Monday, October 31, 2005


American Trick or treat developed out of Scottish 'guising' - when immigrants took their traditional Halloween celebrations to the new world.
'Guising' is going from house to house dressed up in disguise and singing a song or dancing or telling a joke or some sort of forfeit in exchange for fruit and nuts - sweets came much later.

Pumpkins were used to make lanterns becuase turnips or swedes [what are called rutabaga in the US] were not so readily available to make lanterns from - and although i'm a traditionalist, I have to say that pumpkins are easier to carve.

Modern Halloween has only been celebrated here in the South of France for about 8 years. A Celtic festival called something similar to the Gaelic Samhain-thought to mean 'summers end' ; SAMON[IOS] may have been celebrated here -at least many people suggest that thats what is referred to on the Coligny calendar -but it does not seem to have survived to recent modern times in the way it has in other places-at least not as overtly.

Instead, Toussaint was celebrated- All saints Day on the first of November and to an extent it overlapped with the Day of the Dead on November the second. Candles were lit and flowers [especially crysanthemums ] are placed on graves of the family dead.

Apparently though, until the 19th century, hollowed out beetroots with candles inside were carried by children in Northern France and Belgium - the children asked for 'two cents for the poor dead souls' "on çan po lès pauvès-âmes!" and there were also beliefs that the dead could come back at this time and visit the ones left behind.
This is very similar to carrying 'tumshie lanterns' [turnip lanterns] and 'tattie bogles' [monsters made of potatoes or kale roots] around in Scotland while guising for Halloween.

These potatoes were found in the bottom of my cupboard and they'd have been a good start for making tattie bogles if they'd been bigger.

Now the holiday has been imported into France from the US - so the emphasis is on trick or treat and the vampire/witch/ghost/devil type disguises rather than getting masked or painted just to look different and out of the ordinary. Shops hand out sweets and ballons to the 'trick or treaters' - no one goes from house to house.

We have always tried to have a fairly traditional halloween celebration though at first when we mentioned Halloween, people here had only heard of the horror films and were really unsure of the concept.
The children really enjoy dressing up and playing traditional games - or at least variations on the theme. Instead of scones covered in treacle suspended on strings that had to be grabbed in the mouth without gettting too messy, I used slices of whole meal bread and nutella - similar concept and much more familiar. I tried treacle at first but that was universally rejected so nutella was the best alternative.
Apple dooking [ducking] always goes down well- as long as somone who knows what to do goes first.

We always try to have traditional turnip lanterns -though its often difficult to find turnips large enough. Almost every year people advise me that the turnips i've chosen will be rotten for cooking - since the turnips here are meant to be tiny. After several bizarre conversations over the years about why i want large and woody turnips, i've given up explaining what i intend to do with them. Its easier just to feign ignorance.

To me, the smell of smouldering turnip is the essence of halloween. Carving the turnip was something we did with my dad, when i was a child. I loved eating the raw turnip as we carved it out - and i still love it to this day. Placing the candle properly was always a painstaking task and something my dad always dealt with - now we tend to use tea lights since they are handy in size and shape and of course the turnips we use now are miniature in comparison with the ones available in Scotland.

Here are the three turnips we carved this year. They make an interesting yellow coloured light despite the flesh of the turnip being pure white.

This is the one I carved - I always make a reasonably happy face for some reason- even if i intend to make it more spooky.

BTW I've quickly made a banner and put it up on the top blog for Halloween.
I'm going to try and keep it seasonal and change the banner regularly now i know how to change it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


I was feeling a bit depressed and sorry for myself the other day. Nothing seemed to be going right and it would have been so much easier to just give up on what i was trying to do - still i was determined not to give in - I'd worked too hard to give up.

As soon as i'd decided this it seemed that everything started to go right - in fact it was a bit like suddenly being in a musical since the sun came out and there were rainbows everywhere.
I took some photos of the rainbows to prove to myself that it had really happened.

I wasn't sure if the rainbows would come out as clearly as i could see them but they turned out really well.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Illustration Friday - Broken - hurt tortoise

Illustration Friday - topic is 'Broken'

I spent ages yesterday pondering this topic and couldn't seem to find anything interesting. I couldn't get away from the title of my favourite western - Broken Arrow [1950] starring James Stewart and Jeff Chandler . This film was one of the first to get away from the 'savage redskins' view of Native Americans and tells the true story of the friendship between Tom Jeffords and Cochise. The film also tried to portray the beliefs and lifestyle with a lot less Hollywood nonsense than most modern films - despite prevailing attitudes of the time.

Still this didn't help me much with what to draw for llustration Friday and then today i woke up sneezing and with streaming red eyes - which hasn't helped.

I suppose waking up with the beginning of a cold made me think about being ill and how that could be seen as being 'broken' in some ways. It also reminded me of once seeing a toddler who had tried to catch a lizard and decribed it as 'broken' , 'cassé' in french, because the lizard had shed its tail when trying to escape. They are, of course , meant to do this as its their survival strategy- the tail will eventually grow back.

This was one i saw the other day with a half grown tail. There are apparently break points along the tail so that the lizard doesn't need to lose the whole thing if its not necessary.
The dropped tails tend to wriggle a bit after they come off which is supposed to attract the predators attention away from the escaping lizard.

From lizard tails , I then remembered that recently on the train to Nice we had been annoyed by a woman reading very loudly in english to her little boy aged about 4 or 5.

She was reading a book about lizards and reptiles but would answer none of the boys questions so it was really frustrating for him and the rest of the occupants of the carriage. At one point the book mentioned that turtles and tortoises can have their shells repaired by vets -who use fibreglass for that purpose.

The boy really wanted to know why the vets used this 'boat stuff' for tortoise shells and the woman just refused to answer. I really wanted to shout over that it was ok not to know the answer and that the fibreglass was used because it was light, strong and water proof -but i resisted the temptation with a great deal of difficulty. I imagine she would have blotted my comments out just as effectively as she did her son's.

Anyway that incident plus a vet activity kit that a friend's child got for her birthday recently made me think of a tortoise with a broken shell mended by a giant sticking plaster [bandaid].
So something quick and simple in between sneezes.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Photo Friday - delicate

I took this photo today specially for the Photo Friday topic - Delicate

A garden spider had been busy building webs all over the terrace but seems to have either moved on or been eaten by the blackbirds or collared doves that like to sit in the vines.
I took some pictures looking towards the vines as well but although they looked interesting they didn't fit the challenge.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

weedy sea dragon

The last few days have been hectic. I was trying to work on a final piece to send off to the Bologna Illustrators competition [5 pieces are needed] and i was initially stumped for a subject.
I decided i would enter the non-fiction competition this year since i have been producing a lot of natural history works recently. I decided that the overall theme would be aquatic creatures and since i already had a common octopus, angler fish, portuguese man o'war and an archer fish that only left one piece to decide on and finish.

I've lost track of how many i started and gave up on for one reason or other - i might go back to them later but for now they just didn't seem to work properly.
I ended up doing a weedy sea dragon -which are very strange creatures related to sea horses.
They are quite diverse in colouring and body shape and have strange appendages which mimic sea weeds and are used for camouflage.

Sea dragons are difficult to identify as male or female until they start to reproduce -and there is the same sort of sex reversal in sea dragons [weedy and leafy] as found in sea horses: the females lay eggs which are fertilised and then transferred to the male.
Male sea horses carry fertilised eggs in a special pouch until the baby sea horses hatch, male sea dragons carry the eggs on the underside of their tails.

Sea dragons have now been reared in captivity but they are still a mysterious creature, with lots of secrets still to be discovered.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Firebugs and a spider

These red and black bugs are called 'Fire bugs' in english and 'Gendarmes' [military soldier- the now have a blue uniform but the original uniform in the 16th century was a red velvet coat ,'soldats' [soldiers] , 'punaise au corps de feu' [bug with a firey body] and 'cherche-midi' [midday seeker] in french.

Pyrrhocoris apterus is the latin name for this bug - the red and black colours are to warn off predators. There are a lot of similarly coloured insects with similar body shapes and markings - birds quickly realise that some of these red and black bugs taste horrible so they avoid anything with the same colours.

I like these particular bugs becuase they have markings that look like African masks or painted shields.

Here is one perched on a metal fence - they look quite friendly somehow- i think its the cheery [to humans] colour scheme.

This was one on the other side of the fence climbing away from the camera. I liked seeing the underside of the beast as well as the hairs on the leaves.

A different fire bug - they seem to congregate together- there were 20 or 30 on this bushy plant- though most were out of reach of the camera.
I like the how the shiny red eyes turned out in this photo
This is a spider that was walking around our house- it wasn't very big - though the close up makes it look huge.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Illustraton Friday - Remote- Archer Fish

The Illustration Friday topic is Remote this week.
I wasn't sure at first about the topic and then when i went outside i saw a garden spider sitting in the middle of its orb web.
That made me think of remote sensing as the spiders sit on the edge of their webs, with their legs touching the strands so that the spider will be alerted immediately if some unsuspecting prey blunders in.
So i sat down intending to paint a spider and then while thinking about being remote from the prey i then thought that a shark might be a better idea for the word 'remote' . Sharks have such fantastic senses they can smell blood or the feel the vibrations of a fish in trouble from a long way away. I sat down and looked through my reference photos that we had taken at sea life centres over the years and watched some shark videos. I started to wonder if maybe shark was too easy an answer to the topic and wondered about fish that might kill remotely.
Electric eels came to mind since they will discharge elecrticity to stun their prey as well as for defence. However, i didn't have any decent reference material for the electric eel so i've put that on the back burner until something better comes up.
It was an easy jump then from electric eels to archer fish - at least for me. =)

I remember being amazed by the proficiency of the archer fish [Toxotidae family] when i first heard about them.
The fish swims along, camouflaged by the dark patches on its upper body, and spits jets of water at bugs -which knocks the bug into the water and into the waiting mouth of the archer fish.

Their eyes have very good vision and they can spit water up to 2 metres [6 feet] . Accuracy is said to be 99% which is phenomenal. They will also jump out of the water to catch insects directly.
They are not true freshwater fish but like to be in brackish water as their natural habitat is mangrove swamp [ swamp in areas washed by the sea tides -therefore salt or semi salt water]

Friday, October 21, 2005

Photo Friday - Retro -Villa Kerylos

The Photo Friday theme is Retro this week.
I couldn't think of anything more retro than the Villa Kerylos; a villa in Beaulieu-sur-Mer built and furnished in the style of an Ancient Greek palace for Theodore Reinach.

This is one of the rooms - i have to say that this is one of the most breathtaking houses i have ever seen -the attention to detail is unbelievable. There are magnificent wall paintings, tapestries and mosaics and the specially designed furniture is stunningly beautiful.
Its hard to believe that this villa was only built between 1902-1908.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tags and accidental Vandemar activity

Recently i've had a few folk tagging me to do some bloggery list things - Emily
though i wasn't sure how to work out that one, Joli Noir Perle and Constant Thing.
Anyway, here goes:

20 random things

I have synaesthesia which means i can taste some sounds and certain colours and textures and hear some colours .
I didn't realise this was odd until relatively recently.
I'm ambidextrous
I don't drive
chewing gum revoltes me
I am really messy
I can read upside down
People always assume i'm a vegetarian or vegan
Strangers tell me all about their illnesses and hidden secrets
I've seen the Northern Lights
I hate shopping for clothes and loathe shoe shopping even more.
I really dislike clothes hangers
I love watching the sunrise
If i don't paint for a while i get withdrawal symptoms.
I have really bad vertigo
Fortean phemonena have always fascinated me particularly the idea of spontaneous human combustion.
I feel at home underwater
I try to take my camera with me everywhere.
Insects and parasites fascinate me [see photos below]
I last ate bread in 1999 [allergy to grains]

The idea of these things is to pass them on however i think just about everyone will have already done these- so anyone who wants to write about some random stuff plus Sybille ,

I have been trying to catch some flies on camera recently but had been thwarted by some strong winds recently that meant the fly flew before i managed to get a decent shot of it.

Today has been cold and wet and i noticed that a couple of small flies [under one centimetre] had taken refuge in our house by the window.
So i had to try and take some photos.

I was quite pleased with how things were going , when i accidently squished the fly and it dropped dead. Normally flies are pretty robust so maybe it was already fragile.
I had already been thinking about Mr Vandemar and Mr Croup and 'peepers and tarrywags' as somehow the idea of these blog tags started off taht chain of thought, so the it was really rubbed in , or should i say rubbed out, when the fly dropped dead.

Still I took some more photos of the corpse and let the friend escape out the window.

The wings were magnificent with rainbow shimmers on the transparent parts.

You can see the hairs on its body quite well. I'd like to photograph some blue or green bottles but they don't seem to be around at the moment after being incredibly annoying all summer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

four sunrises in a row

I collect sunrises the way other people save stamps .
I've been lucky enough to live beside the sea and have the priviledge of seeing the sunrise frequently during the winter [usually while taking my kids to school] .

I am not by any means a morning person - and with chronic insomnia i am very much a night owl, however that doesn't mean that i forget about the beauty of the sunrise.

It shocks me that people can walk past this awe inspiring spectacle without a sideways or upward glance. Even seeing people taking photos of the sunrise doesn't seem to rouse people from their tunnel vision.

I don't always wait for the sun to fully rise - i just like to get a flavour of the sunrise when i can. This sunrise was very cloudy so the sun itself was unlikely to appear , however the flame orange light was dramatic and brooding.
You can see that despite the deep orange glow; the street lighting and lighting around the port was still functioning.

This was an almost cloud free morning - and more of a baby blush colour than the drama we see with clouds and threatening rain.
The sun is just about visible through the yacht masts in the first picture.

The sun very definitely making an appearance.
Another day, another sunrise. Some flecks of clouds across the sky; delicate , like the inside of shells. The cloud was very thick across the sea so this was some of the sunlight pinking up the free areas of sky.

This morning, the sky was covered in thick cloud but somehow some intense colour was esacaping; bathing the sky in lilac and peach light.
It was the sort of light landscape painters dream of, in fact, the kind of light that drew so many famous artists to the French Riviera.

Clouds, through the trees, looking like cotton wool dipped in pastel inks.

snails and more snails

Its amazing how diverse snails can be when you start really looking at them. I've spent a couple of days taking photos of snails in one particular bird of paradise plant which has attracted hundreds of snails to its leaves.

I have no idea why this particular plant is so attractive, as there are plenty of other bird of paradise plants in the vicinity which don't have snails all over the leaves - its a mystery that only the snails know the answer to.

The shells are interesting -some are very flat , others with very faint patterns and others are very bold and exotic looking.
I don't have any books that identify snails by their shells so I've been trying to identify these on the web- with a wee bit of success. One major problem with identifying snails form pictures is that they can be very different within the same species.
Still i think the shape and colours are really interetsiung, even if i don't have a clue what they are called.

I think this one is most likely the European Brown garden snail Helix aspersa -petit gris in French -which is edible.
The escargot de bourgogne, Helix aspersa or Roman snail is the one most commonly eaten here- its quite a lot bigger so i suppose more meaty for those who like snails.

I thought these two snails snuggled into the curled end of the leaf looked like twins or peas in a pod.

These three were obviously the same kind of snail - the shells were very flat -however i haven't managed ot work out which species they are.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Illustration Friday - Cold- Snow Queen

Illustration Friday is 'cold' this week.

At first i was pondering on penguins and some of the arctic whales for the idea of cold this week but this week I felt i wanted to do something more fanciful.

It didn't take long to come up with a real idea since I had been thinking about the story of the Snow Queen earlier in the week. It seemed obvious that she would make a good painting for the idea of 'Cold.
She was of the ice; clothed in Ice and snow and had the coldest heart, made of solid ice. I wanted to play with the extremes of facial features and make her face look as much like an icicle as possible, without going over the edge into cariacature. I also wanted her to remain beautiful since the Snow Queen is coldly beautiful - as beautiful as an iceberg or glacier. She is the very opposite of queens such as the Queen of Hearts who seem comfortably rounded, bustly and smelling of warm kitchens and baked tarts filled with jam.

I think i've made her more sympathetic than many people because i can see why she wanted the company of Kay; why she craved a warm and clever child to help her pass the time in her castle of ice. Of course she could only keep him by half changing him to ice and removing the bits of him that had appealed to her in the first place.
When i first read the story of the Snow Queen, I think i empathised very much with Gerda - the older and wiser sister who had to rescue the younger brother from himself. I think my youngest sister was born around that time [I'm the oldest of four girls] and i think the idea of a resourceful older sister was something i felt i had to live up to.

Photo Friday - conspicuous

I was puzzling over this topic for quite a while - couldn't think of anything that summed up conspicuous until i thought of this image taken at this years Bataille des Fleurs.

I liked the juxtaposition of the normally dressed people and the flamboyantly feathered dancer who had strayed from the rest of her group somehow.

She looks a lot less conspicuous in the procession with other exotically costumed folk.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Feasting mosquito

Yesterday when i was taking photos of the bird of paradise flower [and also some snails hiding within the leaves], I noticed a mosquito had landed on my hand and was starting to drink my blood.
I took a couple of shots of it before brushing it off and they turned out remarkably well. It probably helps that I'm ambidextrous.

I think its an Aedes sp mosquito since it had a pointed abdomen and has short palpi. A palpus is a sticklike something found near the mouth parts of insects , arachnids, etc and is thought to be related to food gathering and sensing the environment.

Only female mosquitoes suck blood- they require blood meals for egg production although they may also eat nectar. Male mosquitoes often don't eat before reproducing and dying ; but if they live long enough, they only eat nectar and fruit juices.

Mosquites find their prey by sight [to a limited extent] , smell , carbon dioxide concentration [from exhaled breath] and heat detection. Mosquito repellents apparently block the sensors and prevent the mosquito from finding their victims.

The feeding parts of a mosquito are not really like a hypodermic syringe as is popularly believed. They are actually serrated in order to minimise pain sensation in the victim and in order to cut through the surface layers of skin. Mosquito saliva contains an anticoagulant , which prevents the blood clotting when the mosquito reaches the blood and drinks. The saliva is also the cause of the localised swelling and redness as many people are sensitive to the saliva.

Mosquito saliva may also contain parasites [malaria] and viruses [west nile virus, dengue fever] and because of this mosquitoes have killed more humans than any other creature in the history of the world.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Birds, Birds and more Birds

Three kinds of birds in one day - though not all of the feathered variety.

The first birds of the day were Collared doves, Streptopelia decaocto.
I am fond of these birds - with their smokey grey feathers and sweet cooing. They always look well groomed and clean; feathers are always smoothed down beautifully , their eyes gleam with health and they seem really peaceful. I know that white doves are seen as the symbols of peace but they don't quite have the gentle air of collared doves.

I was trying to get some decent photos without startling the birds , so one looks headless as it pecks up something to eat.
Bird number two is the Bird-of-paradise ,Strelitzia reginae.
This is a South African plant related to the banana [Musaceae family] and it looks somewhat like a crane or stork in profile and not much like bird of paradise birds, which rarely have crest feathers or long pointed beaks..
This is the front view

The third bird of the day is the 22 spot ladybird Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata

This ladybird is about half the size of the more familiar red variety so its really very small. It has dark yellow legs and antenae and the yellow of its body is startlingly bright.
This particular type of ladybird doesn't eat aphids [greenfly] but eats microscopic mildews and fungi and are thought to help plants fight disease by keeping the fungi and mildews in check.

They are quite pretty , and like the red ladybirds will exude a strange yellow or orange fluid to deter predators or rough handling.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Illustration Friday - Lost - dragon and jackdaw

The Illustration Friday Topic is 'Lost' this week.
I already had an image in my portfolio that I felt summed up Lost; the Runaway Dragon , which i've posted below. However , I wanted to do something else for the theme.

Initially i was thinking of quickly doing something like being shipwrecked ona desert island but i thought this was a bit of cliché and i wanted to stretch the topic.

Then i thought about doing some keys or similar essential item that always seems to get lost no matter how organised the person is.

The keys idea made me think of jewellery and rings and losing things by theft. This made me think of jackdaws, which have the reputation of being very 'light-beaked' and fond of glittery things.

Jackdaws were often used in Victorian tales where something valuable went missing and low and behold the culprit was a jackdaw and not the wrongly accused skivvy. One famous gothic poem with the theiving jackdaw theme is the Jackdaw of Rheims, by Thomas Ingoldsby (penname of R.H. Barham.)

The illustration below is the jackdaw with a stolen ring - he's a little bit scruffy but not in the final sorry state of the Jackdaw of Rheims.
When i was young , my gran used to call them 'thieving jackdaws' all the time and for a while i thought 'thieving' was part of the name , like pied wagtail.

Jackdaws Corvus monedula are members of the crow family and like other crows can be taught to 'talk'. They are quite intelligent birds and they are very attracted to shiny things which gives rise to their reputation for theft.

Jackdaws used to be fond of living in chimneys which is why they were on hand to steal from humans. Bird authorities say that their reputation is undeserved and that no jewellery has been found in jackdaw's nests -however their reputation as thieves lingers on.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Photo Friday- Five

The Photo Friday topic is Five this week.
In initially thought about using a picture of a swan and 4 cygnets but then i thought about a photo of a small bindweed flower i took the other day which has lots of 'fives' in its structure

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


There are lots of olive trees here -some of them are very ancient , with gnarled and twisted trunks looking like Halloween Hags.

This one probably isn't too old but i had walked past it thousands of times without noticing it as it was hidden behind buddleia , hedges and the ubiquitous palm trees.

Antibes used to export a great deal of olive oil and olive based products but not any longer; though there are still artisanal olive oils , olive pastes and pickled olives and oil based toiletries to be found in the local shops and market.

Olives have a long history of use in the mediterranean - as well as being used as food and a source of cooking and lighting oil, the olive branch or leaf crown has been both a symbol of peace , wisdom and victory from ancient times.

Olive trees were sacred to the Goddess Athena who was said to have created the tree from her spear during a squabble with the God Poseidon.

When olives are picked for making oil they need to be crushed immediately to prevent the fruits from fermenting.
When we first came here i used very little olive oil in cooking, now we go through litres and litres of it! It also amazed me to discover that olive oils can taste so different from each other depending on where they were grown, the age and variety of the tree and type of soil and microclimate - similar to the differences found in grapes grown for wine.

Snail shells

Snail shells facinate me - maybe becuase of their spiral shape or maybe just because i like snails.

Here are a few that i've come across in the last few days. I saw a lot of snails, easily 50 or so, stuck to one plant but they were through a fence and not easy to photograph, which was a pity.

This large snail was stuck to quite a feeble looking twig. I'm surprised that it managed to stay in place as there was a reasonable wind at the time i took this photo.
This large snail was just sitting on some gravel - not a particularly safe place to park oneself , I'd have thought. I took this photograoh in the late afternoon which is why the shell casts a lareg shadow. The spiral twisting on the shell was very noticeable on this shell. I moved this snail off the path out of harm's way.

This snail was stuck halfway up a rusting fence. The rust and brown markings on the shell really appealed to me.