The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Le Vaumicel

We could have stayed in a hotel, of course, but, on this trip, we wanted to do something different. It was Jeanne who introduced me to AirBnB when she wrote about a charming cottage in New Hampshire that she stayed in last summer. Jeanne's blog, Collage of Life, is always a source of inspiration and, if you're not already a reader, I suggest you head over there and subscribe today. But back to where I started. So what is AirBNB? Put simply, it is a website where people can list, find and rent lodging. The concept is to find a home away from home and the cool thing about it is that no two listings are the same. In my opinion, the best thing about AirBnB is that there are some very unique properties in which travellers can stay.

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After a rather long search, our choice fell on a charming apartment situated on the grounds of Le Vaumicel - a manor built in 1551 by Guillaume Canivet - and whose farm buildings today house a stud farm.  The apartment is located on top of what was once probably a barn and it is full of natural light. We did have to drag our luggage up one flight of rather narrow, wooden steps to get to it but it was worth the temporary inconvenience.There were two things that I immediately fell in love with: the wooden floors and the absolute absence of any noise.

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Apart from the light, the windows provided gorgeous views of the manor and its spacious, well-tended grounds. The apartment comes with its own private garden, which we did not make use of because it was cold and rainy but it would have been perfect for a summer vacation. Valerie, our hostess, let us have all the privacy that we needed and although I know that my friend the Contessa would have somehow contrived to invite herself over to the manor for coffee, I decided to resist the temptation and satisfy myself by peeking out of the windows at the building, just a stone's throw away, that seemed to be conjured into reality right from the pages of my story-books.

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The apartment itself had a few flaws, of course (nothing is ever perfect). We could not get the stove top to heat up properly (not sure whether it was defective or whether we are so used to a gas top that we were too impatient to wait for it to reach the required temperature) and the WIFI connection was mostly erratic but they were minor inconveniencies and our overall experience was very positive - especially with a view like this:

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Le Vaumicel is located in the little town of Vierville-sur-Mer, just ten minutes away (at most) from Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. This area of Normandy is quite isolated and renting  our own transport in the shape of a snazzy little Renault Captur was a definite must. As I mentioned in my last post, March is off-peak season in Normandy, so parking was never a problem and the biggest crowd of people we ran into was a bus-load of students visiting the American Cemetery with their teachers. When you come from an over-populated island, isolation sounds like a special kind of magic and Le Vaumicel, located somewhere in the countryside of Normandy, provided us with just the right dose we needed to calm frayed nerves and organise chaotic thoughts. We could not have chosen a better place for our short stay  in Normandy.Normandy 110

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Some information on Le Manoir du Vaumicel:

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Places of interest in and around Vierville-sur-Mer (about 10 minutes away):

Omaha Beach

Les Braves monument

Overlord  Museum


Further afield (30 to 45 minutes):

St Mere Eglise (the first town in Normandy to be liberated in 1944)




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Le Vaumicel, Vierville-sur-Mer, Basse-Normandie, France

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Snapshots of Normandy

Normandy is lush and green and rainy. Its colours are the colours of the earth: greens and browns and greys and, sporadically, the brilliant yellow of rapeseed. On the horizon, the sea changes its hue, depending on its mood as it spills itself on golden beaches studded with sea-shells. In Normandy, the fields stretch upwards, kissing the sky and the landscape is dotted with villages so tiny, that if you blink just once, you might miss them. We stayed away from the large towns and lost ourselves on winding, country roads, with cows and horses as our only companions and bird-song filling our ears with music sweeter than Mozart's.

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And, because this is France, from time to time we would catch glimpses of a chateau, complete with turrets and narrow slit windows, like the pictures of castles in the books of fairy-tales from my childhood. Spring has not quite yet made it to Normandy. Tree limbs are bare and splayed like fingers against the backdrop of the sky but there is a wild beauty in the terrain and in the mostly-muted colours that are still predominant at this time of year.

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We rarely meet a soul as we drive on roads that look like they haven't changed for centuries, all the while splashing mud from freshly-ploughed fields on the polished rental car that we drove all the way from Paris. But this is what we came for - the isolation and the mystery. Why Normandy? you may ask, because in reality we could have escaped to a dozen other places which are off the beaten track and where we could have enjoyed our moment of solitude. Well, because Normandy is not just any other destination.

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Our trip there was, in part, a pilgrimage; an act of remembrance, because we have long wished to visit the famous beaches that were the site of the D-day landings and to pay our respects to the brave men who fought and died there; men who split their blood to give us a way of life that we so take for granted. Here, on beaches that are still known by their code names of Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno and Gold, the long fight for freedom began on that far-off June day in 1944.

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At the end of March, Normandy is still awakening from its long winter sleep - the beaches are practically deserted and the trees have barely started to bud. The peace and sense of isolation are palpable. The down-side is that many restaurants and shops are still closed for business or just open on a reduced  schedule - but this is only true in the small villages around the coast. In bigger towns, like Bayeax and Caen, this would not be an issue.

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This was our first trip to Normandy and we stayed for not quite three days, mostly concentrating on the areas and events that were thrown into the spotlight during WW2. So I did not get to learn much about the other fascinating aspects of this place, nor did I have the time to visit one of the many brocantes that take place in spring and summer all over France. But I envisage further trips to this region, because Normandy has laid a spell that tugs at the heart-strings and its call is going to be close to impossible to ignore. So we'll just say au revoir for now. Adieus are never a good idea anyway.

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Photographed in various locations in Normandy, France (March 2016)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The dance of life

I was about to write about our trip to Normandy but, I suppose it can wait for a few more days. Because sometimes, in the midst of our dreams and fantasies (and I have plenty of those every day), life jolts you back to reality. On the last day of our trip we were informed that my husband's uncle had died; and yesterday, my uncle passed away. Both of them had been poorly for the last few years, just a shadow of their former selves, and now they are suffering no more - for that we are grateful. As we are also grateful for the ability to remember them as they used to be, before the frailty brought on by illness turned them into men we could barely recognise.

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Ben was a typical mid-Westerner (or what I think of as typical): rather gruff and loud but with a kindly heart. He had a way of cracking jokes and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that was quite infectious. The stories he would tell about his life were legendary - as were his escapades. For some reason, he always reminded me of the cowboys we saw in the old Westerns, a cross between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas (I know he would get a kick out of that remark), a definitely no-nonsense type of man.  He served as a sergeant in the US Air Force medical corps during the Korean war. After the war he was assigned to the VIP ward reserved for top military officers and the President of the United States. He was also the personal attendant to General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a retired commander of the US Air Force. Ben was buried with military honours in the small town in northern Missouri where he  has been living for the past 60 or so years.

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My uncle Vic was my dad's brother. There were seven boys in the family. He was the fifth. As families go, we were not the huggy-touchy-feely type. But he and his family lived next door to us and he was always there, on the other side of the garden wall; and now he's there no more. There is security in familiarity and, even though sometimes months would pass before I saw him, I knew he was there. Now I know that I will never see him again. But I do not want to dwell on that fact, on the realization that the family is changing and that nothing will ever be like it used to be. Nor do I want to remember these last few years when he was ill and weak. I will remember him as he was: the most fastidious of the brothers, clean to the point of obsession; the one who was always the first to dance at weddings, the tips of his almost-legendary moustache waxed to a fine point.

Ben and uncle Vic were two very different men, who lived very different lives. Both were heroes to their children and grand-children (and, in Ben's case, great grand-children), both imperfect in their own way - like lall of us. Life seems to stop and slow down for a while as families gather to mourn, but then it continues with its frenzied pace, its crazy dance that carries each of us to the brink.

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If you have been to the Swiss town of Lucerne and walked across the iconic Spreuer Bridge, you may have come across a series of 17th century paintings known as the Dance of Death. These paintings were produced to remind people of the fragility of life. And yes, life is indeed fragile and fleeting but it is also beautiful and glorious. In the end, the most important thing of all is to live it without regrets. So, as the saying goes, and hard as it may be, let's not cry because it's over but smile because it happened. I am sure that that it is what both of these men would want their families to do.

Location: German Military Cemetery, La Cambe,  Normandy, France

April 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

Write like no one's reading

I can't remember where I read that. It could have been one of those inspirational quotes on Pinterest or maybe I read it on someone's blog. In either case, it completely contradicts another piece of advice that I came across somewhere else, which is, to write to an audience. Personally, I find that extremely hard to do. Because, although my audience (such as it is) consists almost entirely of women, they are all so different in personality, that I am not sure to which person in my audience I should be writing. So I write with the notion that no one is reading and, strangely, that seems to be helping me find my voice. After all, in this world of a million blogs, I am just another sentence in a novel. What I have to say, may or may not be of interest - depending on who's reading.

I've long ago resigned myself to the fact that I will never write a novel (though my head is brimming with stories) nor will anyone ever ask me to write a magazine article. But I can live with that, as I can also live with the knowledge that my blog will never attract thousands of hits in one day. I am completely fine with it because I can continue to be myself and to write what I like, without the added pressue of making sure that readers keep on coming. There is a curious liberty in anonymity. I don't even share my blog with my closest friends because, somehow, the interaction with strangers is infinitely more rewarding, more sincere, perhaps. Because these 'strangers' slowly turn into friends and as we read and comment on each others' posts, our lives criss-cross each other like wonderful jigsaw puzzles. You see, they help fill up voids in our life that would otherwise forever remain empty. In spite of the fact that we all try to max out on this one shot we get at life, sometime around my fortieth birthday I realised that no one can ever have it all. That's just an urban myth. The reality is, that we all tend to think the grass is greener on the other side but that our patch could be just as green if we only bothered to water it.

Image via Writing North Idaho

I am sure you're all wondering what I'm babbling about and what the whole point to this rant is. Well, I just wanted to say that we all have our own little niche, and yes, there is a purpose to our sometimes rambling words. We might stumble across each other quite by chance but somewhere deep inside us, we know when we have found a kindred spirit or when someone's writing strikes a chord deep within our psyche; and that is why we keep returning. It is not just about the tenuous connections. It is about the knowledge that we can all be ourselves. Free to explore and discover other worlds within our world. Free to travel vicariously to places that w ould otherwise just be names on a map. Free to share favourite books and recipes; and anything else which catches our fancy. Free to be true to ourselves; to write, like no one's reading.

Image via Writers Write Creative Blog

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Finding Avalon

In Arthurian legend, Avalon is a mystical, mythical realm, shrouded in mist and far from prying eyes. It is not so much a place, as a state of mind, and getting there requires a large dose of will-power and a little bit of magic. The air is sweet and smells of apple-blosom there, or so the stories go, and time passes at a difference pace than it does out in the real world.

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And here, in the all too real world, a narrow and bumpy road that starts at the chapel of the Annunciation, leads to a fertile stretch of land that end at a second chapel, this one dedicated to our Lady of Carmel. This place beneath the towering cliffs of Dingli is known as Fawwara. Fawwara is the Maltese word for a natural spring but the root of the word, the verb fawwar, means to fill to the brim; to overflow. That is what this place does in abundance - it overflows with growth and with life.

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Even during this most arid of winters that we have had, nature has worked her magic, just like she always does, and the first signs of an early spring were bursting to life all around us, so exuberantly that you could almost hear each bud and blossom pop open. The giant fennel that grows by the wayside was starting to bloom and the tenderest of green leaves were sprouting from the branches of the fig trees.

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Only the vines are still oblivious to the warmth and the lengthening days, their straggly tendrils biding their time,  because they will not be rushed - their secret is patience. For that I am thankful, because I know that as soon as the baby green vine leaves burst forth, summer will be upon us and for now I am content in the present.

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What's more I am content with this present. With the delicious breeze and the craggy terrain; with the wild-flowers and a sky as blue as the depths of the sea. I feel drunk with the abundance of it all. The air does not smell of apple-blossom here but of wild-thyme and fennel; and no swirling mists linger, except when it rains. But legends abound and time might play a trick or two, it might even stand still or go backwards, here in Fawwara - here, in the place I call my Avalon.

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Location: Fawwara, February 2016

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