Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

Freeway Free in France: Back to the 7me Arrondissement

My favorite pied a terre in Paris is the Jardin D’Eiffel, just off the market street Rue Cler (see above) by one block. 15 years ago when I first stayed the decor was dominated by giant yellow Monet-esque flowers on Royal blue  on drapes, pictures, and murals throughout (see below) , and the clientele favored busloads of Canadian and German students and tourists on a budget.

The old Jardin has undergone a 21st century revamp, and is now robed mostly in subtle shades of gray with some paisley drapes to brighten the feel (see above).  The elevator, however,  is no larger;  it can accommodate two people and two suitcases on if you are on friendly terms, or you can stash the suitcases in the elevator, push the button,and race the elevator up the stairs. DB and I are sharing a room facing the street – not the best, as the next door neighbor is the police station and we expect to hear sirens all night.  From the back rooms, if you lean out the window, you can glimpse the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived after an efficient breakfast at La Vielle Auberge, a lightning transit to the train station in Souillac, a bit of a hassle with ticket’s but we eventually got on the train and enjoyed four hours of French scenery, shading from Romanesque yellow sandstone  with steep-pitched roofs and bell-towers in the Dordogne to white stucco with mansard roofs and steeples in the Touraine.  Gare Austerlitz is large and bustling but well-signed, our Algerian taxi driver was friendly and expansive about  what we should be sure to see in Paris, and the staff at the Jardin welcomed us like old friends.

We took the Metro to the Place de ‘l’Opera and picked up our museum passes for two days of urgent museum – going.  This may be our last joint adventure for awhile, as we each have different plans for our stay in Paris.    WB missed the Louvre on her previous visit and expects to spend two days there, but wants also to fit in the renovated Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin, the Pere LaChaise cemetery, and perhaps a tour of the opera.  DM has a friend dating back to a working stint in London  who came to meet her and is staying at the Jardin, and also has a cousin who wants to return the hospitality DM showed him in the states, so after tonight’s dinner  she will not share evenings until Sunday. Dianne has not been in Paris in decades and has murky memories, so she may take the #69 bus tour around the city per Rick Steves’ recommendation and then follow her interests. 20160922_230844web

I have in mind the renovated d’Orsay tomorrow together with l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s water lilies, then there is another exhibit at the Grand Palais I want to find out about, and I need to visit Notre Dame and the Holocaust victims memorial and of course Berthillon’s ice cream and the Art Deco atrium of La Samaritaine, and Le Pere LaChaise cemetery with WB on Sunday.  Our walking tour will have been good prep for pounding all this Gothic pavement. Right now we are getting cleaned up in preparation for a celebration meal at l’Affriole, which it appears has developed enough of a reputation that Michele (who is French with family and friends in Lyon) had heard of it.

I am trembling at the potential cost.  But we have economized greatly up until now, having scrounged for lunches at the hotel breakfast buffets and having dinner and breakfasts prepaid during our hiking tour.

20160922_073111docWe decided to walk back from L’Opera (which was undergoing a revamp of its own behind a Rene Magritte-inspired façade) and stopped at a street-side cafe on Rue Tour Maubourg for wine, tea, and people -watching. We saw Cinderella’s glass coach go by, pulled by a rather ordinary brown horse and with two dotty English tourists inside.  Such is life in a tourist city.

Unfortunately l’Affriole did not live up to my memory. New management has revamped the decor here also, opening up the front of the place for sidewalk seating, which leaves one exposed to the curious glances of passers-by and other hazards.  In our case, a large dog decided to deposit an equally large souvenir on the sidewalk just by our table, and the dog’s owner loftily prepared to ignore the awkward incident until the restaurateur bounded out and demand she clean up after her pet.  She argued, gave in, and “cleaned up” by kicking the mess to the curb, then wiping her shoe carefully on the edge.  Not the most appetizing of beginnings.

The food, instead of bringing on the sort of ecstasy seen in “When Harry Met Sally,” did not measure up to either my memory or the best of the food we had enjoyed while hiking. So much for my “local expertise”.  But I still have a few 7me arrondissement aces up my sleeve.20160922_070928doc

 

 

Freeway Free in France: Looping back to Souillac

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 It was hard to tear ourselves away from our luxury hotel on the outskirts of Carsac this morning.  In fact, Winifred and Dianne failed utterly, opting to take the sag wagon with the luggage back to Souillac.  Turns out the pickup time was not until 3PM, so they had almost a whole day of lounging around the pool eating bonbons.

 

P1030227doc Meanwhile DM reconsidered her idea of a solo stroll, so the two of us set out promptly just after 9AM to regain the converted train right of way now known as “Le Voie Verte” -the Green Way.  This is a lovely hiking, biking and jogging path with a nice shallow grade going along past quaint little towns, distant castles, through tunnels, and along the Dordogne River.  We missed the first castle as the fog had not yet lifted, but compensated by exploring the next little town Aillac, a fabulously pretty little yellow Winkie village with some really cute cats and kittens outside a barn, and an amazingly clean set of public toilettes.   We hikers appreciate these things!P1030222web

 We made very good time on the Green Way, even overtaking and passing the Australian couple who had been besting us in previous days – however, we were not held back by DB and WB, and the Australians had made a wrong turn. We tried to stop for a snack at the halfway point, but the season had officially ended on the 19th, the snack shops were closed, and the one open restaurant was out of Coca-cola, Dory’s secret vice.

Once we ran out of Green Way, things took an upward turn – waaaay up to the top of a small mountain where we found the village of Millac, but were too exhilarated at being able to stand up straight and see for miles to spend time exploring yet another crumbling church.  

P1030234docThen it was down through dappled shade and dappled sun in a woodsy canyon, then down further through more dappled shade and dappled sun as we crossed a series of walnut orchards with beautifully shaped and spaced trees, then down further into the tacky outskirts of Souillac, then down past the cemetery.  We got confused, asked a passerby if he knew our hotel, and he pointed to it across the street.  Winifred and Dianne had just arrived.20160921_052432web

 I took a short walk up down with Dory to locate a Coke for the train tomorrow, and we wandered a little bit more through the old medieval section of Souillac.  We were surprised to see that a small two story townhome in this section, with 2 BR, 2WC, and two other “pieces” which could be used as a “salon” or a BR, was en venue for around 135K euros – seemed a lot considering how many empty shop fronts we had been seeing.

 The area is suffering from gentrification – so many wealthy Brits have bought old hones in the area and are restoring them, that housing prices are going up for everyone.  Sounds eerily familiar.

 Tonight we expect another luxury dinner, but must leave early tomorrow to catch our 8:25 train to Paris.  Maybe we will spot Hercule Poirot.20160921_114231webP1030239web

Freeway Free in France: The Green Way from Domme to Carsac

P1030212docUnfortunately WB has developed some problems with her knee and has not been able to hike for the last couple of days, but she has gotten a free ride in the luggage van and enjoyed some leisure. The other three have enjoyed walking through the countryside on back roads and grassy trails, sampling wild blackberries, feral figs, late-season asparagus sprouts, and sunflower seeds.

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We had an easy day today, with a gentle descent from Domme down to the verge of Dordogne River, and along the riverbank for quite a while.  Then we cut through some bends in the river on grassy paths and gravel roads, through woods, corn fields, past impressive farmhouses with lots of outbuildings and HUGE stacks of wood, whose use is somewhat mysterious. There are not many wooden fences, it’s mostly barbed wire supplemented with electricity, and the pieces are too long for firewood.

Lunch and a Coke!By noon we were looking for luncheon options, and happily came upon a small shop in a small village which had, to DM’s delight, cold Coca-Cola available.  We purchased a few other snacks and continued until we found a convenient stone to serve as both stools and table.  We enjoyed the sun, sipping and munching, then snuck through a gap in the wall for a view of the Chateau de Montfort (privately held, unfortunately) 

About two/thirds of the way to Carsac we started on the Green Way, which is a former railroad right of way converted to bike and hiking path.  Very pleasant, though a bit sad to walk past the abandoned railway stations in the small villages.  Lots of scenic views, lots of picturesque eroded sandstone formations in the hills and along the river.  P1030188web

Our hotel, La Villa Romaine,  is a three star affair with a beautiful courtyard and an infinity pool (solar heated, but it felt wonderful to wade my hot feet in.  After a shower and a change of clothes I was up to a stroll along the river into town, where there was a lovely park, an old medieval community laundry shed built over a spring, and a Romanesque church which was closed for the day, but very lovely in the evening glow.

Then a glass of wine on the patio, with the restaurateur coming over to ask our dinner choices (How would you like your foie gras tonight?) Dinner of duck breast for me, with some interesting vegetable side dishes of a whipped-potato-with-puréed-this-and-that sort.  Dessert for me was “sticky pudding with salted caramel sorbet” = a kind of bread pudding with caramel sauce + artisanal salty ice cream.

And a very comfortable bed, thank goodness.

I’m wondering, though, how this three-star hotel/spa can survive on the outskirts of a small village like Carsac – there is no famous cathedral, no well-known wine appellation, no nearby major road.  And yet this hotel is the height of elegance.  Perhaps it will be a get-away spot for people from the much-less-picturesque town of Sarlat, which will be our destination next as we complete our loop .P1030189web

Freeway-Free in France: Dallying in Domme

P1030157webDomme is a medieval island perched on top of a bluff, too remote from normal four-lane roads to have been changed much by the advent of the automobile.  As we trudged up the winding road, we were wishing for a donkey cart!

But when you get to Domme, it’s worth it.  It’s like a visit to Brigadoon, if Brigadoon had a three-star hotel  featuring  gourmet cuisine, 15th century ramparts on three sides , a view out over the whole of Scotland on the fourth side, and a comprehensive walking tour which included a famous author’s home,  a prison whose stone walls are covered with graffiti carved by imprisoned Knights Templar,  and a subterranean cavern where the peasants could hide in case anyone made it past the ramparts or scaled the bluff. Plus a very good ice cream shop.

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Above is the view from the bluff which protects the side of Domme which looks over the Dordogne River.

After doing the city walk, nothing could be better than returning to the Hotel Esplanade, which sits on the main square of Domme next to the promenade along the bluff. Not only did our room have a view to die for (see above) but the food was superb.  I don’t usually publish pictures of meals I have eaten, but I can’t resist showing you these beautifully presented dishes:

At breakfast, we found our buffet of lovely edibles presented in the sitting room above, with the early morning view of the valley just clearing from low-lying  fog. One almost did expect this fairy-tale place to vanish in a puff of vapor as the sun rose!

Freeway Free in France: Up and Down along the Dordogne

20160919_003919cropThis day was the scenic highlight of our walking – we stayed the previous night at Beynac, beneath the cliff topped by the medieval fortress which we had wandered through the afternoon before.  After our breakfast of croissants, cafe au lait, and local yogurt and strawberries, and after wrestling our luggage down three flights of narrow stairs, DM, DB, and I set out along the “grassy track” by the Dordogne River.  (W has developed a painful knee after too many ups and downs and decided to cop a ride in the van.). The path led along the river through woodsy patches – lots of bird calls, some families of ducks on the water, the occasional fisherman, the occasional egret.  We stayed mostly level through a series of acricultural meadows and fields (DM sampled the sunflower seeds, I sampled the fresh asparagus spears pushing up from the ground) and took turns pointing out the yellow sandstone castles on the successive cliffs – Beynac behind us, its hated rival Castelroud across the river on the English side.P1030117web

We continued past Montingnac and a couple of others unnamed in our guidebook, ending with Roque Gageac where we broke for lunch.  This is a point where the cliffs come almost to the water, and the oldest homes are carved into the Rock faces – “troglodytic  dwellings” per our guide.

 

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DB stopped at a sandwich/boulangerie shop and ordered a panini with ham and cheese. I watched in horror as the young man took a perfectly lovely baguette and squished it flat in one of those icky panini presses. Yuck. We picnicked at a quiet park next to the little quay and watched the tourist boats plying the river.

Then began the up and down part which had intimidated W.  First we went up “Banana Alley” to admire the work of a gardener who had learned to grow exotic fruits and plants along the south facing sheltered cliff – very lush and lovely, then further up on narrow roads with improbable “parking privee ” signs posted on narrow ledges next to elegant and not so elegant sandstone homes, some of them evidently refurbished antique dwellings, others more modern knockoffs, but all of the same glowing yellow stone. P1030129web

We snaked up along the angles of the woodsy cliff side, mostly following an ancient stone wall held together by moss and ivy, and finally came to the top where we had our first view of Domme, perched on the top of a distant cliff on the other side of the river. Then down past more elegant farmhouses and homes, some with old ramparts and fortifications still, now on “Tarmac roads”, crossing the river on a narrow bridge with an even narrower sidewalk- only one km to go! P1030141web

But what a kilometer it was, up and up and up in almost the only full sunshine of the day, stopping at every patch of shade and every wayside bench, til we finally reached the medieval gateway with its arrow slits to use against invaders still intact.  The hiking guide led us straight up to the central square, a knockout view, and our elegant hotel right there on the edge of the bluff.  Our room has a view out over the valley, a fitting reward at the end of a day of wonders20160919_093221doc.

 

 

Freeway Free in France: The Barons of Beynac

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We began the morning hiking past a campground which evoked so many stays as my husband and I sought affordable vacations with our two children .  Doesn’t this expandable trailer look familiar, fellow campers?  But having the trail on the other side of a cyclone fence was a little off-putting.

P1030109webOur next stint was up and over easy hills, on back roads through small villages.  We came across an old church, with a charming graveyard adjacent.  Such a contrast to the cemeteries in my neighborhood, where one has a choice of three different styles of stone, and one may not leave anything on the stone which would impede a power lawn mower! Here were live flowers in pots and personalized tributes from family members – one could construct an entire village history from the mementoes pile atop the sacophogi!

Further along the path we spotted what looked like a statue dedicated to Sagittarius on a pedestal in a farmyard.  As we approached nearer, we discover that the statue was a real goat!

We hiked further and higher, always seeing  the castle of Beynac hovering in the distance ahead of us. 20160918_055340web For hours it seemed like a mirage, always visible, yet never nearer.  Then suddenly we were there, on the highlands adjacent to the castle, looking out past the fortifications to the valley of the Dordogne far below.

We wandered through the medieval fortress marveling at the huge hall used for public audience, the spiral stairs leading to inaccessible floors, the barred doors marked  “Acces interdit- Residence privee ” with tantalizing glimpses of rooms in which people might actually be living. . I wonder what it would be like to live in such a place in modern time.

 

A plaque testified that  the lineage of Beynac has continued for centuries, right down to the mysterious current inhabitants.  I would have liked to meet LUCIUS GROSSO Et DIONYSIA -UXOR SUA!20160918_060949web

A Piece of My Mind: Could Local Lucre Grease our Wheels? (Los Altos Town Crier March 1, 2017)

P1050177cropI am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco.  But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.

In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade.  In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn.  The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are.  And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears.  The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable.  When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs. 

So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT?  Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance.  Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date.  We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts.  Why can’t…. but wait a minute!  What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have?  They have Friends!  They have Foundations! 

What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library?   And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved?  Just think what we could do!

Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion.  That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth.  A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash. 

New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car?  Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test.  And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows  sending out a subliminal message! 

Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system;  maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system.  Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward.  Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights?  That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at  roughly $20 million per mile.   Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy?  There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”

OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria.  Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?

Freeway-free in France:Medieval Market and Marketing in Sarlat

 

Exploring the medieval village of Sarlat out-appealed  walking in the surrounding countryside,  and gave us each an opportunity to occupy our time without being one wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  DM and I did shopping in the justly- famous Sarlat Saturday market, while DB walked the self-guided city tour and W did tai qi and sudoku in the park. We met for lunch at a quaint courtyard,  then DB went back to the hotel to relax while the other  three did the city tour. We all spent an hour or so doing email and post cards in the mid-afternoon and then the D’s invited us up to their roomier (set up for handicapped) suite for a pre-prandial cordial. So we are learning how to be apart as well as together –  A good travel skill. september-2016-410web

The Saturday market in Sarlat attracts vendors from all over the regions, with lots of opportunities to sampled the  key products: olives and their oil, walnuts and their oil, and (less lavishly set out for tasting) duck and goose foie gras.  The market fills several streets, the main public square, and the inside of an abandoned church whose entire back wall has been converted to a giant portal allowing free circulation of both air and people to the market stalls inside. 

 20160917_021452docHaving figured out the advantage of attracting tourists to their market on Saturday morning, the city fathers of Sarlat have lost no time in figuring out ways to keep those walking cash dispensers in town as long as possible.  On the Saturday of our stay we were tempted back onto the streets long after the market closed with an evening sound-and-light presentation called “Un Patrimoine sous les Etoiles” [A Patrimony under the Stars]  in the old city starting at 9pm.

 

 

 

W and DB begged off, but DM and I set out after dinner to find the streets and ramparts lined with votive candles , the public buildings and cathedral lit with patriotic blue, white, and red, an artist drawing calligraphy with a light torch in the public square, and a buxom artiste on a balcony reading patriotic excerpts from Sarlat’s leading literary light Etienne de La Boetie accompanied by a cello.  The ostensible theme of the evening was something to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, but the real point was to see how different and how cool the old city looked with candle-lit paths and colored light effects. 

 

Freeway Free in France – Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One (cont.)

september-2016-377webAt about the halfway point of our first day of hiking (9km) we felt raindrops.  Drizzle turned to gentle rain, enough to rate dragging out our rain gear – all except DB, who had left her poncho behind to save weight. (DB has some curvature of the spine and her backpack is not very comfortable, so she chose to leave some basic stuff, including sufficient water.  Fortunately both W and I tend to err in the opposite direction, and were able to keep her hydrated with our extra bottles, and fairly dry with my little polka-dot umbrella.). The ponchos added an unnecessary extra layer of warmth, so we kept trying to do without every time we felt the rain slacken, and then had to re-don when we got out of the sheltering woods or the rain renewed its attack.

september-2016-382webWe oohed and ached over a chateau whose ruined towers loomed above the woods on the left (it was burned by the Nazis in WWII) and exclaimed over weird fungi growing on logs and near the edges of the path.  We noted pear orchards, apple trees heavy with fruit, an occasional vineyard lush with grapes awaiting harvest.  We sampled wild blackberries at the side of the road, and tried to open chestnut husks to get at the chestnuts inside. (Chestnuts are stickery!”  And we were counting down the remaining KM by tenths.

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Finally we made it to Sarlat  after about 7 hours on the walk.  (It was supposed to take 5, but we missed a couple of turns, and some of us were pretty slow on the up hills)  The usual hotel for this tour company was booked up, so they put us in a backup – W and I are sharing a tiny room with two twin beds, minuscule night table shelves, one chair, and a clothes rack hung over the door on which we must try to dry our wet / sweaty clothing.  But the shower has cold water for my feet and warm water for the rest of me, and after the appropriate ablutions I am snuggled under the matelasse bedspread in my nightshirt while W in her night shirt is rapping out emails at the skimpy shelf-desk in the corner.   Our dinner reservation is in a half hour and we are hoping to be able to walk that far.

Today’s walk was the second longest of the 7.  Tomorrow we will be in Sarlat for the whole day; there is a “suggested loop” of 14 KM which takes about 4 hours per our tour route guide, or we can just wimp out and enjoy the famous market and explore the car-free streets of the old medieval town.  I’ll see what a good dinner and night’s rest does for me!

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But at the moment wimping out sounds great.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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