French Lessons Troisième Acte: La Cape d'Invisibilité

Friday April 26, 2019

I left Bordeaux for Vannes, a medieval town on the Golfe of Morbihan in Bretagne, where I lived for two months. While there, I visited islands, saw mégalithes, towns, museums and marchés, took a lot of boats, dodged rain storms, and painted. A lot of walking was involved.

It took me a while to realize that I had mistakenly forgotten to take off my invisibility cloak. No one knew my name, where I lived or what I do, only rarely acknowledging my presence when the cloak slipped off to open my wallet. Being a ghost, vastly improved my eavesdropping and observational skills! Considering the circumstances the images below will do the talking.

The biggest tourist attraction “Vannes et sa Femme”, on my corner…..

The biggest tourist attraction “Vannes et sa Femme”, on my corner…..

The sky has a limitless quality, the clouds marching across it in stunning fashion. I took a 1/2 boat ride to Île d’Arz, at least once a week, when the weather cooperated, and spent the day painting.


It wasn’t all sunshine and strawberries, obviously my images only show one side of the story. I have bunches of complaints, topping the list, the rain, the rain, the rain, and the cold, and so it goes. However, I won’t bore anyone further

The places:

Île Er Lannic, Île aux Moines, Île d’Arz (to paint), Belle Île en Mer, Carnac (mother lode of standing stones), Quimper, Benodet, Fousnant, Pont Aven, Sainte Marine, Nantes, and Concarneau

I really loved being in this area of France, and as it turns out Vannes is quite an active town, packed with events and tourists all the time. There was the town wide Photography Show, The Plant Show, The Book Show, The Week of the Golfe, involving everything boat, sailor, striped shirts and fish, The Fête de Bretagne, and so on. I was never bored, and never tired of wandering around.

I would have liked to interact with more people, and not feel so invisible, but all that anonymity and eavesdropping had it’s advantages, my french vastly improved! Who would have thought

French lessons learned: The true difference between une galette et une crêpe


next time I have to rent a car

French Lessons Deuxième Acte

I arrived back in Bordeaux on the morning of March 14th, 2019, it was smooth sailing. The flights were early, my suitcase with me, the sun shining, the cab ride to town, the fastest and cheapest yet, the keys to the apartment at the coiffeur’s up the street, the elevator was working. A nice welcome back


Before returning, I spent about six weeks in California, book-ended by stopovers in NYC. It was frigid in Brooklyn, and rainy in CA. I was a slug except for my daily 4 miles on the beach and a month of barre class. I didn’t paint, just hung out with family, and took care of stuff, primarily taxes and home repairs

Everything was green, a happy change from the normal drought brown of the last 5 years. Everyone was glad for the rain, no fires or mudslides, but they complained about the lack of sun.

In Bordeaux I went back to work on my “Bob” paintings, getting ready for an exhibition this summer. I had 8 hours a week of french at the Alliance in the afternoons and evenings. I like the familiarity and review but it wasn’t enough, and a bit too easy

And I had way too much time on my hands, admittedly didn’t get out enough and procrastinated a lot. Je pense que j’avais un peu le cafard….

I finished my paintings but realized I could have managed a lot more on my plate. I would have been complaining more, but more satisfied….welcome…. back….. homework?

I did get out, started running again, saw exhibits, went to the marchés every weekend and continued trying new cheeses and found new favorite spots. I watched the whole series of “Meurtres à Sandhamn” in french without subtitles and bunches of junk on Netflix.

Saturday evenings were always a toss up, the gilets jaunes situation a constant unknown, sometimes calm, sometimes not. I arrived in time for Acte XVIII. Eventually every Saturday the Centre Ville was blocked off with barricades and police and prohibited to vehicles, trams and protestors. Eerily sometimes Bordeaux was like a ghost town, restaurants, cafés and shops closed.

The next two months I’ll be in Bretagne for my troisième acte, first stop Nantes, because why not and then to Vannes. Once again this is somewhere I’ve never been and know no one….

The plan is to take boats to some of the 40 islands in the Golfe de Morbihan and paint outside, to explore as many sites mégalitiques, with their menhirs, dolmens and tumulus as possible, be by the sea and ancient forests, write Bob’s histoire in french, stock up on sel de Guérande, and eat a lot of crêpes


I’ll keep you posted

French Lessons 1 Le Premier Acte

I arrived in Bordeaux after a seven hour delay, one missing suitcase, and 92 steps to climb to my apartment, the elevator was out. It was Friday September 28. School started Monday October 1.


Right off the bat I was preoccupied with school: grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, accents, élisions, speaking and writing more formally, and homework

there were also my personal preoccupations of daily life in Bordeaux

mosquitos, rain, the 92 steps, carrying my groceries up those stairs, taking the garbage bins down those stairs and back up again, pronouncing the word yogurt properly in french so the cheese ladies at the Marché des Capucins would stop snickering, cheese exploration, wine exploration, food exploration, street exploration, explorations in general, and after November 17: the Gilet Jaunes

School was hard, four hours a day, five days a week. There were lots of subjects, 3 different teachers, multi-national students with multi-functioning/non-functioning accents, too much grammar, a lot of tests, written, listening and oral comprehension, official level testing for the standardized Delf/Dalf exams

and, we had to write formal letters, defend arguments, elevate our vocabulary, use connectors and the subjunctive, know the differences between colloquial, familiar and formal language, work alone, work in pairs, work in groups on projects ranging from Utopias, the Media, the Senses, Politics, Literature, Art, and Street Art. We gave book reports, discussed art, chose utopian spaces, talked politics, presidents and the Gilet Jaunes and wrote essays in a Proustian fashion. Our course capitulated with a 30 minute oral report complete with power point on a bande dessinée. I read “ “Au Revoir Là-Haut”, “Tintin et Le Lotus Bleu” and “Le Tour de Gaule d'Astérix”, I chose Tintin



there were expressions

all of a sudden our French teachers were willing, no eager, to share that elusive part of their language, the vulgar, un-pc, standard, colloquial, bizarre, incomprehensible, and laughable


Je suis presque tombée dans les pommes!

These slang expressions perked me up and with images arriving helter skelter, the artistic side of me came off life support

A story started to unfold and I dreamed up Bob, well I borrowed the name Bob from “Bob le Flambeur” the 1956 French noir movie and the American 2002 remake called “The Good Thief” with Nick Nolte as Bob. However my mec looks nothing like those two but is rather reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg and that kind of stereotypical french dude. Here’s what I got so far

Les cartes ne marchent plus, je suis fauché, et je suis mort de faim

Les cartes ne marchent plus, je suis fauché, et je suis mort de faim

C’est la fin des haricots!

C’est la fin des haricots!

the bare bones

Bob is a gambler, he’s broke, has been working for nothing and is down on his luck with the cards. He lives in a flop house hotel, he’s perpetually starving, perpetually out of cigarettes and wine, the “rat-de-ville”, his co-locataire, stole the last bite of camembert, the dog next door won’t shut up and being Bordeaux, it is raining. Bob is at the end of his rope

Il travaille pour des prunes.

Il travaille pour des prunes.


One day he hears via the grapevine, (le téléphone arabe) that there is going to be a big party April 1 (Poisson d’Avril) at Le Petit Commerce, a restaurant down the street, to celebrate their first Michelin star. Also mentioned; the Mona Lisa is going to be on display for the fête that evening. The dim lightbulb in Bob’s head goes off, and not being too bright, and knowing nothing about art, he thinks, bien sur, La Joconde is the real painting. Bob le Flambeur becomes Bob le Voleur. Or tries to anyway

Le Téléphone Arabe

Le Téléphone Arabe


Dreaming of riches, he makes his plan, and does some recon


Je joue ma dernière carte


Then he calls his fence Jean-Luc WHO

Il raconte des salades, et il ment comme il respire, BUT gets the job done

Il raconte des salades, et il ment comme il respire, BUT gets the job done

et entre chien et loup il commence

et entre chien et loup il commence

There are about fifteen more paintings to do for my bande dessinée, the story to write in french and a proposed exhibition at L’Alliance Française for June -September 2019 in Bordeaux

on verra

Everyday there was a leçon but some were out of the classroom

My final lesson for part 1, was that you can always change your plans. So I’m returning to Bordeaux in March to commence French Lessons 2. Hoping to finish my paintings, write my story, explore more places, cheese, wine and other stuff, and to learn a few more things.

Details of my Execution

Details of my Execution

January- August 2018

After many many hours of tortuous calculations and useless lists

I figured out where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, and for how long

Bordeaux 3 1/2 months Marseille 7 months

visiting my Mom before, middle and after


Rented my house

cleaned up, threw out, gave away, cleared out house and garden

After 3 months of compiling 15 different documents 3 copies each and tearing my hair out I finally got the interview appointment at the French Consulate

then was photographed, interviewed and fingerprinted 3 times

no more acting badly….or speeding, I’m now on everyone’s radar

Got global entry, a certificate of good conduct and a clean bill of health

and finally received a French multiple entry Visa for one year

Bought a whole lot of airline tickets, re-rented my old apartment in Bordeaux and found an apartment in Marseille

Painted mural part 2 at Hartford Hospital with Catou, while ruining my stomach on too many to count cups of Au Bon Pain’s hideous coffee

Watched all six seasons of Game of Thrones, again, the antidote to the boring process of photocopying endless docs, painting 13 large identical Washington bowls, and tossing out all the crap in my life and house


Ended my illustrious fishmonger career at the farmer’s market

Farewell Blue Moon!

August 5-12 Jefferson and Wilson NY

Took a last spin in my 96 Camry and drove 828 miles (love route 20) round trip upstate and back to visit Ellen, Mark, and their post op pooch Eubie in Jefferson then John and Kathleen and the pesky woodchuck living under their shed in Wilson NY, on Lake Ontario

When I got back I gave my car to my neighbors

August 14- September 25 California

Co-shopped, cooked, baked, and threw my Mom an almost 90th birthday party for 50+ people with Peter, Hui-shu, and nieces Leanne and Olivia

Obsessively watched MSNBC and CNN with my Mom after obsessively walking 5 miles daily on the beach while obsessively listening to NPR’s morning edition on KCLU and looking for seals, dolphins and white sharks


Painted more rocks

Played chauffeur, food shopper, medical advisor, bridge cheerleader, and regular thorn in my mother’s side, as co-companion and nag

Registered for three more months of immersion French classes at L’Alliance Française, Bordeaux

Bought enough watercolor paper for my trip, to guilt myself into painting a lot, it’s cheaper to buy french paper in the US than in France, go figure

Got new glasses and a big suitcase

Voted absentee

Suspended my phone #

Wrote a will


drank adequate amounts of Tito’s, de-stressing…

and happily my stomach is no longer in knots



See ya!

A Different Kind of Year

How it started Part 1

It began with this thought:
What if I move to France for a year?


In January 2017 I rented my house for six months, first going to California where I spent my time visiting my mom, brother and sister in law for about six weeks, and painting rocks on the beach.


While there I planned the second part of my time away, deciding to live, paint and study in Bordeaux a place I had never been to and where I didn’t know anyone.  I enrolled in french immersion classes at L’Alliance Francaise, paid, took their placement test and found a great apartment. 


I arrived in Bordeaux in the beginning of March and immediately started classes, five days a week, four hours a day. Each class level has up to 20 foreign students and concentrates on varying subjects which change every two weeks. It was an amazing opportunity to speak freely with each other about the topics we were studying; immigration, art, health or identity, all in french of course.  It was particularly interesting discussing the French and American elections while studying justice, our election had just finished (NOT MY PRESIDENT prefacing  every statement I made) and their election ongoing. My days consisted of class, food shopping, homework, dinner, more homework, wine, maybe one or two episodes of Un Village Francais before finally bed. Lots of studying was required, and there were tests!  This place was no joke….


My mother came to visit for about two weeks. We drove throughout the Dordogne and Aveyron regions, visiting prehistoric sites and ancient villages, eating lots of duck and foie gras, drinking wine, watching the Crown on my iPad in the hotel rooms and amazingly not arguing that much. 

During my last month of classes, I had incessant insomnia, a strange skin thing and a ferocious cough. I chalked it up to allergies, every tree was blooming in the city, the pollen out of control and once it warmed up, Bordeaux became a really humid and moldy kind of town. That spring the temperature alternated between 50-60 degrees for a few days and 85-95 for the next few. It was unpleasant, everyone was suffering. Thank God AF had “climatisation” air conditioning….


With all this occurring I had a hard time concentrating on my studies and most mornings would approach my teacher before class saying, don’t expect much from me today je suis crevée et ma tête ne marche pas, basically I’m brain dead

Truth is, my French is good, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I have high standards and french grammar is tough even with a working brain….especially for Americans….do we ever really learn it in school? This nagged at me, even after my last class when my teacher told me all I needed was more conversation and not to ever change my gringo accent because it is cute…..

Then I headed off to visit friends, spending my last two weeks in the Basque Country before heading back to the US.

I lived in Bordeaux for exactly 90 days, the maximum stay without a visa.  These days one is only allowed to be in France for 90 days out of every 180. Gone are the times when one could cross a border for a week or so and come back in for another 3 months.
Three months seems to be the pivotal point, when you are living in a foreign country.  It is when everything is finally familiar, you know the lay of the land, maybe have some friends, certainly have a routine, and start to feel comfortable. Leaving was a frustration, it felt like I was just beginning.


So maybe it was then that the idea to stay a year subconsciously began.
Or when leaving the country and the French customs officer took forever to stamp my passport…was he silently calculating the exact number of days from my entry to my departure?

Or maybe it was on the plane home,
or when my tenant handed me seven envelopes from the French government, saying … sorry Sally, unfortunately I recognize these envelopes, (he lived in France for 10 years….) I think these are speeding tickets, were you driving over there?
And I paid them thinking…. what if I ever wanted to go back, and drive…..would they turn me away at the border….for speeding tickets? Things being so much more official these days.

Or maybe it was when I got back in my house, after a month of couch surfing.
All I know is one day the thought was there, and not going away.


It took a long while to figure out, the how when and where to go.  I had obligations. I had to work. The process began when I was finally back in my house in July and could start my art projects. I had a mural to paint for Hartford Hospital that fall, pottery and painting commissions to do and my job at the farmer’s market.

The mural was my friend Mary’s idea. In autumn 2016 her mother was diagnosed and treated for ovarian cancer, then she too was diagnosed with the same cancer, and was undergoing treatment into the winter of 2017. While getting chemo she described staring at depressing grey cement walls surrounding the dead garden outside the treatment rooms, and said, I’m going to get Sally to paint a mural here.


And she did. I came up with a concept, did sketches, wrote proposals and a budget and researched materials.  We face-timed while I was in Bordeaux, she sent me pictures and measurements of the walls and the dormant winter garden. I asked my French friend Catherine (Catou) Guillaud if she would collaborate with me on the project, and she said yes.  So we began planning, spending about six months refining the design, drawing more, painting mock ups, comparing notes and working out the details. When I returned to Brooklyn in June Mary and I drove up to Hartford and presented our project to the hospital.  A week or so later our mural was approved, with a start date of early September 2017 for the first garden and the possibility of painting the connecting garden in Spring 2018.


It was an immense and intense project, but probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. Catou came to New York for six weeks. Every Sunday night or Monday (5:30 am) we drove up to Hartford from Brooklyn, and back again late Thursday or early afternoon on Friday.
The traffic was brutal. We stayed at Mary’s mother’s house. We did this for a month, painting 6-8 hours a day. It was exhausting but we finished!  Catou and I were very happy with the whimsical garden mural we created, so was Mary and everyone else, especially the other cancer patients who watched us work and saw the mural transform the space outside their windows.

And since we were on track to paint the second garden in spring 2018 my timetable was determined…. the earliest I could leave would be mid-late August 2018.

By late fall 2017, “what if I live in France for a year” was no longer just a thought, it was the objective.