A Thanksgiving Story

You sent a ‘Save the date’ notice to all the guests-mostly Americans and some other cultures-two weeks in advance.

You explained why the celebration has to happen on the weekend not on Thursday since everyone works on Thursday in France.

You went to the special butcher and ordered the turkey, asking again, as you do every year, that all the innards need to be out and, for a little extra money, could they start the roasting for you.

You arranged to pick up the turkey the morning of your Thanksgiving feast, so you’d have at least three hours to finish the cooking.

You sent out e-mails far and wide asking where to find cranberries in Paris.

You wrote a lovely invitation with the history of Thanksgiving, then explained how it is a myth, yet it is most Americans’ favorite holiday.

You requested that each person think of something to share that they feel especially grateful for.

You borrowed chairs from the neighbors feeling a bit guilty that you were having a party and not inviting them.

You then wrote a note reminding the neighbors of the American holiday Thanksgiving and thanked them for contributing to it.

You went to the local Fruits Primeurs and bought up two kilos of green beans and a massive amount of potatoes, wondering again why sweet potatoes had never made it to France.

You pulled out all your Thanksgiving decorations and your pumpkin pie spice that you bring back each year from California.

You put together the ingredients for pumpkin pie and stored in the refrigerator.

You set your table early as it made you smile every time you walked by it.

You instructed your cat that she is not allowed to jump on the table or play with any of the decorations.

You sighed as your cat stared at you with that look that said “Don’t tell me what to do.”

You wrote e-cards to all your friends far and wide wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving.

You set the delivery time for the e-cards for the morning of Thanksgiving.

You went to sleep knowing everything would be perfect.

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A bientôt,

Sara

The Smells of Paris

I’m surprised to learn, after sniffing up a storm today, closing my eyes, and hoping the olfactory part of my mind would wander down some ancient pathways, that I have no real smell memory, not even one that reminds me of ‘home’.  I have three smells that take me back to earlier years. Someone taking the first puff on a cigarette.  There was nothing like that smell to me and it was non-reproducible. I can picture a friend (different friends throughout my smoking career) lighting up, taking a deep inhale, and blowing out the smoke.  All or much of it landing on my nose.   Today I try to move away from cigarettes.  Don’t really want the memory pull.

Then there is being outside on a walk and, suddenly out of nowhere, smelling marijuana.  Usually, I never see where it’s coming from. But the smell takes me back to the most romantic of my memories of my hippie years when everything was in front of me, and I had left all the bad, all the painful back at home. I easily picture in my mind, friends sitting around in a circle.  Sometimes we are talking.  Sometimes we are listening to music. But always, it was friendly, and it was an invitation for my brain to take a break from whatever the day had held.

And lastly, there is just-baked bread. Since weight has always been problematic, I don’t have great associations with that smell as delicious and heavenly as it is.  Since I’ve been in Paris and no longer worry about my weight (though I never eat bread), I’ve learned to just appreciate the smell, how aromatic it is. There is a boulangerie on the corner of my street and if I’m up and out early enough, I walk by and can inhale the staff of life while watching the cooks who have been up since 3:30 am take a break leaning up against the wall of the shop smoking cigarettes.

I must be an auditory memory person. I can hear the first three bars of “EaterPurple People ”, and I’m back in my youth, nine years old, lying in my twin bed with measles. A transistor radio propped on a chair in front of me where I first discovered Hy Lit on WIBG, Philadelphia.  

I can hear the first note of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and I’m in a VW bus with four other people riding up the west coast of Italy singing at the top of my lungs.  I’m returning to Florence where I had spent my senior year abroad and I was buzzing with excitement. 

I can hear three strums of ‘Silver Dagger’ from Joan Baez’s first album and I’m sitting on the floor at Christmas, down in the rec room, my parents, uncle and aunt, and Peggy all sitting there.  I have a guitar and I’m playing a song I wrote. We’re at the far end of the room next to the doors that open up onto the backyard. I’m wearing my dark hair parted in the middle and trying to look as much like Joan Baez as I possibly can.

These are visceral feelings I have no control over. I recently listened to the Beatles on Spotify. Here Comes the Sun started the playlist. I was instantaneously overwhelmed with memories of being young, of being hopeful, of just wanting to have fun, and not worrying about money, family, or health. I had to sit down and take deep breaths and just let the feelings roll through me. It all feels so long ago—literally another time, a different person that was there.

Would I go back there? Not on your life? What hits me is always the best of those times.  Music was absolutely the best of the best. I lost myself in music.  I listened to rock ‘n roll around the clock.  I don’t know when it stopped but it stopped. And now it’s like sparkling sand that flows through my fingers.  I can’t hold onto the feelings, nor do I want to. But I do love that I have a magic key that takes me straight back and I get to relive a tiny part of the past.

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A bientôt, 

Sara

Thinking about the midterms from Paris

At 10 pm CET, Tuesday night, Voting Day in the USA, I was ready to go to bed. I’ve been sick and too tired to be anxious. I checked my e-mail from my sister who has worked her butt off for MI Elections: Her last e-mail reported: “We’re all going crazy with worry today–for Michigan and for the country.  I’m having a small election “party” but we all fear it’s going to be a wake…” This last e-mail I received was sent one hour later and read:`’Most of the people I invited aren’t coming because they are so depressed and just don’t want to face it. So it’s going to be weird.” She followed with “Not much is going to be known for MI even by tomorrow (my tomorrow). And if the D’s win anything, they’ll call it fraud, so it’s all a big mess.” 

I woke up Wednesday morning to two wins in MI, Governor Whitmer has retained her seat and a house member has also won. According to CNN, the Dems were very happy and relieved. I wanted to call my sister and wake her up but thought better of it. 

from Frank Bruni’s Op Ed piece in NYTIMES.

People have had a rainbow of reactions. I wondered about my own lack of anxiety. Perhaps it was because I’ve been sick for over a week and didn’t have the energy. Maybe I’m just too far away living here in Paris or maybe I’ve started to integrate that it’s useless to worry without enough information. I did pray- before I went to bed—I think it was a heartfelt prayer to whatever Higher Power watches over us. I prayed for kindness to the US. The papers were predicting a blood bath for the Democrats, and, naive me, just could not fathom that the God of my misunderstanding would send that kind of facism to the US. Unless it was to teach us a lesson. That particular god sent Hitler and the Holocaust. If there was a lesson there, it certainly wasn’t learned. With the arrival of Trump and all the ugliness out from under the rug, there is clearly as much antisemitism and white supremacy as ever.

I’ve been watching the Lincoln Dilemna on Apple TV+ and, it seems to my untrained historical mind, that things were worse back then. Worse to the point that eleven states ceceded from the Union and were willing to go to war for their beliefs. And though the South lost the war, they’ve never really given up or given in. Then there was Woodrow Wilson….”Wilson defended segregation on “scientific” grounds in private, and (scholars) describe him as a man who “loved to tell racist ‘darky‘ jokes about black Americans.” – Wikipedia. I’ve never seen statistics but I’d be interested to know how many Americans sided with Germany during WWII.

People say there will be another Civil War. I’ve said that I didn’t see massive change without violence—as if there wasn’t enough violence now. With the US’s hands in so many other wars, where would there be people willing to fight in a full-out war. The question people over here in Europe are asking is how could so much money be spent on these elections? 9.3 billion dollars. Can that be right? And now more millions will be thrown at Georgia between now and Dec. 6th. I had some naive hope that all the bullying and demanding e-mails for money might stop but no. I’ve received at least 100 in my Spam since the run-off was announced. 

There is great relief that there was no red wave. Biden called it a victory. My Letters from an American, Heather Cox Richardson, says Democracy won. There are still outstanding contests to be called. This morning I learned that Mark Kelly has been declared the winner of the Arizona senate seat. Forty-nine to forty-nine. So it could be that nothing has changed—the Senate divided fifty/fifty. The Times says the big change is Trump. He had 330 personally hand-picked people running. Very few won. 

Is there anyone who hasn’t seen this? 

Trump disgustingly threatened De Santos if he ran against him for President in 2024. Two men with god complexes running against each other. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be fascinating. The media view, one which I agree with, is that the Republican party is moving away from Trump—but towards what? A more eloquent white supremacist or someone else? 

There is still so much to learn from these elections, especially the two Senate seats in Nevada and Georgia. As of this writing, the two contenders in Nevada are neck and neck with a large percentage of mail-in ballots still to be counted. We won’t know Georgia’s outcome for at least a month. And now I learn that Nevada finished counting and has a Democratic Senator. A close call. Fifty/Forty-Nine.

Here in France, the midterms have been in the News. But my french friends say people are tired of us and these shenanigans (my word). Nobody understands what is happening to a great country like the USA. How could so much blatant hatred be tolerated? Of course, we have Marine Le Pen and her far-right but somehow to this American, it isn’t the same.

These are all thoughts. The next two years will be very interesting.

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A bientôt,

Sara

Watching the Playoffs in Paris

If you mention baseball to a french person, they will either look at you incomprehensibly or roll their eyes. It’s not that they don’t know about the sport of baseball. It’s that they don’t understand such slow action and, therefore, the French do not do baseball. At the World Baseball Classic, an every four-year event that actually includes teams from all over the world, the Dutch have a baseball team, the Italians have a baseball team, but the French team is largely composed of Major League players who have some French in their ancestry.

Opening Nite in Houston-Game 1 (photo from CNN website as are all the rest of the photos).

So it is with great gratitude that I watch Apple TV+’s Weekly WrapUp every Saturday. In the US, it is shown on Friday nights, but as I live in a timezone that is six hours ahead of the East Coast, I get it on Saturdays. Now that the PlayOffs are in full swing, I get a daily report which I watch at noon. I can watch a nine-inning game in eight minutes. I’m so happy I get that. And for some people, eight minutes is just perfect. They get all the action and none of the stress of waiting, inning by inning, to learn who wins. For those of you who aren’t big baseball fans, the better team doesn’t always win. It’s part of baseball.

For Game 1 of the World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies were playing the Astros in Houston. I don’t know how fans in the US feel but, for me, the Astros have taken over from the Yankees as “the team we love to hate.” After the Astros won the World Series in 2017, it was discovered by Major League Baseball that the team was stealing signs. They did not lose their title. Fans were outraged. Maybe not Houston fans! Ok, then there is Dusty Baker who is now the manager of the Astros. He’s just about as nice a baseball person as you can find. It’s hard to imagine that he would be a party to sign stealing (any more than the rest of the teams). I know there are fans who are convinced that the Astros are still crooked.

Dusty Baker, manager of the Houston Astros

Back to Game 1 played last Friday. It went ten innings. For a fan like me, watching a nail-biter in eight minutes just doesn’t do it. As the lead went back and forth between the teams, I was just imagining what it would be like sitting in the stands, ecstatic when it is your team ahead and down in the dumps when the other team took the lead. In the end, in the tenth inning, the Phillies won. So a word about the Astros Opening Nite pitcher. I realize that for some of you this is way more information than you care to know. But it will help you understand why some people breathe baseball. And why as my friend, Darcy’s father used to say: “there are two seasons in the year. Winter and baseball season.” He was not wrong.

Justin Verlander, Opening nite pitcher for the Astros.

Justin Verlander was the Opening Nite pitcher for the Astros. He is and has been a great pitcher. He used to pitch for the Detroit Tigers. Back in the day when the Oakland A’s finished first in the American League West, somehow their first opponent in the playoffs was the Detroit Tigers two years in a row. And twice with the two teams tied 2-2 with one game to go to play the next tier of the playoffs, Justin Verlander would be on the mound for Game 5. It didn’t matter how tired he was, like Marly’s ghost, he loomed large over the A’s. And the A’s lost. Justin Verlander is moche ( french for ugly, total yuk) in the minds of A’s fans. And here he was, ten years later, Opening Nite pitcher for the team we love to hate. It may have only been an eight-minute game, but for this A’s fan, I jumped up and down when the stats said that Verlander was the losing pitcher!!!

I grew up for the first fourteen years of my life in the Philadelphia suburbs. Nothing about Philadephia says ‘home’ to me. My mother moved from Princeton, NJ to lower Bucks County in her late seventies. So it is easy for me to root for the Phillies. The last time the Phils won the World Series was in 2008, the year my mother died. The Oakland A’s started out in 1904 as the Philadelphia A’s. In 1954, they moved to Kansas City. After a short unsuccessful stint there, they moved to Oakland in 1967. I’ve always felt a kinship to the Philadelphia A’s and, at one point in my life, was given a lifetime membership to the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Museum. 

Jimmy Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics

Four World Series games have been played. The teams are tied 2-2. Only the first two games were tight with the teams matching each other play for play. Last night, the Astros set a WS record: 4 pitchers pitched a No Hitter. Not one Phillies player got a hit. So what’s left is the best of three!

fans in Philadelphia waving their rally towels

If you’ve read this far, thank you. People ask how I could have ever moved to Paris when I love baseball so much. I really don’t have an answer to that question. I can tell you that it feels very nice to write about baseball. I am hoping to go to Spring Training in Arizona next March. So I’ll end with a shout out to all Phillies fans around the world. Go Phighting Phils!!!

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A Bientôt,

Sara

Art in Paris: digital and natural

Monday, I was sitting on a platform in the back of an old foundry in Paris overlooking what is now known as Atelier des Lumières. The Atelier is the first digital art museum in Paris. I have gone five times since it opened its doors in April of 2018. All the shows are a combination of Art and Technology. Using 120 projectors, images are thrown up on walls and the floor. They are in constant motion and accompanied by music.

After watching a show of Cezanne, Kandinsky, and Van Gogh, I decided I wanted to know more about the origins of the Atelier des Lumières. As each of the shows ended and the credits were projected on the walls, eight cities (including Paris) now house these light shows: Bordeaux, Les Baux-de-Province, Amsterdam, New York, Dubai, Seoul, and Jeju. That is six more than the last time I was there during the summer of 2020. My sister had told me she had tickets to see the Van Gogh show in Detroit (for five times the price we pay here in Paris!). I had assumed it was the Paris show that was traveling but I’m not so sure. There is a permanent installation in New York.

The first of these art and technology shows, Carrières des Lumières, started in les Baux-de-Province. There the art is projected onto the walls of caves. It is part of a much larger organization called Cultural Spaces. Bruno Monnier, the president of Cultural Spaces, wanted to bring the idea to Paris. He found an unused foundry from the 19th century called Chemin-Vert located in the 11th arrondissement. It was created in 1835 to meet the needs of the Navy and railways for high-quality castings. It closed in 1929 due to the International crisis. Monnier has taken the space, left it intact, and cleaned it up while fitting it for all the projectors. It opened in 2018 with a show of Klimpt’s famous paintings. It is hard to describe the show if you haven’t seen one. My photos are static but the images are constantly moving like a giant slide show. Music is chosen specifically for certain periods in an artist’s life. The result is captivating. It’s not a stretch to call it a completely immersive experience. Children often run around chasing the images on the floor and become part of the fun of the show.

Kandinsky

After writing the above, I walked to Parc de Bagatelle to check on the peacocks and the cats. I couldn’t go on Sunday. I saw how fast the peacock tails were growing in. I thought of sitting in the Atelier watching these famous artists’ depictions of nature dancing on the walls. And, of being in Bagatelle week after week, looking at the trees turn colors, the roses die away, a few defying nature and hanging on to their stems, the peacocks strutting around, their tails growing so fast it just might be a slide show. There is no sign of the females. There aren’t even that many people even though it was a lovely autumn day. The cats were all out enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Gaston and Zoe (the cats from the circus) are lying on the bench.

The regular volunteer was just finishing up feeding time for the cats. I asked him how long it took the peacock tails to complete the circle to full growth. He said April. They molt in August. Four months is the short time they are full and probably the equivalent of mating season.

Two months worth of growth, the eyes are now clearly visible

I asked him about kittens. He said most are born between September and December. We never see them because the mothers hide them in the thick bushes on the periphery of the park. I had visions of bushwacking my way through those bushes until I found a litter. Then I’d steal one and raise it—much to the chagrin of Bijou who is the true Lady and Mistress of my small apartment. A girl can dream.

One rose, with a strong perfume, is hanging on. Because it is an entrant into the competition of 2023, it is not named.

Being at Bagatelle week after week is as immersive an experience as the digital art show at the Atelier. One shouldn’t compare apples and oranges but, if I were forced to choose…..

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

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A bientôt,

Sara

Hooked on Food

Michael Moss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote Salt, Sugar, Fat and his latest book, Hooked, was the speaker at the American Library in Paris author event. I wrote a review of the book Hooked: How we became addicted to Processed Food a year and a half ago and encouraged all my readers interested in both Addictions and Food, to read it. I learned he was coming to Paris to be a guest speaker at a writing retreat this week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible for me to attend the retreat. When I learned last weekend, that he would be speaking at the Library, I was very excited. This man had thanked me on Instagram for the review and I got an image of an author that was totally approachable.

Not only did I want to hear him in person, I decided I would give him a copy of my book Saving Sara, A Memoir of Food Addiction. I could tell from his writing that he did not have addiction issues himself, at least as far as food is concerned, that his aim was to expose Nestlé, for the pimps they are (my words not his), to alert the world that these companies WANT you to get addicted to their products as it is excellent for the financial bottom line. I’ve long wanted to correspond with him but hadn’t found a way. When I met him walking in the door of the Library, after we all greeted him, I asked him if he would be willing to read my book. He said he would be honored. So I inscribed it and handed it to him.

He was interviewed by the Library’s excellent Alice McCrumb who provided an air of excitement about the book. He told us about the research presently going: on taking ‘Photos’ of people’s brains right after eating chocolate, for instance, and how the researcher can see the corresponding parts of the brain light up within seconds. Most damningly, it seems industries don’t try to hide the fact that they are working hard to find products that are convenient, cheap, and addictive. The CEOs of these industries would never eat their own food, Moss told us.

I found myself very uncomfortable during the whole talk. Looking back I realize that I had come with the intention of making his acquaintance, giving him my book to read if he was willing, and maybe forming some kind of bond with him. That didn’t happen. I appreciate the science and the research that is now going into the huge subject of food addiction. He told us that in his first book, he danced around using the ‘A’ word, In Hooked, he didn’t. He even went so far as to say that for some people this addiction is like drug addiction and that people have to look at what drug addicts do to overcome their addictions for help with food. What I finally came up with by the time I got home was that I’m so used to being with like-minded people when talking of this subject, that I’m not often in the position of learning the more scientific aspects of it. In Michael’s talk, he was talking about Big Pharma (known as the food industry), not the addicts themselves. People had come to hear the dasterdly deeds of Nestlé (which makes $63.8bn a year) and the nine other huge food companies that control the majority of what you buy from the food and beverage brands, not to hear from people like me. I was definitely the odd man out.

Near the end, one woman asked “What is the solution?’ Two days later, I’m not actually sure if she was asking about the solution to stopping production of these addictive products or the solution to helping people stay away from them. I heard it as the second. I raised my hand and outed myself as a food addict in recovery for over 17 years, and that each of us has to take some responsibility for ending the abuse on our bodies. The topic before had been that so many families couldn’t afford good food, they had to buy this cheap excuse for food in order to feed their families. I didn’t respond to that but I know plenty of food addicts who live hand to mouth who have found a way to feed their families with real food. In 12 step rooms, we’re told you have to want it bad enough. 

The thing is: I agree with every one of his findings, and I applaud him for calling this problem what it is: Food Addiction. But I don’t agree that the industry has to take 100% responsibility for our health. If I had waited until that happened, I’d probably be dead by my own hand today. I think each one of us has to take 100% responsibility for what we put in our bodies and, people like me who have lost the power to act in healthy ways, we should get ourselves surrounded by like-minded people who will hold our hands through the withdrawal part, explain to us in no uncertain terms that this disease is one of Obsession—obsessing about those foods/substances that are supposed to make us happy, find Prince Charming, etc, etc and one of Compulsion—once the substance we are allergic to, in my case sugar and grains, is in my body, I don’t know what will happen next. I’m at the mercy of my compulsion.

I felt very alone at the end of his talk. I think I brought it on myself. I know what he writes about and I’m a huge cheerleader. But I forgot what it’s like to be in the company of people just learning what is going on in the food industry and how people like me are already dying from addiction. Here is the kicker: It is easy to think “well this happened in the tobacco industry, maybe things will change.” Guess who owns some of the largest industry companies?? The tobacco companies. Tobacco stopped making the billions it was making, so they found the next best thing. Philip Morris owns Kraft. RJ Reynolds owns Nabisco. Does the average person have a chance?

Michael Moss is an investigative journalist and author. In 2010, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on contaminated hamburgers. His previous book Salt, Sugar, Fat, was a New York Times best seller.  Hooked (2021) explores our complex relationship with processed food. It explains why certain foods leave us wanting more, and reveals how our brain chemistry and our evolutionary biology are exploited by the fast-food industry.

Sara Somers is an author, blogger, and retired Psychotherapist living in Paris, France. Saving Sara: For nearly fifty years, Sara Somers suffered from untreated food addiction. In this brutally honest and intimate memoir, Somers offers readers an inside view of a food addict’s mind, showcasing her experiences of obsessive cravings, compulsivity, and powerlessness regarding food.

*** ***

For those of you following the growth of my peacocks’ tails, here are the latest photos. The feathers of the tail are at least two inches longer than last week and I could see an eye or two. On his back, the brown and white feathers are beginning to turn into blue and green shell-shaped feathers that will eventually take up most of his back.

A bientôt

Sara

There is a time for building, and a time for living and for generation-T.S. Eliot

I was sitting on my couch yesterday talking with a good friend who was visiting Paris from California. She asked me if it was smarter to rent something here or to buy. I said that it depends. Why was she asking? She said that the general atmosphere in the US has become unbearable for her and her husband because of politics. She had visited with another group of friends two days ago and that had been the focus of their conversation. Selling and moving to Paris (these were all people who love Paris). I was a bit stunned. She lives in California and I saw California as a refuge from all the insanity. I guess not. You can’t not know what’s going on all over the country if you own a computer or a TV or both. Maybe with the mid-terms coming up, the volume has risen so high that the desire to run away from it all must seem so attractive. 

I left in 2013. Before there was Trump (although we were going through the Tea Party mess). I wasn’t making myself crazy by trying to decide to leave my country because of principles. I left because I could. I had retired. I wanted to experience another culture, really experience it, and came to Paris for a year. That was one month short of nine years ago. I haven’t gone back. To be considering a permanent move without knowing anything about what the future holds seems very brave to me. 

That was the other thing we talked about. The future. We are both at the age where one has to be thinking “where do I want to get old?” “Where do I want to be old?” The US has wonderful Continuing Care Retirement Communities. France does not. France has a wonderful medical system. The US does not. If I can no longer live independently, if I have to depend on someone or someones, what country do I want to be in?

These are huge questions. Honestly, I try not to think about them very often though I should. Yet, it was a pleasure discussing it all with my friend yesterday. A pleasure because we are like-minded and putting it all out on the table. I recently put an offer on a house in Normandy. I had an inspection done by a wonderful Scotsman and I told him my age and asked if he could look at the house with that in mind. He was happy to. He told me the house wasn’t suitable for someone my age, meaning if I had to redo a room or a bathroom to make it more handicap accessible, it wasn’t possible in that house. I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to even think of that question much less ask it.

To me, thinking about leaving the country feels like a little death. It’s great to move if you are going towards something, have excitement about new things, having a chance to start over again somewhere else. But that isn’t what people are saying when they are talking about leaving. They say it with sadness, that it is so scary to live in the US right now. I don’t envy them. 

Meanwhile here in Paris….. I was down near Notre Dame last week. Before the fire in March of 2019, my favorite view of Notre Dame was looking at it from behind; the roof held up by flying buttresses. I’d stand about half a kilometer east on the left bank and take deep breaths looking at the extraordinary beauty of that cathedral against a blue sky. Now all you can see is scaffolding. And cranes. And more scaffolding. 

Two years ago, there was talk that Macron wanted the rebuilding finished by the 2024 Summer Olympics which are being held in Paris. No one believes that can happen. According to the Smithsonian website, the clean up was finished this past August and the rebuilding started in September. The government is still hoping to finish it in 2024 and has actually announced that it will be open to the public in the Spring of 2024. 

There was a contest, at one point, to design a new roof for the cathedral. There was even one with a swimming pool, I’m told. Now the new Notre Dame will look exactly like the old Notre Dame. Which makes me glad. “The French Senate rejected calls to replace the spire with a modern design, ultimately voting to restore it to its “last known visual state.” But France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission did approve proposals to modernize Notre-Dame’s interior with new additions like contemporary artworks—a plan that some critics described as a “woke Disney revamp.” “A parallel initiative to invigorate Notre-Dame’s surroundings is also underway. Funded by Paris City Hall, the redesign includes planting more vegetation in the area and installing a cooling system, the New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden reported in June. Per the Times, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that Notre-Dame “had to be left in its beauty and have everything around it be a showcase for that beauty.”—smithsonianmag.com

This is what Notre Dame will look when finished.

And finally, I’ll end with a word about the peacocks in Parc de Bagatelle. I took my Sunday walk to the park four days ago. The first thing I do when I arrive is check up on the cats. If there is a volunteer there feeding them, I have a chat. That’s how I learn the stories about them. And now that I know that peacock tail feathers have a life cycle, I’m watching the male peacock carefully. I saw a peacock before a cat. He was looking in the opposite direction. It looked as if some pine needles had gotten caught under his back feathers. As I got closer, I realized what I thought were pine needles was the very beginnings of the new feathers.

Scattered on his back are what look like tufts of cotton. When the tail is completely grown out and he makes a fan to attract a female, it’s possible to see all the white fluff. This seemed unusual to me – to be able to see so much fluff even when both back wings were flat on his back. But I’m just learning and watching. I have no idea what the norm is.

It seems that today has been about cycles. The life cycle of the peacock tail of feathers, the cycle of a beautiful cathedral that has had parts destroyed by fires in the past, and the lifecycle of a political movement. With nature, it is truly a cycle. I lost my home in California to fire and built a lovely home from the ashes. With what’s happening in the US, one can only pray it cycles out and get into action to give it a big shove. That means Go Vote!

A bientôt,

Sara

“Reading is an act of resistance”

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. She was in Paris to celebrate the launching of her latest book The Candy House in French, as well as participating in Festival America. I belong to a writing group through AAWE (Association of American Women in Europe). Through a unique partnership of AAWE, Editions Robert Laffont, and AAWE, Jennifer spoke at the beautiful American Center for Art and Culture in the 16ème. My writing group had the honor of being volunteers at the event on Friday.

Lorie Lichtlen, interviewer. Jennifer Egan, author, Margueritee Cappelle, translator

I’m embarrassed to admit that before this summer I had not read any of her books. When I learned she was making a special appearance at ACAC, I read three of her books backwards! First the Candy House (2022), then Manhattan Beach (2016), and finally A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011). My overall impression was that this was one brilliant woman who had an ultra creative mind and was also very complex. I wasn’t sure I understood The Candy House very well and resorted to reading reviews in the NYTimes and New Yorker. I was a bit afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow her thinking.

Signing both French and English language books

I had absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Jennifer walked into the venue with a backpack slung over her shoulder, a simple black top, a short skirt, and knee high boots. She greeted everyone with a huge smile. The room filled up with a large Franco-American crowd of at least one hundred people. Answering questions posed by the interviewer, she gave generous, thoughtful answers and captured everyones’ hearts. When someone asked her “Do you think young people are still reading?” her response got a rocking spontaneous applause. “Reading is the only way that someone can step into someone else’s head. The world now is full of devices. My sons have told me that apps are built to be addictive, but looking at the phone keeps you on the outside. I say put your device in another room and read for pleasure. Nobody is selling you anything when you read a book. Reading is an act of resistance!”

When asked about her favorite books, she responded, House of Mirth by Edith Warton and The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. “To me, they describe America.” When she signed the book I bought, she was as generous with her dedication as she was with her responses. It was clear to me that Jennifer was having fun. She used that word multiple times in describing her writing, how she wrote, what inspired her, how her thought processes went.

Opening Night Ceremony of Festival America

I mentioned that she was here as a part of Festival America. FA was founded twenty years ago by a Frenchman who wanted to shine a light on American writers who were under-represented by the media. African American authors, indigenous authors, Asian-American authors. It has evolved into an every other year celebration of American authors. “An unparalleled event, the AMERICA festival (invites), every two years in Vincennes (Val-de-Marne, France), around 70 authors from North America (United States, Canada, Quebec, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti). Since 2002, it has set itself the goal of celebrating diversity on the other side of the Atlantic – a cultural mosaic that is Indian, Hispanic, African, Anglo-Saxon, French and Francophone – and giving the public the opportunity to better understand their cultural realities.”-actes-sud.fr

Leila Mottley

I had read recently that a nineteen year old young woman from Oakland, Leila Mottley, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Her book, Nightcrawling, has been applauded everywhere, translated into French, and won the Festival America prize at the end of the festival. I was so surprised to see her on the stage with the other authors. Afterwards, I saw her and told her that I was probably the only other person in the building from Oakland. She didn’t seem particularly impressed!

“A news item inspired Leila Mottley to write her novel, the first manuscript that she dared to intend for publication” writes Le Point, a french magazine, “In 2016, the media talked a lot about the rape of a young girl by the police and I was struck to see that we knew nothing about it. (Yet) they kept showing how the police lived the case. Women of color are particularly the target of violence because the law does not protect them in the same way. By imagining Kiara, I wanted to give the visibility she didn’t have at the time to this young black woman, to her world. And, to follow her into the night of prostitution, she had herself reread by a sex worker.”

I haven’t read the book yet but am so proud of her, a follow Oakland resident. A friend told me that the Bay Area Book Festival, in conjunction with the Oakland Museum, is planning an event for her in April, on the launch date of the paperback. Leila was asked to say something at the Opening Ceremony and she giggled like the teenager she is and spoke eloquently about what matters to her. She is something.

To finish this blog, I’m including a video of the Native Americans who performed a drumming concert for us.

A bientôt,

Sara

Once more with feeling

Before I go any further, I have to eat a little crow. The tone of my blog last week made it sound like I thought Spain was ugly and disappointing. By the time the week was over, I thought the area we were in was quite lovely (with the exception of the A7). I have a bad habit of seeing things in the negative when I’m new at something. A class, a group, first day on a trip. Any discomfort I feel translates into something wrong with the person, place, or thing. I left Paris in a state of exhaustion and overwhelm. I took it out on the Costa del Sol which had never done anything to me! So any Spain lovers out there, I apologize.

View from the balcony off my bedroom

One reader wrote me to say that a reason that Spain and France are so different is that Spain was governed by the Moors for a very long time and historically Islam has had the greatest influence on Spain. Today, Islam is growing again, especially in younger people, and is the second largest religion after Catholicism. Whereas France, since the time of Charlemagne, has been the most Catholic country in the area we know as Europe until the 16th century when Protestantism began to appear. Even then, Protestantism flourished in Germany, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe, more so than in France. When one adds the weather and the proximity of the Mediterranean sea, it can be expected that the two countries will appear very different. That is what I saw and felt when I first arrived.

Looking out on the sea from the timeshare (photo: Susan Johnson)

Andalusia, which includes the Costa del Sol, is the second largest of the eight communes of Spain. High in the mountains behind Marbella are a circle of villages known as the White Towns because of their white-washed walls and houses. On Thursday last week, we drove to Ronda, the largest and most popular of these towns. Although only 40 km from flat land to town, the road is so curvy through the National Park, that it takes over an hour to get there. Susan did the driving and I was the navigator. I had the help of my Apple map on my iPhone and a voice I called Fred. Fred is terrific. He gives plenty of warning when a turn is coming up or having to take an off-ramp. He even told us when we were approaching a radar for speed. We discussed all the radar and decided that, unlike the US, they were not out to trap us and make money, but trying to regulate traffic. Even so people whooshed by us at top speeds. We never saw much traffic anywhere except on the A7. Nor did we see any police or traffic cops deterring these drivers. Everything is being done on-line these days.

The white washed houses of Ronda (photo: Susan Johnson)

Ronda is famous for the bridge that traverses over a 380 foot ravine connecting the old town with the new as well as its cliff side location. It is the largest of the White Towns with a population of 35,000. From our one afternoon there, I’d say 34,950 live in the new town. There was a large and well-organized carpark where we left the car, and a lengthy pedestrian street from the carpark to Plaza de Toros de Ronda, the oldest bullring in Spain. “American artists Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent many summers in Ronda as part-time residents of Ronda’s old-town quarter called La Ciudad. Both wrote about Ronda’s beauty and famous bullfighting traditions. Their collective accounts have contributed to Ronda’s popularity over time.”-Wikipedia

The drama of the bridge connecting the two parts of Ronda

We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the bridge and wondered how the it was built (I had visions of the movie, Ben Hur and the slaves pulling huge boulders to build Pyramids). Known as Puente Nuevo, it is the youngest of the three bridges that cross the river that separates the two parts of town. It was finished in 1793, 42 years after construction began. Looking over the cliff edge, one can see the Guadalevin river and the other two bridges much lower down. There is a large archeological site (around the city are prehistoric settlements dating to the Neolithic Age, including the rock paintings of Cueva de la Pileta) and Arab baths (dating from the 13th and 14th centuries), both requiring a walk down into the ravine and a walk back up. We chose to pass that up! Once past the bridge, it was quiet. Only tourists walking the town, learning about old Ronda. Even the touristy shops selling linen dresses, brand new tiles, and leather goods petered out as we moved deeper into the old town. Without a map from the Tourist Office, it would have been impossible to know what was what. The overall feeling was one of huge expanse in all directions from the top of a hill well fortified for just in case. We walked the length of the old town and back towards the bullring, the pedestrian street and to our car. We arrived ‘home’ at 7:30pm wanting nothing more than a quick salad and bed!

One of the smaller bridges traversing the chasm-(Photo: Susan Johnson

Susan and I decided that we should return to Estepona and find the old town and the narrow streets that the guidebooks gushed over. This time, I asked Fred to take us to the Centro Historico and he got us pretty close. We even found parking two blocks away. What made the old town so lovely was more than the narrow streets, there were flowers and plants everywhere. Pots hanging off walls, flower bushes on either side of doors, and large tall decorations of flowers on the shopping streets. There was also tile. Most entryways had the regular what I call ‘Mexican tiles’. Thoughtfully placed were smaller tiles of animals, angels, and symbols. I wanted to buy masses of the artisan tiles and bring them home with me but where would I put them in my rented apartment?

Walking in the old town of Estepona
Looking in a door at tiling and iron work door

This part of Spain takes a siesta from 2:30pm-5:30pm–at least that is when all the stores close, even the small vegetable markets on the corners. Without people, old Estepona gave off a feeling of a Hollywood set, perfectly assembled and just waiting for some life to happen. It was an eery feeling. We didn’t have too far to walk when one of the streets opened up onto the Plaza des Flores. We found seats at a café and, along with a number of other tourists, had a drink before attempting the walk back to find our car.

Aerial view of Plaza des Flores–photo in the bathroom of a café

One interesting fact: in the 1990s, the Walt Disney Corporation chose Estepona as the site for its EuroDisney project. However, Paris ended up with the installation.

Another use for the beautiful tiles

As we walked, and I was walking with my head down, I was thinking about the fact that I had written that there was no town planning along this part of the Costa del Sol. At my feet were brown and grey stepping stones surrounded by smaller grey stones all placed in a pleasing pattern for the length of a block. The next block over would have a similar pattern. Clearly this town had given a lot of thought to planning. And the flowers and plants were all thriving. Most of Europe has suffered terrible heatwaves this summer. Someone was taking care, watering these plants. And those someones were probably paid by the city. I was far off base. Lesson learned.

Seen on the wall of one of the narrow streets we walked down.

I write this from Paris thinking back on the week. The absolute best part of the week was the rest I got. They say that mediterranean countries move slower and are more laid back. Perhaps the three of us caught the southern bug. We moved slowly, only went places we really wanted to see, and made simple dinners every evening. That felt like a luxury. And what a vacation is supposed to be.

A bientôt,

Sara

Toto, we aren’t in France anymore

Spain is so close yet so far away. It is a short plane ride or train ride but the culture is so different. Feelings about color are different, the art is different, the cities are different. Paris is considered the most beautiful city in the world. I don’t think any city in Spain would be on a list of the top ten. Going to Spain feels like a journey of a much greater distance.

I flew to Seville from Charles de Gaulle airport last Saturday in two hours. I am with two friends who have rented a timeshare in Marbella on the Costa del Sol. A quick exit through the airport and finding the rental car, off we went south-east to find the ocean. For the first hour, the landscape was not inviting. Arid land populated with what we think are olive trees and not much else. About two thirds of the way to our destination, the landscape became hilly with deep arroyos. This was much more interesting. There was nothing on this land. Nada. No people, no other roads, no structures. We made a mistake with our directions and had to go back the way we came for 30 minutes. There were no off-ramps, nowhere to go in this landscape of hills and ravines except forward. We finally were able to turn around and head back towards the ocean.

We are staying in Mijas, close to Marbella. The A7, a four lane highway, runs along the coast from Malaga to Algeciras. It is busy at all times of the day. There is no demarcation between towns (or cities–it’s confusing as to what they are) and reminds me of Route 1 on the East Coast where one city runs into another.

I can think of many words to describe the villages of France: quaint, piccaresque, charming, etc. None of these words apply to this part of Spain that you can see from the A7. No thought has been given to town-planning. Monstrous timeshares litter the sides of the large hills looking like cruise ships plastered against the golden brown background. Billboards of all sizes line the A7 giving a sense of a very large population. One has to know where to find the good walking beaches as many have stones galore and hurt your feet as you test the temperature of the water.

Homes high up in the hills of Mijas or Marbella

However, following streets upwards into the hills, one can see what attracted people to this part of the world before it became so popular. The houses are white, large, gated, with flowers everywhere. The hibiscus is the most popular this time of year. Views of the ocean pop up at many turns and there is no sign of the A7 or the hundreds of billboards,

Promenade along the beach at Estapona

On Sunday, we drove to the town of Estepona south of Mijas. My apple map on my iPhone took us to the port where we found a parking place. Our intention was to find the old town and wander the small streets where no present day car could possibly go. We stumbled on the closing of the Sunday outdoor market and my friend bought a skirt. We then asked directions to the old town. We strolled along a promenade that clearly had been thought out, had flowers planted along the side closest to the road and an overhang that balanced out the railing on the beach side. The beach, not crowded, was wide as a football field and people were lying under umbrellas. There were par courses along the way. Children were taking advantage of them, climbing on walls, swinging on foot machines. We never did make it to the Old Town so we have yet to see the tiny streets of old Spain.

South of Spain, a short ferry ride of 40 minutes from the town of Tarifa, lies Tangiers, a city that seems mystical. A city beloved by Kerouac and Matisse and many artists of the 20s through the 50s who spent time there. We couldn’t miss a trip to Tangiers! So we left the timeshare at 6am in order to catch the 9am ferry. After standing in a line to get tickets, a line for passport control, a line to go through security, we lined up to get on the ferry where we stood in another line to have our passports stamped by the Moroccon police. Only after every passenger had done that, did the ferry start to move and make the trip out of Europe towards Africa.

Getting ready to go to Africa

Every guide book will warn you of every thing that can go wrong in Morocco. I remember visiting the old city of Jerusalem my first year out of university. The Arab world is a culture shock. I wasn’t wise enough to be scared but I felt lost. I couldn’t speak the language, women were not encouraged to be traveling on their own, and small children begged constantly. Yet, I was mesmerized. Everything was colorful, I’d never seen goods hanging on doors, from the ceilings, baskets and baskets of spices or eggs or jewelry. I imagined Tangiers, the old city, would be much the same. Leaving the taxi that took us to a gate to enter the old city, we immediately came to a market. We wandered around not sure what we were doing, grown men begging to be our guide stopping us every ten minutes. We finally found our way into the Medina, the most interesting part of the old city and found a very old man, Salam, had attached himself to us. He spoke French. The streets were like a maze leading us deeper and deeper into a warren. The open air shops turned into regular shops where we would step inside and see beautiful tile work or men weaving rugs. The dirty streets changed into lovely white streets with houses surrounded by bougainvillia. We were headed to the Kasbah and were climbing. Salam pointed everything out to me, where a famous American lived and died and later the garage where he kept his Rolls Royce. After hundreds of steps, we arrived at a wall with an arch. Walking through the arch, we got a view of the port, new Tangiers and a huge expanse of ocean. It is breathtaking.

The Kasbah is a large living area with a mosque that is now a museum, shops and little alley ways that reminded me of Santorini. We had been on our feet for five hours at that point and we were all feeling it. We were planning on a 4pm ferry ride back to Spain but thought we’d go early in case of an earlier time. There wasn’t. We descended into the lower market areas that reek of poverty. It seems a small thing to give some man or student a couple of euros to guide us around and tell stories. But Americans are warned off.

selling chickens on the street.

We made it back to our car by 6:30pm CET (Morocco is an hour behind Spain) and drove the hour and a half back to the timeshare. All three of us made a salad, ate it silently, and went to bed.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is the cats of Tangiers. They are everywhere. They are gentle, clean, friendly, have no fear of people. Almost every store had a cat near it. The parks had cats, the cats took naps in the middle of sidewalks, the cats looked longingly at you if you held out a finger and said “Cou cou.” I asked one of our guides if people had cats as pets. He said yes some families do. Mostly the cats hung out in the Medina.

Cats, it seems, have been revered for centuries in Muslim culture. So much so, that one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions was known as Abu Hurairah (Father of the Kittens) for his attachment to cats. The Prophet himself was a great cat-lover– Muezza was the name of his favourite cat.–The Guardian.

As the days have gone by, the area around the timeshare seems to have gotten prettier! I think I am so spoiled by living in Paris that I’m far too hard on other areas in Europe. Next week, I’ll share about the white hill towns of Andalucia.

A bientôt,

Sara

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