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

Entries in cafes (20)


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.


“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.






Street art © 2015 by E.L.K. 

I was walking past the little café on rue des Écoles where all the kids stand in a clump smoking. I like to hold my breath as I pass them, so as not to inhale the smoke. It’s just one drug among many, I thought, but it’s probably my least favorite.

Richard tells me they’re starting to show a gangrenous foot here in France on cigarette packs; the images are much more vivid than on American cigarette packs, but then a larger percentage of French people smoke. It hasn’t become unfashionable here yet.

Approaching my café I saw one of my favorite waitresses off to the side, smoking furtively. She ducked her head as I came near. I could see by her body language that she was ashamed of smoking. I stopped and we talked. I asked her her birthday. In August, she said. I predict that by your next birthday, you’ll quit. I’d like to, she said, but first I need to have less stress in my life.


Street art © 2015 by PopEye

I told her the story of how I quit. I picked a date, which happened to be Valentine’s Day. I thought about it for a month ahead. Fourteen days in advance I smoked my usual fourteen ciggies. The next day thirteen. And so on, until the last day, on which I awoke, took a puff, put out the cigarette, put it in a baggie once it had cooled, lit it up later, took a toke, put it out, until at the end of the day, I got into bed and lit up the little snippet I had left. I took a deeeeeeep breath, and the ember fell on the dusky rose duvet and burned a nice big hole in it. I looked down and said, That’s it. Never again. 

For the next two weeks I exercised like a lunatic, hung out in the sauna and Jacuzzi, and two weeks later the urge was completely gone. 

Acupuncture is also good! she said. 

It probably is, I agreed.



After my usual salmon and veggies, I opened my computer and chomped through a short story that I’d taken to a workshop the week before. I’d tried an experiment, making a draft of the story with everyone’s comments included in bold, with initials indicating who had made the comment. It served as a meditation on other perspectives. In rereading this draft, I could then make decisions: good suggestion, irrelevant suggestion, and skip over the spots where I wasn’t sure. Certain typos were no-brainers. Some of the suggestions involved adding to the story. As I made a decision about each comment, I eliminated it. Except one: someone in the workshop suggested changing a central metaphor in the story, because it was too familiar to her. But it wasn’t familiar to me. It seemed intrinsic to the nature of the character. I mused on this, and couldn’t decide. 

At that point, this same waitress came up to me shyly, and asked in French (we only spoke in French), if it wasn’t indiscreet, could she ask me a question? Of course, I said. What do you do? I’m a writer, I said. What are you writing? A short story, I said. But I wasn’t sure if the word in French should be conte or nouvelle.

Nouvelle, she said. A conte is more like a fairy story. 

Or The Thousand and One Nights? I said.

Yes, or Le Magicien Dose, she said.

I couldn’t quite translate that: Dose?

She said it again, and I laughed, The Wizard of Oz? D'Oz!

Yes, she said. 


Street art © 2015 by Fred le Chevalier

That’s magic, I said. I was just writing about the Wizard of Oz; it's a central metaphor in my story. 

She smiled and scurried off to wait on another table.

So that was the metaphor that I was weighing whether to keep. Why did she mention this book, of all books? It was a sign to keep the story as I’d originally written it. 

Hours later, I told her this. 

Yes, she said, everything in the world is magic. Only some of us are open to it, and some are not. Some are closed and fearful. 

We had each given the other an answer to a question neither of us had voiced aloud. But I’d heard her desire to stop smoking. She’d heard my question about my story. The nature of the world is magic, sympathetic magic.





Longing for Snow



As I walked to my favorite café there was a light rain that seemed to want to turn to snow. I wanted it to turn to snow. But it wasn't in the mood.

While waiting for salmon and risotto with mushrooms, I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. It’s a series of essays that examines pain, in people with Morgellan’s disease; Bolivian miners; ex-gang members in Watts and Silverlake, Los Angeles; women with eating disorders and women who cut themselves; addicts; and most compellingly, herself when she is punched in the nose and robbed in Nicaragua. Jamison’s gift, I think is less a fresh approach to empathy (some of the essays feel like catastrophe tourism) than it is a fresh approach to language and especially to the structure of an essay. I was most interested in her citing of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, a map of sorts for storytelling, with 31 structural units of story, which she shuffles in unexpected ways in her essay about Nicaragua and her nose.

After dinner, I caught up on my daybook, my daily mandala of the twelve realms, for envisioning and reviewing the focus and balance of each day.


Around me were couples, all but one speaking French. I noticed a typical pattern and one that was atypical. Typical: the woman does most of the talking, and the man seems half present, nearly mute. In one case, the man had little opportunity to talk, since half of the woman’s conversation was spoken into her cell phone.

Another older couple, in their 70s perhaps, was startling in that the woman had the voice of a little girl, the man the voice of an indulgent Daddy.

The couple I enjoyed most were in their 40s or 50s, had rich voices, musical and intelligent, but what I liked best was the rhythm of their talk and her laughter. They were both lively talkers, playing verbal tennis. That ball got thwocked from one side of the net to the other and back, in a rousing game.

The waitress hovered, wanting to get a closer look at what I was drawing and coloring in my Moleskin. I tipped the page up for privacy.



And then two men sat down next to me who spoke French with a Provençal accent in voices so loud, I jumped when the younger one spoke. They were discussing women and money and Paris. Women were better older, they agreed. Paris hotels were too expensive, unless you rent the room by the week. And Paris has too many foreigners now, especially Muslims. They continued on, and I thought how nationalism is really just one country, the land of Xenophobia, and it seems to be inhabited by the shallow and the dumb.



I paid and walked out into a light rain. Rain that was growing a body. Rain that was slipping on a lacy white dress. I held up my hand to the sky. Snow? Snow! Snow! Two men in a nearby market grinned. I remembered standing in the doorway of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seeing snow for the first time in my early 30s, a man with whom I was beginning to fall in love standing in the doorway behind me.

You’ve never seen snow? he said. 


It still fills me with wonder.







Has life become craaaaazy intense for you, too, lately?
Too much to do, not enough time. What to do? Finish one thing at a time.
I head to a favorite café to do some editing. Spirits are high on the streets of Paris tonight. Today was the first warm day of the year. Sky bright blue. First white blossoms on the tree behind l'église Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, always the first we see to bloom in spring. It seems to have come earlier this year.
On Boulevard Saint-Jacques, nine Spanish girls in short skirts, short shorts with tights, are arranged in a horseshoe shape, bending over, laughing and singing the Macarena. Haven’t seen that dance done since the late ‘90s, in Venice. I can’t pass Blvd. St.-Jacques without thinking of my sister Jane who lived on this street the year she studied at the Sorbonne.


A rare night when I have a whole section of the café to myself; everyone seems to be out celebrating Spring. It’s quiet. Easy to focus. Just me and the resident mouse, who scuttles out to say hello, then retreats to the darkness of the baseboards. I think of Apollo, one of whose names was Mouse.
Fuel: a fantastic cup of hot chocolate, dark, no sugar.
Three solid hours of work before a couple come in and sit right next to me (why!?), with at least 20 other tables vacant around us. They’re slightly drunk, jabbering away in French. I’m baffled by people’s odd sense of space.
But what am I complaining about? So many gifts lately! Two were recycled items, both radically elegant. A delicate, hollow, redwood bowl shaped by a friend of my brother and his wife, a piece out of the bar of a mid-century steakhouse that my brother’s green building company is reshaping into an adaptive reuse, mixed-use community center in Phoenix.


The other, a beautiful deep blue hard-bound edition of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet in French, from a friend’s parents’ library in Seattle.
Shall we put Marley le Chat’s ashes in the redwood bowl? The opening is small enough that we could balance a marble on top to close it. It looks so handsome on our mantelpiece, now an altar for our beloveds who have died in the three years since we arrived here--Kimo Campbell, Jane Eliot, Uncle Bruce, Marley, Jane Kitchell. They are always with us; still here, still loved.
I begin the Balzac novel. Why is it so much more pleasurable to read this fine leather-bound volume? Is it because once upon a time books were better made? Is it because it’s a gift, and so embodies love?
Gifts, opportunities, responsibilities seem to be multiplying lately, a flood of things that must be attended to immediately.
I cannot possibly address them all in a timely fashion. Feeling full of inspiration and drive, but also exhausted.

Nothing that a week on a Greek beach couldn't cure. 

Can I possibly do all that is challenging and inviting me now?
Somehow I will. I must!







On Sadness, Joy, Writing, Hélène Cixous, Montaigne, Mothers and Myth

After the saddest year of my life (but was it, really? I ask myself, and answer, Yes, it was), I was surprised tonight to feel the joy returning. That old version of joy, of life as overflowing abundance. First, Richard and I went away for four days to Amsterdam. More on that in a later post. 

A leisurely break, a honeymoon of sorts, followed by fresh energy for each of us in our work. The day after we returned to Paris, I sent off a chapter of my novel to a literary magazine. It’s strange, the shift, a new kind of detachment from the results of submitting work, a new kind of unwavering resolve.

I’ve had many professions, U.C. Berkeley language lab, tutor for the blind, model, cook on a schooner, waitress, bookseller in Sausalito, Cambridge and NYC, real estate agent, on-the-road art dealer, teacher of Greek myth.


As an art dealer, I learned two things: finding the right gatekeeper is a simple matter of love—the artist’s sensibility resonating with that of the dealer/agent/buyer. And the value of the best art often takes people the longest to see.  

My favorite of the artists I carried was invisible for a full year to everyone to whom I showed paintings, until, one day in my suite at Los Angeles' Chateau Marmont Hotel, a couple of top collectors walked in and flipped over this artist’s work. A few minutes later, they were in the hallway conferring, and minutes later, writing a big fat check. No accident that they did not need my vote of confidence in their taste (as many collectors did).


The structure of my novel is unorthodox, but the characters will not allow me to change it. Last night, after two-and-a-half hours in my favorite café, doing final editing and finishing chapter nine, the young couple next to me and I struck up a conversation. They asked me what I was writing. I told them (very briefly), and added (since they were Greek) that its structure was based on Greek myth. And then the woman and I began to talk about what is so wonderful about Greek mythology. (After a couple of millennia of strict monotheism in Greece, I am always surprised—delighted!—to encounter a Greek person, an engineer, no less, who loves Greek myth.) We agreed on three things: it represents divinity that is both male and female; these gods and goddesses are like human characters, with all their strengths and flaws; and it is essentially stories. I left the café feeling I'd been given a message, a gift.

And then tonight! Yow. Hélène Cixous read from her latest book, Twists and Turns in the Heart’s Antarctic, at Shakespeare and Company bookstore. First, her translator, Beverley Bie Brahic, read an English translation; then Cixous followed with the original in French. The text was poetic fiction, an essay, an epic, a Greek myth, about a daughter named Hélène, a brother, O., with whom she has a murderous relationship, and their 100-year-old mother, Eve. The images were closely observed, intimate; the metaphor, of Euridice (the mother) following Orpheus (the daughter/writer) shakily down some stairs. Stunning writing.



And this was peculiar, an image that sounded wonderful in English, the mother’s recent bond with a teddy bear, sounded slightly sentimental in French. In addition to the gorgeous writing, I felt a longing to live closer to my mother, the pain of being far from home soil, a pang of admiration-envy of my two sisters and brother who live so close to her. (For everything, there is a price, and this is the price for me of living in Paris.)

I have loved Hélène Cixous’s work for years. I drew closer, standing in the doorway, as H. C. answered questions after the reading. A beautiful face, big ears, long nose, Algerian-French, German Ashkenazi Jewish on her mother’s side, Pied-Noir Sephardic Jewish on her father’s. A fez cap, gray-green cardigan and scarf over a black sweater. A relaxed and delicate face. Nefertiti eyeliner. She looked a bit like Nefertiti.

She could not “enter” France for years, found the French too bourgeois, “carpeted,” until she found the door. That door was the tower of the small castle that had once belonged to the great essayist, Montaigne, in the town of the same name. His writing room was about the size of the room in which we were gathered. A view from the small windows of vastness, reminding her of Goethe’s view in Strasbourg. She felt the imprint of the books that had once surrounded him, though they are long gone.



She now goes back to visit Montaigne’s tower once a year for inspiration. Of course, she says, you have to have read all of Montaigne’s essays for it to mean anything. Important things happened in this tower where he wrote. Kings visited the writer there, among them, King Henri IV, the first Protestant king of France. Henri IV, like Nelson Mandela, was a mediator, mediating between the Protestants and Catholics. 

In response to a question about why she so often used the first person in her writing, Cixous said, the self is multiple, legion. (Yes! as are the forms of the divine, which is no longer entirely “out there,” or “up there,” but envisioned now as inside us, aspects of the collective unconscious.)

The translator discussed a French word haimé, a word Cixous invented by joining haïr, "to hate," to aimer, "to love." She struggled to find a graceful equivalent in English, and settled for "hateloved."

I asked Alex to save me a copy of Twists and Turns, and bolted out of Shakespeare and into the street, too happy to wait in line. I called our favorite restaurant to see if they had a table for one. “Oui, Karine!” said David. Had hareng with potatoes and carrots, and warm goat’s cheese on tiny pieces of toast. Then as the restaurant filled with no one but French-speaking diners who were spilling over with exuberance tonight, I left to walk to my (second-)fave café to write this letter to you.