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

La Rentrée

Most of us know there are four seasons in the year. In France, there is a minimum of five seasons. The one we are in presently is known as La Rentrée. Literally the word mean ‘The Return’. It’s the time when all Parisians come home from wherever they spent August, and in some cases, July and August. Children prepare for school, and, even though the weather may still feel like summer, it’s the beginning of Autumn.

To understand “La Rentrée”, one has to understand the month of August. During August, almost everything stops. More than half of stores shut down. Restaurants, that are not in the tourist center, close for the month. The trains all do whatever repair work needs to be done. Many of the lines do not run. In August, the government is not to be found. As friends part for the summer, you can hear them say “A la rentrée” which loosely translates to “See you in September.” In other words, every single person in France knows that if you include ‘la rentrée’ in a sentence, you are referring to that season beginning September 1 when everything starts anew. Clothing stores have fresh stock. Children are back in school. The government gets back to work. And every supermarket has huge sections of space dedicated to schoolwork, creative work, and office work. If you have a favorite pen and haven’t been able to find another just like it, chances are very good, you will find it at the Carrefour or Monoprix during La Rentrée. It is a time of celebration and many parents will hang around their children’s school catching up with a drink or two in their hands.

I love it when every store stocks up on notebooks, paper products, pens of all different sizes, tips, and comfort. I will stand far too long in front of these aisles telling myself I don’t need anything (I have enough journaling notebooks to last me well into the next decade), and still end up at the cash register with a new pen and perhaps a folder. I love to write on paper. The computer is fine but pen to paper…there is nothing like it.

And … Writing. I did not make it into the Stanford Certificate Program. When I received the e-mail, my first feeling was of disappointment. My second was relief. I had started a summer course at Stanford Continuing Education in Short Story writing. I was beginning to get an idea of how much time just one course requires. I had no trouble finding the time. I was like a human vacuum cleaner sucking up all the knowledge that was available. So, along with reading published short stories and commenting on them, we each wrote a short story, had a workshop and every student commented on every other students writing. It was terrifying and glorious. When I magnified the work out two years, I wasn’t at all sure. Did I have it in me to write this novel I want to write. Or perhaps I should be sticking to what I do well, non-fiction writing. Since it was August and no one thinks in August, I put off any contemplation until September. I’ve signed up for another Stanford course and cannot wait for it to begin. And, by the way, I got an A+ in my class. I believe it is the first A+ I’ve ever gotten in my life!!!

Female and male peacock after mating season has ended. The male has shed his tail.

Lastly, and I’m taking huge license with this one, even Parc de Bagatelle and some of its creatures are starting anew. The male peacocks are molting which means they are shedding their gorgeous tail feathers!! I had no idea. After mating season ends, since tail feathers are not regenerating, they slowly fall out. When I was there this past Sunday, there were only a few colorful feathers on the backs of the males I saw. Here is some fascinating information from a website called: peacocksuk.com

Male peacock last week in August

“The peacock has around 150 to 175 long tail feathers or long covers which sit over shorter strong tail feathers. These shorter feathers  support the weight of the long tail covers which grow to three to four feet long. As the peacock matures to five or six years old, the peacocks tail feathers grow in size and the number. As the peafowl reaches maturity the eyes on the tail feathers become larger. At maturity the peacocks tail will be constant each year as long as the peacock is in good health. If several males are kept together we have found that the subservient males will not grow or develop a tail as striking or large as the dominant peacock.  If these birds are removed from the pen with the dominant male the upper tail feathers then develop! After the peacocks long tail covers have moulted the new tail begins to grow in the autumn, reaching maturity in time for the next mating season in the spring.”

A bientôt,

Sara

“Letters from an American”

Although it is August and I, like many of the French, take August off, I had to jump in and write a post. I woke up to the news that the Senate had passed, 51-50, the sweeping bill now called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 addressing climate change, health care, the national debt, and many more things. Every morning, I get an e-mail entitled ‘Letters from an American‘ written by Heather Cox Richardson. (Anyone can subscribe free to her posts on Substack: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-7-2022 ). Ms Richardson describes herself this way: “I’m a history professor interested in the contrast between image and reality in American politics. I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures.”

Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after the passage of the bill

I have been mystified by the consistent reporting that Biden’s popularity is so low, in the 38% range. Democrat Nation loved him when he won the election. He inherited a horror show (my words) from the former president. Senator Tim Kaine visited Paris and Democrats Abroad and told us how Biden managed to get Europe to join America in preparing for the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. At the time, Europe was hedging bets that Russia was just bluffing. Biden’s administration was sure he was not. He got European countries to listen to him by saying that he hoped they were right but, just in case, wouldn’t it be nice (my words) if there was a plan in place that could be executed immediately upon an invasion. All agreed to that – even Turkey who probably would not have agreed if the invasion had already taken place. Brilliant, I thought to myself. Had I read about this in the papers? No? It must not be exciting enough news.

Ms Richardson writes this about Biden and Democracy: “In the past 18 months, Democrats have rebuilt the economy after the pandemic shattered it, invested in technology and science, expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, eliminated al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, pulled troops out of Afghanistan, passed the first gun safety law in almost 30 years, put a Black woman on the Supreme Court, reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, addressed the needs of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, and invested in our roads, bridges, and manufacturing. And for much of this program, they have managed to attract Republican votes.

Now they are turning to lowering the cost of prescription drugs—long a priority—and tackling climate change, all while lowering the deficit. 

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted accurately today that what these measures do is far more than the sum of their parts. They show Americans that democracy is messy and slow but that it works, and it works for them. Since he took office, this has been President Joe Biden’s argument: he would head off the global drive toward authoritarianism by showing that democracy is still the best system of government out there.

At a time when authoritarians are trying to demonstrate that democracies cannot function nearly as effectively as the rule of an elite few, he is proving them wrong.”

The passing of this bill in the Senate is exciting. All expect that the bill will have no trouble in the House. It is inspiring to other countries, like France, who want Democracy.

I’ve been reading these ‘Letters from an American ‘for quite awhile. If you would like to read about day to day goings on without the hysterics, the hyperbole, without the ‘screaming at you’ from much of the media, I refer you to Heather Cox Richardson. If you don’t like it, you can always unsubscribe.

A bientôt,

Sara

I get by with a little help from my friends

Trying to save money, I borrowed a car, actually a van, from a friend in Paris. As has happened in the US, car rental prices have doubled, even tripled in some areas, and it can be very difficult to find a car. The van gets great mileage she told me and it certainly seemed to. I drove from my apartment in Paris to Lessard-et-le Chêne, a distance of 200 km/125 miles, this past Monday on less than a quarter tank of gas. The van drives well and I was comfortable. I had left Paris at 9am in an attempt to beat the heat. All of France was suffering a second heatwave of the summer, and predictions said that Paris would top out at 102o and Lessard at 105o. When I arrived at 1pm, it was a mere 92o.

A meme depicting the Paris metro in the heat this past week!

Tuesday morning, I thought I’d fill up the tank before it got too hot and be ready to go anywhere. So off I went, sure of where I was going, but got lost. Not having anywhere to be, it was ok to get lost, and I had my phone with me. Soon I saw a familiar landmark, the LeClerc supermarket that also has a large gas station. I pulled in and filled up the tank. Then off I went again headed to the Intermarché for a few groceries. I was inside for thirty minutes.

Back in the car, I turned the key and nothing happened. Well, something happened. The van made that sputtering noise telling me it was trying very hard to start but it wasn’t turning over. I tried three times. Then I sat there and a familiar anxiety settled over me like a heavy blanket. I had no idea where to go or who to call. My friends had not yet left for the airport but they were packing and I didn’t want to disturb them if at all possible. I felt like the ugly American who doesn’t know how to cope in a foreign country and resorts to panic out of habit. I saw a well dressed adult male pull up in front of me. I jumped out of the van, crossed over to him, and as he opened his door, I told him in my best french that my car wouldn’t start, I had checked everything, and could he help me. He followed me to the van. I turned the key but again the van would not start. After checking the obvious, he asked me who put the gas in the car. I told him that I had. He motioned me to step out of the car and we walked to the gas tank. He pulled open the cover and there in nice big letters was the word DIESEL. I must have looked like a cartoon character as I slapped my forehead, groaned, and my anxiety turned quickly into deep embarrassment if not shame.

I immediately wanted someone to blame. Why hadn’t my friend told me it only took diesel? Yes, dummy, and why hadn’t I checked to see what kind of gas the van took especially as someone was so kind as to write in large letters….. Even I, who knows little about the inner workings of cars and vans, knows that you don’t put gas in a diesel van. Even I know that the damage can be extensive. I thanked the man and he went on his way.

I had to call my friends–who rightly were annoyed with me. Not nearly as annoyed as I was with myself but, hey, who’s measuring. The husband came and got me. Did I mention they were leaving for the airport in less than three hours? On the way home, M reminded me that it is July, and could be very hard to find a mechanic, and it could be very expensive, and it could be in the garage three weeks. Leave it to the French to come up with the worst case scenario. All I could sputter out was that it never once occurred to me that the van took diesel. In the US, very few cars take diesel. Here in France, I don’t know anyone who owns a diesel car and I’ve never rented one. It’s just not on my radar. It should have been. Ninety-five percent of cars in France are diesel. It used to be far cheaper than gasoline. Farm workers and low income people were encouraged to buy diesel cars. Then Macron decided that diesel was damaging to the environment and told everyone to buy regular gas cars. The price of diesel went up. Incentives were given for buying gas cars. I have no idea how many sold their diesels. It’s asking a lot of a worker who is 100% dependent on her car for her living especially if she lives in the south of France.

Le marché des véhicules de loisirs va prendre un tournant majeur dans les prochaines décennies. L’interdiction de la vente de véhicules thermiques est prévue dans les calendriers d’ici 2040. Alors qu’aujourd’hui 95 % des véhicules vendus roulent à l’essence ou au diesel, quel avenir pour nos vans et fourgons aménagés ? Quelles alternatives possibles face à l’interdiction du diesel en France ?

Back at the house, I texted my friend who owns the van. She happens to be in the US at the moment which is why she was kind enough to make the loan. She is six hours behind me. She received my information and contacted her insurance agency immediately. She let me know that a tow truck would meet me at the van at 10 the next morning. Meanwhile, everyone in the house was talking about solutions for me. My head was swirling. I still felt both helpless and ashamed. Like an old record player, I replayed me at the gas station hundreds of times, seeing the word DIESEL, and putting it in the gas tank. It’s like waking up from a nightmare. The ending is always the same. I’d made a mistake and I had no idea what the consequences would be. I was at the point where I wasn’t sure if it would be ready when I had to go back to Paris. I went on the internet and rented the last car in Lisieux from an obscure place with the original name of Rent A Car.

The afternoon and evening passed. My friends left for Charles de Gaulle to fly to California the next morning. The not so friendly voices were whirling around in my head having a good time with my sanity. I asked a friend of theirs, John, for a ride and promptly at 9:40am he showed up and we went to Intermarché. The tow truck was already there. I watched as this skilled man pulled down the ramp on his truck, moved my van that wouldn’t start into a perfect position to roll up the ramp, attach one cable, and pulling a lever, up the van went. All of this with a friendly smile. Then he looked at me and asked me where he should take it? Huh? I didn’t know and said so. Kindly, he said, he’d take it to his garage and await further instructions.

John came out of the store just at that point and off we went to Rent A Car. I drove home and texted all this info to my friend in the US. By that evening, I knew it would be repaired at the garage it was at and possibly could be ready by Friday! Really!! That meant that little or no damage had been done to the motor. I had also talked to quite a few people, all lending support to help me feel better. One person actually said that everyone she knew who has owned or rented a diesel has done the same thing. I don’t think any French person would do it so she must have meant Americans.

Noon the next day, Thursday, US called and told me the van was ready for pick-up AND it would cost one hundred and fifty euros. Forty of that was filling the van with twenty liters of diesel. The fact that I couldn’t get a ride until this morning (Friday) meant little. This unintended but ultimately huge mistake I made was turning out to be ok. That means it didn’t break my piggy bank and the motor wasn’t damaged, all the affected parts just had a bath, and I have the van back in forty-eight hours. And probably/hopefully, I didn’t lose the friendship which was on my mind the whole time.

So here’s the final thing. I’m a good student. I do my homework and learn my lessons. But there are some lessons that I only seem to learn the hard way–by making a mistake. This one I thought was going to be a dilly. It was hard enough though it had a happier ending than I expected. I will ALWAYS look to see what kind of gas or diesel or otherwise a car takes (by the time I ever own a car again, they’ll all be electric!) All the cliché inspirations, that many of us are inundated with, remind us how important mistakes are and how to learn from them. They forget to mention that sometimes you want the world to stop, that the feelings can often be overwhelming. But…life ticks on and the consequences show themselves. And infuriatingly, the clichés are all true. Mistakes are the greatest teacher of all.

The end of the day, the end of the story

A bientôt,

Sara

The Silent Generation

My sister is a prolific reader. She recommends wonderful books I might not have stumbled on had she not alerted me. A couple of weeks ago, she suggested I read Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at The Hotel Imperial: The Reporters who took on a World at War (Random House, 2022). It is so new that I had to recommend it to the American Library in Paris. I have found it to be one of those non-fiction books that is so well-written, it is easy to forget that it is not a novel. Cohen tells the story of the foreign correspondents who went to Europe, Asia, Russia (I know Russian is considered Asia but….) and chased down any emerging story. Some went to great lengths to get an interview before their friends, who were also competitors, got there first. This is definitely not Fox News where those guys sit in comfy chairs telling the world how it should think, what their truths are, and haven’t moved an inch to talk to anyone except those who 100% agree with them.

On page 110, Ms. Cohen was describing “the so-called Lost Generation“. “Eventually the term “Lost Generation” came specifically to denote the American writers and expatriates who, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, had ‘grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ Disillusioned by the Great War, alienated by American materialism, they’d moved to Europe in the 1920s, embracing what the critic Malcolm Cowley called ‘salvation by exile.’ ” “In using the term “lost,” psychologists were referring to the “disoriented, wandering, directionless” feelings that haunted many survivors of what had been one of the most horrific wars in modern history.”–Robert Longley at ThoughtCo

Actress Betty Field Dances in Party Scene From “The Great Gatsby”. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images 

This doesn’t sound so different from today. So many Americans, disillusioned by the state of affairs in the US that have followed one war after another that the US can’t win, are moving over here (Europe). Some say it’s worse now than it was then. But how does one gauge how bad something is. Many of those correspondents saw and wrote about Germany and the threat of Hitler. Maybe it’s only worse now because we are in the middle of it, day by excruciating day, waiting for the next body blow. I’ve read the above paragraph by Cohen many times. I have found some solace in it. I didn’t move here because of the politics but I have stayed here because it seems like a nicer, kinder place to live. I’m sure many French people would disagree with me. Their politics hit them the way American politics hits me. Cohen goes on to say that by 1930, “the dividends had evaporated, adult life beckoned, the half-finished novel would be put away. The “exiles” were returning, sobered-up and broke, newly conscious (perhaps) of the ties that bound them to other Americans.” p. 111.

I’m writing this because I often feel torn. There is a very good chance that democracy won’t survive what’s happening in the US. From over here, it seems the Democrats are whimpering along not doing much about the everyday decisions coming out of a very biased Supreme Court. My own opinion about the war in Ukraine is that the more Europe and US gets involved, the more likely a war on a much larger scale will break out. How can it not? And will it take violence, death, and hostile killings to find out if Democracy can still survive? It is only through a few flukes that the “good guys” won WWII.

I can’t imagine what I can do if I were living in the US that I can’t do here. Democrats Abroad is a vibrant organisation and very active. I feel much closer to the ‘action’ by going to DA meetings and meeting interesting people and politicians who travel and stop in Paris to talk to us. The amount of e-mails I get on a daily basis from so many organisations who want to crush Republicans but are loud, hostile, nasty, and sound just like the Republicans they say they want to get rid of is extraordinary. I unsubscribe to at least three a day but, just like Medusa, six more come the next day. They consider themselves completely entitled to access my e-mail then scream at me in order to shame me into giving my life savings to something that is probably not working. I even wrote one person running for Congress in California. I asked that he tell me what he stands FOR; that I was tired of hearing how awful his opponents are. I never heard back.

I wrote last week that many bloggers like me, non-professional opinionators, feel numb, unable to write. Thoughts like the ones that have been swirling around my brain, I believe, occur to try and break us out of sleep-walking, out of an overwhelm that is crushing. People get involved in world activities for many reasons. One of the main ones is an attempt to feel some power in a powerless world. “I’m doing something, I have a voice. Where can my voice best be heard?”

All of this has been going on in my head and reading Last Call at the Hotel Imperial has gotten me writing. If only to put down on paper the hard questions. Where can I be useful? How can I be useful? Am I doing enough already? Can writing words be a tool that I can use to make a difference? If 300 people read what I write, does that make a difference?

There aren’t any answers. But it is good to ask the questions. If I, and others like me, keep asking the questions, individual answers may get clearer.

Taking a selfie

Why did I title this blog The Silent Generation? I wanted to know if any research showed similarities to the Lost Generation and today. The Silent Generation is about to outnumber the Baby Boomers of which I’m a part of. The Silent Generation is the most materialistic and tech savvy generation. The Silent Generation feels let down by adults and politicians (who don’t always act like adults). The Lost Generation was undereducated and the Silent Generation is overeducated but both ended up feeling ill-prepared for the world they have been let loose in. In France, they don’t vote. In the US, their passion lies mostly with Climate Change. This generation has “…the highest level of stress than any other generation, suggesting a need for more conversation surrounding mental health and the pressures facing recent graduates.”–Evan Brown, The Warped Similarities Between Millennials and the Lost Generation (2020). This only underscores the questions I ask myself. What do I owe this generation? I often look at the future as I see it in my head and I’m grateful I may not be alive to see the worst of it.

And the questions just keep coming?

A bientôt,

Sara

While I’m waiting

It’s July 7, I have not yet heard from Stanford. I’m not holding my breath. I’m not anxious or letting the world pass by. In fact, the news of the world seems to be coming in fast and furious. Some bloggers I know are writing that their brains have gone on tilt-too much, too fast, too sad, too awful–and how hard it is to write at the moment. I absolutely concur. So I give you the things I’m focused on.

Today, Boris Johnson stepped down as Prime Minister. “It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore, a new prime minister,” said Johnson. Ya think???? This morning I woke up to news that he was going to stick to it come hell or high water (my words). Four hours later, everyone who gets notifications on their phone got the same message as I did. CNN reported that Johnson is not planning to leave office immediately, however. “I’ve today appointed a Cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place,” he said, in a televised speech outside 10 Downing Street. Hmmm. How much damage can he do between now and then?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks at Downing Street in London, Britain July 6, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Everyone I know is getting Covid. Two friends came over, vaccinated and boostered, got Covid here (Europe) and I spent time on the phone with them helping them figure out what to do. Three friends were over here and tested positive after their return to the US. This virus will keep mutating and figure out how to get around all the vaccines. The great saving point is that it does make one sick but not so sick as to go into the hospital or die.

France Covid Covid Rears Its Ugly Head Again The seventh wave of new Covid cases in France is getting worse by the day, over 125k cases confirmed on July 1st, with the Ile-de-France (Paris) and Brittany leading the pack, and the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal towns not far behind. The government recommends wearing masks, and encourages anyone over 60 or at high risk to get a fourth dose of the vaccine, but the government is too gridlocked to pass even the smallest of restrictions, so at the moment there’s no “risk” of the Pass Sanitaire or lockdowns making a comeback.
From ‘Secrets of Paris’ blog

In French Politics, Macron was forced to shuffle his cabinet around. “France has entered a new political era; or has reverted to an old one. Parliament is divided and therefore parliament rules. The President can no longer treat the National Assembly as his rubber-stamp or echo chamber. We have returned to the France of the 1950s or the 1930s, before Charles de Gaulle invented the supposedly all-powerful presidency (but left the ultimate power in parliament).”–John Litchfield in The Local. For more of his analysis, go to: https://www.thelocal.fr/20220706/opinion-france-begins-a-new-political-era-and-its-going-to-get-messy/?tpcc=newsletter_member

French Parliament

And on a sweet note, on a walk in the Parc de Bagatelle this past Sunday, I learned about two of the sweetest cats there. Their names are Zoe and Gaston. They come from a circus. Once the pandemic hit 28 months ago, the circus approached the non-profit that feeds and cares for the cats in Bagatelle and asked if Zoe and Gaston could stay there. The volunteer assured me that there was no abuse, nothing like that. The circus felt strongly they would be better cared for by the wonderful volunteers who come everyday to feed the cats. I went over and petted Zoe who rolled over on her back to get her belly rubbed. No wonder I see the two of them sitting on benches with people reading or just hanging out in the sun.

Zoe (or Gaston) waiting for company to sit on the bench with them

There is supposition that France is in for a long heatwave. Last summer, we had rain all summer and no canicules (heatwave). So far, we have had two that have been called a canicule and more is yet to come. Depending on where you are in France, it can be fine. In Paris, where the pollution is terrible, heatwaves are awful to bear. In the south of France where many people live in stone houses, one keeps the shutters closed, the lights off, and one stays inside cool as a cucumber until evening. As long as there is no humidity, these heatwaves cannot be compared to NYC or Philly in summer. However, if you have porcelain, British skin, it is hard to get through a french summer. I have dark olive skin inherited from my Russian grandparents and I love the heat of summer.

A bientôt,

Sara

Update on French Elections

My first foray out into commenting on French politics and I got some of it wrong. How embarrassing. So here’s the deal. The second round of Parliamentory voting was Sunday the 19th not the 26th. Macron’s party won 255 seats, the NUPES won 131 seats with other leftist parties winning 22 seats, and Marine Le Pen’s party, the far right, won an unprecedented 90 seats.

The question on everyone’s mind is ‘Can Macron dissolve Parliament and call for another election?” He is scheduled to speak on TV tonight.

More on all this later,

A bientôt,

Sara

French Parliamentary Elections: Who are the NUPES? A Primer

Two Sundays ago, June 12, the citizens of France voted in the first of two elections for seats in Parliament (Assemblée Nationale). For the past five years, President Macron has held a majority and been able to lead top down. Macron won his second election for President but is not enjoying the popularity he had in 2017. The parties on the left, who have a long history of fighting with each other, felt a resurgence of hope when Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in a very close third in the first Presidential elections. Now Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, LFI (La France Insoumise) has created along with three other leftist parties a new coalition known as the NUPES (Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale). On June 12th, the NUPES won a tenth of a percentage point more than Macron’s party, En Marche. Who are the NUPES why is this not good news for Macron?

Generation NUPES. Go Vote!!

Mélenchon has not been a popular candidate (He also ran for President in 2017). They call him the Bernie Sanders of the French, but he doesn’t have Sanders’s personality. You mention his name and people used to say, “oh Mélenchon, he’s crazy’. But he is a leftist and with his high percentage of votes during the first round of Presidential elections, people on the left are looking to him for guidance to create obstacles for Macron. He has become the defacto leader of NUPES. As Macron has been leaning more and more right in an effort to appease conservatives, he has neglected what has been happening on the left. The four parties that have allied together to become a new left alliance are Mélenchon’s LFI, the Greens, the Communists, and the Socialists. The Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale. NUPES (pronounced Newps or New Pays). If this alliance won a majority in the National Assembly on the 26th of June, Macron would be forced to reckon with this block and probably Mélenchon would become Prime Minister. The few times this has happened in the past, the president would deal with foreign policy and the Prime Minister with domestic.  All 577 seats are up for grabs. Macron needs a majority, 289, to maintain the power he has enjoyed his first five years as President. En Marche, soon to be renamed Renaissance, could win 255 seats. NUPES is projected to win 150-190 seats. Marine Le Pen’s party could win as many as 40 up from 8 in 2017.

There is one other block of voters that made themselves known Sunday, the 12th. The no-shows or abstainers. According to the media, this is the largest no-show of voters – 52% — ever in France. It is made up mainly of young people who have stopped caring, who feel powerless to do anything about their circumstances.  There is a chance that these people could be motivated to vote for NUPES. Followers of NUPES are out on the streets campaigning in every arrondissement of Paris urging these people to go to the polls on Sunday. Although the chance of NUPES gaining the majority of seats this Sunday is very low, this group of people if motivated to get to the polls, could make all the difference.

“Perhaps the most notable loser on Sunday was far-right pundit Eric Zemmour, who attracted vast media attention in the presidential race but has so far flopped as a candidate. Zemmour failed to advance to the second round on Sunday in his bid for a seat representing Saint Tropez. Nationally, his Reconquest party won just 4.24 percent of the vote, and did not send a single candidate to the run-offs.”—France24.

To keep leftist voters away from the polls or to convince them not to votes for NUPES, Macron and his buddies have reverted to some bizarre scare tactics. In a guest essay in the New York Times, Cole Stangler, (an American journalist based in France), wrote, “Amid tight polling and mounting anxiety, Mr. Macron and his allies have sought to tap into fears of this very scenario, reverting to red-baiting. The finance minister has likened Mr. Mélenchon to a “Gallic Chavez” who would “collectivize” the economy and bankrupt France, while a leading lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party has warned of a “return to the Soviet era.” The chief of France’s top business lobby has said Mr. Mélenchon risks pushing the country “to the brink.”

In fact, the coalition’s actual platform is far from revolutionary. It’s inspired more by the golden days of European social democracy than by the Bolsheviks. The coalition’s two signature economic policy proposals — a hike in the minimum wage to 1,500 euros, or about $1,560, a month and a cap on the prices of essential goods — are modest measures at a time of rapidly rising inflation.

Plans to raise taxes on the superrich and boost investment in schools, hospitals and transport networks contrast with Mr. Macron’s embrace of the private sector, it’s true. Yet these are popular, standard-fare progressive policies in Europe. The alliance’s bold climate proposals — a five-year €200 billion, or nearly $209 billion, green investment plan driven by the principle of “ecological planning” — have led the ecology minister to accuse NUPES of “playing on young people’s fears.” But it’s hard to see the plans as anything other than an attempt to tackle the climate crisis head-on. The costs of inaction would be much greater, anyhow.” June 16, 2022

One thing is sure, since Macron will not gain a majority in Parliament, he has to stop governing top down. He and his ministers (some of whom may not even make it back to their seats in Parliament), will have to compromise with both the left and the right.  The right is a solid unit that has actually spread from the southeast of France up North and northeast.  The question will be – can those four entities on the left, the NUPES, who have vehemently disagreed with each other over the years stick together with an overall plan or will they fall in to in-fighting? I may be projecting my own fears of the US Democratic party which seems to shoot itself in the foot whenever possible.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

My take on French politics has never been very clear. However I have found the rise of NUPES to be very interesting and I’ve caught the excitement that this alliance has incited. I hope I’ve been able to explain, albeit very simply, what is happening here in France and what the results on Sunday may look like.

Watch the voting news on Sunday, June 26, to see how all this plays out.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/12/emmanuel-macrons-coalition-level-with-new-leftwing-group-in-french-elections

A bientôt,

Sara

Catching up with myself

The formal rose garden at Parc de Bagatelle

It is rare, if ever, that I write about something before it happens. When I wrote my post on Anatomy of a Scandal, it was more a review of a book and a series that I was encouraging readers to be aware of. Then last week, the media publicised the result of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. A travesty. Real life mimicking art. For those that don’t read this kind of stuff, Johnny Depp was awarded at least ten million euros to be paid to him by Amber Heard, his ex-wife. He had sued her because she had tattled on him publicly about domestic violence. Although witness after witness testified about horrible things he said and did, the media liked him better. The jury liked him better. And he won. Just like in the book and series, Ms Heard was made to say things no woman should have to say to defend herself. It didn’t help. One can’t help but wonder whether this will put back by many decades what woman are willing to report and/or say when it comes to sexual assault, rape, etc. If any any of you want to correct my perceptions of this, please do. I didn’t watch any of the trial, had no interest in it. However, after I wrote the earlier blog, I was interested in all the Op Eds that came out the next couple of days. Without exception, the writers, both male and female, were aghast at the results.

*** *** ***

With the support of many of you–Thank you, you know who your are–I got my application in to Stanford University for the writing program. The wait is not long – mid July. I believe I have a fifty-fifty chance of getting in. One cheerleader sent me a wonderful book called Dreyer’s English–An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Written by a copy editor, the book is laugh-out-loud funny and helpful. What does a copy editor do? S/he takes a finished piece of writing and makes it … cleaner. Example from p. 245: “There is a world of difference between turning in to a driveway, which is a natural thing to do with one’s car, and turning into a driveway, which is a Merlin trick.” Since I often jump to the back of a book (I don’t know why), I read that within my first hour of reading the book. I laughed so hard, I had tears. Now I pause every time I write ‘in to’ or ‘into’. I have to say that line over and over to myself. Have I been writing it wrong all these years? No one has said anything but it does seem like a mistake I might make. I urge any writer amongst you to get a hold of this gem of a book even if you write perfectly. We all need a good laugh and true wit these days.

*** *** ***

Amy Larue, tour leader and garden expert, explaining roses to us.

The Parc de Bagatelle is in rose heaven. Since I returned from Normandy mid-May, the roses have been in bloom. There is a formal rose garden, Roseraie Classique, at the far east end of the park and a natural rose garden, called Rosiers du Paysage, at the other end. I took a tour of Parc de Bagatelle on Tuesday and learned that the modern rose can bloom from May through Christmas. The Antique rose, which went out of favor for a long time, blooms only once during the season. These roses were moved to the very back of the formal garden and most people just pass by them in their attempt to get in the middle of the rainbow of color from rose bushes, rose trees, and trellises with climbing roses. There is a contest every year. Roses are brought in by different growers and watched over a two or three year period depending if they are in the formal garden or paysage garden. The judges come every week for six months before and during the season. They look for disease, hardiness, how the bush covers a piece of ground, the color of the leaves, smell, and how the petals fall off once the flower has died. It seems very complicated. Our tour guide, one of the judges, says she often has to give high marks to a rose she wouldn’t have in her own garden because of the criteria. Today, Thursday, June 16th, the winners are announced. The formal rose garden is closed for half the day while a huge ceremony is produced. While walking around on Tuesday, we saw flags from fifteen different countries.

I also learned that the beautiful peacocks that i have photographed and often shown in this blog are all male. The female peacock has no color except on her face. Her back is a huge grey blob. Our guide says this is so that she can hide from the males and also protect her babies.

Female peacock

Once during the past two weeks, I happened upon the wonderful volunteers who feed the cats of Bagatelle. Peacocks, the males, it really is very rare to see a female, will sit quietly by and watch. There is always the hope that some of the kibble will find its way to the other side of the path which is peacock country.

The cats of Bagatelle being fed by the wonderful volunteers

A bientôt,

Sara

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