Happy New’s Year Eve 40th Wedding Anniversary

Forty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1983, I said, “I do,” in a seventeenth century chapel in France, not far from the famous WWII Landing beaches. What are the odds of a small town girl from the cornfields of Illinois meeting a French boy raised by the sea in Normandy?

 

 

Where else could we have fallen in love at first sight?
At a basketball game in Paris, of course!

We had just lost the finals of the French championship by one point. I met Gerald in the aftermath, so he witnessed my storm after a big game loss. He asked me out anyway.

Our wedding feast, so French, pheasant pate, fish in cream sauce, "trou Normand" sorbet, leg of lamb and pastries, with different wines and alcohols went on for hours. When the clock struck midnight the crazy uncles handed out party hats and pea shooters and turned the event into a New Year Eve party.

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We had no clue what we were getting into.

Challenges await across cultural marriage…endless official legal paperwork, les faux pas, the misunderstandings, the sacrifices, the compromises.

Opposites do attract. Gerald was a steady, pragmatic, realistic businessman with his feet planted firmly on the ground; I was an intuitive, impetuous, irrational dreamer living in the clouds.

But we were so alike in other ways. Both of us are ultra competitive, hyper-intense Type A’s. Our arguments could rock the roof off our old apartments in Paris, but though we do disagree at times, we are also fiercely protective and supportive of one another’s goals.

Together we endured heartbreaking losses — my career ending car accident, my miscarriages, my brain injury.

But our rewards were great; none greater than watching a bright, adventuresome daughter and a clever, witty son grow strong on basketball courts across Switzerland and go onto become doctors.

Gerald is so dependable, loyal, trustworthy, a man of integrity, but equally intimidating with his French sarcasm and quick temper. I am an overly emotional writer type that wears her heart on her sleeve.

Gerald, not a big talker, is the strong silent type. I compensate for his lack of verbosity by babbling nonstop.

I stood by his side when we laid his parents (our dear Papie & Mamie) to rest; he cradled my heart the day my dad died. As the years go by, we appreciate even more how much grandparents enriched our children’s lives and our own.

Though getting from one continent to the other has never been easy, we shared the best of both worlds. I learned to savor his French family dinners that went on for hours, he grew to appreciate my Midwest America at its best — corn on the cob and backyard BBQs.

We learned to compromise. He’ll never love burgers, but found a recipe for meatballs with ground beef that he enjoys too. I’ll never appreciate fois gras and raw oysters, but I savor the French art of savoir-faire when it comes to fine dining.

Over the years our love grew stronger strolling the beaches of his homeland Normandy and walking through the woods of our family cabin in Wisconsin, traveling throughout the Old World and sharing the bench on basketball courts, cheering on many kids, our own and others.

Whenever I crawled in despair, ready to give up, he pulled me back up on feet and encouraged me to keep fighting. When my book, represented by 3 agents couldn’t find a home, he made sure my story got published. When the school where I taught and coached wanted me to be a keynote speaker at graduation, he persuaded me to rise to the challenge. After my brain surgery, when I feared my words would jumble, he urged me to speak at Illinois State University’s Title XI celebration as a part of US women’s athletic history.

I supported him through seven different moves from assistant director to CEO, helping our kids readjust and remaking our lives.

He applauded my success as a coach and supported our children by volunteering as a score table official and team chauffeur.

On our wedding night, we united different generations of American, French and Germans, once enemies, to a shared table in Normandy, in the very land where their countries had fought each other. In our marriage, raising two bicultural, international kids as global ambassadors, we always strived to bring people together.

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Gerald made me a better me. After forty years of triumphs and tribulations, I helped bring out the best in him. We became more together, than we could ever be alone.

I raise my glass to us, and to our family and friends around the globe!

Happy New Year!

Biarritz Coastal Resort Haven for Surfers

 

Biarritz Grande Plage

After living in Paris for years, I was well traveled to most parts of France, but I’d never set foot in her southwest, Biarritz topped my bucket list. Perched on the Atlantic cliff side near the Spanish border in the Basque Region, settlements around the city date back to prehistoric times. The Vikings invaded Gascony in 840 and created the first real village.

Economically dependent on the fishing trade, Biarritz was known for whaling from the 12th century. Napoleon III and his Spanish born wife, Eugenie, turned Biarritz into a popular seaside spot when they came for holidays starting in the mid 19th century.

Today, the ritzy coastal resort, with its elegant villas and epic Grand Palace glitter in Belle Epoque style, juxtaposes with the summer surfers crowd in their beach bum attire.

In the 1950’s, Biarritz became known as Europe’s surf capitol. Since then the city thrives on high tide when surfers from across the continent flock to the sea to ride the waves.

Fishing port

In the past, popular for its casinos, boutiques, bars, restaurants and golf courses, which catered to the rich, the surf community has now also invaded the coastline of Biarritz. Tucked along streets of early 1900s mansions, surfers live out of 60s style vans, cooking meals on electric coals set on the stone seawall, waiting for the water to rise and race to the sea.

overlooking La Côte des Basques

We rented an Airbnb apartment on the cliff-side above the Bay of Biscay and savored the panoramic view of the beach, the bay and the surfers that looked like shark fins from a distance.

As we meandered down narrow, winding streets that opened to La Cote Des Basques’ stunning overlook, we passed lithe surfers with boards slung under their arms or attached to their bikes. With their stereotypical trim builds and dreadlocks, wearing a dress-like coverups over their swim trunks, they were always ready to peel into wet-suits and hustle to the beach in time to hit high tide.

How they managed to ride the waves in winds so ferocious amazed me. I was knocked off my feet just wading along the beach.

All the outdoor exercise whet our appetites, and there was no end to eateries along the coast and in the village.

My husband, born on the coast of Normandy, adored the seafood platter including 5 different fish and prawns, mussels and clams in a saffron sauce served with a tasty, fruity local red wine. Food in the Basque Country is an explosion of flavors filled with spices from the inland.

Most eateries are a lively, colorful, warm reflection of the Basque people.

Biarritz's spectacular sea scenes combined with her succulent cuisine and welcoming ambiance will entice visitors to return.

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French Mamie’s House in Trouville’s Historic Fishermen District

Mamie’s house overlooks the quay of Trouville, France, a fishing village where inhabitants exist in rhythm with the tides and the ebb and flow of tourists flooding her Normandy beach.

Mamie lives in the historic fishermen quarters on the Rue des Ecores, which dates from the mid 17th century when the quay was built. The houses once chiseled out of the cliff to accommodate fishermen reflected the maritime hierarchy. The sailors’ flats had one window and one floor, while the prosperous captains’ homes had windows on either side of the front door, and several floors.

The lower level of the building, filled with cafes, boutiques, and gift shops, opens to the bustling boulevard across from the open market on the Touques River. On the rue des Ecores up above, time froze; fishermen flats look the same as when they were first built. Wooden doors open to pencil-thin homes where rooms are stacked 6 stories high like building blocks.

On the narrow lane under number 55, the door opens into Mamie’s ground floor, which is actually the 3rd level of the building. On the left is her kitchen. Straight through the hallway to the dining/living area, French windows open to a balcony above the quay.

The windows on one side of the apartment face the colorful, lively, bright main street alongside the Touques River; the other side’s windows look onto the darker Rue des Ecores.

In the living room, a wooden dining table, the focus of any French home, consumes most of the space. A love seat, wedged next to the oak, Normand cupboard filled with Mamie’s old wedding china, faces the TV, perched in a corner. Though compact, the 10 x 14 foot room expanded to squeeze another chair around Mamie’s table where family and friends were always welcome to dine on Normandy’s finest fare from land and sea.

In between the two rooms, a steep, winding staircase, coils like a snake, from one floor to the next. The stairway is so tight that furniture had to be brought up by crane and passed through the windows.

On her second floor landing, there is a water closet and 2 bedrooms. In Mamie’s room stands a wardrobe of fine Normand craftsmanship passed down from ancestors. On the floor above that, are a bath and two more small bedrooms where we always stayed. Each morning I threw open the shutters savoring a birds eye view of the river, fish market, and casino. The very top floor under the mansard roof once held Papie’s old workbench and hanging tools.

Every nook and cranny remained filled with mementos triggering happy memories from Mamie’s giant dinner bell, to her French cartoon collection, to her lumpy, duvet covered beds. Artwork and photographs, showing the chronology of marriages, birthdays, baptisms, and graduations, covers every inch of wall space.

Whenever we left, driving away down Main Street, Mamie and Papie stood on the wrought iron balcony waving goodbye and blowing kisses.

The historic landmark, Rue des Ecores, endures as the center of the fishermen district, just as Mamie’s place remains forever as the heart of our French family.

France Names Gym After American Basketball Player, My Mentor

When a car accident in France ended my professional basketball career, I wanted to curl up and die. While struggling to rehabilitate, my physical therapist in Paris, saw my despair and said, “Don’t cry. Call Henry Fields. He’ll help you out.”

“McKinzie,” Henry said when I called. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Shot the eyes out of the basket. Need a job? Great. We need a coach.”

So I began coaching at American School of Paris under the tutelage of Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French basketball, and one of the first Americans to play in Europe. After winning the military world championship while stationed in Orleans, France, in 1962 he was invited to stay on to play for Paris University Club for $50 a month. Not only did he rack up championship titles, he won over the heart of the entire country and paved the way for other American players to follow.

Though he earned accolades as a player, his greatest impact may have been as a coach, where he dedicated his life to developing ball skills in youth at the various clubs where he starred. As a teacher and coach, he built a dynasty at ASP, the first American school with an international community in Europe established in 1946.

After retirement, he and his lovely Norwegian wife, Ragna, resettled in Auterive, south of Toulouse (southwest France), to be closer to their daughters. When he found out that the community didn’t have a basketball program for kids, he built one for them.

From Hank, I learned international basketball rules and insider tips, like it’s okay to yell at a ref as long as you buy him a drink after the game. He showed me how to make sure that each player had a role and felt valued.

He exemplified the true spirit of the game. Basketball is more that X and 0s, back door cuts, and match-up zones, it’s about bringing people together from every race, nationality and walk of life.

A few days ago, when I saw on a Facebook post that the gym in Auterive, had been named Halle Henry Fields, I pumped my fist and cheered.

“Pat, I had no idea,” he said when he called to tell me about the surprise ceremony. “They told me to wear a tie and come coach a game. When I got there, they sang happy birthday and dedicated the gym to me. Friends from teams back in 60s and 70s came to join in the celebration.”

“Oh Hank,” I said. “I wish I could have been there.”

“You were. You’re a part of everything I do.”

I feel the same way; we share the magic of mentoring. Over time, the wisdom of mentors becomes part of the mentees’ psych.

In the highest level of sport, coaches give back, pass on, and pay forward, becoming immortalized in the hearts and minds of those players who shared their love of a game.

What greater tribute to offer an ambassador of the game than to name a gym in his honor?

Henry Fields, granddaddy of basketball in France, a man with all the connections, believes everyone who loves the game is related.

To me, he will always be family.

 

 

Annecy The Best Place to Live in France

DSCN3365“If I could live anywhere, I would pick Annecy, the best place in the world. Ahh Annecy,” My friend in Paris would say rolling her eyes and swooning about this city, as though she were talking about a lover. When I visited the Gallo Roman Village in Savoy region of France on beautiful Lake Annecy, I finally understood her infatuation.

Combine water, mountains and historical buildings, throw in a 12th century castle and you have the perfect making of a tourist trap. Yet, there are no lines in this open air museum. Footpaths and walkways absorb the crowds and excursions and sites fulfill every interest.

In the Old Annecy, narrow winding cobblestone streets beckon tourists to step into the past. Lake Annecy’s natural spillway flows through the heart of the city. Artists paint along the Thiou canal in what’s known as the “Savoyard Venise.”

Lake Annecy surrounded by gray cliffs and white peeked Alps is the cleanest lake in Europe, so clear you can see the bottom. The waterfront, lined with parks, benches and boardwalks, is ideal for strolling and lounging. Steamboats excursions offer birds eye views into ports of call on the lake.

DSCN3334Above the lake, the medieval city is wrapped around a cliff where the 15th century castle overlooks the red roofed village. But what I liked the best was wandering the streets lined with arcades. Entering the St. Claire gate with its worn hinges, machicolations and bell turret, was like stepping into another century. I followed the rue St. Claire, a sinuous winding cobblestone lane, which takes the shape of the rock base on which the castle stands, and dates to the origins of the town.

On the pedestrian streets lined with open air cafes, visitors can dine on lake perch and fondue. Even more tempting are the ice cream shops boasting of homemade ices. Each tiny scoop costs $3, but one bite of the fuchsia sorbet will send you to raspberry heaven.

Like the other tourists, I snapped a family picture in front of one of France’s most photographed spots, the Isle Palace, a well known French monument. The Isle Palace’s triangular form in the shape of a ship’s bow evokes a galley anchored in the river whose water it divides. The governor of Annecy lived here in the 12th century, then it became a seat of the justice, the mint, the prison and now it has retired to status of historical monument and houses exhibitions.

Dogs and cats doze in the sunlight. Colorful cafes filled with the clatter of plates and chatter of voices speaking different languages mingle with the sound of street musicians strumming guitars turning this lively street scene into a live film blending modern times with yesteryear.

No wonder, Annecy rates number one in France for the quality of life. It expanded economically, yet despite the influence of industry, it retains its old world charm. Annecy –ever faithful to nature and her past — may hold the secret to the future, a way in which modern technology can exist harmoniously with an ancient village.

Strolling the Trouville-Deauville Boardwalk

IMG_3313Strolling down the boardwalk in Trouville on the beach in Normandy is like stepping back in time. On June 6, 1944 the Normandy beaches were ravaged during the famous D-Day Landing, yet fortunately for my French family, pockets of the coastline were spared from the bombings. La Promenade des Planches, built in 1876 of an exotic wood that resists heat and cold, endures another kind of beating. The faded, grey boardwalk has withstood the tantrums of the skies, tempest of the sea, and the trampling feet of millions of tourists.

From the boardwalk, on your left, the ocean calls. White foaming waves wash onto a beach DSCN1474_copywhere children build sandcastles and fly kites while young adults shoot across the sand on colorful char sails. Children and adults alike kick footballs into faded nets, dive after volleyballs in the sand and smack tennis balls on the red clay courts. Proud owners of the beach houses lean against the white huts trimmed in blue and bake in the afternoon sun like gingerbread in an oven.

Queues form in front of the ice cream, crepes and waffle stands. Tables from the outdoor cafés spill onto the walkway. Gold, magenta, and turquoise kites dance across the skies. The steady rhythm of the waves crashes against the horizon, where only the bravest souls dare to wade in the frigid water. The beach is a beehive of activity.

DSCN1441_copyIf you look to the right, it’s as if time stood still. Imposing half-gabled, eighteenth century mansions line the seafront, casting shadows, looming as if guarding the coast from another invasion. My dream is to be able to walk through one, to creep up the spiral staircases and peek into the alcoves and corner niches.

The juxtaposition of past and present creates a stunning contrast. I cringe when tourists pull out iPhones. Why would anyone want to connect in artificial cyberspace, when the reality of the beach offers a feast for one’s senses?

DSCN1471_copyBenches beckon beach goers to sit for a spell, to people-watch and admire the ocean. I used to identify the passersby nationality by their fashion choices. Svelte Parisian women wore tight fitting designer skirts and even skinnier stilettos. The British donned bonnets and cardigans with sturdy footwear. Americans sported baseball caps and tennis shoes.

Now that the old-fashioned, canvas Converse high top has made a comeback worldwide, national identity is harder to decipher. Styles of dress have blended, at least with the younger generations.IMG_0340_copy

A stroll down the walkway fills me with a sense of timelessness. Long after I am gone, the next generations will continue to promenade on the boardwalk of Trouville-Deauville.