Category Archives: museums

a rambling tale of strasbourg and a bear named Otto

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Christmas Markets + hot wine; promise me those two things in one location and I’m there.  In this case, that location was Strasbourg in mid-December.

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Right before Christmas, we jumped on the fast train and rocketed down to soak up the local color and drink our fair share of vin chaud in Strasbourg.  With a name like Strasbourg, doesn’t it seem like the city should be located in Germany, rather than France?  I think so, but although I was born with a directional and geographical disability, I found out that I have the ability to become more adept at geography when it benefits me.

When I think of the term “Christmas Market” the image of little old ladies knitting mittens is the first thing that pops into my head.  The second thing that pops into my head is realization that those hand knitted mittens, although often cute, never, EVER, keep your hands warm.

Getting off the train in Strasbourg, I was surprised not to be assaulted by mittens, but rather I was greeted by every type of Christmas trinket available.  Sadly, nearly none of it was handmade and virtually nothing was even made in France.  From the original product perspective, I would say the markets were a bit of a bust, unless your sole purpose was to expand your collection of mini figurines to surround your model train setup.  But once I determined that there were few goods I really wanted to buy, I changed my focus to determine which market stall had the best vin chaud (hot wine).  Hot wine tastes much better than it sounds, since it has spices in it to make it taste delicious.  Since each stand seemed to have their own recipe, I had to try them all.  In the end, there was no clear winner – it was all good.

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While we were there, we also found out that the Tomi Ungerer museum was located in the city.  What?  You don’t know who Tomi Ungerer is?  Have you ever read The Three Robbers?  It’s one of few children’s books which includes a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower and a huge red axe.  It is also a book that will most assuredly scare the shit out of your small children (especially if read in a deep voice in a dark room).

This is a magazine with an article about Tomi Ungerer that I bought while in Strasbourg (notice on the cover under Ungerer’s name his quote is “it is necessary to traumatize children” – maybe I like him so much because we share the same parenting philosophy):

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Tomi Ungerer has been one of my favorite authors and illustrators for nearly my entire life, starting with the original version of “Flat Stanley” (written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer).  Seriously, who doesn’t dream of becoming flat and getting mailed to California?  I still dream of doing that.  Or maybe I will mail myself back to France once I finally leave…..

This year in school, Owen’s class read Ungerer’s classic “Otto” which is about a stuffed bear that was owned by a Jewish boy during WWII.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that it is not an easy read.  Don’t let the fact that the main character is a stuffed bear fool you; Ungerer is nothing if not a realist.

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In any case, once we found out that the Tomi Ungerer Museum was located close to our hotel, it was on the top of our (read: my) list of things to do.  I was so excited to go to this museum that we ended up arriving a bit early for the daily opening and I found myself nearly climbing up the giant metal gates and screaming like a groupie.  Once inside, we found a treasure trove of antique toys (Ungerer’s personal collection), as well the original illustrations to most of his books.

As we entered the top floor of the museum, Owen spotted the original stuffed Otto across the room and he ran toward him.  In French museums, it is extremely normal to ignore all rules.  In our two years here, I have witnessed untold numbers of people taking pictures of things in museums, even when they are literally surrounded by giant signs forbidding photography.  When Owen asked if I would take a picture of him with Otto, I did a cursory glance around the room to see if there were any signs forbidding photos and not seeing any, I took out my camera and snapped a picture.  As soon as the security guard, who was chatting around the corner, heard the shutter click, she rounded the corner and gave me a severe reprimand for taking a photo where they were not allowed.

In the past I would have been horrified for getting busted, but I’ve perfected my “c’est comme ça” look and I flashed her a shrug.  Even Owen wasn’t phased by her.  He tends to be the (only) rule follower in our family, however he whispered to me as we walked out of the museum, “I don’t care that we got busted.  At least we got a picture of the REAL Otto.”

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In celebration of our illegal Otto picture, I suggested we go drink some vin chaud (with chocolat chaud for the kids).

team mossot

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I know that I’ve made no secret about my desire to find an elderly friend in France.  I also know I have written a few times about the elderly woman who lives next door to us, Mme Mossot, however I haven’t given her nearly enough time on the blog to accurately represent how important she has become in our lives in France.  If you don’t remember the stories about Mme Mossot, she’s our 85-year-old next door neighbor who first wrangled the wild kittens living in our garden and after that, she convinced us to adopt JJ (I just can’t bring myself to call him Justin), our massive French street cat.

The history of Mme Mossot is as long as her long life and I could write a two part book about her.  Part I of the book would be about her past life as an artist, an art journalist, an interior decorator, and an animal crusader.  Part II of the book would be about our interactions with Mme Mossot and it would read something like Tuesdays with Morrie, with a lot less death and a lot more quotes and advice. Mme. Mossot is a highly opinionated woman and although I love her for it, but I can guarantee that it’s much easier to be friends with her than to be related to her.

In the early fall, there was a special exhibition in Paris that Mme Mossot wanted to attend and I promised her that the kids and I would go with her.  The exhibit was at the Musee D’Orsay and it was called Misia.  Misia was the muse and benefactor to many famous artists in France in the early 1900s and this exhibit pulled together all the paintings of Misia made by all the famous painters she knew throughout the years.  

Since Mme Mossot lived in Paris most of her life she knows the city very well and when she told me it had been a couple of years since she had been to the Orsay, I believed her until we got to the door.  At that point, I suspected that it had been a little bit longer than a couple of years when she tried to show her French senior citizen’s card to the security people at the entrance of the museum as if it were the ticket desk.  She also tried to write a check at the desk to buy the tickets and although there is still an affinity for check-writing in France, the young man looked at her like she was from another planet.

Part of the reason that Mme Mossot was so interested in seeing the Misia exhibit was because her husband was the nephew of Pierre Bonnard, a famous French painter.  Bonnard was one of the primary painters at the Misia exhibit and when we entered, Mme Mossot started pointing out Bonnard paintings that she had seen before in her life at Bonnard’s house and at other shows of his.  It had always been clear to me that she has lived an exceptionally interesting life, but that day at the museum further reinforced my belief.  

The exhibit was great, and afterward Mme Mossot told us she’d like to take us out for gouter at the new restaurant that had opened at the Orsay.  Once we were seated at the restaurant, we scanned the menu and each ordered a dessert-type snack.  However, as soon as Mme Mossot’s ice cream arrived, she called the server back over to the table.  Apparently the menu had promised a praline cookie on the top of the ice cream, but when the ice cream arrived, the praline was nowhere to be found.  Mme Mossot complained to the server about “false advertising” the server gave her the classic French eye roll and told her they had run out of cookies.  After the server left, Mme Mossot told me that she was a “crusader for the tourists” in Paris who don’t know that they are being taken advantage of by the French and who don’t have the ability to speak up about it.

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Being a tourist can be hard, especially when you live in a foreign country and have a tendency to feel like a tourist all the time.  I’m just glad to know Mme Mossot’s got my back.    

Here is the picture of us in Paris that Mme Mossot took:

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zoo residents

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I have a running joke with my mother about the number of days that our kids are in school in France.  As a retired US teacher, my mother thinks it is hilarious that nearly every time I speak to her I tell her that the kids have an upcoming day off, or that they’ve just had a day off.

I’m not going to lie, there are many, many holidays in France.  In the month of May alone, there were 5 school days off.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but kids here have a half day of school every Wednesday (and some children, in certain grades have no school at all).  That said, the school day is longer here and the summer vacation is shorter.  In the end, I’m sure it’s about the same as the US, but it seems so different (and I love it).

So during the last holiday weekend we decided to head south back to the Loire Valley with some good friends to see more castles, the only panda bear in France, and some wine caves – not at all in that order.  As far as the castles go, you’ve got to see them to believe them – no amount of narrative can do those things justice.  And as for the wine, tasting is believing.  Sorry I can’t be more descriptive.

As we were walking through the zoo to see the pandas, we came upon an outdoor habitat that had a huge crowd around it.  When I walked a bit closer to check out what the crowd was looking at, I was slightly stunned and mostly horrified.  The huge crowd had gathered to view the North American Raccoon.  One of the raccoons in this habitat had clearly learned to work the crowd as he was sticking his little paw out from underneath the glass of his habitat to try to get food from the awestruck tourists.  As we North Americans know, depending on where you live, the raccoon  ranks right up there with the skunk or squirrel for household menaces.  I was half expecting to see big trash cans in the raccoon habitat as the food source.

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See the look on this guy’s face?  It’s almost like, “Oh shit, I’ve been spotted by an American who knows that I eat trash and live near dumpsters.  Please don’t tell anyone in France!”

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Generally speaking, I support the existence of zoos as a concept, but I often feel bad for most of the animals in them.  Especially when you see the big cats who generally roam many miles each day cooped up in big glass enclosures, it makes me a bit sad.  I know they’re well fed and well cared for, but still…..

But you know what?  The North American Racoon has got a sweet deal in the French zoo.  No more trash picking for him.  Even though raccoons are nocturnal, this group of raccoons was wide awake and putting on quite a show for the adoring crowds.

And the giant pandas?  Those dudes were fast asleep.  On a scale of animal popularity the raccoons stole the show.

{On a side note, the boys and I were in Paris the other day at the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes.  The Menagerie is a small zoo that was created in 1794 and according to Wikipedia, it is the oldest zoo in the world.  There were also a very active set of North American Raccoons there with a big caption under their habitat that read “The Americans in Paris.”  No wonder our international reputation can be iffy.}

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classe de mer – update

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Well, the Classe de Mer trip has finally come and gone.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read back through to figure it out yourselves:  start by reading this, then read this, then this and finally this.  Put down the Soduku and consider it your daily mental exercise to put the pieces together.

As a teaser, I’ll give you the very short story:  the school takes the kids away for a week every year, with no parent chaperones allowed, only teachers, and somehow everyone comes back alive.  How that happens is a mystery to me.

I’m not exactly sure what would possess an elementary school teacher to take away a class of kids for five days, but as a parent, I fully support this program.  I am such an enthusiastic supporter of this program, in fact, that I took all that enthusiasm and crammed it on to a train and headed to Paris for two nights with Tim during the Classe de Mer trip.  I will be the first to admit that my ensiasm for this program knows no bounds.

This year the school headed to a small town called Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France for a week at the beach.  Here are the raw facts about the trip:

  • there was a 5.5 hour bus trip to get there
  • there were sailing lessons (too chilly to surf)
  • there was a visit to a shell museum
  • there was a visit to ‘les marais salants’ where they make French sea salt (‘fleur de sel’)
  • also included was a visit to a zoo

The only minor drama in the lead up to this trip was the fact that I put Eamon on the wrong bus to start things off the morning that the trip started and there was chaos as the teachers scrambled to find me.  After all, it was 6am and completely dark out.

Aside from my trip to Paris, the highlight of the Class de Mer trip were the postcards the kids sent home.  A couple of days after they arrived back in Fontainebleau, we got an envelope with two postcards inside.  The front of the postcards were the standard tourist fare, but the backs were outstanding.

Here is what Eamon’s said:

Chers parents

Je m’amuse bien et vous me manquez.

Eamon

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This roughly translates to “I’m having fun and I miss you.” When I read it, I said, “Aawwwwww.  Did you miss me?” Eamon’s response:  “No I didn’t miss you at all.  The teachers made me write that.”

Ouch.

Then I read Owen’s postcard.  It read (in English):

Dear Mom + Dad,

It is so fun.  Can you make an extension for me to stay?  I do not miss you at all!!!! Today, “Wednesday” we went sailing I was the driver of the boat.  I got a room of two with Diego Eamon had to sleep with the cps.  We got a great view of the sea and the lake!!!! We have got to come back here.  It is a cool beach town with lots of little shops and Big WAVES.

Love Owen XOXOOXXXOOO

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When I asked him about his postcard, he said, “I really didn’t miss you at all.  See that ‘do not’ on the postcard that I underlined in red?  I really meant it.”

Truth be told, when I was sitting at a cafe in Paris, O &E weren’t the first things on my mind either.  Sometimes a little separation is a good thing.

This was the view from the apartment we rented in Paris:

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amsterdam

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I’ve been meaning to tell you the story about our trip to Amsterdam and I’m finally getting to it – here it is:

In March, Tim had some mandatory time off from work and the kids were dying to take a trip on one of the fast trains in Europe, so we booked a trip to a city that I’ve been dying to visit – Amsterdam! To top it off, we booked a canal boat for our stay – oh, yes.

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We had a great train ride and when we arrived, we took a short walk from the train station to the boat we rented. The boat owner, a nice guy in his late 50s, met us there and after showing us around, told us that he was going to be taking a canal cruise later that day and asked us if we wanted to join him.

When I hear things like “canal cruise,” I think of things like big sightseeing boats of tourists, and since it was unclear what kind of boat cruise this was, I didn’t immediately jump at the offer. He said he would let us get settled in and swing by to see if we wanted a ride, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled up with a small old school canal motor boat, rather than a giant boat teeming with tourists. And along with his girlfriend and her daughter in the boat, he had a very nice spread of wine and cheese. Even better.

When the boys got on the boat, he asked them if they could swim, in a jokey manner which I laughed at, until I realized that there were absolutely no life vests in sight. Oh, those Americans, ever so cautious!

What happened next, may go down as a highlight of our time here – a two (!) hour boat cruise of the Amstel River and canals with a commentary by a true local. It was outstanding and we got to hear lots of local lore like the story of local celebrity Viktor IV, the American artist who lived on the Amstel and accidentally died trying to untangle some ropes under his boat, as well as the story of the Anne Frank House and the addition to the building funded by Steven Spielberg.

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During our boat trip, I had a really nice conversation with our boatlord’s girlfriend and her daughter. They were both really interesting people, but I found the boatlord’s girlfriend particularly interesting. How many people will you meet in life who have been Blackjack dealers in Botswana? Not many, I expect. So far I have met only one.

That night, we ate dinner on our boat and after dinner, Tim decided to take a walk around town at night. After about 20 minutes, he came rushing back on to the boat saying, “You have GOT to get out here!” Remember how I told you that Tim is a world-class trespasser? Well, I am a world-class house snooper. I love to see the insides of peoples’ houses and am particularly interested in what kind of furniture and art they have.

It turned out that Amsterdam is a prime viewing location for house snoopers like me since nobody even has curtains, let alone shutters. When I got out on to the street at night, I saw incredible art, amazing furniture and at least three dinner parties that I nearly invited myself to. Although the people looked fabulous sitting around drinking wine and eating a delicious looking meal, I really thought they could use a funny American to spice it up a bit, since there was absolutely no loud laughing and outrageous behavior. Doesn’t everyone need a loud American at his/her party?

While we were visiting, we rented a car for a day and drove out to Keukenhof which is one of the main locations to see the famous tulips of the Netherlands in spring. It’s only open for 3 months a year and the gardeners there plant over 7 million bulbs by hand annually. We were there at the beginning of tulip season, but it was still incredible to see and a highlight of an outstanding trip.

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The last day we were there, the kids were dying to go to the popular science museum called NEMO and I was dying to look in some galleries and check out some other sites – namely the Red Light District. Who can go to Amsterdam without going there? Definitely not me.

It’s a little mind-boggling to me that a profession like that would be enjoyable, but apparently the sex workers in Amsterdam are unionized, they pay taxes and they get great heath care. From that standpoint, what’s not to like? However, I’m pretty sure that the prostitutes who stand on the forest roads near my house aren’t getting such great benefits for their employment. Like everything else, I guess it depends on where you work.

When I arrived in the Red Light District it was early afternoon on a Saturday and even still, the women in the windows were out in full force. I was mostly surprised by the themed clothing that I saw. I was expecting lots of lingerie, but instead I saw a mix of cheerleader outfits and sporty girl outfits, complete with tall sports socks, very small shorts and sports bras. There must be a market for that look, because the women were working it for sure.

After sauntering through the RLD, I came upon a very nice pottery shop right next to the last sex shop. When I went inside, the potter came out of the back room and said, “Hi there and welcome to my shop! Were you looking for it or did you find it accidentally?”

I said, “Well, I kind of stumbled upon it by accident. I wasn’t really looking for it, but I’m happy to find it. Your stuff is beautiful.”

That’s when he replied, “I figured you weren’t looking for my shop because most people who are looking for my shop come from the other direction. I noticed that you came through the Red Light District.”

What’s wrong with being nosy AND liking pottery?

I can’t really say enough about Amsterdam. I loved everything about it – from the bike culture to the quirky inhabitants. It doesn’t hurt that the city is one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I fully intend to move to Amsterdam someday and live on the river in a boat like Viktor IV. But if there’s any need to untangle any underwater ropes, I’m calling in the professionals.

Oh, and when Tim and the boys went to NEMO, here was the poster for one of the exhibits at the museum. Gotta love Amsterdam.

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real arachnophobia

Hey ho, friends! Sorry for the hiatus. I was out of internet access for a bit – that, and I’m lazy.

Nearly every vacation in France for kids is two weeks long. Some people would argue that it is way too much time to have off, but not me. I love it and so do my kids. Here’s the way I look at it: with a one week vacation, you either relax or travel, but you can’t do both happily. The two week school vacation in France is the perfect about of time for doing both: one week of lazing about and one week of seeing cool things. Pair that up with the very generous vacation schedule for working adults and you’ve got the makings of a very nice time.

The first week of vacation turned out to be the lazing about week except that we need to do something somewhat interesting before I was completely absorbed into a giant Lego abyss. A Lego abyss which involves non-stop talk about Lego, many audio sound effects to go along with the Lego action and chatter about which character is stronger and faster, etc. Try as I might not to get sucked in, I have two boys constantly trying to draw me in to the vortex by asking me questions like, “Mum, who is your favorite Ninjago spinner?” and “In your opinion, who is cooler, Coal or Kai?” Although I strongly advocate having an opion in life, these conversations are way out of my league. Way.

So I finally told the boys that we were going to take a trip to Paris to get out of our (my) Lego rut and learn something new. I was trying hard to convince them the Musee D’Orsay would be a great museum to see, especially since they just completed a major renovation. No dice. Then I was on to the Paris Science Museum, but I heard from a friend that school vacations are hell in that place. Finally we reached an agreement that we would go to the Natural HIstory Museum in Paris based on the fact that there would be dinosaurs present – my friend told me so.

When we arrived at the Museum, we immediately saw some giant bones hanging from the ceiling. At that point I exclaimed,”Hey, look at the dinosaur bones!” Unfortunately, my kids are the direct descents of their smartypants father, to which they replied, “Those aren’t dinosaur bones, those are WHALE bones.” Hmm. After further inspection, I could see that they were right, which I might have realized sooner if I had channeled my inner Cape Codder, since I have visited nearly every whaling museum in the New England area as a school kid.

Despite Owen’s fear of spiders, we decided to take a hiatus from the dinosaur search to see the special spider exhibit. His fear of spiders is a recent addition to the “Scared of Our House” syndrome that had plagued Eamon since we moved in here. The house is big and old and a little bit creaky and Eamon refuses to go to a different floor without another person present. Owen, on the other hand, was fine in our house until he saw what I can safely say is the biggest spider I have ever seen sitting on our basement floor. Since that time, he had referred to the spider as “Dracula” and now refuses to set foot in the basement except under duress.

The spider exhibit started out pretty simply with diagrams of spiders and their webs and progressed in complexity to the finale which was made up of real spiders and an exhibit showing scenes of spiders in the movies. To be clear, the movies featuring spiders were not scenes from Charlotte’s Web, but rather, the exhibition was called “Spiders From Horror Movies.” There was a slight hesitation on my part. Does a responsible mother let her kids see an exhibit entitled, “Spiders from Horror Movies?” The obvious answer is no, but I mean, how bad could it really be? It is, after all, a museum for kids.

Here are just some of the movies we saw clips from (there were others that I think I’ve blocked out):

  • Arachnophobia (1990)
  • The Lord of the Rings – Return of the King (2003)
  • Tarantula (1955)
  • Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
  • Raider’s of the Lost Ark (1981)

The spider scenes ranged from seeing a giant tarantula loom over a city and devour a horse (think Godzilla) , to seeing a giant infestation of spiders take over a town. But the scene that really took the cake was the scene from a movie I can’t remember where a guy opens his mouth and a load of spiders come out and starts to crawl up his head and down his chest. I nearly had to scrape Owen of the floor after that one. Another parenting milestone surpassed – scare your kid’s shitless so that they never go down your basement ever again.

After that movie experience, we were rushing toward the exit of the spider exhibit, when a photo caught my eye. It was a picture that looked just like the spider in our basement and I read the name of the spider out loud, “French House Spider.” When Owen found out that Dracula was not some rare breed of spider that happened to find a way into our basement, but rather a typical type of spider that could be found anywhere – like even in his bed – he nearly lost his mind.

At that point, we had to put the spider exhibit behind us, so we resumed our quest for the dinosaurs. After a full day of seeing nearly every species of mammal and insect, we found no dinosaurs. Not a single one. Another promise broken to my kids. It seems like they should be used to it by now, doesn’t it?

As it turns out, there was a big dinosaur exhibit at this museum but it closed six months ago. Go figure. I did, however, track down some other dinosaurs in Paris on the web after we got home that we’re going to make another trip to see – once they recover from the spider exhibit.

Here is a photo of the stampede in the middle of the museum. I think they’re all running away from the spider exhibit.

me want bert

Nearly 20 years ago, my sister gave me one of my absolute favorite possessions. It is a large picture of Bert from Sesame Street. This is not just any picture, however, it is a monoprint from an artist who lived in DC at the time named Jonathan Blum.

One of the more interesting things about this picture is that, although it is surely Bert, it is a picture of him from the nose upward.  No mouth, no chin, just nose, eyes, unibrow and hair.  The story goes, that Jonathan Blum had some sort of obsession with foreheads and intellectualism, so he only made pictures of people from the nose up – the rest of the face was unimportant to him.  He chose Bert as one of his main subjects at that time because absolutely nobody has a better forehead than Bert.  Or a better unibrow, for that matter.

This piece of art that hangs in our living room in Vermont is large and although it is clearly Bert, googly eyes and all, it usually takes people a couple of glances at it to see the Bert in it.  It looks kind of abstract because Bert’s mouth isn’t visible, but then once people start to focus on the unibrow, within seconds they start to recognize the subject.  They usually exclaim, “Wait a second…………………..is that BERT?”  I would venture to guess that he has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet.

That’s why, when I was at the Louvre last week, looking at some great art, I stopped right in front of one of the giant Easter Island heads.  I was trying to ignore Eamon as he kept saying, “ME WANT GUM GUM,” in direct reference to the Easter Island head scene in the movie Night at the Museum (hilarious, by the way).  But because I am much too sophisticated for such sophomoric thought and behavior, rather than focus on the Night at the Museum reference, my mind went directly to Sesame Street and my favorite felt guy, Bert.  I realized that this Easter Island guy has a really great forehead and a great brow ridge – much like Bert. So, in honor of Jonathan Blum, and as a shout out to Bert back in Vermont, I decided that the Easter Island guy should be Blumified.  Personally, I think he looks great in this artistic rendering, what do you think?

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Here is the real deal back in VT:

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Thanks for the great gift, TT!

Side note:  I have a friend in Vermont who so loved Bert, he went to Jonathan Blum’s studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn to score one of his own.  Sadly for him, Bert is no longer a subject for Jonathan Blum – he has moved on to rabbis, goats, and animals with fruit on their heads.