Monday, May 11, 2015

Channeling Monet In Giverny

It is probably one of the most peaceful and enchanting places I've visited to date. Tucked away in a tranquil corner of Haute Normandie, the village of Giverny, France was once home to Impressionist artist Claude Monet. It was from here that he drew his inspiration the gardens and ponds made famous through his paintings. And all it took was a single walk through the gardens and around the lily pond depicted in his paintings to understand where his inspiration came from.

Born in Paris in 1840, Claude Monet began painting as a teenager living in the Normandy coastal town of Le Havre. Following military service in Algeria, Monet returns to France where he continues painting and befriends his fellow artists including Pierre-Auguste Renior and Pablo Picasso. His work slowly gains a following and he begins to exhibit and sell his artwork throughout Europe. In 1890 he moves to the town of Giverny which he would use as a home base until his death in 1926. Monet traveled throughout Europe but found much of his inspiration right in his own backyard.

Today visitors to Giverny can tour Monet's house and walk through the numerous gardens which fans of Monet will immediately recognize from his paintings. Walking through the gardens was truly like experiencing a deja vu since it felt as though I was walking through his paintings. With eight children, Monet's green shuttered, pink stucco house was clearly one that was designed to be lived in and that is reflected as you walk through the warren of rooms that his family called home. The large windows of his bedroom offer sweeping views of the gardens below while the kitchen and dining room--my favorite two rooms in the house---are brightly colored and exude a warm and welcoming lived in feeling. It is easy to imagine family and friends gathering in these rooms to share food and ideas. But a visit to Giverny is really about seeing the gardens. Immediately surrounding the house lies the Clos Normand, which is comprised of fruit trees, boxwood hedges and row upon row of brightly blooming flowers. With each look you can see yet another one of Monet's palates reflected in the landscape.

The real star of the show, however, is the water lily ponds and surrounding gardens. While the Clos Nomand is filled with brightly colored blooms, the water garden, across the street tucked away from the house is a pastel dream. The garden has a distinctively Japanese feel with bamboo, peonies, ginkos bibola, Japanese maple trees and a wisteria covered green bridge framing the famed lily pond. This garden is truly enchanting. The flowers fragranced the air without over powering it and a chorus of frogs serenaded visitors from their lily pad filled pond. And even with a good number of visitors sharing the pathways on the day of my visit, the garden was peaceful and it was possible find your own quiet little nook. It is so easy to see how Monet found inspiration there and simply being there inspired me to want to both garden and to paint.

And while you are in Giverny, visit the neighboring Musee des Impressionnismes (Impressionist Museum). This small but well laid out museum features temporary Impressionist exhibits from Paris' Musee d'Orsay. From now through the middle of Edgar Degas after which the exhibit will feature photographs of Monet's gardens.
July the exhibit features the life and works of

If you go:

Fondation Claude Monet
84 Rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny, France
+33 (0)2 32 51 28 21

Open daily from late March to early November, 09:3-18:00
Adults-10 Euro, students-6.50 Euro, under 7 Free

Musee des Impressionnismes
99 Rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny, France
+33 (0)2 32 51 94 65

Open daily from late March to early November, 10:00-18:00
Adults- 7 Euro, students- 4.50 Euro, under 7 Free

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Biografias

This week's Wordless Wednesday photograph is actually overflowing with words:

close up of the books

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Volunteer Commitment

Millions of people around the world get up, go to work and get paid for their efforts on a daily basis. And while people in paid positions help make the cogs of the daily grind go around, they don't do it alone. No, just as so many people get paid to work, millions also volunteer their time, energy and skills to complement paid work. In fact, so many organizations in our communities simply wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for volunteer efforts.

The tradition of volunteerism is really a way of life in America. So much so that a few years ago when I was asked to give a talk on "America" to high school students in Albania, my topic was volunteering. First some facts: in 2013, a total of 62.6 million Americans volunteered their time. This means that 25.4% of Americans give freely of their time each year. Their unpaid efforts annually equate to 7.7 billion man hours valued at $173 billion dollars. Imagine if all of these volunteers got paid in cash for their efforts. But these are simply statistics; what does all of this mean to each of us on a daily basis?

All I have to do is look around my own little military community and I see volunteers everywhere. There are parents volunteering in their children's classrooms, native English speakers running language groups so others can improve their language skills and pet lovers dedicating their time to local shelters. There are people volunteering to teach crafts, to organize trips, men and women leading scout troops and others yet collecting donations for orphanages. And lets not forget all of the youth sports programs that are the mainstay of after school activities for children everywhere. The coaches are all volunteers and as one of them, I can tell you both the importance of giving of my time and the real time it takes to make each practice a positive experience for everyone involved. As is the case with most volunteer activities you can't just show up and expect things to go smoothly; it takes pre-planning and organization for a practice to go off without a hitch.

All of this unpaid volunteer time is actually like....well....paid work. And for me, there lies the catch. I know first hand that volunteering takes time and it take commitment but all I ask is that if you are one of the people who steps forward to volunteer, you give it your all. Its as simple as that. People volunteer for a variety of reasons and I applaud them all. After all, for whatever reason they have decided that they want to give of themselves and give back to their community. And I know there are times when I have too much going on to step forward to volunteer so when that is the case, I keep my hand down and don't. But when I do, I view it as a job. That means being committed to the activity, showing up when I say I will and being mentally as well as physically present when required. Just as with paid employment, some days this is easier to do than others but slacking simply isn't an option. If only everyone felt this way.

In following with my theme of youth sports, when we sign up as volunteer coaches we are making a promise to our young players that we will be there. And at an age when youth athletics is as much about sportsmanship and skills that carry into life off of the field as it is about learning the intricacies of the game, keeping our promises is important. As a coach repeatedly canceling practices or simply not showing up is sending the wrong message. Would a volunteer behave this way if they were getting paid? Probably not; but then again, maybe they would.

Volunteers do help make the world go around but if we step forward to volunteer we need to be committed to our efforts. Anything else is simply unacceptable. Don't you agree?

Monday, April 27, 2015

You Are What You Eat...... And Others Want To Be Us???

What does it mean to be American? I guess it all depends upon who you ask or even where you are. Here in Europe the common perception of Americans seems to be that we are loud, brash and like our things big--big vehicles, big houses, big food portions covered in ketchup and big egos. As frustrating as it may be at times, I can't say that these stereotypes are all that off target. But there are other perceptions and notions about Americans that I am flummoxed by and simply find kind of amusing.

When we lived in Albania it often felt as though the American flag and symbols of the country were everywhere. The flag was found on clothing, waving from flagpoles that weren't associated with the U.S. Embassy or American owned businesses and generally just about everywhere you looked. American pop music from the 1980s (particularly Michael Jackson and MaDonna) seemed to be the most popular songs played in cafes. At first it felt odd but on some days it felt like a little retro piece of home. On more than one occasion while we were out and about, upon hearing our speaking English with an American accent youth would shout the words "we love Obama" and "we love America" in our direction. I'm sure they would have been saying this regardless of who was sitting in the White House. But then again, in all of my traveling with the exception of being in Albania and neighboring Kosovo, I have yet to have an exuberant love of my home country shouted out in my direction. But that doesn't mean that America's influence has escaped the rest of Europe.

Take food for example. Long before John Kerry became Secretary of State the Heinz brand was spreading their Americanism to all parts of the world. (John Kerry is married to Heinz heiress Teresa Heinz). And their condiment business is so much more than ketchup; the most peculiar topping of all is an orangey-gold colored concoction called "American sauce". I have never seen such a thing in the United States but here in Europe it is everywhere with small squeeze bottles lining grocery store shelves to gallon sized vats of it being dolloped out from frite carts. I personally never tasted the sauce but found its name slightly amusing. But when I was gifted with a bottle by a fellow American I took a closer look at it. From the ingredient list that I translated from German to English it appears to be a combination of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and pickle relish along the lines of a thicker Thousand Island dressing (another combination that I find less than appetizing). Looking at it with humor I guess it does sum up America's fixation with ketchup and related condiments but just the same I'll let my European friends enjoy this great American export.

But this isn't the only oddly American monikered food item found in Europe. Steak Americain or filet American is a popular menu item in many Belgian restaurants. I'm sure more than one American has sat down at the table, ordered and expected to cut into a thick steak. That isn't what they will be eating, though. Rather, Steak Americain is actually what much of the world calls steak tartare, a mound of finely chopped raw beef that more often than not (in Belgium anyway) is topped with a runny egg. I don't have the faintest idea how this dish came to have the word American tacked onto it; yes, many Americans may prefer their steaks bloody but raw is a whole other category. And I've seen other Americanized menu items as well; American pizza is dotted with chopped up hotdogs; the same goes for the omelette American. American style beers have a color so pale they look more like colored water and American chicken is oddly fried and coated in the afore mentioned ketchup. I once saw a menu where food portions were served in "petite", "normal" and "America" sizes. I kid you not.

Countries and cultures are often associated with their foods but are the above examples really what others think of America? Maybe. After all our local Carrefour has an "American" aisle filled with Hershey's syrup, Old El Paso taco kits and "American style" over stuffed Oreo cookies. And of course ketchup. Big bottles of ketchup. And it isn't just the Americans who are shopping here.