Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Summers when I was a girl I'd travel in an ocean liner with my mother and sister to visit my mother's parents in the tiny village of Beaver River, Nova Scotia.  The ship was grand for such a humble destination, but over the years I grew accustomed to the many decks, the slot machines, and the lounges with polished brass railings to grab onto when the seas began to roll, something that happened often in the tempestuous Bay of Fundy.  

My favorite childhood books always had a portal of sorts that led to a magical place: the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the hidden door in The Secret Garden, the wardrobe in the Narnia books.  Looking back, I realize that on those voyages the sea itself was my portal.  We booked a passage through its waves, carried our bags up the gangway under the light of the moon and stars, and then spent ten-hours tossing and turning,  cradled in the great vessel's hull.       

And when we arrived on the other side of the bay--the other side of the world as I knew it--there was the confusion of customs, the hugs and exclamations about how much we'd grown from my grandparents, and then what felt like a long drive down a road that hugged the coast--the Evangeline Trail in fact.  The destination was a little white farmhouse with a steep-pitched roof in front in the traditional Nova Scotian style.  Here's what I loved most about visits to that house:
  • the wood stove in the kitchen where my grandfather cooked pancakes, the smell of which pulled us out of bed before our eyes were even open;
  • the dark anadama bread made by a woman down the road--we had it with nearly every meal, but my favorite way to eat it was sliced thick and smeared with butter and homemade raspberry jam;
  • the grand old barn behind the house jam-packed with antiques and treasures;
  • the fire pond beside the driveway, surrounded in summer by thousands of purple lupine sentinels;
  • the old washing machine with the crank handle we turned to wring out the clothes before hanging them on the line to dry;
  • the acres of fields and forest, and the sound of the ocean's roar muffled only by the mounds of sea-swept stones piled on the beach.
The one thing I loved the very best, though, was the short dirt road to the beach.  The air there smelled like salt and hay and scrub pines.  The pebbly road satisfied a child's need to make noise with each footstep, counting out the rhythm of our pace as we walked, singing all the summery songs we'd learned on 45's by the Carpenters, John Denver, and Carly Simon.

And then there were the wildflowers.  The road was edged with every kind I knew: Queen Anne's lace, wild sweet peas, rugosa roses, daisies, Indian paintbrushes, lupine, black-eyed Susans, clovers, and buttercups.  There were many I didn't know, too, and for those I invented names like curly purples, whiz-bangers, and tiny starlights.  Every afternoon on our way back to the farmhouse, my sister and I picked armfuls of wildflowers to bring to my mother and grandmother who helped us fill vases and pitchers and jelly jars with flowers for the whole house. 

I seldom have the chance to pick wildflowers anymore--at least not in such great abundance.  I always steal a few roadside Queen Anne's lace each year or a handful of rugosas, but nothing can match the wild and sweet excess of those childhood bouquets.  

I had a taste of that memory yesterday at Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth, where you can pick a large bunch of farm flowers for $4.  They may not be wild, but the feeling of having hundreds of blooms to choose from, the butterflies and bees whirling around me as I cut the stems--it was its own portal of sorts.  I felt that if I just kept walking down that row of black-eyed Susans, I might end up on a dirt road in a place on the other side of the world I as I know it, my arms full of blossoms, my heart and mind full of people long since gone.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Thinking today about our neighbors in New Hampshire and Vermont--and others up and down the Eastern Seaboard--who were hit much harder by Irene than expected.  Here in Portland, Maine, it was windy and rainy, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.  As the storm hit, we went for breakfast at Becky's Diner down on the waterfront, along with loads of other locals, then checked out area lighthouses and landings in Cape Elizabeth, Portland, and Falmouth.  For as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, "The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain."  

Sending best wishes to those recovering after the storm.  

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Journey Back to Quebec: Part II, How to Recover Four Years of Forgotten High-School French in Four Days

My last post ended with Monsieur Magpie and me hightailing it for the Canadian border, singing, "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.  We been talkin' 'bout Jackman ever since the fire went out . . ." at the top of our lungs.  Once we'd made it over the border though, the singing stopped and the serious practice began.  One of the many painful truths we have accepted after twenty years together is that our combined knowledge of the French language puts us at about the level of a five-year-old native speaker.  This isn't such a good thing when one considers that between us we have studied eight years of high-school French.

Interestingly, too, we each have very different sets of skills.  Todd knows his verbs--how to conjugate, how to use tenses, how to string them together to show actions that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, have managed to maintain a large store of nouns and other vocabulary words in the old metal file drawers of my brain.  I can tell you that la bougie means the candle (or the spark plug), but I can't quickly tell you to blow la bougie out before it catches the curtains on fire.  Needless to say, after two decades of studying, teaching, and making a living as a writer, I know which tools are most important to have at one's disposal when communicating.  It's easy to look up a noun in a dictionary, but the ability to craft a sentence that makes sense is not so simple.  Todd is thus a much faster and more fluent French speaker than I am.  I, with my brain for minutiae and lists, fumble along, spouting nouns and colorful adjectives, and gesticulating wildly.  I do sprinkle in a verb or two from time to time, but my sentences lack any sophistication.

So, what to do about this problem?  

For us the answer was--and is--simple.  Dive right in and talk.  So talk we did.  We had conversations both long and short with locals everywhere we went, and we found that every single person we met was more than happy to talk with us.  Armed with a pocket dictionary and a book of common phrases, we spoke as much French as we possibly could.  We also asked countless questions about words, expressions, and turns of phrase.

I found that the more I spoke, the more I wanted to speak . . . and to listen.  Whether discussing medieval illuminations with the owner of one of the best pen shops I've ever visited, Quebec politics with a fantastic graphic artist, or great local neighborhoods with a man we met on the street, I loved listening and discovering new nuances of this beautiful language along the way.  By our fourth and last night there, we didn't need to resort to any English when we chatted with our waitress at Chez Victor (the best burger place ever, including veggie burgers).  It sounds silly to be excited about speaking very basic French at a restaurant, but the fact that she didn't automatically switch to English as soon as she heard our American accents was heartening for us.  Many folks will politely shift over to English if they know that French is hard for you, but we learned that if we asked them to use French with us, most people were happy to help us stumble along.  

As an American who loves talking with people visiting my country, it was a thrill to meet so many like-minded folks in Quebec.  It was also a thrill to think so hard every day that my head hurt.  Even when Todd and I were just talking to each other, we tried to speak in French as much as possible.  Now that we're back in the U.S. we're still at it, messing around with sentences and looking up words.  

I kick myself for being such a lousy student all those years ago in high school.  I couldn't be bothered to learn the language of my own heritage, my father's first language, and one that carries me back to some of the best memories of my childhood.  The motto of Quebec province, which can be found over the main entrance to the Parliament building and on every Quebec license plate, is something one can't help but feel, especially within the stone walls of Vieux Quebec.  Je me souviens.  The French may have lost to the English on les Plaines d'Abraham in 1759, but this is a deeply French place.  It endures.  Et quand je suis à Québec, je me souviens aussi.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Journey Back to Quebec: Part I, Go on Up to Jackman

Bonjour, mes amis!  I'm sorry I have been away for so long--from my own blog and from yours, too. This is the longest blogging break I have ever taken.  It wasn't expected, but it was necessary. Summer swept me away this year with weekly visitors at our home in Portland, lots of work, and then, at last, a long-awaited journey to Quebec City avec Monsieur Magpie.

We are lucky here in Maine that Quebec is our neighbor to the Northwest.  This means we have a little taste of Europe just a short drive away.  Still, it had been many years since either Todd or I had been to Quebec City.  In fact, neither of us had been there since we were children.  We suspect that perhaps we both visited during the same summer back in the 1970's.  Maybe we passed each other on the same street, no?  A romantic thought, and one I choose to believe.

This year it just felt right to both of us that we make a pilgrimage there to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary, summer, childhood memories, and life in general.  My heritage on my father's side is French Canadian, and Quebec City is the place where my own parents spent their honeymoon 50 years ago this summer, so what better place to visit?  And what better time to do it?  

When I was a girl, my parents packed us kids into the back of the faux-wood-paneled station wagon, and we headed up to Canada during a heat wave.  Back in those days nobody in our part of the world had air conditioning in their cars, so it was a sticky, grumbling trip through logging towns and the low mountains of the Kennebec River watershed.  Moose country.  Lumber country.  The maple-sap and pine-scented world of my roots.

Then we hit Jackman, Maine, the last real town before the Canadian border, and even my eight-year-old self knew we were at the edge of anything familiar.  Border towns tend to be edgy in more ways than one, and Jackman didn't disappoint with its diners, roadhouses, and ramshackle motels.

And all these decades later, Jackman feels nearly the same.  I won't lie.  For me it possesses a slightly ominous air that was only enhanced on this trip by the fact that when I walked over to take photos of the abandoned train station, a young man pulled up next to the station and stared at me from his car.  He just sat there in the empty lot, watching me, one finger tapping the steering wheel.  I edged as far away from his car as I could as I made my way back to the convenience store where we'd parked, but he never took his eyes off me.  It wasn't until I met back up with Todd at our car that the creepy guy finally drove away.  This, coupled with the motel in Jackman that doubles as a place for all your taxidermy needs, lent our fifteen minutes there a distinct Hitchcockian flavor. 

Once we were on our way, though, our temporary case of the heebee-jeebees disappeared as we sang songs about Jackman to the tune of the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash song "Jackson," dove back into practicing our French, and tossed around possible plans for our stay in Quebec.  Other than our B&B reservations, we had no firm itinerary, for Mr. Magpie and I are avid travelers, but not very good tourists.  What I mean is that we bristle at itineraries and pamphlets listing the requisite "attractions," preferring to stumble upon wonderful surprises as we go and to strike up conversations with locals and fellow travelers alike.  Quebec, we would discover, is one of the best places in North America to do just that.

Next Installment: Part II, How to Recover Four Years of Forgotten High-School French in Four Days

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Anniversary Pavlova

Yesterday, Mr. Magpie and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary with a stroll through the farmers' market in Deering Oaks and an afternoon of cooking together.  It seemed only right since on that very day seventeen years before we cooked all the food for our own wedding.  Well, it took more than a day--and lots of help from friends and family--but we did, indeed, cater our own wedding.  And my Aunt Jan did our flowers, and my uncles took our photographs, and loads of people we love lent their talents to making it an extraordinary day.  

So last night it was a joy to cook for my mother and sister and our nephews.  At the center of the meal was a steaming, heaping bowl of mussels cooked in white wine and olive oil with garlic, hot pepper flakes, and a handful of chopped parsley.  And of course there was plenty of bread for dipping in the broth.

Dessert was a pavlova--one of my very favorites: chocolate and raspberry.  The recipe is a Nigella Lawson one, and it couldn't be easier.  If you can't eat wheat, this is a perfect recipe for you, as a pavlova is essentially a giant meringue with cream and fruit on top.  It's not a dry, chalky meringue, but a wonderfully chewy one with lovely, bittersweet chocolate bits folded in.  I topped the whole thing with edible flowers from the farmers' market.  If you're worried that your kids might not like it, I can tell you that my nephews ate two helpings each, ignoring all silverware in the process.  

I want to say something wise and profound about marriage to close this post, but when I look back over the past seventeen years, I feel neither wise nor profound, just fortunate.  My husband is funny and smart and kind, and we both have one very important trait in common: curiosity.  Whatever else is difficult or challenging or stressful, we hold onto this tenaciously.  It makes every day new and makes the best of our dreams possible. 


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Almost Sunset

I shot these at the community gardens at Gilsland Farm the other night.  The sun was sinking and the gardens were awash in golden light.  

Much to report here, but I'm off to meet an old friend for lunch, so I'll check back in soon with news, recipes, and musings.  I hope you're having a creative and rewarding week.  I've become a little addicted to Pinterest.  Anyone else?  If so, please let me know, so I can follow your pin boards!  

xoxo Gigi