Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vacation: Wrap-Up

Now that I've unpacked, done laundry, changed back from travel purse to everyday purse, and written thank-you notes, my vacation is officially over. Well, writing this final vacation blog post and putting a photo album on Webshots and Facebook, and then it will be over. The photos will take me several more days, since I go back to work today.

A few miscellaneous notes on this vacation ~

  • a sparkling, flaming hurray! for Marriott properties
  • a sputtering, lukewarm okay for Thrifty car rental
  • many colorful, pyrotechnic oohs and aahs for the beauty and history of Virginia

Still haven't finis
hed reading the novel I took on vacation. Glad I traded reading time for visiting time though. Francoise and I did read Why Not, Lafayette?, the short book she bought me so that we could learn why Lafayette kept popping up in presidents' homes. Portraits, plaster busts, and anecdotes of Lafayette seemed to be everywhere, and now we know why.

Like Thomas Jefferson bringing France home with him in the form of ideas, architecture, horticulture, cuisine, I want to bring Virginia home with me. I'm sure going to try to replicate the Inn at Meander Plantation's sweet white corn soup. I'll make sandwiches by spreading basil pesto on on
e piece of bread and olive tapenade on the other, an idea borrowed from the Smithsonian's cafe. I'll try making my own mayonnaise; I don't have Cock and Bowl's recipe, but I have Julia Child's! Joan's pasta sauce and salad dressing are must-tries. Francoise's tomates farcies from her last dinner in our home will be delightful to repeat, especially when our garden tomatoes pop. I now have a stunning mug, made by Joan, to enjoy my tea in. And Google will be smokin' by the time I look up all the questions our presidential tours sparked. (Plus, I've added a few books to my wish list, family and friends!) Next spring, I'll be excited to plant flower and vegetable seeds I bought at Monticello and Montpelier.

Oh, and I still need to discard miscellaneous ticket stubs and notes, like the list of things I wanted to do with Francoise while she was in the Chicago area. We made it to the lively Grayslake farmers market and downtown Libertyville, and we took several pleasant walks and picked peas and beans ~ nothing postcard-worthy. We never made it to the Museum of Science and Industry or Chicago Theatre or outdoor concerts or Cantigny. Hope she'll visit Chicago again so that we can see and do more here. We toyed with the idea of going to a county fair but didn't make it to any of those either. Francoise's longest, heartiest laugh of the whole vacation came on the way to the airport yesterday when I consoled her about missing a county fair by assuring that next time she comes, we will milk a goat. Okay, so I guess that isn't on everyone else's dream list. ;-)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vacation: Mount Vernon

To round out what we now call our "presidential tour," we visited George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

People rocking in chairs on this pillared terrace have a spectacular Potomac panorama. And many guests did today ~ another hot one! Note the dove of peace weathervane.

The tree below dates from George Washington's father's day. It's a chestnut oak.

Vacation: Friday and Saturday

Flavorful frittata for breakfast at Meander Plantation, a short time gazing at the Blue Ridge Mountains and reading on the back veranda, and we were on our way north to Alexandria. More rolling hills, more battlefields, another Starbucks stop, and we were back at Joan and John's. The entire way, Madame GPS informed us she had lost satellite reception. When we pulled into the driveway, however, she announced we had reached our destination. Merci beaucoup!

Since our suitcases contained five days worth of sweaty clothes in plastic bags, first order of business was doing laundry. Then all four of us headed into Old Town Alexandria for a gourmet dinner at Vermilion. After Thursday night's feast at Meander, Francoise and I didn't think we could eat another big meal. Guess what ~ we chowed down again. I had peach gazpacho soup and tender chicken on a bed of tasty succotash.

Saturday morning we bought tomatoes and peaches at the Market Square farmers market (where vendors packed up and left about an hour and a half early due to inhospitable temps) and we visited Joan at her shop in the Torpedo Factory art center in Old Town Alexandria. We visited other artists' shops and galleries there, too, and did a few fun shops on King Street, ate a salmon and salad lunch at Chadwick's on the Potomac. Then we plodded along in the intense heat about eight blocks to see the house Robert E. Lee had grown up in, only to find it closed when we got there. At first, this walk was hot but picturesque, and we lingered to take photos of interesting architecture like this pink and aqua house. But then we began suffering from the heat and enjoyed nothing really. I was going to say about Friday, "We hit 100 degrees!" But on Saturday we hit 104 degrees, so hey, never mind about Friday.

We also made a short stop at the Inventors Hall of Fame by the U.S. Patent Office. The theme of the exhibits was food-related inventions and included the Jolly Green Giant, Julia Child, and the Planters Peanut man. Don't ask me anything about them though; my brain was too scrambled from the heat.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vacation: Montpelier and Meander

On our drive down to Charlottesville Monday, Francoise noticed pillars on many structures. At first, red soil and large homes with fat round pillars reminded her of Tara from Gone with the Wind. Then we saw shacks with skinny square pillars. Tiny ranches had pillars on front porches. A trailer home had pillars; the Shell gas station convenience store had pillars. Only barns and silos seemed exempt from pillar frenzy. Francoise, who had already expressed an interest in seeing a plantation on this trip, now really wanted to tour a plantation. Monticello's plantation tour had disappointed her. And the best selection of plantation tours ~ down the James River south of Williamsburg ~ was just too far to go in one day. So our compromise was James Madison's Montpelier.

Not knowing much about James Madison, we took the house tour, which in
cluded stories of three generations of Madisons, as well as reports of archaeology discoveries at Montpelier. Because of hard economic times after Madison's death, his widow Dolley had to sell furniture and other household items. Also, during their lifetimes, when they were away from Montpelier, Dolley's ne'er-do-well son came and spirited off silverware and other valuables to sell for drink and gambling. The house, which has undergone a major recent restoration, is largely unfurnished. The search is on, however, for their furnishings, or at least what historians can determine might be similar to their furnishings.

I liked hearing about
clues in this search. For example, in restoring the house, archaeologists looked behind some walls. In one spot, they found a mouse nest with a scrap of paper handwritten by James Madison, a scrap of newspaper from his time, and a scrap of wallpaper. What a find! Outside the senior Madisons' wing of the house, archaeologists are now digging in hope of finding artifacts from the slave quarters and stables.
James Madison (junior, the fourth U.S. president) himself was not the commanding figure that Jefferson was. His enemies said he was about five-foot-two, his friends said five-foot-four, and he certainly was shorter than Dolley, which is why one never sees images of them standing side by side. Jefferson was six-foot-two-and-a-half in an age when height averaged five-foot-five or so. Often, Madison is considered to be just an echo of Jefferson. But he was an intellect in his own right. By age 14, he had read every one of his father's 600 books. His own library later numbered in the thousands of books. He was multilingual and studied governments of every kind of many countries as he was penning our Bill of Rights in order that the United States might learn from history. And although Madison was influenced by his good friend Thomas Jefferson, he made decisions, for example in the architecture of Montpelier, independent of Jefferson's advice.

Dolley Madison is famous for her hospitality. Because of the 24-foot-deep ice cellar Madison kept, Dolley and her kitchen slaves were even able to make ice cream for their parties of 90 on the lawn or 25 overnight guests (yikes!). Our guide said one flavor she served her guests was oyster ice cream (yikes again).

Our next stop was just to be our last night's lodging, but it turned out to be the plantation of Francoise's dreams. Although not a working plantation, it had the requisite pillars and gardens and horses. Anyway, she w
as pretty excited to see the Inn at Meander Plantation, which made me glad since we hadn't gotten down to the James River.

The Inn, established in 1727, was the first plantation settled in Madison County. Its mossy brick pathways, narrow wooden staircases, and slanted doorways and floors whispered its age. The plantation's first owner and Thomas Jefferson's father surveyed and drew the first map of Virginia. Current owners Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas give cooking classes and operate a gourmet restaurant in addition to the bed and breakfast. As I wandered the property and
admired vigorous vegetable and herb gardens, my mouth watered. I was pretty sure this lovely produce would end up in my dinner.

Sure enough, for dinner, I had heirloom tomatoes, kalamata olives, basil, and mozzarella cheese so fresh, I was sure the water buffalo it came from must be under our table. Second course: local white corn soup, which Suzie told me has four (count 'em, four) ingredients, corn, onions, thyme, and chicken broth. The white corn must have been very fresh and very sweet! Intermezzo: lemon sorbet. Third course: roasted quail with cinnamon sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus. Fourth course: chocolate espresso pot de creme with chocolate-covered strawberry. I'd like to describe the purity of these flavors, but words fail me.

Vacation: Wednesday

Wednesday was a Charlottesville day. Being out in the intense heat 10 to 5 Tuesday at Monticello roasted our bodies and fried our brains. So in the morning we walked a few short blocks to Main Street Market. On the outside it looked like an old cinderblock gas station painted brown with two small glass doors in the front. Enter one door, and you're in a bright, funky kitchen gadget shop that leads back to a shop aptly named and punctuated Feast! In France it might be called an epicerie, or small shop for groceries. The small produce bin contained local fruits and veggies. The cheese and sausage counter contained locally made products, too, and we bought some chevre with ash. There were some sauces, jams, nuts, chocolates, wines, and other bottled beverages. I didn't recognize any brands, so Feast! was a true foodie adventure. Also nearby was a fish market specializing in sushi. We finished shopping and then realized we hadn't gone into the other small glass door in the front of the market building. WELL. It turned out to be a gourmet chocolate shop named Gearhearts. We each bought a piece of the Maya variety: rich, bittersweet chocolate ganache flavored with cinnamon, Ancho chili and orange, dusted with cocoa. We ate these on the spot ... mmm.

After enjoying our lunch of Feast! products back in the air-conditioned hotel room, Francoise headed back to the historic old town to buy more T-shirts for her family in France, and I made several little jaunts to the nearest CVS to have some photos printed. We both finished writing postcards.

More evidence of the heat and humidity: If you laid a postcard on a table, you could actually see the edges curl up in a few moments. If you held a postcard with your fingers, the card would soon be ridged. And I saw what seemed to be an emery board melted to the sidewalk.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vacation: Monticello

The centerpiece of this vacation was to be Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Indeed, Tuesday we had a behind-the-scenes tour, a house tour, and plantation community tour. Just a few observations of my own and three tour guides:

Thomas Jefferson was more introvert than extrovert. Surprising because of his public life, renowned hospitality, and ambitious travels and undertakings. One of our guides said, however, that T.J. was uncomfortable in crowds; he preferred small groups of close friends. In fact, at least one year when he was president, he mailed in his state of the union address so that he could avoid making the speech. Another of our guides said that his quiet correspondence came first each day. Visitors would just have to wait in the entry hall until T.J. finished writing letters.

One guide said that T.J. is thought of as an inventor, but he was actually more of an adaptor. I am not sure which clever items in Monticello were inventions and which were adaptations. One item was a dumb waiter for wine bottles in the sides of a fireplace. Another was a clock with hour, minu
te, and second hands, connected to a ball-and-chain contraption that told the day of the week. Another was a double-pen apparatus that automatically copied anything he wrote with one of the pens. He favored Palladio architectural concepts he observed in Europe and incorporated them into his design of Monticello.

The simplicity of the place struck me. Nothing was fancy. Fine, yes. Fancy, no.

T.J. was conflicted on the subject of slavery. He owned slaves, but he treated them with respect and kindness. If one was injured, he immediately sent into Charlottesville for the finest doctors. He informally educated some slaves. Although laws at the time were harsh for runaway slaves, T.J. is known to have protected one man who ran away to be with his "wife" at the White House; not only did he send him back to Monticello, he promoted him to supervisory positions among the slaves there. He believed in this man and understood why he had run away. Apparently, T.J. proposed a law that would educate slaves, free them, and send them to Liberia. He believed they wouldn't be really free unless they were educated and away from the inevitable bitterness resulting from the experience of slavery. Because other slave-owning legislators adamantly clung to the comforts their slaves provided, T.J.'s proposal was not enacted into law. Several years later, a law was passed forbidding owners to educate slaves. Ugh.

In Jefferson's "cab
inet" (his home office), he had a bed and sitting room. The sitting room contained the fireplace to heat both rooms, so his cabinet would have been fairly chilly in winter. And he'd put huge windows in his personal quarters. Our guide pointed out that in designing this, he had made a conscious choice of light over heat.

I wish we had a choice of light over heat! :-) Virginia in July, there's just no escaping this heat. Scalding sweat stings your eyes. Steam clouds your vision. Nothing is dry enough to wipe the steam off your glasses. No matter ~ what good are glasses when your eyes are swollen shut? You wonder if bugs have gotten inside your clothes to tickle you, but no, just perspiration rivulets trickling down your sides. When we get into air conditioning, we laugh about it, but out in nature's sauna, man, we're in survival mode. Just pick up one foot, Jane. Put it down. Now pick up the other foot ...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Virginia Is a Beautiful State

Day four of our vacation was a travel day, from Alexandria to Charlottesville. It took us about three hours, including a Starbucks stop. The countryside I find most beautiful is green rolling hills, and today not only did I enjoy this scenery a lot, but I also learned the French word for it: le bocage. Just a short part of our drive was interstate highway, with the rest being two-lane roads winding through le bocage. We passed fields with Civil War canons and many historical markers, Such and Such Battlefield, Lee's Headquarters, Jackson's Amputation. Oddly, shortly thereafter was a modern sign for WarPlay PaintBall. (Somehow, warplay and amputation do not compute.)

Charlottesville has an old historic section, a pedestrianized lane of funky bistros and artsy shops, which we liked. We got there on a free trolley with the friendliest passenge
rs and drivers in the world. Everyone seems to know each other, or if they don't already know each other, they talk with each other anyway. Almost everyone hollered "Thank you!" to the trolley driver when exiting the bus. I've also noticed many gentlemanly acts of courtesy toward us on this trip.

Photos are of a fiddler hula hooping and Francoise sitting on a mosaic couch.

Bon Appetit!

One of my favorite photos of Julia Child is the one where she's having a backbend laugh. The quote "Above all, have a good time" is appropriate accompaniment since her gift was helping us celebrate food together.

In the second photo, note the jar of Skippy peanut butter. :-)

Julia Child was a self-confessed gadget junkie. Only one of her gadget pegboards had 45 pots and other paraphernalia hanging from it. Each item had been drawn on the pegboard so that guests helping to put away the pots would know where everything went. Julia liked being able to find what she needed quickly.

The last photo is of a Julia Child junkie.

Vacation: Day Three

Sunday we decided to do D.C. First priority was the Museum of American History, current home of Julia Child's kitchen. Francoise and I agreed to meet by the Info desk after an hour. In that time, she saw all three levels of the museum. I, on the other hand, saw Julia Child's kitchen. I loved soaking in her falling in love with France, her following her passion, and her joie de vivre. And then there was the love story between Julia and Paul, which always fills my heart. I discovered there's a new biography of her now.
Other exhibits of interest were the Spark Lab, where I saw kids playing with lots of colorful and mentally stimulating games and "designing" a robot. The Inventors' gallery showed many uses for Kevlar and the steps in designing the first baby stroller: understand, observe, visualize (where the team drew strollers with different personalities, such as elegant and practical, and then built models with Legos), evaluate, refine, and implement. Did you know that chain saws did not have teeth until an inventive man noticed a jagged-toothed timber beetle larva cut through a tree faster than he did with his smooth-blade chain saw? And paper making today is still based on the method someone in the 1700s developed upon observing wasps making nests? And the deck shoe was invented in 1935 by a boater who observed his dog was surefooted on his boat, so the boater designed a shoe sole patterned after his dog's paw? And the U.S. Patent Office has more patents for mousetraps than for any other item?
Second priority of the day was for Francoise to see the front of the White House, so we walked through the Ellipse, past the White House Christmas Tree, to the very well-guarded wrought iron gate, where we fiddled with our telephoto lenses to try to capture more than a white blob at the bottom of the photo. Temps had to be near 100 degrees, and both of us had puffed faces, swollen feet, and empty energy for the third priority, the Jefferson Memorial. But we discovered if we stood by the Christmas Tree and used our newfound telephoto skills, we could at least get a photo of the Jefferson Memorial that didn't look like a white blob at the bottom of the frame. Then we schlepped back to our Metro station.

Wish I'd had a nickel for every Segway Safari group that whizzed by us. On Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, on 7th Street, across the Ellipse ~ helmeted Segway riders zipped in single file, looking like parades of Pez dispensers. I imagined their feet probably didn't hurt as much as
ours did, but they probably were just as sweaty. Oh man, what a humid day.

On the Yellow Line back to Huntington station, Francoise got to see the most shockingly obese person she'd ever seen. And I got to see quite a few people sing as they got on the subway. Three girls sang and pounded out the beat the whole ride.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vacation: Day Two

Afternoon nap time ... shhh. Joan and John are resting, and now that Francoise and I have walked back from the variety store, we will rest in the cool house as well. Before telling about today's first and second adventures, I'll briefly elaborate on the third, the variety store. It's a small-town five-and-dime store from the fifties where you expect to see Opie checking out Super Soakers in the toy aisle, Aunt Bea buying all her canning supplies, Andy loading up on file folders and markers for the sheriff's office, Barney buying Thelma Lou silk flowers, and Goober tinkering with wrenches in the automotive aisle. You could buy just about any kind of candy, a gift or card for just about anyone, just about anything for your house or car or hobbies. You could even furnish your doll house there. Oh, and then we walked to the movie theater to see Pollyanna. Just kidding. But it was nice to remember what one did before Walmart.

Occoquan, day two's first adventure, is a historic (1736) mill town along the Occoquan River less than an
hour's drive from here. Francoise and I first hit their farmers market and loaded up on apricots, yellow and white peaches (grown in Pennsylvania), and lots of green beans. We put them in the cooler in the trunk with good hope they would be okay in the blistering heat while we explored the town. Numerous homogeneous gift shops later, we were laughing about how we would return to our car to find cooked fruit and vegetables.
The Occoquan Museum was one small room, the old mill's office, with a few showcases and lots of brown things hanging on the walls. The docent explained that the townspeople basically thought of him as their attic. When they couldn't bear to part with some old thing in their house, like a stuffed fox, they donated it to the museum. Most of his artifacts, however, came from a dredging of the river some years ago. I was most interested in a late 1800s tombstone of a 54-year-old nameless man, who was killed by some evil deed. The docent told me the man's story. He was a Union soldier who had fallen in love with a woman when he had been stationed near Occoquan. After the war, he returned to his home in the north, but eventually came back to his true love, who had unfortunately, by that time, married another man and had a family. The man hired a local stone cutter to carve his tombstone with the mysterious "evil deed" wording, and then he blew his brains out. He was buried in Occoquan, but eventually, the farmer whose land the tombstone was on got tired of plowing around the tombstone and threw it in the river.

upon the Cock and Bowl "beerstro" was a fabulous find. In this Belgian cafe, Francoise and I reprised our 2006 harborside meal in Cassis when she had moules frites and I had salade nicoise avec frites. My honey mustard dressing was the best ever. I loved dipping my frites in the homemade mayonnaise. There was too much mustard in the mayo for Francoise's tastes, but I felt inspired to try to make my own mayo when I get home. The proprietor explained he and his wife were Francophiles who had dreamed of opening a restaurant celebrating French food ~ when they discovered and fell in love with Belgian beers.
Day two's adventure two was visiting Joan's studio at the Workhouse, a former prison, now alive with dance, painting, ceramics, sculpture, and other arts. The gallery in her building showcased a breathtakingly beautiful blue and white ceramic octopus and whimsical ceramic cat on a motorcycle. And of course, Joan's ceramic creations impressed us as well. In Joan's studio, Francoise and I simultaneously reached for the same aqua mug with shiny cobalt interior. Then she decided to buy earrings instead, so I will be able to buy that mug. Joan explained some different types of firing and showed us the glaze "kitchen," where they mix glazes. Buckets of glazes lined the walls.

Somehow our produce from the morning farmers market made it home still slightly cool.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Vacation: Day One

Smooth travel all in all. Weird getting a "pat-down" at O'Hare security. Even weirder was that a TSA lady sat nearby taking notes on every step of the pat-down. All I could imagine her writing was "From the look on this suspect's face, she thinks it's weird that I'm taking notes."

During a short, pretakeoff wait on the tarmac, Francoise and I opened a map of Virginia to discuss what we might want to do on our non-Monticello days. As the plane hurtled down the runway and took off, she and I then made comments indicating our jitters over the plane's rumbles and shudders and shakes. As we talked, I noticed a nearby man with a $200 haircut and professional manicure shaking his head in what I presumed was disbelief that hicks like us exist. Once we were at cruising altitude, he put an iPad on his tray table to read a book. He turned the pages with his little finger. We got the map out again to discuss Yorktown vs. Jamestown vs. Williamsburg.
After agreeing to decline (is that a double negative?) all the upcharges proposed by the car rental agent, we crept out of the airport in a PT Cruiser. At the counter I'd described it to Francoise as a "gangster car," and when she saw it, she was delighted to agree. We're pretty sure we're going to have fun with this car.
When we got to Joan's, she was doing her usual gourmet thing. Her wooden cutting board ~ the size of a door, for pete's sake ~ was filled with neat piles of chopped onions, Italian parsley, and fennel. Out came the spring greens. Joan asked John to whip up a vinaigrette from scratch. "What can I do to help?" I asked innocently. "Clean the mussels." Gulp. Joan told me to look for open ones, and then tap those on the counter; if they don't close up again, discard them. Francoise coached me on pulling their hardened drool off them. I wanted to be a good sport, so I ate one at dinner. I chewed and chewed and chewed. No way was that thing goin' down. John opened a can of tuna for me.

It is lovely being with Joan and John. Lovely enough that I don't even care that it's 97 degrees here in Alexandria and very spidery. After clobbering a large black spider with my shoe, Joan laughed, "Welcome to the woods." After dinner we watched an Australian comedy with our feet up on the table and our fingers in the berry bowls.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I'll Take the Star Any Day

Driving north for an hour Saturday night, I passed hordes of people comfy in their lawn chairs on parkways in each town I passed through. It was just after 9 p.m., almost time for the Fourth of July fireworks to begin. I sensed eager anticipation as kids waved glow-wands and small flags. A few minutes later, fireworks began. I could see them in the open spaces off in the distance. To my right, first a red chrysanthemum, then a green one, blossomed in the sky, then dissipated into falling ash. To my left, a white rocket shot up into a boom of smoke. Also to my left was one star in the darkening blue expanse. I thought, God, certainly you can be showier than that. God-made stuff is always more majestic than man-made stuff. In the next open land I drove through, a beautiful white daisy grew up from the eastern horizon, then died. A white weeping willow appeared on the western horizon, then disappeared. The one star was still there. This scenario repeated the whole drive. By the time I got home, I was much more awed by the constancy of that one unwavering star than with all the shooting stars that flashed for a moment. Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the the skies. Psalm 36:5