to shaping our ideas about what the future could — and should — be.  Some of the more obvious ways balloons have been instrumental to this understanding is by offering us new views of our planet, allowing us to study and forecast the weather, and enabling us to spy on enemies during wartime. But balloons have also been useful propaganda tools and muses for the new (at the time) genre of science fiction. And yet, there was still some early sense that balloons could only take us so far, that we would need to develop some sort of mechanized bird of sorts if we truly wanted to soar. Even the writer Victor Hugo declared that “the future lay with the bird, not the cloud.”

The Wright Brothers get all the press for developing the bird in question, but it is only after reading Holmes’ book that we recognize how much the Wrights owe to these early — and largely unknown — pioneers of flight. Holmes’ narrative teems with all sorts of strange characters who took to the air in the spirit of education and entertainment alike. One of my favorite stories is about Sophie Blanchard, a woman who overcame blancharddebilitating anxiety to become Napoleon’s Aeronaute des Fetes Officielles. She was renowned for standing in a silver gondola and drifting high above Paris in a white, low-cut dress and a hat full of colored feathers. Over time, Blanchard’s aerial shows became more daring, involving fireworks, colored smoke and rockets that flew from her delicate rig. Her daring cost her her life on July 6, 1819, when her silk balloon caught fire and sent her falling to her death. The stunned crowd originally cheered because they thought that the flames were all part of the show.

One eyewitness wrote:

In a few seconds, the poor creature, enveloped and entangled in the netting of her machine, fell with a frightful crash upon the slanting roof of a house, and thence onto the street, and Madame Blanchard was taken up a shattered corpse!

Although Blanchard was one of ballooning’s first casualties, she was a trailblazer, and filmmaker Jen Sachs is currently turning her life story into a beautiful animated film that is scheduled for release next year. But there were some near-absent trailblazers in this otherwise delightful book: The Montgolfier Brothers, who invented the hot air balloons that started all the fuss. I would have liked to have read more about them here, but Holmes is such a good raconteur…that it’s okay. Really. Drifting through these tales of a really rich and overlooked period in history was a fun ride.