Friday, September 7, 2018

How a French Barge Cruise Is Like an African Safari

Let's just skip the part where I apologize for not blogging for the past two years, okay? Let's pretend I've been on a barge in Burgundy this whole time, far from a WiFi signal, because it's almost true.

In April, I took my first all-expenses-paid "fam" trip in over 20 years. On the last one, in 1996, I went to Tanzania, met a French safari guide, and married him. This is the danger of fam trips. They are either so wonderful or so horrible that in either case, you tend to lose your mind. In my case, it was wonderful, and the Frenchman and I are living happily ever after.

"Fam," as I'm sure you know from having read my book, stands for "familiarization." The people being fammed are often journalists, like me. Familiarized, that is, with the travel products that the sponsors of the trip want to sell. Luxury hotels, barge cruises, stuff like that.

Barges in Burgundy navigate on canals that were built 200 years ago—before WiFi, before railroads, before the telephone. The French were still using carrier pigeons to deliver the mail. I swear to God. In 1966, an Englishman got the bright idea of taking commercial barges, which nobody was using anymore, turning them into hotels, and floating them on various waterways in France. Today there are 75 hotel barges cruising European waterways.

With me on the barge trip was the French safari guide, now retired but still my husband and still French—the only Frenchman, as it happens, ever to have been a guest on the Savoir Vivre in Captain Richard Megret's memory. And Richard has been captaining the Savoir Vivre for something like 20 years. So either he has a really bad memory, or he was just kidding, or Patrick is a very exceptional Frenchman. I tend to think the latter.

This barge cruise lasted exactly one week, and the whole time, Patrick and I kept looking at each other and going, "This is so much like a safari."

1. The captain was adorable and laid-back and funny and a little bit weird, the kind of guy who makes you fall in love with him, or want to adopt him, or want to be him.

2. The French hostess and the British tour guide were beautiful and intelligent.

3. The Burgundy countryside was like something out of a movie. Example: a medieval castle on a hill with sheep grazing in the foreground.

You see where this is going, right? Replace the captain with Patrick, the barge with a Land Cruiser,  the sheep with impalas, the beautiful and intelligent hostess/tour guide with me, and voila: an African safari! But that's not all.

4. There were only eight guests on the entire boat. Something magical happens when your group is between six and eight. I can't explain it. A group of that size becomes like a family. I know that's a cliché but it's true, right down to the one family member who annoys you. Add to that the bonding experience of traveling through a foreign land, and it's no wonder that people exchange email addresses and get all teary when they say good-bye at the end.

5. Things happened that I cannot explain. I don't mean to get all woo-woo, but life has been different since those seven days, six nights on the Savoir Vivre. Better, somehow. Not because the cuisine was haute and the napkins looked like they'd been folded by somebody who went to napkin-folding school and graduated summa cum laude. And not because the countryside was beautiful, although that certainly helped. It's something about being with your husband, whom you met once upon a time in the Serengeti, and he's an old man now, chatting away in the wheelhouse with the young French captain, and the two of them are giggling and you have no idea what they're giggling about, some private joke. And suddenly you are deeply grateful for this day, this moment, this reminder that life isn't only work and toil and that there are lovely people in the world, yes, indeed, and some of them are right here on this barge, folding napkins, chatting with your husband, and doing everything they can think of to make sure you get a good feeling whenever you remember this day.

Still to come: A Vermonter in Burgundy; Sadie Does the Cotswolds; and more . . .

Further reading:
What a Barge Cruise Is, and Why Some Prefer It to a River Cruise (
European Barge Cruises That Are Anything but Boring (WSJ, September 6, 2019)
All about the Savoir Vivre from the Barge Lady Cruises website
Our House in Arusha (Kindle; $2.99)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Sometimes the Gates of Heaven Open

This quilt was made by my grandmother, Mabel Lamb Tucker.
If you have been following my posts on Facebook, you know that this past week I . . . 
   (1) Registered with the Editorial Freelancers Association in an effort to drum up some business now that my Year of Leisure is almost over, and . . . 
   (2) Posted about the Japanese art of sashiko stitching and a Gees Bend quilt made from polyester leisure suits.
   So perhaps you will understand when I tell you that I almost jumped out of my skin when the Editorial Freelancers Association sent me an email this morning about a quilt magazine that needs a copy editor to work remotely. I raced off a reply. The one I sent was more restrained than the one I wanted to send. Here's the letter I composed in my head before deciding to tone it down: 

Dear Quiltfolk,
Sometimes the gates of Heaven open and the universe answers our prayers. I would love, love, love to edit your magazine. Quilting is my new obsession—I would pay you to hire me if that made any sense at all. It is almost unbelievable that fate has brought us together—and yet it makes perfect sense! Okay, so you must be wondering who I am. First off, I come from generations of talented quilters. Amazing quilters. My grandmother, Mabel Lamb Tucker, made gorgeous quilts, which I slept under as a young girl, so quilting is in my blood. Furthermore, I am an honest-to-God copy editor. I have copyedited literally thousands of articles. Some of them were even about quilting because—ta dah!—I worked for Martha Stewart! God’s truth. Also, I see from your Web site that you are particularly interested in the stories behind the quilts. Me, too! In Vermont, my home state (land of many quilts!), I am known as the Story Lady. So you have to hire me. Please, pretty please, pretty pretty pretty please. Call so we can discuss!
Love and hugs,
Sadie (aka Sara Tucker, author of An Irruption of Owls, a personal memoir in which quilts are mentioned SEVERAL TIMES!!!!)
P.S. Write back and I will send you photographs of my amazing collection of vintage French textiles.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thank You, Alix Spiegel

One of the unsung heroes in An Irruption of Owls is a reporter by the name of Alix Spiegel. Alix was the author of a 2009 NPR report that helped solve a medical mystery in our family. The report, which was aired as a segment of "All Things Considered," was entitled "How a Bone Disease Grew to Fit the Prescription."
   My mother, Idora Tucker, was 86 and still skiing when she began taking Fosamax, on the advice of her new primary-care physician, who did not do a bone-density test. This was in 2005, several years after Fosamax, originally prescribed to people with osteoporosis, was approved for preventive care.
   Eighteen months later, my mother experienced crippling pain in both legs. It took eight months of hassling medical professionals for her to learn that she had stress fractures in both femurs. Nobody could explain why.
   By December 2009, when I heard Alix's report while driving along a Vermont highway, my mother had been trying for almost three years to understand what had gone wrong with her legs. The fractures had healed, but the episode had left her permanently impaired.
   An Irruption of Owls, which I wrote with my bare hands, was published in 2015 and I am embarrassed to say that I never thanked Alix for effectively solving the mystery that is the crux of that story.
   So thank you, Alix Spiegel, for using your investigative and story-telling talents to enlighten us about important matters concerning women's health. I'm sorry it took me so long.
   My mother's illness upended her life, and mine, and that of my very patient and obliging husband. Idora Tucker was a doctor's wife and very careful about her health. She did not accept her doctors' theories about what might have caused her bones to break, and she refused to take the narcotic painkiller that one of them prescribed. She was determined, as she said, "to get to the bottom of things." She wanted to know the truth.
   Today Alix Spiegel cohosts Invisibilia, an NPR program about the invisible forces that control human behavior—ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotions. I am her devoted fan.
   PS You can now download An Irruption of Owls for free from Smashwords. The book, which contains a chapter about my grandparents' run-in with McCarthyism, is my contribution to the resistance. I've also posted an adaptation of the chapter about my mother's illness on my brand-new website, here.
Above: An artifact of my father's medical practice, given to him by a drug salesman.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Les Baux-de-Provence: A Memoir

Les Baux-de-Provence, the childhood home of my mother-in-law, Mireille Davis Texier.
When my mother-in-law died in November 2016, she left behind a hand-written account of her childhood in Les Baux, the village that was her home from 1924 until the early 1940s. For the past two weeks, I have been transcribing her account, which is set down in a series of notebooks numbered 1 through 6.
   Les Baux occupies a rock outcrop above a plain that stretches to the sea. It is a superb setting, and the village is officially designated one of the most beautiful in France. Today, the upper village has only 22 residents—and an estimated 1.5 million visitors per year.
   My mother-in-law also left us a collection of diaries. On December 30, 2009, she wrote:
   “I have reread my memoirs, which are pretty sketchy. Valerie D. is going to help me organize them and make them easier to read. I hesitate to give them to Patrick, who won't be interested, nor Sara. They are too personal and too far removed for American readers.”
    I read this diary entry with a sinking feeling. I felt unbearably sad that I had let my mother-in-law down. Of course, she was incorrect in thinking her life story would be of little interest to others. Besides her children and grandchildren—not to mention myself—there are no doubt many people who would be interested in one of the few first-hand accounts of Les Baux written by someone who lived there before and during World War II.
    I think that when we lose a loved one, it is inevitable to feel regret, and to wish we had expressed our love more often. I wish I had transcribed Mireille's diaries while she was still alive. I wish I had been able to ask her a thousand questions about what she wrote. I wish I had transformed her notebooks into a beautiful printed book, with pictures, one that she would have been proud of. This is the task I have set for myself now.
    I have gotten really good at typing French accents—ç, à, î, é, and so on—on an English-language keyboard. I’ve learned some new vocabulary—the person Mireille refers to as “le Pillard” turns out to have been the village thief. I am learning more about Les Baux, which I have visited only once. It is a fascinating place, and my mother-in-law’s memories of her girlhood there are vivid and specific, a real treasure.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Mystery of the French Clay Pipes

How did six elegant clay pipes make their way from a town in northern France to my mother's house in Vermont? Anyone who has ever emptied out a parent's attic is familiar with this type of puzzle. It took me four years to go through the contents of my mother's house. The last box I opened was in the basement, and it contained an assortment of dishes, a hand mirror, and the six pipes. The newspaper that had been used as packing material dated from the summer of 1968, suggesting the contents might have belonged to Grandma Tucker, since it was around this time that my parents began clearing out her house in Randolph Center. The pipes were wrapped in tissue and stored in a white ceramic pitcher (the pitcher is in the upper right corner of the photo). They are in pristine condition. They were made by Gambier, a French company, probably in the 19th century. How did they come into my possession? I know of nobody in the family who smoked a pipe (and indeed these pipes have never been smoked). Maybe Justin Tucker, my grandfather, whom I barely remember, was a pipe smoker. These pipes are beautiful, and Grandma Tucker had an eye for beauty. She was also a great collector of domestic treasures. Grandma's collection of pitchers hung from hooks near the ceiling and encircled the dining room; it numbered in the hundreds. The littlest pitchers were barely bigger than a thimble. It was broken up, I am sad to say, when my parents sold the contents of her little cottage at auction; my siblings and I have remnants of the original collection. The pitcher that contains the pipes was made by the Homer Laughlin China Company, the manufacturer of Fiesta dinnerware. Homer Laughlin still makes its dishes in the U.S. Maison Gambier opened in Givet (a town near the Belgian border) in 1780 and closed in 1928; at the height of its production, in 1860, it employed 600 workers. I will never know how these pipes found their way to 36 Highland Avenue. The best I can do is to learn more about the factory that produced them. You probably have items like this in your family, too. I have so many it's mind-boggling. I fully expect to spend the rest of my life figuring out what to do with them.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Conversation With My Mother

Saturday morning, 8 a.m., Fontainebleau, France. I am lying in bed, listening to the sound of traffic on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt and staring at the ceiling.

Mom: You know, Sara, you have always done a good job of anything you set your mind to. And you have natural leadership qualities. That play you and Jim Reidy wrote and produced in high school—what was it called?
Me: Noah’s Flood.
Mom: That’s the one. It was a tremendous hit, and the two of you organized the whole thing. The writing group at the senior center is another example. Thanks to you, it took off like gangbusters. The Hale Street Gang exhibit went all the way to the Governor’s Mansion.
Me: Jack Rowell made that happen, Mom. And it was the Statehouse Cafeteria.
Mom: Even better.
Mom: What are you driving at, Mom?
Mom: This run for the presidency—I think you’re making a mistake. It isn’t for you.
Me: Why not? Grampa served in both the Legislature and the Hoff administration. Uncle Allan was a judge.
Mom: They had nothing better to do, but you—I want you to get busy and write another book.
Me: I was afraid you were going to say that. Grampa wrote books. He did both.
Mom: He wrote those books after he was secretary of state. What's more, he always said that job was mostly filing. Sara, I'm your mother, I know you better than anybody, and it behooves me to point out that you have a great tendency to think you can do everything. You can’t be president of the United States and write a best-seller at the same time.
Me: Who says I’m going to write a best-seller?
Mom: I do. Besides, politics has gotten much nastier than it was in your grandfather's time. Fight, fight, fight, that's all they do. Look at the mean things they say about poor Obama. I feel sorry for him. I don't even bother to turn on the TV anymore.
Me: Do they have TV in heaven, Mom?
Mom: They have everything in heaven, dear.
Me: How’s the food?
Mom: The vegetables are overcooked. Most people don't know how to cook vegetables.
Me: I miss you, Mom.
Mom: I miss you, too, dear. Now get busy and write that book. And forget about this presidential nonsense. It’s not for you.
Above: One of my mother's collections of stuff.
For further reading:
Why I Should Be President
In My First 100 Days as POTUS
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Running for Prez

Friday, September 23, 2016

My Hysterically Funny Grief Memoir

What the hell is the Literary Net? This question came up while I was deleting some of the hundreds of newsletters I get from people who want to help me sell my books. Turns out I joined Literary Net a year ago, soon after attending a book conference in New York, where one of the speakers sang its virtues. The purpose of the email was to inform me that my member profile was incomplete. After digging around for my user name and password, I dutifully went to the website to investigate.
   One of the things Literary Net wanted to know was why anyone should buy my books. The answer to this question is what’s called an “elevator pitch,” and it is a standard tool in an author’s kit. An elevator pitch is supposed to be very short, so you can rip it off between floors if you should happen to run into Morgan Entrekin or Judith Regan on your way to buy ink cartridges. Perfecting it can take weeks, even months, but I’ve been in the book-selling biz long enough to have it down. My elevator pitch is so polished I could recite it if the elevator were in freefall. I could recite it on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over my face.
   At second glance, the Literary Net website looked a bit paltry—273 writers pitching their books to each other while waiting for somebody important to come along. Like a sad little crafts fair next to an Interstate highway where the traffic is speeding by. And our head shots—phew. One author was peering out from behind an enormous cat; another was holding a copy of the Holy Bible; a third had chosen to represent himself as a white snowflake on a blue background. A glitch in the website caused the heads to look squished, like a reflection in a cereal spoon.
   Gazing at those photos, I felt a pang in my heart. Truthfully, I wanted to bolt. I wanted to leave Literary Net and never return. You’ll be proud to know that I didn’t. Instead, I hung around long enough to fill out my profile. I mentioned the 93 customer reviews on Amazon, the four-star rating, the blah-blah-blah. I fixed my squishy head. I did not write “You should buy this book because I busted my ass over it for more years than I can count” or “I dedicated this book to my sainted mother so how can you NOT buy it?”
   I did, however, do one little thing to lighten the task. Before signing off, I added the following paragraph in a box labeled “Additional Information”:
   “The prepublication buzz about my ‘grief memoir’ is through the roof. My publisher won't let me divulge the title, because he is afraid aliens will steal it, so for now it is just ‘Sara Tucker's Hysterically Funny Grief Memoir.’ The book is almost done except for the recipes.”
   Between you and me, the hysterically funny grief memoir consists of a few lines scribbled in my spiral notebook. It is not "almost done." If it ever materializes, it will probably not have recipes. But the folks at Literary Net don't need to know that, and anyway, we are all entitled to dream. xo Sadie
* * *
Above: School notebook, 1908. The scholar was Harry H. Cooley, my maternal grandfather. One of his essays, astonishingly, concerns Fontainebleau, France, where I now live. At the time he wrote it, he was a Vermont schoolboy. He never in his life went to France. I discovered the notebook last summer while I was going through my mother's things and couldn't believe my eyes. Material for another post.

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