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Paint Fox in Tunisia (10 paintings) (Read 13058 times)
Reply #5 - Nov 13th, 2007 at 7:08pm

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Makawao,  Maui, USA, HI

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I sat on the train next to a young woman with a beautiful green sweater.  Her friend got up to let Blair sit down.  Hesitant to seem old, Blair took the spot across from me for the 30 minute ride from Tunis to La Marsa.

Moments later, my seat companion asked if we were English.  "No," we replied, "we're Americans."  "Oh, I used to study English for my classes, and was good, but now I have no one to speak to."  We assured her her English was very nice.  She was from Nabeul, near Hammemet.  "We have the most beautiful beaches in Tunisia."

She was studying to be a gynecologist and had to learn English to understand some of her lessons.  Today, she and a few of her classmates were headed to Sidi Bou Said to have a coffee.  Her five friends teased her madly about talking to us.    This man behind her, the wildest of the bunch, was not her boyfriend.

"My parents finally found someone for me to marry."  She showed us the rings she just received from him and in the summer they would be married.

We were on our way home from the opening of a new "Amideast" building  -- where Tunisiens learn about America, whether it is culture, business, or language.  The ambassador cut the red ribbon.  We saw an expo of photos taken by a Tunisien artist on a trip to the USA. 

It is a relief to speak English at these events.  Our French, which served us well in Paris, is not always understood here.  "I don't understand English," a man tells me.  "It's because I am speaking FRENCH!" I protest.

Early last week, one of the fishermen invited us to his house for tea.  He had been born in the house, and now he and his family, and his brother were living there.  We walked through narrow winding corridors, with many doors, and up steep, treacherous stairs.  It was a little like a fun house, set just up from the crashing waves of the beach.

In the kitchen, he was preparing a Tunisien specialty.  "I boil the meat before I roast it," he told me, as he spooned the sauce over the sheep head.  "This is food you can't get in a restaurant.  And you can eat it with your hands".  The sheep's teeth needed brushing.

He wanted interior design advice for his kitchen, and we obliged him with some ideas.  "What about putting the passage from the Koran over the door?" Blair suggested.  He told us that just wouldn't be right.  We feigned understanding.

Just before the train stopped at Sidi Bou Said, the friend pointed to the girl's green sweater.   "This is Lacoste green, lacoste green, isn't it?"  "It's very beautiful," we told them.

Laurie (text) and Blair (painting) PESSEMIER
La Marsa Ville  MBP  Oil on canvas 22 x 15 inches (56 x 38 cm)
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Reply #4 - Nov 4th, 2007 at 6:55pm

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Makawao,  Maui, USA, HI

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I never saw tiger prawns so brilliant, as the shrimp flashed turquoise, magenta and yellow tails.   One of the fishermen, an old guy with no teeth, arrived at our door this Saturday morning.  "Would you like to buy some fish?"  We took all of his prawns and five good sized rouget (juvenile grouper).

We have a dynamic relationship with the beach market.  We bought a tea table from one of the fishermen.  "I'll give you my best shell, I found out in the sea, as a gift," he concedes as he closes the deal.

It wasn't a smooth sale.  Just minutes after he arrived to show us the table, a dove flew in the window.  "This brings good luck," he says hopefully.  Moments later the bird flew into the opposite wall and broke its neck.  "Ok, because we are friends I will lower the price".

"What I am looking for," I tell him, when he hands us two beat up bricks and a floor tile, which conveniently prop up the table's weak leg, "are more of these old roof tiles."  He tells us this is not so easy.

I have been painting portraits of Tunisian characters on terra cotta roof tiles.  Early this week, a gallerist, Sadika, came by and took the nine of them I had painted.  She also took eleven of my paintings, and one new large painting of Blair's for a show in December.  It's a group show, with an absolutely stellar cast of artists, including Tristan Ra, a personal favorite of Blair's and mine.

We met Jan, the artist in residence at her gallery, who will help stretch and frame our work.  He's from Belgium.  Like so many artists here he came to Tunisia for just a couple of months, but the ambiance is so warm and welcoming he's been here two years.  He married a Tunisian woman, and lives with her family.   "They don't complain about me painting nudes in the courtyard, but I can tell they don't really like it."  He's fixing up a house in Sidi Bou Said and working on his painting at the gallery.

We went to dinner this week at an American's home in Sidi Bou.  She has a great house at the end of an impasse.  She came to Tunisia on a Fulbright scholarship, and got so interested in learning Arabic, she's stayed on a few years.  Her artwork really "took off" here, and she patches together a living helping out American students and painting.  She's going to open an art center not far from where we live.

Little by little our roots are taking hold in the Tunisian sand.  Like a palm, our feelings sway.  I hate being so far away from the US, but at the same time I love the difference.

"You are from America?" one of the fishermen asks me.  I reply in the affirmative.  "You paint pictures?"  I tell him this country is beautiful.  "Write to tell people in America, tell them we like them, come visit, we are family."

Laurie and Blair PESSEMIER
Dove   LFP   Acrylic on canvas
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Reply #3 - Oct 27th, 2007 at 8:11pm

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Makawao,  Maui, USA, HI

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Samir hands me his shirt, his undershirt.  He has a small tattoo just under his arm; I can't quite make it out.  He throws water on his arms, his head, his chest.  He turns the creature inside out, casting the innards into sea.  A huge cloud of ink is released around his legs; a wave disperses the color.

It's octopus season here.  On Monday, ceramic pots, 1/2 gallon plastic oil bottles and heavy rocks were all strung together with ropes and carried out to sea.  The octopus will choose just the right pot or bottle as his cave, then the fishermen snag him, in hand.

Samir takes the octopus out onto the rocks.  Blair and I follow him.  Raising the cephalopod above his head, using all his force he throws the animal onto the rocks.  I wince.  He does it again.  He laughs as I back off onto the sand.

There are no more fish to be had this season -- Sala lost his net in a terrible storm which passed last weekend.  The waves were ten feet high, and you couldn't find a yard of beach as salt water slammed the sea wall.  Lightening lasted for six hours, followed by thunder that shook our house to its stone foundation.

Octopuses have three hearts, and amazing blood which can flow at remarkably deep and cold temperatures. Their nervous system is likewise sophisticated.  They can throw off an arm, like a lizard.  I am grateful the end of our octopus is quick.  A seven or six-legged octopus would give me the heebee-jeebees.

Once the beast is unmistakeably dead, Samir starts rubbing it on the rocks.  A pearly foam forms, as seagulls hover above.  He washes the octopus in the water, and we exchange out dinner for his shirt.

During the storm, we rescued Harika, the puppy that lived on the beach.  As the fishermen hollered from their pavilion, now surrounded by the sea, we carried the wave drenched dog to our house.

Octopus is a popular food here.  They can be found dried, in the supermarket, a deep beet red/maroon.   Our octopus was spotted green and brown on a white backgound.  After we carry him home his colors have disappeared.   I think he must have weighed about 3 pounds : 3 meals anyway.

I've been reading recipes for octopus, and the procedure I described above was included in one.  I can't believe it could be accomplished in the kitchen.

The octopus has eyes, which look at me from the sink.  Apparently, the octopus can have astigmatism (I read, wikipedia).  We send the head back out for the cats, at least the part with the eyes.

I boil the cut up octopus for about 40 minutes.  It is semi-tender, and I will cook it further in other recipes.  I make the classic onion, pepper, olive oil and harissa dish for lunch, with crusty bread.  Today I made the rest into a curry.

Harika turns up her nose at the octopus.  She eats lamb and turkey and sleeps on the sofa.   The sea is calm again.  I sit on my blanket and paint the fishermen's pavilion against a sea green Mediterranean.

Laurie (text) and Blair (painting) PESSEMIER
Boats at the beach   MBP  Oil on canvas  16 x 12 inches

Blair and Laurie PESSEMIER
Villa Daly
rue Ahmed CHAOUKI
La Marsa Corniche
2070 Tunisie
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Reply #2 - Oct 21st, 2007 at 5:43pm

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Makawao,  Maui, USA, HI

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You know you really live in a place when somebody comes to visit you there.

We received our first guests in Tunisia this week:  two friends from Canada joined us for a tour of the Souk.  We're not expert guides yet, by any means, but we did manage to help them find their heart's desire, with only a modicum of confusion.

If you've not been to a Souk, you can't imagine the navigational difficulties.  In some places the stone paths only allow the passage of two pedestrians.  Add a pushcart and someone has to give.

Our friends buy beautiful objects from around the world and resell them at private sales in Toronto.  I am amazed at their sense of what to pay and what they can command for price at the other end.
Blair and I have always lived with sample furniture and interior design "mistakes" -- anything we have had to pay for seems expensive.

Together, we found an antique dealer with a lovely Persian miniature painted on ivory.  The bidding began at twice what they wanted to pay and ended up at about 5/8 of the asking price.  Deal.

I looked at dishes while the others were in the throes of negotiation (we've been eating off a tea set leftover from the last tenants, that I wouldn't even put a plant in).  The dish salesman were just that:  crooked salesmen, with no sense of dishes, but a penchant for bargaining.

Transaction concluded with the antiquarian, we set out to explore.  We slipped down an unpopulated alley.  "Prix Fixe" the sign read.  An old man with a huge array of painted dishes smiled at us.  "Are these to eat on, or for decoration?" we asked, in hopes of avoiding lead poisoning.  "These are fired at 1200 degrees celsius," he replied, assuring he'd been eating off them forever.

The souk of Tunisia is a residential souk, with apartments above the ancient buildings.  There are three mosques and a couple of schools, and no shortage of surprises.  This time we passed a number of storefronts each with a small door opening to an illuminated room where a shoeless man, curled on a bench, embroidered robes.

It is not all so pristene and perfect:  we passed a particularly dirty section where our guests took on a green pallor.  We are quickly becoming innured to the blights of a less than first world country.  To see the beauty one must overlook the unpleasant details.  No flowers without rain.

We bought four different, beautiful plates for 4.5 dinars each (about 3.50 US).  Our guests handed the proprietor a bowl decorated with fish and two candlesticks.  "Happy Housewarming," they beamed.

Laurie (painting and text) and Blair PESSEMIER
The yellow door (Big Tree)  LFP  Acylic on canvas  13 x 16 inches

Lauriebigtree.jpg (115 KB | )
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Reply #1 - Oct 13th, 2007 at 8:46pm

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The house on the hill is covered with blinking red green and blue lights.  Men wear their djelabas: skinny stockinged legs below in slip on shoes.  The square at La Marsa  was a riot of horses, camels and carriages, bedecked in bright blankets, scarves and artificial flowers.  This weekend is the festival of A ID -- celebrating the end of Ramadan. 

For the past 29 days everything has been upset.  Night is day, day is night.  People didn't eat between sunrise and sunset:  worse than that, no restaurants or cafes were open in La Marsa to serve people who wanted to eat during those hours.  Wine ran out at the grocery store, and we had to ask for bottles from the back.  An old man hissed at Blair about not observing Ramadan.

"Ramadan is fun," a friend assured us, "a cheerful time".  We tried to participate in some of the evening activities, but we are not really "night" people -- coffee in the dark is not my idea of a good time.   We painted from the promenade one evening this week, surrounded by people reading (backwards) by lamplight, or eating popcorn from the cart.

The bench beside me read:  Ahmed + Sonia = true love forever  2007/10/8   Half forward, half backward, in a state of modern love.  My world is completely turned over, upside down.   I am the outsider, the intruder, the one who reads backwards.

We went to the public library, where all the French books are arranged from left to right, all the Arabic tomes right to left.  A woman in a veil, another in a tight t-shirt welcome us.

Friday morning we walked from our house up the hill to Sidi Bou Said.  Sidi Bou is one of the loveliest towns in Tunisia, painted in brilliant white and blue, perched on a precipice above the Mediterranean.  We often shun the place, because of tourists.  But today, it was ours:  not a single souvenir stand was open.

From our house, one passes the president's residence, a Versailles of sorts, where no cars pass by, and one mustn't step in the gardens.  It is the cleanest, most tailored spot we've see in the country so far.

At the very top of the hill is a muslim cemetery.  Today, people in traditional dress visit lost ancestors.  A hunchbacked old woman in a black velvet gown prays at a grave, while an old man in his checchia picks mint.  It is deadly silent, a few children in ruffled ankle socks and red caps dare to run by.

We take pictures of the lighthouse at the top of Sidi Bou Said, and a brilliant yellow door nearby.  The babalouni stand is closed, not offering its usual greasy fried doughnuts dipped in sugar.  The Cafe des Nattes is open, the white turbaned waiter photographing a couple of Italian tourists.

We rest in the shade, taking in the smell of jasmine, before we begin our descent toward home.  It is a hot day, making the 20 minutes seem like a long walk.  We change into our swimsuits and drop into the sea, big waves carrying us along the shore.

Laurie ( text) and Blair PESSEMIER (painting)
Night in Tunisia  MBP  Oil on canvas  22 x 15 inches
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Oct 8th, 2007 at 2:44am

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I went in the water for a dip, as Blair played lifeguard.  Very warm weather prevails, and our plein air painting takes place in the early morning or late in the day.

Our beach is where the fisherman drag their boats onto shore.  Their "shack" is the former pavilion where the Bey's women bathed.   It is a square stucco structure, missing the roof on one side.  But it has a locking door, and provides enclosure for the fishermen's supplies.  "It's where they DRINK," our landlord sniffs.

S had a picture of the pavilion, but one night, he gave it to a friend.  "I offered him whatever he wanted, coffee, food -- but he asked me for the painting.  I had to give it to him", S sighed.  "Please, paint me a new picture?"

We spend a lot of our time near the fishermen's shack, and the beach.  A puppy plays under the shack -- we bring him food nearly every day.  It is not certain exactly who he belongs to, but the little fellow sleeps out a the beach every night.  He adores the fishermen, and us, in that order.

Little by little, we become more accustomed to being in this very different country.  I had my hair colored and cut on Thursday, and to my shock, they oiled my hair afterward.  Light, perfumed oil, that made my hair very shiny.

I had a hard time finding a women's hair salon -- it is more "hidden" than the barber.  In the corner of the shopping center, I found a European style shop.

N, the person who colored my hair, was originally from Brussels.  Her mother is Belge, her father Tunisian.  "I grew up in Belgium" she tells me, "but I've been here now for two years."

She has never been to America.  "I'm afraid to go," she admits.  "Americans are afraid of us Arabs, but I am afraid to go there.  Just look at the US embassy here,"  she continues.  "It's huge.  People say it's a prison."

I assure her to the contrary.  "There are beautiful gardens there."  She looks at me with suspicion, and giggles.

As I sit writing artnotes in a plastic lawn chair our landlord lent us, I wonder how we ever made the decision to move here.  With great anticipation I await our next encounter.


Laurie (painting and text) and Blair Pessemier
Fishermen's Shack  LFP  Acrylic on canvas  9 x 12 inches


"Hallelujah!" the barman exclaimed when I asked if they might play a little more lively music. The tune switched from "lady in red" to a hot techno number.  We danced.

I have a small headache today, perhaps from the strobe lights, or was it the scotch whiskey (we had a real headache paying for it, at the equivalent of 9 USdollars a glass)?  We got up early, nonetheless, to attend the textile souk in upper Gammarth. 

Our taxi driver turned out to be the same one we had the day before, who drove us to a mattress factory outlet.   We told him how we needed a mattress, and he did his best to oblige.  Mattresses in Tunisia are manufactured in Sousse, a hundred or so miles south of here.  We'd have to wait two weeks.  Or we could just go to the Carrefour, pay a bit more, and have it delivered on Sunday.  He dropped us off.

This morning, I recognized the green shag pile on his dashboard.  "Take us to the souk in Gammarth," we demanded.

A gigantic field of makeshift tents and tables were full of sheets and towels, tablecloths and blankets, and many, many clothes.   I somehow imagined that old jackets I donated to the drive for the "children of Madagascar" in Paris could somehow turn up here.

It was a riot of colors, patterns and textures:  a gazillion sources of inspiration.  We were only limited by what we could carry.   Men barked out "One DINAR, one DINAR!!!"  At once, we found three terrific dishtowels, 1 Tunisien dinar (about 75 cents) each.  I was tempted by the waffle weaves, never used, but we went for the wild patterns instead.  We bought a yellow and grey bath towel.

Blair chose fine white cotton sheets, with embroidery, and I found a wool blanket from Austria. He talked the price down from 17 to 10 dinars for the lot, but I think the vendors probably still got the better of us.  Our two or three Arabic words don't disguise our very white skin and Western clothes.   A Berber woman smiled and let me step in front of her to paw through things.  I believe she was shocked to see us.  The market was where we'd seen the donkeys parked the day before.

Our final purchases were a silk bedspread (for our bed, to be delivered today!) and a tablecloth to cover the plastic outdoor table serving as dining.  Everything needs to be washed, of course.

Every day we become more accustomed to being here.  Today is our first day in our new house, bigger than anyplace we've lived since leaving the US in 1993.  I am finally relaxed, since our decision to leave Paris on 1 June.

We opened a bank account here, in which we can deposit Euros or USDollars and they won't be exchanged until we withdraw them as dinars, or in their original state (when someday we leave).  Our bank is called the Amen bank, chosen for its friendly tellers.


Laurie (painting and text) and Blair PESSEMIER
View from desk     LFP  Acrylic on canvas  15 x 18 inches
our address:
2, rue Ahmed CHAOUKI
Marsa Cornish

"No, no," the taxi driver protested as Blair attempted to secure his seat belt.  In Tunisia, the man sits up front with the cabbie.  The woman (me) sits in back.

In the front seat the windows are always open against the un-airconditioned state.  In the back, the windows are not only rolled up, but the handles to roll them down are removed.  Sweating, I gaze through dirty windows.

We were off to the Carrefour superstore to buy a hotel package for the following week, before our villa is available to move in.  We have a week to buy furnishings, to be delivered October 1.  We'll head for the "flea market".

The driver pulled out to pass a truck, on a city street.  The oncoming car had the sense to swerve.  Blair feigns relaxation.

Wednesday was a day of cab rides.  From the store we took a taxi to the US embassy.  In fact, I found out the bus will go from La Marsa directly there.  We learn all sorts of helpful facts there (they have a library with hi-speed internet, although I can't attach my own memory chip).  New building is burgeoning in Tunisia, and architects are in demand; US products carry a 20-30% duty.

We proceed on to the souk, for lunch, a hard-to-find commodity during Ramadan.  We have a place we've been to twice, where they make us what they think we'd like.  We sit on the porch, drink gallons of water (bottled) and eat grilled meats.

The cab driver who picked us up just outside the Medina seemed dumbfounded.  We had to stop for gas on the way to our destination (the gas wasn't cheaper than in the US:  about the equivalent of $4.00 a gallon).

We proceeded through a completely different area in Tunis.  We passed the "salt lake" I had only seen on a map.    I sensed the hairs on Blair's neck standing up.  Where were we?  I had no fear, just a wonderful feeling of discovery.  Before we left, a friend wrote, "Excitement is the same thing as fear, with breathing."

2.63 TD later (about $2.00), we got out at Melassine.  Imagine a neighborhood with all its furniture moved out on the street, and you'd have the picture.  Everything from new to antique, to scraps are piled together.  I witnessed one company making "fine" furniture out of old pallet wood.  Fascinating.

Under the sweltering sun, we bought an old wood "Pasha" sofa for about 40 US dollars, delivered.  It was so hot out even the vendors waited inside until it seemed we were ready to buy.

Before we completely collapsed, we embarked on our most thrilling taxi ride of the day.  This guy passed other taxis, shaking his fist out the window and shouting.  He ran a bus out of our way.  Blair had to take his arm off the window sill, as we catapulted toward a garbage truck.

As we paid our modest fare, Blair told him "you're a real driver!  next year, formula 1!"   The driver smiled as he sped away and we breathed a sigh of relief..


Laurie and Blair PESSEMIER
"Tabouret"  LFP  Acrylic on canvas  12 x 16 inches


The line diminished as numbers (in Arabic) were called out.  Every once in a while a surge of newcomers -- whole families from grandma down to the new baby flock in.  A strat cat enters, sashays around and finally goes into the back offices.

We were at the city recording office, registering the lease on our new apartment in La Marsa, Tunisia.  It is a big stucco villa on the shores of the Mediterranean.  We occupy the top floor and terrace, beginning 1 October.

Skinny brown legs protrude from baggy shorts as men jockey to the head of the line.  Three machines dispense numbers according to your need:  Copie Conforme; Legislation de signature (that's us); and Etat Civil.

The woman beating a circutuous tatoo with her cane on the terrazzo floor, the decorative tiles surrounding the waiting area, the heat, are all intriguing to us at the moment.

In the park I saw the largest ficus trees I've ever laid eyes on -- a good four feet in diameter.  Roots dangle from the limbs, getting closer to me as I sit and rest in the 90 degree heat of the day.  It costs about 75 cents to visit the park, which reminds me, oddly, of Bartram's garden in Philadelphia.

The former president's mansion has been transformed into the city hall for La Marsa, and is set within the walls of the garden.  A bird I believe to be a huppee, with a shock of feather sticking out from its head, flies by.

We walked to another city office, to investigate how to pay "habitation tax".  We sighed -- this was a $1000.00 or more event in Paris.  "It will be 67 diners (about $50.00) this year," the official tells our landlord, a history professor moving to Carthage.  "But it isn't next due until November, 2008."

I sit beside our new landlord as we review papers -- or I should say, as Blair and he review papers.  He turns to me to tell me how he just wants to be sure everything is correctly recorded.  I agree.

I tell him a story about how a friend in Paris once rented an apartment from someone who was just a squatter in the place.  When the eventual owner returned from vacation he was shocked to find our friend in his house.

Our landlord was aghast.  "I can't believe that people would be so bad.  If I were to think of things like this I don't know how I could go on in life."


Laurie and Blair PESSEMIER
Fisherman on the beach  LFP  Acrylic on canvas  12 x 16 inches


We switched wines from the "house" Corbieres to a Chateau Faugeres.  It was much better.  With Q, it was one of our "last" meals in Paris.

Making the trip to Tunisia hasn't been as easy as planned.  It is still tourist season there, and flights and hotels are full.  It is ever so far away, and "has the most expensive telephone service" a friend points out.

We slept in our garret the first night back in Paris (Sunday) and subsequently needed a real meal.  We happened upon this new restaurant, with lovely food and a contemporary interior.    I had the eggplant appetizer and Blair took the sardine "lasagne".  We made a point to return with Q.

Meanwhile, friends offered us their unoccupied apartment on Montparnasse.  A shower.  The concierge plays the accordian in the evening.

We've spent the week tidying up our loose ends -- filing taxes and closing our "saving to buy a house" account.  After three tries at the bank our personal banker, the only one who could release our funds, was finally  available.

An old military man who lives below our garret cautioned, "leave nothing for the government to take from your bank account".  Blair assured him we had no debts.  "But you never know when they might decide you owe them something".  We thanked him, and made arrangements to extract all of our funds.  Forty-eight hours.

Blair and I, looking downbeat, transport all of our euros to American Express.  Even though we called to verify the day before, they want 1.5% to convert the cash into travellers checks.  We step out of line, and try the converter across the street:  2.5%.  We try to put the money back in the bank.  It's closed.  We call a friend.

We have few people to discuss our life, or our plans with.  When most people are 50, they are at the peak of their work career, with retirement in site.  We live a completely different lifestyle.   I am painting in the park.

Artists aren't necessarily the best mentors.  Van Gogh was mad.  Gaugin was told "don't come back to France, or your work will loose its value".  Jackson Pollock died in a car crash; Monet married well.  DaVinci died outside his country.

Everyone we know seems to have some kind of job or work.  After all these years, I finally understand why people asked us "when are you going to get a real job?"  Blair's mother still asks and we never come up with the right answer.

Just the right friends arrived from America and we laughed for hours over Friday night dinner at the Bistrot d'Universite.  They enjoy who we are and encourage us to press on.

Still, the self doubt mounts.  I think of the nuns at St. Anthony's School telling the story about being given a book to guard at the start of one's life.  Will we keep that book clean and neat, on the shelf until we're asked for it back upon our death?   The sister would be furious when I'd say, "what good is a book unless you enjoy it?"

Next correspondence: Tunisia.


Laurie (painting and text) and Blair Pessemier
Greenhouse in the Garden   Acrylic on canvas  16 x 20 inches

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