“Imagination in the Garden” – by Debbie Ambrous

October, 2016 – Walk through the ornate, gold-encrusted garden gates free of charge, and stroll the pathway in peaceful delight under the canopy of towering, sturdy alpine trees with massive trunks. 

Such pleasure seems like a fairy tale, especially with no price tag attached, no parting with euros, or inserting a card for later charges in the mail.  Yet it is true, not imagined.  One can enter La Jaÿsinia botanic garden daily, with no parting of currency, except there is no entry when snow is on the ground.  The closed sign then is meant to protect you from bodily injury and the fragile plants growing beneath the snow.  An image of the winter gardens seems sweeter to me as I imagine the tiny plants under the snow waiting to peek through in the spring, gracious snowdrops and vivid yellow daffodils.Husband Jim and I followed the pathway that zig-zagged its way up the mountainside; we walked across bridges with moss-covered railings and stopped awestruck by the rushing waterfalls.  The brochure wording said: “While you’re looking at the flowerbeds in La Jaÿsinia, you don’t notice that you’re actually climbing the mountainside, until you spot the beautiful view over the village.”  I kindly disagree since my feet and calves did notice that I was climbing up a mountain In fact, I hinted heavily that I should get a ride on the garden tractor.  Like any garden, much work is involved.  Pruning and mowing was underway when we huffed and puffed from one stop to admire vistas to the next stop with a nicely situated bench.  Jim was thankful that for once he wasn’t the one with the hedge trimmers.

La Jaÿsinia’s story continues to read like a fairy tale.  On July 1, 1838, a little girl named Marie-Louise Jaÿ was born in Samoëns, France into a large, working-class family.  She left her hometown at the young age of 15 to seek success in the big city of Paris.  She met and married Ernest Cognacq.  They opened France’s first department store, La Samaritaine, in 1870.  Marie-Louise and Ernest, who remained childless, were immediately successful and amassed a huge fortune.  Marie-Louise did not forget her roots!  She and her husband set up a foundation to fund La Jaÿsinia and other projects. The garden was designed by Jules Allemand for the very spot where the young girl, Marie-Louise, grazed her goats before she found wealth in Paris.

It is the only botanic garden of its kind in the Alps, containing 5000 varieties of mountain flowers from 5 continents.  Research continues with a seed exchange network with more than 800 members world-wide.   The garden covers 3.7 hectares (9 acres) on steeply-sloping terrain.  The idyllic garden is truly a haven of tranquility, an escape from tedium or stress.  The narrow path winds up to the ruins of the 12th century Tornalta castle and a 13th century chapel. The views are more panoramic with each step of the way. A young mother passed us on the way down, pushing a baby in a stroller.  The young lady in a neon-green jacket exchanged groans with me about the climb, but we agreed that the workout was good for us in the fresh air in the glorious garden. 

We soon caught up with a grandmother moving slower and keeping a close eye on her young energetic grandson while he darted here and there like a scampering, baby deer.  The gray-haired grandmother was carrying a paper plate loaded with his bounty of special leaves and nuts found on the ground, each one a special keepsake in his eyes.  We exchanged smiles and knowing looks about the ways of little boys.

I asked Jim, “Do you remember when Chet was around that age?  He had an imaginary friend named Candy, a tiny little girl, blonde with a perfect flip-up 70’s hairstyle, or so he described her to us?”  Jim laughed and replied, “Of course, I remember.  She was so little that she could fit inside my shirt pocket.  Once we went for a walk up the hill in front of our house, hand-in-hand with Chet, and at the crest of the hill he started crying that we had forgotten Candy.   We had to turn around and go back to get her.  At least, I had to go back.  You stood with Chet and waited until I returned as hero of the day with Candy safely snuggled inside my pocket.  Knowing Chet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally still has that perky little blonde in his pocket when he walks around town.

Jim and I went along the street downtown for drinks and a snack after our “mountaineering” with a bit of window-shopping along the pretty streets.  While we were relaxing I suggested to Jim, “Chet got his big imagination from you.  The figment of imagination didn’t fall too far from the master imaginer.  I seem to remember that you had an imaginary playmate named Jimmy.  Seems like you could have come up with another name other than your own since you had such a huge imagination!  I must admit that you had a humdinger of an ending for the little, skinny Jimmy though!”  Jim grinned and took a long swallow of his drink.  With an innocent, full-of-nonsense look on his face, he said, “What?  You mean jumping off a chicken house is a big ending?”   Quick on reply, I said: “Yes, jumping off a chicken house and smashing his head on the ground to his final death is a whopper of an ending!

We strolled on down the street and along the road toward our rental house.  Our shadows were long in the late afternoon when we passed a road alongside the rushing mountain stream.   Jim wasn’t all talked-out yet about our heritage of imagination.  He had to get the last dig at me.

Walking along with the sun warming our aching backsides, he said, “Now tell me again about the cute fellow that you dreamed about marrying.  What was his name? Huh?”  Hiding my big smile, I answered, “You know his name was Jim.  Can you believe it?  My imaginary dream-boat, handsome, rich husband was Jim.  I played paper dolls with my cousins and neighbor playmates in our family camper trailer parked behind the house, only taking breaks for black cherry Kool-Aid and cookies.  Each time I played, my cute husband was Jim.  Then, I ended up with YOU!”  Insisting on asking another question, Jim said, “Whatever happened to your made-up Mr. Moneybags, Cute-stuff Jim?  Did he jump off the Paper Doll Mansion when he saw me coming?”  Not interested in this silly conversation anymore, I pointed to a sign with a person’s middle name of Bastard. 

“See, there’s another person named Bastard.  I told you that Bastard is a normal, ordinary French name, like the owner who renovated the Chateau de Hautefort in the Dordogne region of France.  In fact, one of the streets is named such.  I said the “B” name in a speech about my book to an upper-class group in Alabama, and jaws dropped while they looked at me like I had lost my mind.  You would have thought I had stepped in a smelly, cow-patty from the way their noses went out of joint!”  Trying to get support from my loyal husband for the mistake I had clearly made, I asked, “What do you think of that?”  After a moment of wheels turning in his rusty, but imaginative mind, he said, “I think taking a vow of silence might be the best course now since I don’t want my middle name changed to one with the initial “B” at this late date in the course of our marriage.”

Language is an odd thing with words meaning one thing when spoken in one language, but something altogether different in another.  I hope my words are harmonious for all and any imagination ignited is enjoyable.  Did you have imaginary playmates when you were little? Did you ever wish you could swallow the words you uttered like my predicament? I always enjoy seeing your stories and messages in the comment box shown below.    Have a beautiful day! Come again to see us.  Thanks to all of you!!

You can read more about the Chateau de Hautefort which has an unusual, bittersweet story of destruction and survival in the book “A French Opportunity” by clicking over to purchase in paperback or Kindle.

“Alpine Balm” – by Debbie Ambrous

A whirlwind tour of vertigo kept me from the keyboard since the slightest movement of my head set the room into the whirling motion of a Cuisinart blender.  Medication finally conquered the inner ear infection, but the unsettling news of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes shook my inner system each day as these catastrophes were reported.  Returning to my simple blog after my last story has not been easy since composing a story of travel seemed insignificant in the face of such pain and upheaval.

Then, I saw among my photos of France from the alpine region the words on a sign by a mountain stream that struck a chord of peace and calm for me.  The sign showed the name: Balme Dessous.  Yes, that’s what I need, a restorative balm for my body and mind.  The dictionary definition of balm is “a fragrant ointment, or preparation used to heal or soothe the skin.”  As I looked at the photo, I remembered the rushing clear water almost aquamarine in color, sparkling fresh and clean and polishing the ebony stones like creations of artwork strewn on the riverbank.

A chapel, or possibly a mountain refuge, was on the opposite bank among the trees with their shimmering gold autumn leaves forming a backdrop like a stage curtain for the dramatic, surging river waters.  Green moss cloaked the trunks in a camouflage pattern, and the woodsy fragrance filled my lungs, soothing like a balm preparation.For the moments when I lingered in the memories from the photo I did feel a sense of well-being, a comfort for some of my personal problems and a resurgence of hope for the many with serious conditions not healed by an ointment, or reflections on a photo.  Yet, there are times when a simple distraction is a coping method, a balm until the real cure arrives.  With those thoughts in mind, I decided that I could write and share photos of peaceful scenes where we can place ourselves safely hidden from harm for at least a short time.

“To Hope” by John Keats

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my “mind’s eye” flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head…

O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed

The history of Balme Dessous is lost for me at the moment.  I searched among my snippets of saved brochures and scanned my travel guidebook to no avail, so for now I hope you will settle on the best I can give about the idyllic place which was a distraction on our way to Sixt-fer-a-Cheval.  Jim and I find out of the way places which are often more charming than our original destination, the ones with the hordes of people filling the streets.  Sixt was not a congested tourist town when we were there, but it is classified as one of Le Plus Beaux Villages of France. You can’t go wrong with a place that Clint Eastwood selected to be secluded away.  The French film director and producer, Gilles Legrand, shot his first two movies in Sixt.  No one on the streets would be impressed with two small-town Alabama residents moseying around their classified village.  We couldn’t even get lost on the few streets on each side of the river! The small hamlets that lined the road leading to the impressive waterfall Cascade du Rouget, especially Salvagny, were our main agenda.  I was taken by the pastoral beauty of the homes, both ancient and new, with cows and sheep in verdant green fields.  Pocket gardens with vegetables and fruit (raspberries-my favorite), so beautiful that one could expect a balm of nutrition from their bounty.

Jim and I left the car by the road, and we strolled like Hansel and Gretel (if you overlook gray hair and a few extra pounds) past the picture-book scenes.  Ancient watering troughs with dates from the 1800’s were along the narrow roads by the clusters of homes with geraniums cascading down to greet us like red streamers along a parade route.

Some of the houses were named to fit the alpine theme, but then we found one named La Mexicaine

Ah, how wonderful!  A Mexican settled there to enjoy the balm of the French Alps.  My heart has a special place for Mexico and the lovely people who welcomed us there in our travels, not to ever forget the many friends we have met since and hope to meet in the future.

They are in our thoughts and prayers as they try to put their lives together again after the major earthquakes.Our day of meandering along the narrow roads was one with low-hanging clouds, but a brilliant blue sky was overhead.  After enjoying the pieces out of this perfect little place, we moved on to the road leading to the Cirque de Sixt-Fer-A-Cheval which is named for the shape of the natural amphitheater, which looks like a horseshoe.  Waterfalls spill from the soaring mountains, and the site draws 500,000 people each year!  The first time we visited the weather was cloudy, overcast and raining at times.  We were the only ones there!  Not one person joined us as we enjoyed the beauty.  While it was an awesome experience in the stillness, having the wide open massive amphitheater to yodel or eat potato chips without sharing, we were anxious to see it without a rain shower faucet following our every slushy step. 

The mountains were a humbling experience and the simple beauty of the old farm buildings along the entry road including a chicken-run was just right for us Alabama folk.We made one good-bye stop in Sixt, hoping to meet up with a film director or a young lady film starlet to match Jim’s short-list of wishes.  Oh, I almost forgot!  Bob Marley was at my side, poking his nose into gardens and sniffing at the aromas drifting from restaurants.  Let me explain.  Jim’s hat was continually drooping and slouching down the back of his head like he had a mass of dreadlocks hidden under the wool

Being a helpful wife and wanting his appearance to be less unkempt, I kept adjusting his hat until I finally gave up and called him “Bob” for the remainder of the time.  Bob kept bumbling at the edge of the road and I caught his profile as proof.   A stroll with Bob without an umbrella was a nice way to remember the town.  The bell tower sounded the chime for the noon hour, an almost sacred occasion in France.  It was time to leave.  I slowly walked to the car knowing I had only a few more days in France.

Now almost a year since those lovely days I only have a few more stories to share from the October/November 2016 visit.  I thought we would return to France this autumn, but we may sit this one out on our garden bench.  But we will plot and plan.  Stay with us and see what happens.  Thank you!

If you are sitting on bench of indecision and would like a nudge to a bucolic vacation, check out Alps Accommodations by clicking here.  La Ruche is our favorite!  You will not be disappointed by their service, the beautiful homes or the location.  Of course you know that location, location, location is all-important.  If you would prefer something the Dordogne in SW France, click to see the beautiful homes here at Le Peyruzel.  You can’t do better.  I know, I have tried others.  If you are longing for the Loire, a very sweet place can be found here.  Click to link for my story, a very true description of the beautiful home.  Clean, preciously beautiful and comfortable!  Wait, now, don’t book when I want to go!

Why not add A French Opportunity to your bookshelf?