May 2013

I’m almost certain that most of you, dear readers, would hate to have me as a traveling companion.
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I am not  a “foodie” (a word I actually despise) so that means that if we were traveling together in Paris we would only drop into boulangeries for a moment or two in order to take reference photos of bread…

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…so that if there is a Damn Paris Book in my future I’ll be able to paint a baguette…

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…or a quiche or a Croque-Monsieur topped with a quail egg over easy

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…or some dessert mille feuilles. We would not be buying anything for taste tests, because I have no interest in this stuff — none of it actually appeals to me, except visually.

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I have so little personal interest in food that I would often forget to eat during my long expeditions in Paris, unless I put it on my To Do list. That’s how I ended up at Chez Janou, near the Place des Vosges.

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I found Chez Janou on French Yelp. It was rated the top restaurant in the 3rd arrondissement. For complicated reasons having to do with  French holidays and unscheduled closings of the Carnavalet Museum, I needed something to do in the 3rd arrondissement for my 20-arrondissement Treasure Hunt of Paris (which was the theme for my visit) so I decided to get a traditional French lunch at Chez Janou.

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I got there at the stroke of noon to have the place to myself for five minutes so I could take many reference photos of the famed decor. My cute waiter set the ardois (slate) on my table and oh! Lucky me! A homemade tomato-basil soup is the perfect starter on a cold and rainy day in Paris!

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This is my cute waiter bringing me my veloute:

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The white wine was from Bordeaux and chilled to Goldilocks standard (just right). The soup was filling but nothing I’m going to remember, not the way I remember a home made tomato soup that I had in Edinburgh in 2006. Now that was a great tomato soup.

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I don’t eat meat (except for pate NOT FOIS GRAS when I’m in Paris) so neither the duck nor the salmon main course was tempting so I moved directly to dessert.

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I expected more from the cake with the salty caramel sauce. It was just OK, sweet with a hint of salt, but mostly bland, with no heft of a real caramel sauce (heavy with butter, carmelized sugar). I have a rule that if the dessert isn’t fabulous I don’t need the calories, so I left half of it on the plate. I actually got bored with it half-way through so I put down my spoon and concentrated on eavesdropping on the Americans sitting next to me.

These Americans had their Rick Steves’ Guide to Paris on the table, which is how I guess they found Chez Janou because these two seemed pretty clueless (they couldn’t read the menu and then started discussing art: “Chagall has a lot of goats”…they were middle aged but not wearing wedding rings and their conversation seemed so painful, so groping for something to say, that I’m guessing they were still newly dating and this was their first big get-away together and boy, Paris was the wrong choice. I took notes. You can’t make up conversation like this. ). If we were traveling together, dear readers, I’m almost certain that my habit of eavesdropping and judging people would get pretty annoying, almost as annoying as me dragging you out of Chez Janou to go down the Rue des Tournelles just a bit…

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…so I could stop in at the Union Nationale de L’Apiculture Francaise, the French National Honey Makers Union. I had read that the UNAF sells honey from its members, including the honey from hives at the Opera and the Grand Palais, and from hives from famous gardens like the Tuileries and the Luxembourg, and this I wanted to see. Well, it turns out that last year was such a bad year for honey that there was nothing to buy at the UNAF but I was referred to many orther shops that sell a wide variety of honey (see above, Famille Mary on the Rue Cler).  Let me say, shopping for honey in Paris is a kick. I bought a jar of lemony honey from hives in Anjou (Loire Valley).

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the UNAF, and my talk with the young man there who told me all about honey making in France while I’m sure that you, dear reader, would have been bored out of your mind. After all, the Union Nationale de L’Apiculture Francaise is not listed in Rick Steves’ Guide to Paris.

But if you thought the Union Nationale de L’Apiculture Francaise was a hoot, then you will LOVE what I have in store for you next! We’re going to Montmartre!  (18th arrondissement, for those keeping track.) We are going to the most famous fabric store in Paris!

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That’s it, on the right, Reine, the Queen of fabric stores, at 5 Place Saint-Pierre (across the street from the second-most famous fabric store in Paris, Marche Saint-Pierre). And the reason this is a MUST on my To Do list is because…

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…while the fabrics at Reine are wonderful…

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…there is something else about Reine

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…that I HAD to see with my own eyes…

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…and it’s those DOLLS:

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These dolls are 30 inches tall and wear beautifully made clothes that show off the fabrics on sale.

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I have read that some shoppers find these dolls creepy, but I just loved them. You have to see for yourself how beautifully made these doll clothes are, how the person who made them is as talented a couturier as YSL, to make fashion for 30-inch bodies. What do they do with the old dresses? Is there a museum or archive? Is it a full time job, designing and sewing these marvels? I am intrigued by everything about Reine.

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But here’s the thing about Reine: while it’s OK to take your dog shopping with you at the most famous fabric store in Paris…

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…it is NOT OK to take photos in the store. I was told to put away my camera after I’d been snapping for fifteen minutes so I can’t complain.

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So let’s go some place where photography is encouraged. Let’s head to the 10th arrondissement, to the Boulevard de Strasbourg, near the Porte Saint-Denis:

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To the unmarked blue door…

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…and up the dark stairs in a residential building…

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…to the third floor (fourth floor, for those counting American style)…

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…to arrive at the Musee de Eventail. What is an evantail?, you ask, and why does it have its own museum?

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Eventail is French for fan:

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The Museum of the Fan is all about the history and the making of fans and was high, high on my To Do list.

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The gracious Mme. Anne Hoguet owns and runs this private museum, and you can read more about her (in French) here.

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You don’t have to be interested in fans to love the looks of this museum, housed in a very old Paris apartment.

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Fans from all over the world, from pre-history to the 21st century, are on exhibit. But really, it’s the rooms that thrilled me. It is like visiting a character out of Proust, or maybe Dickens, to wander around the richly paneled rooms with the fabric-lined walls and ornate ceilings.

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So this is what is must have been like to be haute bourgeoisie  in 19th century Paris.

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Every detail of this place represents the fan-obsession of Mme. Hoguet.

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And you can even help yourself to the atelier, the workroom where Mme. Hoguet and her assistant still make fans by hand, mostly for French couture houses.

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Wouldn’t you know it, the assistant was called away just as I wanted to get her photo, but she left her work in progress…

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…so while she sorted out things with her checking account, I was free to snoop into the innards of a fan-making studio.

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Both Mme. Hoguet and her assistant are pleased to have visitors who show an interest in their life work, so you will find yourself very welcomed here at the Musee de Eventail, 2 Boulevard de Strasbourg, Mon-Tues-Wed 2 – 6pm, 6 euro entrance fee. And there’s a gift shop.

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And this is only the 3rd, 18th, and 10th arrondissements! I have not yet dragged you to the 6th:

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(Square Gabriel Pierne, to see those park benches shaped like books!), or the 20th:

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(“Tree House” on Place Martin Nadaud, above), or the super-elegant 17th:

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(to walk in the heavenly perfume of the gardens along the Boulevard Pereire, which turns into a flea market on Saturday on its eastern end), or the delightful 13th:

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(one of many charming hidden back streets in the Butte aux Cailles), or the all-important 14th…

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(to see the last pissoir in Paris…

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…by the walls of the Sante prison on Boulevard Arago). Yes, stick with me and I’ll cart you off to the 7th:

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To see the amazing vertical garden at the brand new Musee des Arts Premiers on the Quai Branley:

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Which I thought was going to be another architectural stunt, like the Pompidou Center, but is in fact a marvelously fun idea!

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Truly in keeping with the spirit of Paris!

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You can even get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower!

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But, since we started with food let’s end with food:

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In Paris you can buy cat food in your local grocery just the same as you’d find in Home Town USA, some chicken and fish stew, some salmon dinner, some rabbit meatloaf.

Wait.

Rabbit?

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Well, to be fair, you can also buy terrine au rabbit for yourself:

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As well as every kind of cassoulet possible:

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Yum.

Next week I’ll have one last, long look at Paris before I get back to bidniss, which is boring you with work-in-progress on the Damn Garden Book. I want to report to you from the Streets of Paris, which includes Fabulous Street Fashion and Other Fabulous Stuff I Caught on the Boulevards and Rues of Paris:

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See you next Friday!

 

 

Read more

This is how I started almost every day that I was in Paris these past two weeks:
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I would go to my local cafe and have a nice little pot of tea with tartine (buttered baguette with jam) and plan my day’s outings with the aid of my outstanding booklet of detailed maps of Paris’ 20 arrondissements, while trying my best to eavesdrop on the colorful regulars. On only my third morning here…

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…at Le Nesle brasserie on the tiny dead-end Rue de Nesle in the 6th arrondissement…

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…(I never had an evening snack here, only breakfast) the sweet bartender knew that I liked my tea sweet and he automatically put six extra sugar cubes on my saucer.  I really enjoyed the crowd at the Nesle (pronounced “Nell” when you’re talking to French people, but pronounced “Nestle” when you’re talking to yourself).

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One day the boys were trying to remember the name of the actor who played Columbo on TV. Another day they were talking about how few French people went to the Champs Elysees to watch the President lay a wreath under the Arc de Triomph in honor of VE Day this year:

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I like it that street cleaners pop in at Le Nesle for a cup of espresso between rues:

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And I really like it when Bobo shows up:

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Bobo runs into Le Nesle as if the Le Nesle is THE BEST PLACE EVER FOR A DOG TO BE!!!!!!!! and he sniffs everyone at the bar, accepting Good Morning pats from his fans, and then he follows his owner outside to a table on the sidewalk:

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That’s a good place to say Bonjour to friends and neighbors passing by:

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It is against the law to smoke inside a cafe in Paris, so smokers have to sit out on the sidewalk…

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…which is why I did not sit outside, ever, at any cafe in Paris even thought that meant I missed sitting with Bobo and his human. Also, it was mostly cold and drizzly while I was in Paris and I like to be warm and dry.

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Away from Le Nesle, my very top highest Tea Priority was to make a visit to Mariage Freres, the Brothers Mariage, known as the Princes of French Tea, in the 4th arrondissement:

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The fragrance of adventure and poetry endlessly pervade each cup of tea, worte Henri Mariage, one of the brothers who founded Marriage Freres in 1854.

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This shop, at 30-32 Rue de Bourg-Tibourg, is deliberately old-fashioned in its operations as both a tea retailer and as a Salon de The.

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The staff, which is young, male, and dressed in white linen suits, gives you a tea-buying experience straight out of the 19th century.

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Upstairs, there’s even a little Tea Museum.

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The decor of the Marriage Salon de The is totally J. Peterman Colonial…

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…with lots of wicker and rattan and palms…

 

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…with the Art Deco clock that says it’s always Tea Time:

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The tea menu is eight pages long…

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…but I already knew what I wanted:

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My pot of Vanille des Isles came with a book about L’Art Francois du The in case I wanted to cram on The French Art of Tea while my Vanilla of the Islands steeped. I got a kick out of the little shovel in the sugar bowl, and the sugar that looked like teeny bits of rock candy. What can I say? I was born in Montana, so some part of me will always be a hick.

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The service was very professional, not warm but not condescending either, and nobody reprimanded me with their typically French horror of being photographed in a public place  until after I’d already got all the photos I wanted anyway. There are actual laws in France forbidding people to take photos of people in public places without their permission, and I hardly ever ask permission — especially if I think they will say Non. This attitude of mine irritates some French people’s last nerve, which I soothe by  apologizing in fluent French while giving them a big dumb American smile. Now, you might be surprised to learn this, but there are some French people who do not give photo-happy American tourists a break because they are just out-and-out snots and I know this for a fact because I had to travel all the way out to the “seedy” 19th arrondissement to bring you this tea story:

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This is the boulangerie at 83 Rue de Crimee of award-winning female baker Veronique Mauclerc:

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From a review in Elle magazine: This neighborhood boulangerie is killer [awesome]! In particular, their caramel pastry is worth the trek [to the “seedy 19th arrondissement]. It’s my Proustian experience. I’d go back on a scooter just for those caramels. Or something close to that.

In her so-called Salon de The, Veronique Mauclerc offers a degustation (tasting menu) of her breads (it’s spelled out right there, on her ardois/blackboard) for about $15:

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When I arrived at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, there wasn’t a single customer in the shop but the middle-aged sales person, standing with her hands clasped behind her back, still seemed overworked as she wearily answered my inquiry as to the possibility of partaking of a degustation. After some pointed questioning on my part I got her to admit that yes, they do serve tea and bread in the salon, which she indicated by a flip of her shoulder was in the back of the shop.

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The Salon de The is a single  wooden table in a hallway between the shop and the oven — one of only four remaining traditional wood-burning bread-baking ovens left in Paris. The couple shown here were just finishing their coffee and rolls and were very gracious about making room for me while they gathered their things to leave. The place was now empty except for me, the customer, and the passive-agressive shop assistant.

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It was while I was photographing this famous wood-burning bread-baking oven that I heard the shop assistant mumble something about “photographie”. That’s right: she literally said it behind my back. So I put the camera away and settled into a chair, awaiting my own Proustain experience with France’s most famous female bread maker. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And it dawns on me that I’m being iced. I have transgressed the unwritten law of Paris snots, Thou Shalt Not Be American, and I’m never getting service, no matter how long I wait, or if I do I can’t be sure there won’t be spit in my tea.

So I gather my things and walk to the front of the shop and I say to the shop lady, in English “I guess it’s too inconvenient for you to do your job, bitch,” and I leave. I head to the metro station and as I turn the corner I see this:

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It’s busy and noisy and fast-paced…

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…the shop assistants are very helpful in answering customer questions about the types of bread they make on the premises and as I wait to pay for my pain chocolate I see that the ovens are behind the glass wall and they are just about to roll in a tray of baguettes. I say OH! Les baguettes! And I raise my camera…

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…and the shop assistant yells to the baker: “Yannick! the lady wants to take your picture!” And Yannick goes:

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I take the photo and I holler to Yannick, in English, “Thank you!” And Yannick waves back and calls out: “Sank you!”

Artisan Boulanger Bio, 62 Rue d’Hautpoul. Yo, Veronique Maclerc: This is how you run a bakery, bitch.

When I went for tea at the famous Cafe Le Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse that forms the border between the 6th and the 14th arrondissements…

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…the head waiter showed me where I could find Rick, the American artist who sketches in the cafe every day…

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…and the banquette where I can find Mickey, the 20-year old house cat who rules the roost at Cafe Le Select:

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The tea is always good in Paris cafes because they have  machines that get the water really hot hot hot. I like that.

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I can not look at the crowd at Cafe Le Select

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…without thinking of the wonderful book that Rick Tulka drew about  Cafe Le Select

6 Paris Cafe

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…called Paris Cafe: The Select Crowd:

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You can read about Rick and see his art by clicking on this link

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…or you can meet him at Cafe Le Select (with fellow blogger and Friend of Rick, Carol Gillott of Paris Breakfasts:

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Meanwhile, back in the corner banquette, look who else has also showed up for work — ordered his coffee, opened his lap top, spread a towel next to him so that Mickey will sit within purring distance…

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(He was French and not a big talker or else I’d have more info to give you about this Monsieur, but he’s clearly One Of Us, seeing as how he brings a towel and all.)

And then it was off to Giverny…

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…where my sweet room at the B&B (Coin des Artists, which used to be the village grocery store in Monet’s day ) came with a tea service at my disposal…

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…but I didn’t make tea in my room, preferring the great stuff that came with breakfast…

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…(note that those chairs are copies of the chairs in Monet’s diningroom) and the Happy Hour that came with a happy friend named Toddy…

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…whose ears you see in the center of this photo of my other favorite beverage:

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On one of the three days that I spent in Giverny I walked 4 kilometers to the neighboring town of Vernon…

 

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…to research Monet’s life in Normandy, and to reward myself with afternoon tea at Cafe Globe:

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Cafe Globe was filled with lots of local French people such as these two gentlemen:

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Even though the couple sitting next to me were Americans with their Rick Steves’ Guide to France I really enjoyed my tea time at the Globe and here’s why: When the old guy in the background of the preceding photo shuffled up to the bar to pay for his lunch I asked him if it would bother him if I took a photo of his jacket:

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Mais non, he said: I wear this because les Americans were the heros of my childhood. Then, because he was so proud of his system for the portage of cash,  he made a lengthy exhibition to the barman about how he keeps his money in his hat, which looks as if it’s from The French Foreign Legion, and I didn’t get to ask him for more info about how he got his jacket because I was laughing too hard about his hat.

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Normans. They are a separate breed of French. I was reminded of this on my last day in Giverny, when I stopped in at the famous Hotel Baudy, the old hangout when Monet was still alive and this village was crawling with young artists who wanted to be Impressionists when they grew up:

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This is a very lively place with a huge lunch crowd and an enormous dinner crowd made up of the tourists who day trip to Monet’s garden. I had my 2:30 tea in the front room, where the bar is, which is in effect a front row seat to the three ring circus that is Hotel Baudy…

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…where I could keep my eye on everyone who came for lunch…

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…or came in for a quick cup of coffee, like these honeymooners from Spain:

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This American lady took their place and I watched as she sounded out the menu, and then adjusted her scarf so the Hermes logo was visible:

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I didn’t like her at all. Then a village regular came in for his kind of amber-colored eau de vie, which was served in a wine glass:

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He had  ripped trousers, scuffed shoes, and was in need of a haircut — he looked just like Monet before the world fell in love with his haystacks (when he was poor and undiscovered)!!!!

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And here is where I bagged that rarest of photographic feats when stalking the Frenchman on his native turf:

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I caught him doing the Gallic Shrug!!

And now, in order to keep up with this thrilling saga one tea cup at a time, we must whisk ourselves to Marrakech, Specifically, to the Casbah :

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On a rue called Tadla (which looks exactly like all the other rues in the casbah which is why I always got lost whenever I went out and could only found my way back by accident and slow process of trial and error):

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The Riad (Morrocan home with interior courtyard garden) Orangers d’Alilia was my home base in Marrakech — that’s the French woman, Madame Joelle, who runs it, dressed in white:

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It was under the orange trees in the small inner courtyard….

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…where Fatima welcomed me to Morocco with a much-needed cup of tea. I’d had a busy morning in Paris, then schlepped to the airport and been  stuffed on a full plane (Easy Jet) that was the most claustrophobic experience I’d ever had,  and now it was almost seven o’clock at night and I was nervous about traveling in Marrakech on my own. It was good to calm my nerves with a cup of mint tea.

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There were little russet-colored birdies who flew into the riad to sit in the orange trees and sing. I gave crumbs of my biscotti to them. Now I know why old ladies feed the birds. It’s because they are lonely.

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I would highly recommend this riad to any traveler.

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I did not expect such understated luxury in Marrakech, or rose petals on the bed…

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Mint tea is OK for certain social situations any time after high noon or for calming nerves in the early evening , but I need a real tea when it really counts — at breakfast. For those times, Carol Gillot had given me a stash of India tea lightly flavored with vanilla which I brewed in a little silver pot of just-boiled water:

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To make the most of my 48 hours in Morocco I had arranged on Day One to spend the morning at the Majorelle Garden and then travel 20 kilometers to the west of Marrakech to meet a Peace Corps volunteer in a village called Tameslouht:

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When I got off the bus I realized that we had not arranged any specific meeting point in Tameslouht, but it was very easy to locate Sara by asking around the village for “The American”. A young womb working at the new community center knew exactly who “The American” was and she graciously made a telephone call to Sara, and while I waited for her I was given a tour of the center’s facilities, which included classrooms for adult education in literacy, sewing, and weaving — as well as two rooms of little kids in day care:

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They were told to Say Bonjour to the lady — which they did, in unison, while staring at me like I was a unicorn. CUUUUUUUUTE. Then I singed their VIP Visitor’s Book and Sara came to collect me.

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Sara Quinn has a blog about her Peace Corps experience — you can read it by clicking here — and she took me to the home of the President of the Women’s Craft Association of Tameslouht  to inspect the many things they create (subject of a future post). German travelers Wilhelm and Ursula were also checking out the array of clothing and accessories and we all drank tea with Sara and Zenib and Sara’s darling Moroccan fiance, Mustafa:

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Then Sara took us on a tour of her town.

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The next day, Sara traveled to meet me in Marrakech to guide me around the souk (market) and the Djemma El Fna (main square, where the snake charmers and the storytellers convene) and other insider points of interest but we did not have tea so those stories don’t belong here, except for the part where I tell you that Sara is the cutest damn Peace Corps Volunteer ever:

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I flew out of Marrakech that evening, arriving in Paris IN A REALLY BAD MOOD at midnight. I was so pissed off that I didn’t even photograph the “tea” that was served at breakfast at the hotel I stayed at in Orly Airport.

The next decent cup of tea I had was back at Carol Gillott’s apartment in the 15th arrondissement — I had searched high and low all over Paris for my favorite patisserie — Pithivier! — and found it right across the street . I’d caught Carol in the act of painting a chocolate  Religieuse there, in the background, so this is a tea cup still life that I call  One Paints and The Other Doesn’t:

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I’d got an email from a dear blog reader, Laura, about the cafe in the 6th arrondissement that I’d photographed for you two weeks ago — Le Conti. Laura had always thought this cafe was a figment of the imagination but non, it’s real — so for her I made this one of my last cups of tea:

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I was instructed, by Laura, to ask about a resident terrier named Orson. Ah, Orson!, the handsome young barman said, “Orson n’est plus d’ici — his owner took him to live on his parents’ farm. Hmmmmm….

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I wonder if “sent to live on a farm” means in France what it means in America?

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My time in Paris was coming to an end now, and to understand this next cup of tea you must know that my days in Paris had a purpose that I have not discussed with you, dear readers. I had set myself the task of visiting every arrondissement — 20 in all — to fulfill a Wish List (of unusual sights, experiences, personalities) that has taken me five years to put together. It was much, much more physically challenging and mentally exhausting than I’d anticipated. But I’d always planned to end the quest with a big splurge cup of tea in the ultra ritzy 8th arrondissement, as a reward for accomplishing a difficult task.

It was a cold, rainy day and I didn’t bother to wear the dress shoes that I’d packed or this occasion and I don’t have to tell you that after two weeks on the road my hair was a fright — I was a total mess. Still, when I went to both Le Bristol hotel (room rates start at $800 at night) and the Georges V (as I walked in Robin Thicke was strutting out) I was met with extraordinary courtesy. I inspected their tea rooms and menus (both charge 48 euro for Afternoon Tea — that’s about $60) and found them both lacking: the teas at Le Bristol were all very perfumy and came with a rack of pastries that I didn’t have any interest in; the teas at the Georges V were better and the pastries were not as froofy, but there was a piano player banging away in the salon which I found extremely annoying.

I was feeling depressed. Did I mention the cold, and the rain? And that I was fatigued with travel, Paris, myself, and my loneliness? I had wanted this quest to end with a nice big India tea bang and it wasn’t happening.

Then I noticed that right next door to the Georges V was the Prince of Wales hotel. Just as luxe, only open for five days after a two-year long renovation. The hospitality was exquisitely warm and professional, and the tea menu was outstanding. I sank into a leather sofa and ordered Tuareg Tea.

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Well, I did ask beforehand if Tuareg Tea was the same kind of tea that I remembered drinking with Tuaregs when I was in the Peace Corps in Niger. Yes, I was told — it’s a black tea served tres sucre (very sugary). It wasn’t. It was a hay-tasting mild tea (did I mention that they’d only been opened for five days? Still working out the bugs)…but I was so grateful for the comfort and quality of the service, and so happy that I wasn’t forced to buy pastries I wouldn’t eat, that I did not go into my usual high dudgeon. I sat contentedly and sang to myself along with the soothing background music, Frank and Nancy Sinatra (Something Stupid) and Dusty Springfield (The Look of Love)…

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…and watched people drink champagne cocktails…

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…and chatted with the young hostess (that’s her, in the while collar and cuffs) about her childhood in Senegal…

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…and wished I had those lighting fixtures in the form of the three feathers of the Prince of Wales….

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They would totally work in my dining room.

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No, it’s not over yet. There’s one more cup of tea, the one I had after a lunch of pate and baguette and classic onion soup on my last day in Paris, in a hot trendy bistro in the Marais called Les Philosophes.

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They had the grace to serve Mariage Freres tea, a perfect way to redeem a trip that was feeling, at this point, like it was two or three days too long. It was still raining and cold and I was tired of Paris but I was GOING HOME!

As I type this, I’ve been home for about 46 hours. I have bought new curtains for the dining room and went on a shopping quest to re-accessorize the kitchen in shades of lime and apple green with a few gun metal and bamboo accents. I’ve ordered French cafe curtains from Williams Sonoma. I’ve been busy. Jet lag gives me a lot of nervous energy but also, I’ve become used to a frantic pace of life (that 20 Arrondissement TO DO List was a massive project that required ten hour days of TO DO-ing) . That’s my excuse for the length of this post — hope you enjoyed your trip in my Tea World!

 

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  So, here I am in Giverny. I can give you some quick peeks at what I’m up to here before I return you to the blog post I pre-loaded before I left the USA (I knew that blogging from The Road would be more technologically spiffy than I could handle).

So far, I know that there are two ways to see Monet’s garden at Giverny. You can take it in at ground level…

 

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…or you can climb a hill and see it from waaaaay above. Either way…

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…it’s quite a sight.

It’s been chilly here in Normandy, that is when the sun isn’t shining and warming you to your tootsies — those clouds can turn a refreshing Spring breeze into a frigid bone-chilling gust. Some people are even wearing Winter coats but I get by very well with my Seattle fleece jacket. Yes, Giverny is a tourist trap, but not a TOTAL tourist trap. I stayed for my first two nights at a delightful B&B but had to move to the town’s only hotel (a large group of Russians were booked for arrival at the B&B) and while I had the company of a chow named Toddy at the B&B when I took my well deserved Friday evening aperitif…

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…there are no such furry ears at the hotel.

You know I will tell you in full all about Giverny when I get back to my desk on Long Island and off this f*#€€**!  iPad, but you already know that while my body might be in France (actually, it’s in Marrakech at this point) my heart is still in my little workroom back home.

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This is my butcher-block desk (it’s really only an old kitchen table my sister gave me 20 years ago)  which is situated in front of two south-facing windows. The most important feature of this set up is the chair: I sit in a child’s chair, the seat of which is only 13 inches above the floor. This puts me at just above eye-level with the top of my desk, which is very important for the close-up, miniature-sized painting I do.

Before I started to illustrate my books, this set up was very familiar to me from my years as the watch and clock expert at Christie’s auction house (my job before I got promoted to Faberge). Horologists also work on itty bitty bits (watch parts are veeeeeeeerrrrrryyyyy small) :

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So watchmakers sit at specially-made furniture that has a desk top that is about a foot higher than a normal table:

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But since I don’t have a watchmaker’s desk — I just have an old kitchen table — I have lowered my seat to make like an horologist when I paint.

That photograph of my desk shows me working on a garden illustration from my Key West photo album, which I will show you at the end of this post.Before I go further, I must tell you that while I was photographing the 4 corners of my workroom I was moving Coco, in her cat bed on her chair in the middle of the room, to keep her out of camera range…and she was so much a part of this post that I totally forgot to take a photo of HER and now I’m in France and can’t do nothin about it.

I keep my photo albums and diaries and notebooks filed away in my closet:

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I started a special Garden Book book shelf in there for handy reference. I also have loads of loose photos, filed in shoeboxes in a special  blue bookcase:

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Those binders that you see on top of my photo/shoe boxes are the various  Books-in-Progress of original art work that (so far) doen’t have a home in a published book. Those binders are too tall to fit in any regular bookcase, so I found a darling little bedside bookcase that I turned on its side and stacked on top of my sweet little blue bookcase. I have a large bulletin board on the left. Joan Rivers has very good advice about growing old: Never keep photos of your younger self on display around the house…but I have two 8″ x 10″ black and white photos of me on my wall, from my Peace Corps days, because in my mind I’m still 26. I have two more bookcases stacked up to the right, where I keep tea cups and birds’ nests … on the wall in the background there is a map of a road trip through New England that I painted many moons ago. I will have more to say about my love of making hand-made maps in a bit.

But this is my favorite wall, the Wall of Feathers:

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Most of these  feathers are treasures that I have found over the years, some of them are gifts from my Dear Readers, all of them represent to me my idea of wealth…

…the same way that Top Cat’s idea of rich is this:

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This is firewood that Top Cat chopped himself, and why he has a soft spot for Hurricane Sandy as an outstanding delivery system for excellent quality raw material for his wood chopping hobby. Top Cat loves to chop wood.

It was while I was snapping photos of my workroom for this tour that I came upon some old art projects that I haven’t looked at in years:

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I have a box full of old embroidery projects — before I ever painted a garden, I used to sew them all the time. I put a few of my embroidered gardens in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam:

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If you’ll notice, each of those gardens has a black and white tuxedo cat in them; that’s because for many years I put my sweet cat Woody Robinson in every garden I sewed. He was even in this one (on the right):

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Only, in order to see him you have to see the entire garden:

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I ripped out all the stitches in that gate that appears at the bottom of this piece because it is not the real gate to this garden and after I’d sewn it I felt dishonest for putting in an imaginary structure. This is actually the walled herb garden of the Geffrye Museum in London and you gain access to it through the door that I painted on page 78 (of Wanderers, if you’re reading along, above).

But there’s plenty more embroidered gardens where those came from:P1150642

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And then there is this:

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That’s a tea bag over by Florida’s Fountain of Youth, for scale. This is the one and only “quilt” I ever made, for a quilting contest in 1992. The theme was America, if I remember correctly, and I love to make maps so this was right up my alley. It was a national competition and I won a third place in Mixed Media and this “quilt” was published in a national magazine. Country Home, I believe.

In this map “quilt” of America I put ll the various historical / ethnic references that I though were indicative of the various regions. In Middle America I put a baseball diamond, to represent The Field of Dreams in the approx. area of Iowa. For Texas and the Southwest I did Mexican-style reverse appliqué and I embroidered Central American creatures and then I did some Navajo spirits and a Plains Indian head dress. For the West Coast I put a Japanese bridge with cherry blossom plus a nifty Chinese dragon…

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…which I have to say is the best thing I ever embroidered. In the Ohio Valley / Pennsylvania / Original 13 Colonies area I put an early American sampler-style thing:

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Yes, that’s a shamrock in the Carolinas.

In New England I did an appliqué cornucopia, to represent the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts colony:

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To represent  African Americans I did West Africa embroidery and put in some Zulu shields:

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I had never done any kind of appliqué before I did this “quilt” and so I am particularly proud of this appliqué eagle that fills the Great Pacific Great NorthWest:

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This “quilt” is 100% sewn by hand. Not one stitch was done on a sewing machine. I even appliquéd the entire map by hand, sewing it onto a backing with a stitch that I invented (it’s like a buttonhole stitch, kid of) and then I stuffed it with polyester fill to make it “quilty”. People used to look at my stitching and say that they were so perfect that it looked like a machine did it, and they meant it as a compliment.

I’ll admit it: I used to be a great embroiderer. But oh lordy, it used to take weeks and months to do one single garden and I used to get cramps in my hand from holding onto a needle for 10 hours at a time, so I gave it up. And now I paint.

And now, after almost nine years of painting, I am getting to a level where most of my watercolors don’t stink (I said most: I hope you saw last week’s post where I show how easy it is for me, still, to paint something putrid.)

Here’s my Watercolor of the Week, a picture of Key West that I did right before I left for my Great Adventure in Giverny and Etc. (it’s the work-in-progress that you can see in the photo, above, of my desk with the itty bitty child’s chair):

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I’ll be back on home turf next week, blogging more or less “live”, bringing you the sights from Paris, Giverny, and Marrakech. See you then!

 

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Some days, nothing works out the way you planed. But…P1150574…if at first you don’t succeed, or if at second, third, and fourth you don’t succeed (see above) then pour yourself a nice big gin and tonic and sit around listening to sad songs (I prefer old Motown, the Temptations Since I Lost My Baby and the like) and feel sorry for yourself and seriously consider writing novels (ewwwwwwwwwww) or anything that doesn’t require having to come up with  illustrations, and then take two aspirin AND START OVER AGAIN.

Yes, dear readers, I preloaded my post today before I went to France and it’s a good thing I did because it turns out that I hate blogging on my iPad with a PASSION but before we continue with our previously recorded program (still in NOLA, watercoloristically speaking) here are some pics I took on the aforementioned iPad to show you the beautiful weather in Paris:

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My hotel room in the 6th arrondisement came with this:

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I took these pics with my ipad and boy do I hate blogging on this thing.  So that’s all the Paris I can give you for now, but do read my friend at ParisBreakfasts for her report on my arrival on her home (Paris) turf!

For today please enjoy the following tale of watercolor redemption, and take heart. Sometimes it’s necessary to paint ugly in order to get to the less-craptastic stuff.

Let’s get back to this:

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The problem, it dawned on me after four really awful attempts at painting a most beautiful garden in New Orleans (see above), was that I had  gotten hold of the wrong concept. My original idea for this garden was that I would illustrate it in a  format that I call a “squint”.

The format had worked well for me throughout Le Road Trip, where I used squints frequently:

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These squints — the long, narrow strips of paintings that I used (above) were a lot of fun to do and I think they are vey successful when it came to illustrating France. For the Damn Garden Book I had planned on using vertical squints, rather than the horizontal ones in Le Road Trip:

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This is my thumbnail sketch for a two-page layout using vertical squints. But as you can see (way above, those crappy 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th attempts) it was NOT working for me in regards to this fabulous New Orleans garden I was trying to  paint.

And then I realized that I’d gotten the wrong point of view. Not only were the squints not going to work, but I’d been painting the garden from a very boring full-frontal point of view. You see, the most important feature of this garden path that I’d been trying to paint is the garden gate that had been imported from France, but I’d been depicting it straight-on:

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Oh lordy, this stinks. It does no justice to the story I am trying to tell about this garden. It looks fake fake fake fake.

Luckily, when I was visiting this garden in New Orleans, I had taken many reference photos of this gate so I went back to the drawing board and re-did this gate from an entirely different perspective:

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So let us begin again.

First, I apply masking fluid with my trusty toothpick in the itty bitty bits:

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I use the tip of a paintbrush to apply the masking fluid over the bigger bits:

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When I failed to draw a pleasing mulberry tree branch in the upper right hand corner the first time…

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…I erased it and drew it again, but it was still too gormless to keep:

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So on the third attempt I got a decent-looking branch drawn, and I sketched in leaves.

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I put masking fluid on those leaves and I’ve ever done this before and I have no idea how it will turn out. We’ll see. But I’m already a bit discouraged. This picture as given me a lot of trouble and I’m in a bad mood. So, while the masking fluid dries, I go make myself a cup of tea.

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I want a fancy-colored sky here because this illustration is more about mood (it’s New Orleans, baby!) than meteorology.

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Quickly, I do the wet-in-wet background foliage:

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Even when the paper is only damp, you can get nice little bleeds:

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For brick work I mix two colors of Grumbacher paints with two colors (brown and burnt sienna) of Windsor Newton, for richness:

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See how there’s a Triscuit in the middle of this picture?

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For the Tahitian Dawn Bougainvillea in the foreground I dab pink, orange, and red in wet blobs:

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I lay down a base color for the garden path:

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The stuff behind the garden gate will be tricky:

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Now, for the rambling roses that are big pom poms of bluey-pink:

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Dirt here:

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So far, so good. Now, all I have to do…

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…is peel off the masking fluid and not screw up painting the gate.

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To heighten the rich brown color of the wooden gate I mix blue…

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…and brown directly on my paintbrush…

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…so when I apply it to the paper I get a wonderful bluey-browness here:

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Now for those mulberry leaves, which I have  no idea what I’m doing,  I pray to the big DoG that I won’t blow it this late in the game:

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Exhale. They look OK.

For the lantern I intend to use an old trick I’ve been using for years.

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You have to use Grumbacher paints for this trick, because you need the chalk that makes their colors so matte. I first apply a layer of yellow Grumbacher, and then I make an edge of darker orange and I let it dry thoroughly:

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Using very clean water, I then use a wet brush to pick up the paint in the center:

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And we are DONE:

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I hope you can see how the lantern “glows” from the way I “erased” a bit of the yellow/orange paints. I decided to leave certain planes of the garden gate white — that is, blank paper — because I think the white bits make its unusual shape  pop more this way. It’s also very attention-getting and this gate is really the subject of this picture in the first place.

Oh yes, I am much happier with this point of view than the one I tried, and tried, and tried, and tried to make work before. Right?

I will still be on the road next Friday, so there won’t be a “live” post here, but I could maybe take you on a tour of my work space / studio, which is where I keep my paints, paper, feathers, files, and threads:

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Yes, long before I painted gardens, I used to embroider them.

So if this sounds interesting to you please leave a Comment below…or otherwise I’ll just wait until my return on May 24 to throw something together if I’m not toooooooo jet lagged. Studio tour? Yes or No?

 

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Yes, that’s me, trying to paint New Orleans. It was not a happy experience.
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But first — Cat News!! There has been a  recent appearance of a possible new member of our herd of backyard cats:

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This handsome fella has  shown up on the back patio for breakfast a few days this past week in spite of the fact that Bibs and Taffy get all North Korean on his ass every time they see him. I call him Newton. Hey Newton, if you’re reading this, I got some cat nip just for you (at the end of a Have-A-Heart trap).

Now, what is this I hear  (from Rachel and Sarahsbooks in Comments to last week’s post) about The Bed-book of Travel???

First of all, I thought I had written the bed-book of travel…

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…to be put bed-side for excellent late-night reading.

But it seems that somebody else, namely Richardson Wright, beat me to it in the 1930s:

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The Bed-book of Travel is a collection of short pieces to be read (preferably in bed or berth) by those who have been places, those who are going somewhere, and those who have wanted to go; Together with seven travelers’ tales. This book is now very rare and the one copy I found on-line last week for sale for $70 is already gone. I snoozed and loosed because I spent a few days mulling over this purchase, wondering if I really wanted to read this book seeing as how, if it turned out to be soooooo much better a bed-side travel book than mine, I will want to quit writing/illustrating bed-side books forever.

But the book that I really dread reading is this one:

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This is Richardson Wright’s 1929 Bed-book  about gardening (in paperback re-print from The Modern Library) which I  am awaiting delivery of, and if it’s half as good as its reviews say it is I AM TOAST. And not a nice slice of hot-buttered whole wheat served with a steaming cup of Assam tea kind of toast, nope. I mean a hunk of cardboard-like salt-free rancid Melba that’s been sitting in the cupboard leaning on the stack of Size D batteries waiting for cassette playing boom boxes to come back in style  kind of toast.

I wanted my Damn Garden Book to be THE go-to gardening book for reading in bed…but if it’s already been done I might as well retire my paintbrushes and take up something useful.

Useful, like dancing all day in the French Quarter with my own dear Top Cat.

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Ah, Love of my Life, nobody does a Grateful Dead-inspired free-form solo version of  Zydeco Swing  like you:

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Well, seeing as how I am not yet a reclusive former bed-side travel / gardening book writer  illustrator, I better get with the travel / gardening book illustrating. It’s time to do New Orleans!

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This is the pencil sketch for the full-page illustration that will start the NOLA chapter. It is designed so I can drop text into the middle of it. It is rare (never) that I use a ruler to draw a scene but in this case it was unavoidable with all those necessary straight lines of wrought iron railings and all those pesky perspective lines to get right. To answer Laura’s question from last week, I never attempt to erase pencil lines once I’ve put watercolor over them. It’s impossible to erase thru the pigment. Most times, tho, I don’t mind seeing a little bit of pencil in a painting because it is a ver authentic part of painting.

When it comes to erasing the watercolor, however, I have been known to use a nail file to clean up very small bits.

First, I painted in a quick bit of background architecture in pale blue, to represent a white building in bright sunlight (which will become more evident later in the painting):

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Dab in the background greenery:

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Working wet-in-wet I dab in the pale greens and add detail until I like the shape of the foliage:

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Commentor Judy Jennings asked about getting “natural” shades of green. To tell you the truth, all my greens are unnatural in that I edit nature all the time. My shades and hues are mostly close to the scene that I’ve observed, but if I need to lighten bits up and darken others for the sake of the picture, I do it. I also edit the shape of foliage all the time — see above. I make it a pleasing shape for my composition first, and true to nature second.

My biggest guess regarding Judy’s question about getting a “natural” paint color is that you must always keep your water CLEAN. I constantly dump out my water and get clean fresh stuff. Especially if I am going to mix yellows into green I always get a brand new glass of water. And if I have to work wet-in-wet with lots of yellows AND greens I have two glasses of water handy, one for rinsing the yellow brush-fulls and one for rinsing the green brush-fulls.

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For shadows I use blue with a bit of burnt umber mixed in it instead of black or grey:

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Now I use masking fluid to cover the table and chairs so I can cut loose with the stuff I want to paint behind them:

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While waiting for the masking fluid to become bone-dry, I do the middle-ground stuff:

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I pretend the table and chairs aren’t there and paint the railing-drapping greenery right over the masking fluid:

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I could never do this without masking fluid. Well, I could, but it would either look bad or would take me forever to paint:

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Fore ground:

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Peel off masking fluid, paint what is revealed underneath:

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Even down to the stems of the wine glasses, which I measured or you and are three millimeters high:

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Take a look, and add whatever else this picture needs:

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Not there yet::

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THERE:

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I Hate It. This will definitely require a re-do!!

So now I’m off for two weeks in France: Paris and Giverny; then to Marrakech to see the Majorelle Garden. To give you a preview of the two posts that I have for you in the queue, next week we will see how I manage to paint four really, really, really, really hidious stoooopid pictures of my New Orleans Fragrance Garden…

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…before I happily get it right finally (no, that’s not it above — this picture above stinks!!!!) ; and then the week after that I give you a tour of the knicks and knacks of my workspace:

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I will have my iPad with me in France etc. and Carol of  the highly chic, fabulously popular  Paris Breakfast blog is going to show me how to post from any cafe … so I might be able to send you all a few pictures and a quick update while I’m on the road.

How much you want to bet that what I post will be photos of great French cats?

P.S. Comments on this post will close after five days (nothing personal; it’s the spam, and closing Comments after five days keeps the spam to a manageable level of about 3,000 messages per week).

 

Next time we meet, one of us will be in Paris!!

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