Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

An Exhilarating Affair

November 27, 2012

Just got back together with my blog. We agreed to a trial separation while I had a romantic fling. It’s over now and we’re trying to work things out.

My 10 week affair with Coursera definitely made me feel young again. We found every excuse to spend time together – priorities be damned.

I was introduced by chance through an intriguing NYTimes article about a consortium of 33 Ivy League schools, prestigious colleges and international universities from Jerusalem to Melbourne, offering FREE online courses. I immediately clicked the link, evaluated the candidacy of potential suitors and found my dream match – MODPO.

Taking an online college course in Modern & Contemporary American Poetry far exceeded my expectations, and definitely rocked the world of the U Penn professor teaching it. To everyone’s amazement, over 30,000 students of all ages and nationalities enrolled. Like people downloading e-books they prefer to read undercover, there are clearly leagues of closet poetry lovers craving a chance to share their passion with like-minded souls.

Nothing like total poetry immersion for reanimating the creative spirit. It ignited intellectual euphoria I hadn’t felt since senior year at Middlebury College preparing for English Lit comprehensive exams reading Shakespearean sonnets, Milton, Yeats, Hopkins and T.S. Elliot. But that was three decades ago and poetry has evolved.

MODPO was created and led by the amazing Al Filreis – with the invaluable assist of a group of nine young grad student TAs. Filreis’ Wiki bio describes him as: “…Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.” It doesn’t mention his sense of fun, warmth and intellectual generosity. That he is wise, with a brilliant command of the subject didn’t surprise, but what did is his indefatigable curiosity and delightful lack of posturing or condescension.

There were hitches as with all experiments, but everyone (on screen and behind the scenes providing tech support) did their utmost to make it a satisfying communal learning project. Filreis is now a confirmed advocate of collective wisdom. He’s taught Modern Poetry for 30 years, but was blown away by interpretations he’d yet to consider coming from “non academics”. He admitted to Googling people who made particularly astute remarks on forums or in essays, suspecting they were poetry ‘insiders’, only to uncover a retired engineer or high school senior.

The syllabus covered more than a century of American poetry from proto-modernist icons Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, through the conceptual appropriation and unoriginality practices of Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bok, and Tracie Morris. By week 10, re-reading Gertrude Stein poems encountered in week 4 was like rediscovering Wordsworth in a beloved anthology. In poetry as in most worthwhile endeavors, today’s shocking becomes tomorrow’s consensus.

Coursera lets you head back to school without the lifestyle upheaval it once engendered.  I was able to participate in a real time course at UPenn while living on a farm in rural Touraine, traveling up and back to Paris every week as well as much further afield.  The only transit and time zone snag involved participation in life webcasts. They were scheduled when I was was either traveling without a wifi connection or asleep in the wee hours of the morning.

From testimony heard in webcast sessions and read on forums, it seems I was one of thousands profoundly affected by the ten week journey. In a labor of love the carrot of grading isn’t necessary, and might have crimped the freedom of discourse and risk taking poetry demands. For the moment, completing assignments (weekly quizzes, four essays and mandatory critique of classmates’ essays) earns you a virtual gold star rather than tangible course credit. Not bad for high calibre, yet free education.

The most valuable lesson was reaffirmation that rules about language are an ever shifting construct. Poets are on the frontier of language exploration – misunderstood, ridiculed and eventually belatedly celebrated. Among the reasons poetry remains relatively uncorrupted and radical is because there’s no money in it. While the world of poetry intersects with those of visual arts, music, theater and technology, there are few corporations lining up to sponsor living poets.

So I’m back to blogging. Less conflicted about the merits of the internet.

I’d love to know what your favorite poems or poets are – so PLEASE share in comments!

Note about photos: Taken when I coincidentally visited Philadelphia in late September and discovered Reading Terminal Market. I was as taken with the crazy poetry of the signage as the fabulous range of food on offer.

Touraine Tradition: Boxwood Sunday

April 18, 2011

In Catholic parishes where I attended mass before moving to Orbigny, Christmas and Easter services were the big draw, but in rural Touraine, it’s Palm Sunday that really fills the pews.  Considering it’s a lengthy service including the longest gospel reading of the year, I was amazed to see our typically sparsely filled church packed to  capacity with men, women and children clutching bunches of boxwood clippings.  Among the faces were avowed agnostics and vociferous anti-clerical types whom typically cross the threshold only for a funeral.   This wasn’t about an excuse for dressing up, since Sunday go-to-meeting preening isn’t something the French go for even on holidays, with the exception of a wedding.

I suspected the swell in attendance was linked to a primeval sentiment beyond piety – the power of ingrained tradition and superstition to overpower cynicism and skepticism.  But why boxwood instead of palm fronds?

In French, the feast is called Dimanche des Rameaux (Sunday of Branches). No mention of Palms.  Boxwood, or buis, is a hardy evergreen plant that requires little watering and thrives in the alkaline clay soil of the region.  You find it throughout Touraine, growing as a tree in the forest, a trimmed hedge or bush in cottage potagers, or sculpted into fantastic topiaries in chateaux gardens.   Thus it’s readily available, unlike palms imported from the southern Mediterranean.   In the UK and US, pre-blessed palms, typically woven into the shape of a cross, are distributed as congregants exit the church.  Here we hold up boxwood cuttings from our gardens (or a supply set out on a table by the entry of the church), as the priest walks up and down the aisles blessing the congregation with holy water.

A few years back, while out riding my horse, I came across a farmer and his wife on their knees planting a sprig of buis in the plowed earth at the corner of their field.  The spot is a local landmark known as Les Trois Croix, for three crosses erected at an intersection of four fields, where the boundary limits of three villages meet.  It’s also the highest point in the county, and seemed an apt setting for a ceremony with echoes of pagan ritual.  That was my aha moment and confirmed my hunch about the superstitious appeal of blessed buis. Read More »

Another French Exception. You are how you eat.

November 23, 2010

Tuesday November 16, Unesco added the French gastronomic meal to its world heritage roster of intangible cultural treasures. Wednesday, Le published a potpourri of reader responses to the announcement.  There was general consensus that the honor recognizes France’s devotion to the convivial meal shared around a table, as much as its rich, varied culinary heritage.

Le readers readily acknowledged that France doesn’t have a monopoly on gourmet cuisine.  Most Mediterranean countries take pride in the quality of their native cooking and the importance of making time to sit down twice a day for a meal shared with family or friends, but as an international symbol of culinary arts and l’art du table, France is unrivaled.

When the subject came up at a dinner we attended Saturday night, guests chimed in.  One felt Italian cuisine deserved to be included.  The idea was quickly dismissed.  “They eat virtually the same thing every day.  It’s delicious but they don’t have as much variety as we do”.  Italy couldn’t compete in the cheese stakes.  Pasta shapes and gelato flavors don’t count and besides, you can sample hundreds of macaroon flavors in Paris.   One woman, a psychologist, claimed Unesco was citing the ritual progression of a French meal,  “entrée, plat, salade, fromage et dessert”. Infinite variety within the context of a codified set of courses – which was precisely what our meal had been – fish soup, served with croutons and grated cheese followed by filet de boeuf en croute with glazed onions and roast potatoes, green salad, three impeccably ripe cheeses and spiced apple compote with crème anglaise.  Coffee naturally served in the salon. Read More »

A new Paris Rive Gauche

September 5, 2010
Josephine Baker

Rentrée scolaire took place Thursday – one of the loveliest days of the season.  Luckily it’s a short school week, because Paris clearly isn’t ready to bid adieu to sunning and swimming.

The city has 38 public pools, none more inviting than floating Piscine Joséphine Baker, moored at port de la Gare, in the shadow of the BNF (Biliothèque nationale de France) towers.  During my morning run, I check out the sun deck from a footbridge linking the BNF plaza to de Bercy across the Seine.  Friday it was packed by midday, so vacation must still be on for some.  They offer an aqua gym and fitness program, and when cool weather hits, a retractable roof encloses the open air piscine. Read More »

Manoir de la Pagerie

August 19, 2010

Manoir de la Pagerie in Ternay, a Rhone Valley town of 4000, 15 minutes from Lyon and 10 from Gallo Roman Vienne, is more suburban oasis than “Country Hideaway”  – a cool respite from the encroaching metropole and convenient base for sampling the cultural and culinary attractions of the region.

Once through the entry gate, you’re swept into an improbably lush park shaded by centennial trees, with a pool discreetly nestled behind a tall hedge. Don’t be put off by the impression created from the street, where the house appears to be row of homes. The owners have resisted renovating the street facing facade to discourage unwanted attention.

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