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I’m not a billionaire — yet — but my editor told me this week that Le Road Trip has sold out of its first run and is going into a second printing so wealth and fame can’t be far behind. So I better take notes on how my soon-to-be-peers live — I want to fit in when we all get together and complain about the 99.9% who live off my job creation, those sluggards. Dim wits. Hoi Polloi. Hey! Not being rich is your own damn fault!

But I digress.

Once a year, a certain hedge fund billionairein Westchester, New York opens his garden on behalf of the Garden Conservancy. So I moseyed up to Katonah to get a look at my soon-to-be-neighbor.

The first thing I noticed was the zebras. Note to self: Billionaries need zebras in the back yard.

Note to self: Also, find out where to buy a zebra saddle.

And then there were the camels.

These are the two-hump kind of camels which, I think, only come from Mongolia. Note to self: start thinking of cute names for pet camels. Ullan and Baator? Marlboro and Kent?

I was told by one of the 20 attendandts who were there directing traffic that they average 750 cars every time this garden is open to the public. Don’t worry: there’s room for 750 cars here. This billionaire has a 55-acre backyard. Plenty of room enough for all these nosey parkers, plus a flock of flamingos:

And monkeys: 

And kangaroos (red and white):

Now, when it comes to kangaroos, this is money well spent. I do love me them kangaroos. So having a dozen kangaroos romping in my backyard is just like being in Australia without all the bother of a 20-hour plane ride.

After the kangaroos, all the emus and ostriches and black swans and other rare birds that were wandering around the backyard didn’t really grab my attention. For the rest of my walk around the property, I only have pictures of the really, really cute pets.

Like this guy:

We weren’t allowed inside the greenhouse where the billionaire grows rare tropical fruits from Asia and India, but we were permitted to stare…

….at the adorable tiny monkeys eating all the rare tropical fruits from India and Asia:

This fella is the size of a Barbie doll.  Cute!

This guy was the size of a very fat Labradoodle:

There was a woman who, upon catching sight of this little piggy ( a capybara, the world’s largest rodent, from South America, weighing about 40 pounds), exclaimed to her husband and kids: “Look! A hippopotamus!”  Secret note to self: It’s worth devoting great sums of money to keep morons away from me and my capybaras.

I almost missed this guy, who was napping with his herd in the Westchester savanna:

It took a half hour, but he finally revealed his full cerval self.

This kitty took an interest in me, and wandered over to my side of the fence to sniff my camera. I tried to get a close up of those infinitely beautiful and hypnotic cat eyes…

…but I only got his chin.

I know, I know:  You want to know what a billionaire’s garden looks like.

For one thing, there aren’t many flower beds except in the one-acre cutting garden (roses and tulips this time of year). Mostly the estate is a series of beautifully landscaped rolling hills to create habitats for the living lawn ornaments. But there is a spectacularly original garden that expresses the billionaire soul; It’s a 5-acre maple grove planted with every species of maple tree.

There are wonderful paths all through this space. And several bridges — this one is the Moss Bridge:

And this one is the Japanese Bridge:

Japanese bridges are usually painted vermillion (Monet either didn’t know or didn’t care about this when he painted his Giverny bridge that blue-green color) and the use of that Japanese maple tree is outstanding. Japanese maples are prized in Japan for their intricately gnarled branches, and this tree has maximum visual interest plus it mimics the arch of the bridge. This exquisite tableau is the mark of a true connoisseur, and represents a very high taste level.

It takes about two hours to walk around and take in a 55-acre garden, for your information. I was very satisfied with the day, having learned quite a bit about the de rigueurs of the Billionaire’s Club.

But there was one last thing I  had to check out. I walked all the way up the quarter-mile long driveway, all the way to the quaint dirt road that this billionaire lives on, because I had to find the answer to a question I’ve always had about billionaires.

Q: What does a billionaire’s mailbox look like?

Now I know.

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I’m still at it. Still flummoxed by gardens. My paintings of them still look like crap. If you remember, when we last left off I was trying to do justice to a small walled garden off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh called Dunbar’s Close:

In the past two weeks I’ve actually tried TWICE to re-paint this, but the results were even worse so instead I went back and made certain necessary corrections to make this illustration a tad bit less crappy:

 

Having failed so miserably, I decided to take a break and go back to my comfort zone, garden-wise. I did a miniature painting of the secret doorway to Dunbar’s Close on the Royal Mile (miniature being my preferred canvas):

This secret entrance is almost totally camouflaged as just another alley between nondescript buildings on the Royal Mile:

There are 83 “closes” on the Royal Mile such as this one that leads to Dunbar’s Close. BTW, I know some of you, dear readers, like to see Where I Get My Ideas From. For this illustration, I plagiarized this reference photos:

Another wonderful garden that I love is in Key West. And when it comes to Key West, I’ve always been very fond of this picture I took in 2005 when Top Cat and I spent a long February weekend there (this is our guest room at the Conch House Heritage Inn, built in 1885):

I love the monochromatic effect of this picture, the long afternoon shadows, and how the orange cat is the only spot of color. So let’s PAINT IT!

First had to draw it:

I had to leave out that second rocking chair — waaaay too complicated for my skill level and I didn’t want to make myself any crazier than I had to.  Of course, there is only one way to paint this drawing: illuminated on my light box:

I really shouldn’t paint without supervision. Thank you, Coco cat.

By putting my 90-lb Canson watercolor paper over this drawing and firing up the light box, the outlines of this sketch show through to guide me as I “color in” the shadows that I see in the photograph. It took me about two hours to paint this:

Yeah, I had to ditch the French door and the window entirely — there was no way I had the manual dexterity to pull that off. It was the rocking chair and the cat that I most wanted to paint any way and if you had not seen the original concept you would think that this was a pretty completely realized composition, eh?

Thank you, one and all, for all your garden book recommendations last week. I’m still searching for the garden artist that I can steal from…I have a specific viewing experience in mind when it comes to garden art, and hoo boy some of the garden books I’ve come across miss it by miles.

Last Sunday I journeyed to the wilds of Westchester County to visit a billionaire’s garden because I wanted to see what a man with an undogly amount of money puts in his garden. Stayed tuned: I’ll  show you, right here, next week.

 

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You might remember my friend Robert from pages 190 and 191 of my book When Wanderers Cease to Roam, where I talk about how Robert operates the drawbridge over the Eastchester Barge Canal off U.S.Route 1.

He spent 30 years there, planting trees and creating art from the debris that floated his way, hanging hundreds of his “collages” (they looked like wind chimes to me) from the branches of his trees because, as Robert said, ” God put me here to straighten out this part of Earth.”

Robert retired last year and yesterday I went to visit him at his home in Westchester County, on the shore of the Long Island Sound.

No, this isn’t Robert’s yard. This is Robert’s neighbor’s yard. I’m just showing you this for a sense of contrast because Robert’s been as busy in his own acre of Earth as he was at the drawbridge — Robert’s yard looks like this:

Robert’s made his yard into a wonderland garden, sculpted the landscape by installing a staircase, railings, statues, more “collages” set into the ground, etc.

These photos make the place look a little more chaotic than it is — I just love the way Robert adds all these different shapes (like the fans) into the scenery.

And the sinks.

You can get lost in the scale of the surrounding installations here —

—and I didn’t bring a tea bag so I’m pointing to this particularly lovely little vignette to show you that some of Robert’s work is quite diminutive.

This is one of the more elaborate “collages’/wind chimes hanging in Robert’s home garden.

Robert surprised me with a very special gift — a wind chime of my very own!

These keys used to hang at the Eastchester Barge Canal and when a county supervisor made Robert get rid of “all that trash in the trees” Robert saved this one and gave it to me!

Oh! I almost forgot to tell you about the most fantastic part of Robert’s garden! I saw something that I’ve never seen and never could have hoped or dared to see with my own eyes right there, in Robert’s garden. I saw this:

This is a mother blue jay sitting in her nest in Robert’s garden (giving me the hairy eyeball).

As for Le Road Trip, I must give thanks to the kind reviews that have appeared this past week in the Sunday Mail in Brisbane, Australia ;and the Oklahoman of Oklahoma City; and the Roanoke Times of Roanoke, VA.

Thanks also to all my dear readers, who are reading both Le Road Trip and When Wanderers Cease to Roam in original hard copy (since neither book can be Kindled), putting up with my old-fashioned idea that a reading experience must include a real book-shaped object.

P.S. I’m looking for good garden books — ones that have great illustrations and stories about gardens and their gardeners. I’ve already ordered , sight unseen but just because I like the title, an out-of-print book called Remembered Gardens…does anyone know of any other good books that get to the heart of the garden experience? Or will I have to write that one myself?

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Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful messages of support on Pub Date for Le Road Trip — April 10, 2012. Just think. A mere eight months ago this was all I had:

This is something you don’t’ see any more: a manuscript. Made of real paper. Like in the olden days.

A stack of Damn France pages (and a tea bag). And now:

I admit it, this photo is a tiny bit STAGED.

I’ve got a Damn France Book!

The cats can’t hardly contain their glee and pride at this great achievement.

I’ve certainly been enjoying every single message of approval, validation, and assurance from you dear readers that what I’ve sent out into the world doesn’t suck. Whew.

I don’t know what other writers do on the eve of Pub Dateis there a writer who is cool, calm, and collected 48 hours before The Day of Reckoning? — but this writer gets her husband to take her to Atlantic City. Because I got important people to meet and greet in America’s Playground.

You know who I mean. Under the boardwalk:

A lot of people don’t notice the ally cats of Atlantic City, or the big Ally Cat Allies of Atlantic City sign, until there’s a crazy cat lady taking pictures under the boardwalk, attracting attention.

And then I have to explain that the wild and stray cats of Atlantic City are provided for by a corp of dedicated animal lovers at Ally Cat Allies of Atlantic City who bring food, water, and medical care to the colony.

Although there are people who free-lance it, which is not recommended. (There’s a black cat on the second step there, being fed by the guy in the baseball cap.)

But sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. That is, sit and feel better about the world in the company of a cat.

I also don’t know what other writers do the day after Pub Date — if I were Neil deGrasse Tyson I’d be watching my book leap onto the New York Times best-seller list, and if I were J. K. Rowling I’d be getting a kick out of the tsunami of consumer demand for my e-book crashing the internet, and if I were a soft-core pornographer I’d be signing a multi-million dollar deal with my New York publisher…

…but I’m just a humble illustrator/memoirist, so I’ll be sitting at home, sorting out all my big ideas for my next illustrated travel memoir.

Hmmm….. Maybe I should do a cat book?

Do you think I could possibly do anything with this?

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Surprisingly, dear readers and Damn France Book followers (as far as you have been hanging in here on this blog with me during the composition of my damn France book) we seem to have like-minded amigos in the land of the tsars.

The Russians have bought the rights to my book!  Le Road Trip is going to be published in Moscow!

The National Geographic Traveler magazine has a mention of Le Road Trip in its current issue:

Vivian Swift’s Le Road Trip is both the true story of an idyllic French honeymoon that winds from Paris through Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, and Chartres, and an illustrated road-trip handbook on topics ranging from “How to Vagabond” to “What to Wear in Paris.”

The good people at France Magazine have a lot more to say:

Veteran globetrotter Swift set out to chronicle her French honeymoon but ended up penning a quirky love letter to travel filled with cultural, historical and literary references. Delightful watercolors illustrate this wide-ranging field guide, which offers hilarious travel survival tips for every clime as well as ruminations on subjects as varied as Parisian windows, Breton sailor-stripe shirts, and lettuce (not to mention a highly idiosyncratic A-to-Z on vagabonding in the Bordeaux region).

Nerves.

If you had the idea that I’m basking in such kind words and good news about my book…you could not be more wrong. I’m all nerves, trying to keep the flop sweats at bay. Pub date is next week…this could be the end of my career.

This habit of snatching depression from the jaws of glad tidings feels so natural, so familiar. So RUSSIAN. My people!

Well, it wouldn’t be so bad to keep  Moscow time (eight hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Savings Time), counting down the hours until I see Le Road Trip printed in cyrillic. Chjome to think of it, in Moscow, it’s already Friday night. Friday night!

I have some crying in my vodka to catch up with!

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Actual scene, actually seen by me. A pink-icinged donut, waiting by the side of a mail box.

When the world gets too weird, I go to the place where everything makes sense.

I go to Ikea.

Specifically, I go to the Ikea House, the 600-square-foot fake home that my local Ikea has installed on its main floor as an example of the pristine Ikea lifestyle.

It’s like walking into a vision of domestic perfection where there’s a place for everything and, most importantly, everything is in its place.

Clean lines, blond woods, small-scale sense of what it takes to be complete.

This (above) would be my work room. I would thrive in such simplicity. I can see me having only one thought at a time here, no room for conflicting or competing ideas, no debris from non-sensical or overly-complicated notions about life, art, self, or DoG. I could be pure in this room.

I find great comfort in imagining my life in the Ikea House, limiting my intellectual and emotional baggage to just what I could stash into Scandinavian closet space.

Ahhhh…the only thing better than a 600-square-foot Ikea House would be this: 

The 315-square-foot Ikea Apartment.

If you here tell of a someone taking up residence in the showroom of the Hicksville Ikea on Long Island, that will be me.

 

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Things around here were getting so boring. So I had to go thrift shopping.

I do loves me a good Salvation Army Thrift Store.

Especially when there are so many thought-provoking objects on display.

Are these chairs supposed to be faux-pony or faux-Holstein?

Better yet, they swivel, too. Oh, dear faux-pony/Holstein chairs, why were you forsaken unto the Salvation Army thrift Shop? Did the lady of the house change the decor from hipster-faux-hipster to wretchedly-sincere? And wouldn’t you have made the transition just fine if given half a chance? Oh, dear faux-pony/Holstein chairs, the world was not meant for ones as beautiful as youse.

And if ever there was a couch whose upholstry referenced Paul Klee, it’s this one:

Get it, Get it, Get it, the hamsters in my brain are shouting at me. Not to sit on. It doesn’t look as if providing a comfy seat is one of the priorities of this piece of furniture. Just for looking at, and admiring my taste for acquiring it.

This was hard for me to pass up this…

…given my love of vintage Paint by Number art. But the mountains did not hint enough of Scotland, and there wasn’t a horse behind the fence, and the season wasn’t Fall. So I talked myself out of buying it.

It was also hard to not grab these immediately:

The season is right (Fall)…

…and the landmarks are iconic (Sacre Coeur)…

…and the weird geography is wondrously dreamlike (The Arc de Triomphe does not have a sidewalk full of cafes running anywhere near it).

But the set was over priced at $23.00 and I can not, can not, can not start collecting ironic French stuff becauseI’m trying to live a de-cluttered life . So I paid no attention to the hamsters in my brain, paid no attention to the hamsters in my brain, etc.

Except when the hamsters went go crazy for this:

Somebody loved this little dog statue very, very much. It’s  eight inches tall, and made of ceramic from a company called Tilso (the label on the base also says “Handpainted – Japan”).

I know that this little object was beloved because for one, it was spotlessly clean. Usuallywhen a piece as old as this turns up at a thrift shop it’s coated in a film of grease and grime from having been overlooked in an old person’s house for decades. But no, this little dog had been cleaned regularly, so someone loved it very much.

Also, there was nary a chip of the most vulnerable bits — the flower petal and the ear tips were in tact, another indication that someone cared deeply about this object and protected it. Probably gave it the place of honor somewhere in the living room, or boudoir.

I don’t find this dog particularly cute but I could not bear to see it languish in the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, where it might get brushed off its perch by a passer-by or shoved against the old lamp next to it, shipped or cracked or smashed, an ignoble end after all those years it spent as an object of desire.

So for $6.00 I rescued this little dog, and until I can find an obsessive collector of Tilso knick-knackery, it will have a good home with Top Cat and me.

I also brought home another piece de resistance.

No, not the groovy vintage floor-length Summer frock:

I found a hand-sewn fully reversible jacket, made of a pomegranate-toned batik material on one side:

And a very 1980s patchwork purple corduroy on the other:

 

You can’t tell from these photos, but this jacket is beautifully made. Someone went to a lot of trouble to sew this.

Oh, dear wearable art project of unknown provenance, why were you forsaken unto the Salvation Army thrift Shop? Did someone not wear you to the big Duran Duran concert after all?  Did you get pushed to the back of the closet when grunge became all the rage? Or was your exuberant sense of style too embarrassing when your owner went goth?

If only corduroy could talk.

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The snow started after dark, in the wee hours of Saturday morning. So by the time we woke up we had FINALLY a blanket of Winter White to celebrate.

Our bird feeder has small perches and low feeding windows, so it’s best suited for small birds like these.

FINALLY one smart Jay figured out how to FINALLY swing it so that he could fit his huge butt onto this itty bitty feeder for small birdies:

I LOVE this guy, hanging from his toes to dip into the feed bag here. I was laughing as I took these pictures from the other side of the picture window in the den, and I’m sure that the Jay heard me. Because he gave me the hairy eyeball:

Well, he must have taken offense because he then turned his back on me.

Heart.      Be.      Still.

This is usually called The Money Shot.

I call the Blue Jay Map, because here are all the feathers that I lust after. Here, on the bird, are the heart-breakingly gorgeous tail feathers and the stunningly beautiful flight feathers that I collect and treasure.

Here is your own Blue Jay Map:

But this delicious Winter Day wasn’t all about birds.  We had plenty of other critters hanging out in the backyard on this fine snowy day.

Miss Candy was out and about, pawing her delicate way around the new fallen snow.

While her boy, Taffy, was leaping and hopping, frisking after snowflakes and jumping into small drifts.

He tried to get Dudley to share in the fun, but Duds wasn’t having it.

Although it looked to me that Duds was certainly enjoying the snowfall in his own contemplative, birdie-wishing way.

But enough with the birds and the felines!

I know what you’re all really interested in on this first and perhaps only Snow Day of Winter 2012.

You want to get to the Champagne-O-Meter.

It looked like this  at 8 o’clock in the AM.

By 10 o’clock another half inch of snow had fallen, but the weather was just about to change to wind-driven sleet.

Conditions remained cold, but wet, throughout the rest of the day.

Shortly before dusk, I took one last measurement and determinded that the snow had ended and the Champagne-O-Meter could be put to better  use.

And then it was time to add the last ingredient to my recipe for a perfect Winter day:

Take your Champagne-O-Meter, add one Top Cat (or the True Love of your choice).

Add roaring fire and a Frank Sinatra CD playing in the background.

Perfect end to a perfect Winter day.

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Yo. Taffy and Lickety.

I know youse guys. The only reason you two stare like that is when there’s a big scary bug in the kitchen. Or a big scary bug in the livingroom. But you’re out on the back patio, for christ sake.  What on earth can you two nimrods be so engrossed with?

Oh. Wait. You’re staring at the hole in the wall that Top Cat made as your Winter Access to all those warm kitty beds and three squares in the basement. Oh jeeze. don’t tell me….

 

Right. It’s not a bug. Definitely not a bug.

Yo. Taffy and Lickety: that poor opossum will never come out of the basement if you two geniuses are perched to pounce. Get in the house immediately. Don’t pretend you don’t hear me! Don’t pretend you don’t know what your names are! GET IN HERE!

OK. Here’s some of your favorite Friskies. Here kitty kitty, he….oh! You’re here!  That was fast!

Now let’s just let Possy come out in his own sweet time.

OK, guys. It’s safe to let you outside. But listen to me. I want you two back here for dinner, you got that? Taffy? Lickety? Your’e listening, right? I’m letting you out again but you have ha…oh! You’re gone!  That was fast!

THREE HOURS LATER

YO! Taffy! Lickety! Get in here! It’s time for dinner and it’s getting cold! 

Hey! Listen to me: I don’t care if your Mama cat doesn’t want to come near me because she’s never really warmed up to me even after four years,  I’ll put her dinner out on the front patio like I always do, but you know how I like to have my Baby Hobos inside when it gets dark, right? So you’ll come in, right?

Guys? Guys? Are you listening? Or are you going to keep giving your Mama cat kisses even though I’m standing RIGHT HERE and I’m begging you two to come in the house?

Well, this was my plan all along, that you two would give me that sweet kitty look and I would end up serving you all  dinner on a silver [aluminum] platter so ha ha; joke’s on you.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

It’s not like my whole life revolves around cats, or that I bust holes in perfectly good walls to make cat doors, or put up with the occasional ‘possum because of you, or spend my days watching or catering or blogging about cats.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

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Solstice Day dawned clear and dry here on the shores of the Long Island Sound. A good day to make our annual pilgrimmage to the south shore of the Sound, and say our thanks to the great DoG for this wonderful Season of Light.

We drove to our favorite spot on the North Shore of Long Island and on the way, we passed this bit of graffiti. Note to self: Find Out What’s Up With That.

( I did call the guy who owns this building, a marble import buisness on a busy main road here on the North Shore of Long Island. I asked him “Do you know what that means?” His exact words were, “I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that yet”.)

Back to the pilgrimage to Praise the Solstice.

We arrived on our sweet Solstice beach around 3:45 PM. Top Cat opened a bottle of champagne, and I tossed bits of pretzel into the air for the sea gulls.

 

Our Long Island gulls seemed pensive, basking in the rosy glow of the fading daylight. 

They also seemed to enjoy spreading their wings to gather up the heavy golden motes of light that were glowing everywhere.

I know the feeling.

I know the feeling.

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