"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Sunday
Oct022016

Points of Interest

 

 

We used to play a game in Berkeley called Points of Interest. You opened old books and magazines and circled with a magic marker little details of whatever caught your eye. Richard and I will approach our past weekend in Honfleur, on the Normandie coast, by playing this game.

We arrive in Le Havre by train from Paris at two on a Friday and find that Avis, the only rental car company in town, is closed from noon to 4 p.m. Seriously? Can you imagine such a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in any major U.S. city?

On the drive to Honfleur, our Moroccan-French cab driver tells us about places to visit in Morocco, and about the anti-terrorist security there, more rigorous than in France. Just what we need to hear to make that trip.

At the top of our building on rue Lucie Delarue Mardus we find our Airbnb apartment:

 

 

Green hills rise to the south, the mouth of the Seine to the north.

The Pont de Normandie spanning the Seine with its spider web pattern, mirrored by three delicate spider weavings outside the windows to the south.

What a pleasing sense of color the owner, Beatrice, has!

 

 

Celery green, a color I’d never think to use on kitchen walls, echoed in the couch, splashes of red and bright patterns on the throw pillows.

Look at the array of colors in the scissors and knife handles.

A basket of talking sticks, or—what are they?

 

A meander around town looking for a restaurant open at 5 pm. Snacks, yes, but we’re in France. Most open at 7 p.m. We settle for galettes.

A visit to friends in the country. Donkeys, white horses, fields of long-legged stallions.

 

A cab driver who slows down, warns of boars crossing the road.  I remember the scene in the film “La Reine Margot” where King Charles IX’s treacherous brother, the Duke of Anjou, lures him on a boar hunt in the forest where he is left to die from a ravaging boar, before his friend, the future Henri IV, comes to his rescue.

A long conversation with Richard about one of the wellsprings of his latest struggle with paralyzing depression: disappointment at not having mastered French in his last course at the Sorbonne, or the one before that at Alliance Française, or the five years of daily attempts at conversation.

How hard on yourself you are! Let’s approach learning French like children, who only want to connect! Let’s approach it like buddhas and laugh at ourselves! Let’s be surrealists and speak French, Spanish and English all at once, as Salvador Dali and our friend Jane Eliot did over dinner! We decide to take an immersion course together.

Reading a memoir that my friend Diane lent me, A Woman in Berlin, about the last months of World War II in Berlin, when German women were raped multiple times a day by Russian soldiers, written anonymously because the shame and repression of returning German soldiers was so profound. An eloquent document about the cost of war.

 

Richard is reading Swerve; How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt about the effect the poet Lucretius had on the Enlightenment, on Renaissance artists, and on my beloved Montaigne.

 

Flâneuring around town together and seeing a wedding outside the oldest wooden church in France, l’Église Sainte-Catherine, its bell tower in a separate building so the parishioners wouldn’t perish in case of a fire if it was struck by lightning.

 

 

The town reminds me of Bergen from which my maternal ancestors left for America during the mid-nineteenth century.

Small white gulls swooping above the harbor, making me think of my sister, Jane.

 

Handsome schooners lining the Vieux Bassin—memories of my years living on a schooner, as cook.

A sullen North African-looking man on a motorbike, with boom box blasting hostile rap. I give him a thumb’s up and he flashes a bashful grin.

Picking L’Hippocampe for dinner, and savoring a plate of choucroute with every kind of seafood: salmon, cabillaud, bream, langoustine, mussels, shrimp.

Richard urging me to write about my years on The Flying Cloud, the characters packed in, ten to the schooner, the groupies the single men attracted, the famous rock singers moored nearby in Lido Shipyard and Catalina Island, the stress for an introvert of communal living, dawning feminist awareness.

Struck by the mythical resonance of the seahorse, the hippocampe, one of Poseidon’s emblems, and our talk about a story of the sea. 

The English man and woman at the next table who strike up a conversation with me when Richard leaves the table for a moment after dinner. The Englishman is a weight lifter, who cheers the Brexit decision, says he didn’t like NYC because there were “too many foreigners there.” Code for racism, which Richard catches on his return, and refuses to engage in, walking out of the restaurant to go photograph the port at night.

 

L’esprit d’escalier: the too-late comeback that occurs to you on the staircase after you leave: You mean a foreigner like you? Everyone in America is a foreigner except Native Americans.

Glimpses of the Seine to our left on the train back to Paris. One white swan. An egret.

The big-bellied train conductor, to whom we offer some Algerian Deglet Nour dates and two kinds of cheese. He turns up his nose. “I only eat fresh Medjool dates,” he says. “That cheese,” he says, pointing to Richard’s, “is industrial cheese. But the Camembert looks good.” Ah, these wonderful discerning French, experts in all matters of taste.

 

Monday
Feb012016

Elements of Ecstasy, a Five Year Update

 

 

Take a big question of your life: Why are my sleep hours so crazy? Bring it to a specialist.

You love everything about her: her strong nose, her mood balanced between caring and taking care of business, her beaded scarf on black jacket, the sparkle of Arabian Nights in the consultation room.   

You have one hour to tell her your entire psychological and medical history, and you do so in French. She gives you a recipe for change.

You join your adored husband on Boulevard du Montparnasse where he’s taking photos near La Closerie des Lilas.


 

Arm in arm you walk through the curving paths, the sheltering trees, the thwock of tennis balls, the elegance of chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

“Have you ever given up something you were good at?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Have you?”

“Chess,” he says.

“Why?”

“I was pretty good when I was six years old. But my mother brought me late to an important city tournament. Now I don’t remember how to play.”

“Oh, my darling, my lateness must drive you nuts.”

“It’s better now,” he says. “Ten minutes, that's Paris time…. How about you?”

 

Street art © 2016 by Pole Ka

“I was good at reading Tarot,” I say. “But I didn’t like the way some people projected guru nonsense on me.”

We walk across Paris to Simrane. The January sales! We each have a throw pillow cover in our bags, shredded by our chatons. We want the jewel colors (van Gogh), not the milky impressionist ones (Monet), or the newer fluorescents. We find replacements.

At Le Pré Aux Clercs, we take an alcove table. I glance in the mirror. Where did that lost girl go who was so besieged by men she could barely think? She’s now a woman (mostly) at home in her body and soul, no longer pursued, but captured, captivated by this man across from her, a man who knows how to listen, a man who is thrilled by many of the same things that thrill her, and who himself thrills her still, who, like her, appreciates the waiter, attentive but reserved, unobtrusive but present, and who brings to this intimate nook perfectly cooked saumon et légumes for her, and salade de tomates et Mozzarella et soupe a l’oignon for him.


Paris waiters

It’s the five-year anniversary of our living in Paris. We click our cafes crèmes, talk of how the refugee crisis is affecting Europe, and what we can do to help. Let’s ask friends on Facebook, that world-wide forum of brilliance and idiocy.

Down rue Jacob we go. The waiter flies after us with a glove one of us dropped. I’m dizzy with the beauty of the displays in every vitrine. Remember Jung’s words about the Door to the Divine for us intuitive types: sensory beauty. Oh yes it is. Here is a shop I’ve never seen with Navajo and Mexican-printed patterns of sweaters and skirts.

I dart in, find the scarf I’ve been looking for, but he’s waiting on the sidewalk, I don’t want to hold him up.


Street art © 2016 by Konny Steding 

We meander up rue de Seine. There on the corner of rue de Buci is a new street art paste-up. He stops to take a photo. “I know you hate to backtrack,” I say, “but we’re here & the sales are on & I hate to shop & may not want to come back & I’d really like to try on this scarf & you say yes or no.” I don’t need his permission, but he knows what suits me. Back we go. “Yes,” he says. And it’s half off.

Down rue Saint-André-des-Arts to Starbucks for beans. An unhappy French girl at the counter. I see why when her male colleague orders her around, micromanaging her.

We switch him over from English to French, and chat with the girl. By the time we leave, she’s cheerful.


 

At our favorite Alice in Wonderland bookstore, I buy The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a novel that helped me get accepted early to college, when I wrote an essay about A Book I Hated.

I wonder why at age 17 I hated it so. Will re-reading it bring back the time, for a fictional story I’m writing?

At home les chatons greet us, with vomit on the rug and purrs. Lift it off, soak it with bubbly water. Move our two couches close together facing each other to create a square enclosure and, voila! le cratère de l’amour

We lie together (no, not “lay,” you writers who keep posting variations of “I was laying on the bed”) against pillows, reading. Ethan Frome: the first chapter is clotted prose. Then the characters of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie in a small village in western Massachusetts envelop me with their tragic tale.

 

 

It is grim. Hopeless. And rather unimaginative. Sometimes the dialogue between Ethan and Mattie seems melodramatic. I wonder how much experience of love Edith Wharton had. “Oh Mattie.” “Oh, oh, Ethan.” “Oh, oh, oh, Mattie.” “Oh, oh, oh, oh, Ethan.” 

And then they try to kill themselves.

Surely even these stunted lives have a few moments of joy besides the first blush of falling in love. But man, can she write about weather. 

In an essay at the back of the book, Lorna Sage writes, “Edith Wharton got to know the kind of dead-alive New England hamlets she is describing by taking excursions in her chauffeur-driven motor car.… One should dwell a little on this image of Wharton touring the territory of her tragedy – a woman of enormous energy, wealth and creative curiosity finding her subject in the ‘insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation’ of the near-extinct inhabitants she observed on her travels. The contrast between Wharton and her subject could not be more striking.” 

She wrote this novella in French while living in Paris, then with ease, a second time, in English. That might explain that first congested chapter. 

In A Backward Glance, Wharton wrote, “From the first I know exactly what is going to happen to every one of them; their fate is settled beyond rescue, and I have but to watch and record.” Control freak much? Don’t her characters ever surprise her?

 

Pollux (top) and Castor 

Les chatons nestle against us, Pollux on Richard’s head, giving him a tongue shampoo, Castor burrowed close to my feet. Hyper-active Pollux has been taking a natural tranquillizer given him by our vet, and it’s making him mellow enough to lay lie down with us, calmly at times.

Later, I check e-mail and find on Poem-a-Day a poem by our friend and mentor, David St. John. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/alexandr-blok  Yes, there it is: the ecstatic sensibility I’ve always loved in his poems. The passion for subtle intellect and sensual beauty that Paris embodies. It’s why we love his poems, and him. And why we love this city.

 

 

 

Friday
Jan082016

The Artist's Mother

 

 

After Thom-Thom gave us our weekly French lesson, we three took the Mètro from the Latin Quarter to an art gallery near L’Opéra. 

We walked through a dark courtyard, Thom-Thom, Richard and I. Everyone held a drink, or was smoking. Tonight I didn’t want a drink, I only wanted to see Combo Culture Kidnapper’s art. He's a tall, bearded street artist we've covered four times before, in Facebook posts, whose "Co-exist" campaign in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres was embraced by Parisians of all religions and backgrounds.

 

Artwork © 2016 Combo Culture Kidnapper


The gallery was small, beautifully lit, with every wall featuring his work. There were at least five or six different styles of portraits of men and women. Every once in a while you see an exhibition in which you love everything, and this was one. But what I loved most were three drawings of "terrorists" based on Star Wars Jedi: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. In these three drawings, Culture Combo addressed the recent terrorist acts around the world with the most potent weapon: humor. But not divisive humor, unifying humor, cross-cultural humor. He himself straddles different cultures; his father is Lebanese Christian; his mother Moroccan Muslim, and he is French. 

 

Artwork © 2016 Combo Culture Kidnapper 

 

Artwork © 2016 Combo Culture Kidnapper

 

Artwork © 2016 Combo Culture Kidnapper

I saw a woman with long dark hair and a beautiful presence, seated in a leather chair in one corner of the room. I asked her if this was her art gallery. Non, she said, she was the mother of the artist. I told her what I thought of her son’s work. She complimented me on my French.

A friend of hers joined us. We talked a bit, and I learned that she was a former flamenco dancer, and now a psychologist and hypnotist. Hypnosis, she says, is a creative process. It helps to be an artist. It’s a dialogue between you and the patient. You have to be able to imagine yourself within another’s mind. It sounds like writing, I say, like getting into the heads of your characters. Yes, she said, and she’d always wanted to write. Then you must do so, I said. One of these days she might. And why not now? I asked.

 

Artwork © 2016 Combo Culture Kidnapper

She asked me if I’d ever been to Morocco. “No,” I said. “We were about to go last year, when the first terrorist acts were committed in Paris. We decided not to go, because we’re Americans. Since Bush in 2001, our government's policies toward the Muslim world have put a target on our backs.”

Non,” she said, and her friend agreed, “Morocco is safe for Americans. It’s well-secured. The Moroccan police helped the French after the terrorist attacks.”

Richard approached and snapped more photos, and we discussed the safety of Morocco with him. And then Combo came over. I repeated what I’d said to his mother about the power of humor to dissolve hatred. She corrected my pronunciation (because I’d said I didn’t want to speak English, I wanted to master French). “L’humour sounds like l’amour,” she said. Oh yes, I’ve made that mistake before. It was hard to wrap my tongue around the word when it followed the “l’hu-” sound.  It kept coming out as “l’amour.”

 


Richard showed us all a fresh photo on the rear screen of his Nikon, of Combo, with his long lashes and dreamy eyes. And I thought, Isn’t that perfect, a mother who can hypnotize, and a son with dreamy eyes. 

 

 


Wednesday
Oct212015

The Pont of Proposals

 

 

Here I sit at a high table in a glass-windowed boat on the Seine, facing the Pont Alexandre III about a half block away, that iconic bridge with gold to the right, gold to the left, gold in the center, four winged horses. Old-timey lamps, tridents with globes on each point. The bridge makes a gentle arch over the gray-green waters that never stop moving, trembling between shadow and light.

"Monday, Monday, got me crying all the time" plays on the boat's sound system. On the bridge, black-clad figures, a few in red. A bus with Paris les Cars Rouges passes.

 

 

I'm watching, waiting for the horse-drawn carriage. There it is! It stops half-way across the bridge. Two figures, one I know, help the couple step down from the carriage. Blondie sings "One way or another I'm going to get you, I'm going to getchu getchu getchu." The horse tosses its head.

 

 

I see the couple now side by side at the edge of the bridge, gazing east, a figure dancing around them. It's Richard, hired by a Paris company to record the moment one partner pops the question, an assignment he does in various romantic spots.

 

 

Has anyone ever said no? I've asked. Not yet, Richard said.

 

 

Now I see them settling back into the carriage. I imagine Richard is capturing this moment, too. My phone rings: The horse arrived on time, and the woman said yes. It's a good day when that happens.

I go to meet him on the bridge. We're still saying yes.

 

 

 

 

Monday
Aug242015

Sunday, August 23, 2015  

 

Louis XIII on a horse. Smokey sky above salmon and ochre bricks.

We circumambulate the Place des Vosges, find a wooden bench to pause

and drink it in: a cloud of swallows wheels above summer-lush lindens,

fountain plash, a bee above our heads, a feather falling between us.

 

Yesterday, one of those days when nothing goes right.

Today: sweet talk and galettes at Crêperie Suzette, and now this perfect moment.

Walking home, we see the dark falling above the carrousel and zinc roofs 

at St. Paul. At 9 pm? Already? Fall is on its way.