Archive for September, 2009

Table restoration

Posted in Home improvement, La France at 20:38

Louis XV table, in progress
A year and a half ago, I fell in love with an antique oak dining table in a secondhand store. Originally it was too expensive, but a month later, the price had fallen to one I could afford — no one wanted its black patina and slight damage. When I cheerily told the secondhand store owner I wanted to buy it, he sighed and said he was sorry about the damage, but that I could always paint over it. I said “oh non, jamais je la peindrais ! Ce n’est pas profond, je vais la poncer.” (“Oh no, I’d never paint it! It’s not deep, I’ll sand it.”) The owner looked at me and smiled, “c’est bien, c’est mieux comme ça.” (“That’s good, it’s better that way.”)

Thanks to a short visit by building management yesterday that required me to take the day off (to document the water damage from two months ago), I had plenty of extra time to do a project. Off to the home improvement store I went, to buy sandpaper and beeswax to redo my dining table. I’d long been ruminating how to restore it, and decided that sanding it by hand would be better than mechanically, since I only wanted to take the patina off and keep some of the table’s history, rather than erase all trace of previous usage. I’d settled on a beeswax finish for several reasons, mainly that oils don’t age well — indeed, linseed oil, which was used often in France (and still is), turns black with age, so it’s quite possible my oak table had been treated with it. Beeswax brings out the natural color of wood, doesn’t cause a patina, and still protects well. Paint and colored varnish were entirely out of the question, since I wanted to keep the table’s character.

Once home I started sanding with nothing more than sandpaper and my hands. The oak’s natural coloring, as shown above, was beautiful, and I was delighted at how the artisan had chosen the different grains for the border and Versailles-style top. It made me feel much better about taking off the patina, since once sanded, it was clear that this was a table whose woodwork was a work of art in and of itself, meant to be seen.

I applied two coats of beeswax (waiting two hours between them), let the table sit all night, then photographed it the next morning. The finished table: from the damaged end (showing how I didn’t sand out damage entirely), a photo with better lighting, and finally, with both extensions out. The beeswax really brought out the oak’s gorgeous coloring.

In a stroke of synchronicity, on my way home from work this evening, I passed an antique store with old books on sale. One of them was a 1967 home improvement book that I picked up as soon as I saw its instructions for reupholstering Louis XIV chairs. It also described some French furniture styles, which finally helped me ID my table, thanks in large part to the very typical legs for its style: it’s a Louis XV, also known as rococo. At home, I made my usual visit to the ApartmentTherapy site, where they had… a retrospect on Louis XV / rococo! I see rococo-style couches all the time in secondhand stores here, and now that I realize they’re from the same period as my dining table, I may well get one!

La soirée kabuki

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:41

As I approached the Casino de Monte Carlo, which also contains the Monte Carlo opera house, passing the Maseratis, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Bugattis and Bentleys, I stopped in my tracks, wowed by a beauty I hadn’t expected to see much of: kimono. Not just one or two, but dozens upon dozens of Japanese women wearing gorgeous silk kimono with shibori, yuzen, embroidery, tsuzure weave and other designs, all wearing their obi (wide sashes/belts) tied in the traditional taiko style. I was delighted to be able to see what kind of kimono were worn to a kabuki performance: the formality ranged from irotomesode, the most formal I saw there, to iromuji, houmongi and tsukesage, which are usually worn to such performances, to tsukesage komon. (The least formal of kimono is the komon; women’s kimono types are described here.) There was even one woman wearing a cream tsukesage made of translucent ro, with a matching light blue ro obi woven with metallic threads. It was also interesting to see how the women wore their kimono: indeed, as I’d always read and seen in kimono books and magazines, older women wore their obi and obijime (cord tied around the obi) lower than younger women, some with it only an inch above the bottom edge. One older woman had a beautiful light grey iromuji with a black-ground obi, woven with metallic blue, green, silver and gold lozenges; a middle-aged woman had a forest green irotomesode with metallic embroidered flower rondels along the bottom hem and a silver obi; a younger woman had a bold yellow houmongi with yuzen flowers and an orange and gold obi. As for men, I only saw one man in the audience wearing hakama, entirely done in a beautiful deep grey. At the end of the performance, Ichikawa Ebizo XI was wearing a formal hakama outfit with five mon.

Then there was the opera house itself. It seats only 520; at least a fifth of the audience was Japanese. I had a seat in the second row on the middle left: this was my view, and the only photo I took since I wanted to enjoy the performance. At one point I remembered I should look at the opera house ceiling, since I’d heard it was richly decorated. As I looked up, I had to catch my breath — I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life, and yet I’ve visited Versailles, Florence, Venice, the Loire Valley castles, the Forbidden City… I think the difference was that for the first time, I was actually participating in an event that a particularly gorgeous edifice was meant for, rather than being a simple tourist. The ceiling and walls were gilded, sculpted, painted, with an enormous gold and crystal chandelier hanging in the center; there were tall windows onto the Mediterranean with immense burgundy velvet curtains that closed when the performances started.

Kagami Jishi was danced first. Seated so close to the stage, and on the side where Ichikawa Ebizo did most of his acting, I was able to see his delicate and subtle facial expressions, hand movements, and changes in body position. Videos you can find online come nowhere near conveying all the delicacies in a kabuki performance. I was also able to hear the quiet vocal cues given by both Ebizo and the musicians: the almost-whispered calls and pianissimo shamisen plucks that gave the time, tunings, stage cues and more. I could even hear the cords on the ko-tsuzumi being tightened and loosened by the first drummer. The musicians were exceptional, with precise timing and tuning. I was very happy to experience such a wonderful live Japanese music performance, because it greatly contributed to my appreciation of it. Listening to a recording, no matter how good, is simply not the same as witnessing the expert interplay between a flutist, shamisen and ko-tsuzumi on opposite sides of a stage, not facing each other, with no conductor and no cue other than a sub-vocal “oh”, and yet making their entrances in precise unison. Having been a musician myself, I know how much trust, skill and knowledge go into a simple entrance, especially when there are so few musicians — if just one is even slightly off, it’s obvious. They were always “on”, and it was breathtaking.

Narukami was done next, with Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Narukami, and Nakamura Tokizo V as Princess Taema, just as in the examples on that Narukami page. To my surprise, Narukami was a humorous play, and done with real artistry by the two men and their supporting cast. It made all the difference that they were older men playing the parts of younger people — their depth, composure and maturity threw the characters’ inexperience and immaturity into stark relief, making it even funnier. Ichikawa Danjuro honestly seemed to be having the time of his life; his performance was inspired. If he always performs like that, he’s an incredible artist indeed. For a play that was first premiered in 1684, Narita-ya has kept all its vivacity; it does not “feel” 325 years old at all.

Online you can read that kabuki pursues “on-stage expression that goes beyond mere realism.” In an era of digital special effects and never knowing what’s real and what’s not, I was amazed at how kabuki truly does evoke sensations and feelings in its audience. In Narukami, after Princess Taema has cut the cord imprisoning the dragon gods of rain, a thunderstorm begins. And you know it’s a thunderstorm, because the enormous, roaring o-daiko is the thunder, and the deafening, scintillating shamisen are the rain. It took me several minutes of childlike wonder before I finally figured out that the rain was, in fact, the musicians plucking their shamisen backstage, and not a digital effect. In short, an unforgettable experience. I hope to be able to attend kabuki again someday; it also reminded me of the better ballets and operas I’ve seen in my life, and how wonderful those can be too.

モナコでの歌舞伎 – Kabuki in Monaco

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:19

Yesterday evening, while walking to the bus stop to go home for the weekend, I noticed that the advertisement had changed, and had a Kabuki actor. To my great delight, on approaching close enough to read it, it was indeed for Kabuki, in Monaco! I could hardly believe my eyes. As long-time readers may remember, I’ve always loved Japanese culture and the Japanese language, and five years ago, nearly went to teach English in Japan, having been accepted by an elementary school on the outskirts of Kyoto. Kabuki is a popular form of Japanese theatre that was founded some 400 years ago. Invitation to Kabuki is an excellent site with information about its particularities.

Once at home, I went straight to the “Kabuki in Monaco” website to reserve tickets, and was overjoyed that I could get a spot for next Saturday evening’s performance. The first two kabuki actors are the most prestigious in Japan: Ichikawa Danjuro XII and his son Ebizo XI, of the Narita-ya kabuki guild. From their site: “Narita-ya is the yago, or guild name, of the Ichikawa family, the best known acting family in Edo kabuki. Narita-ya is also the earliest known yago in all kabuki.” As for the third, Nakamura Tokizo V is a well-known onnagata actor, meaning he plays female roles. The play they’ll be performing, “Narukami“, likely means that Nakamura will play Princess Taema, one of his best roles, and one of the Ichikawas will play the priest Narukami — indeed, the “Narukami” link has video of Nakamura Tokizo V and Ichikawa Danjuro XII playing those very roles.

As for the dance “Kagami Jishi” (The Mirror Lion, 鏡狮子 in Japanese), I was able to find it on YouTube, in several parts. It’s played by a different actor (Bando Tamasaburo V), and has nice commentary in English:
Kagami Jishi, part I
Kagami Jishi, part II
Kagami Jishi, part III
Kagami Jishi, part IV
Kagami Jishi, part V
Kagami Jishi, part VI
Kagami Jishi, part VII

Real-time French health care

Posted in Journal, La France at 13:00

I’ve had a gurgly stomach and painful abdominal cramps since Monday. Since my stomach is generally able to withstand pretty much anything I throw at it (the only exceptions being gluten and casein), I figured it would get better, but instead it’s worsened gradually. I could barely sleep last night for the pain, and was unable to move due to cramping after eating breakfast.

So, this morning I emailed our offices to let them know I was ill, then called my general practitioner at 9:20 am. My regular doctor wasn’t available until tomorrow morning, so I asked if another was. (I’m grateful to have found an office with three doctors, all of whom are good, upon my arrival in Nice nine years ago.) Another was indeed able to take me at 10 am — 40 minutes later. I took a quick shower, then walked to the doctors’ office, which takes 10 minutes.

I waited a half an hour, reading a couple issues of L’Observateur. Then the doctor examined me, diagnosing a bad case of indigestion, and prescribed me a proton pump inhibitor to take for a month (pantoprazole for anyone curious), an antispasmodic, and rest. He gave me an arrêt maladie (permission for work absence due to illness) for today, ran my carte vitale through his reader, and I wrote him a check for 22 euros, all of which will be reimbursed by the sécu and my supplementary insurance.

Then I went to a nearby pharmacy to fill the prescriptions. I presented my carte vitale; they already have my supplementary insurance on file. The pharmacist replaced the branded medications with generics, wrote the correspondences on the boxes so I’d know which was which, put them in a bag, and said “bonne journée, au revoir !” The medications are fully reimbursed, so I didn’t have to pay anything.

I was home by 11 am. It took less than two hours for me to make a doctor’s appointment, take a shower, go to the appointment, get diagnosed, pick up medication, and walk home. Total cost, once the 22 euros are reimbursed (tomorrow): Zero. Although I will admit the walk wasn’t much fun considering how tired and weak I am, but still, it was free monetarily speaking. It’s taking all the self-restraint I have not to make a scathing remark comparing this French experience to the US. And in my ten years in France, this experience is the norm — I usually get an appointment on the same day, within a couple hours of calling.

Related post explaining more about France’s sécu, the carte vitale, supplementary insurance, and why I paid at the doctor but not the pharmacy: Health care in France – Basics