Parisian Dreams

I’ve written about the American Library in Paris in an earlier blog. Since that time, we have a new Director, Audrey Chapuis. I say “we” because I’m a volunteer there and am made to feel like an integral part of the library and how it’s run. Audrey started out as a volunteer just as I did. Now she is the Director, the first librarian ever to be Director of the library. She is out-going, charming and has become a friend.

I found an essay she wrote for the Literary Hub and asked her if I could share it with you:

The Timeless Appeal of an American (Library) in Paris

On the Literary Romance of the City of Lights

By Audrey Chapuis


April 15, 2019

Literary pilgrims to Paris, however ardent, tend toward crises of faith. A whole genre has flowed from the deflated hopes of writers who once believed the muse to be Gallic, living in a garret, and partial to Americans abroad. Of course, American writers don’t have a monopoly on disappointment about Paris. Tourists from around the world complain about the rude shock—now dubbed “Paris Syndrome”—of their fantasies crashing into the city’s prosaic reality. It’s a lesson in the perils of idealization.

For those of us who live in the French capital, it’s more complicated, as are most long-term relationships. I regularly cycle through devotion and disillusionment, witnessing how the city’s beauty and the ugly commodification of that beauty coexist, how its idyllic myths mingle with its sometimes bloody history. I’ve also come to see how the city is like any other, with the same simmering cultural tensions and socioeconomic issues as any metropolis.

Looking back, I’m sheepish to admit just how fervent my own Parisian dreams once were. As a girl growing up in Texas, I became—quite mysteriously to the Texans around me—a Francophile. I ate up stories of the Lost Generation and swooned thinking about bohemians lounging on café banquettes, waving cigarettes, and arguing about ideas. I read everything by Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, believing their entwined literary and romantic relationship to be the apotheosis of seduction. Teenage years in Texas seemed painfully banal in comparison. Bygone writers had Parisian bacchanals; we got keg parties in the woods. The injustice tasted more bitter than the flat Shiner Bock on tap.

When I finally traveled to Paris on my own, I sought to right the wrong, not that I expected to find any modern bacchanals. I was content to chase the ghosts of the writers I loved against a picturesque backdrop. I checked into a dank hotel as close as I could get to Shakespeare and Company and mapped out my course to all the famous cafés where writers had once gathered. On my first night, I wandered shyly into a café and ordered a glass of white wine, blushing furiously at being alone and mumbling in a language I had only practiced in an air-conditioned classroom. The harried waitress in shirtsleeves and black suspenders set down my glass with such force that it shattered, sending wine and tiny shards of glass across the tabletop and into my lap. She blithely mopped up the mess without apology. I imagined she was disgusted with me and my Americanness and my solitude. Gertrude Stein wouldn’t have giggled nervously and then left a large tip.

By the time I moved to Paris, many years later, most of my romantic notions of the city had been swept away like those shards onto the sidewalk. The move, for my husband’s job, was practical rather than whimsical. And my status as “trailing spouse” threatened to extinguish any remaining flicker of glamour. The ugly term encapsulates the privileges and limitations inherent in the status: according to the state, the partner who follows is legitimate but secondary. Another applicable but contentious word, “expat”, so evocative of Americans in Paris, loses its sheen when one examines the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant. The gap is filled with questions of agency, means, and access to resources in one’s host country.

After a few months acclimating to life in Paris as a resident, I found a job as a reference librarian at the American Library in Paris, an institution established in 1920 which serves a diverse population hailing from over 60 countries. As part of my training, my coworkers joyfully produced artifacts and anecdotes from the library’s long history. I was shown Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s book reviews in the library’s newsletter and heard about Stein arguing with Alice B. Toklas in the stacks. Pulling volume after volume down from the shelves in the special collection, I saw books donated to the library from Sylvia Beach, Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, and Irwin Shaw. One colleague opened a cream folder to show me a letter from Henry Miller, dated November 21st, 1938, asking if the library had The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an English translation of Seraphina, Walt Whitman’s prose works, and “any book on Zen Buddhism.” Holding the piece of stationery with its jaunty Art Deco letterhead—“Henry Miller 18 Villa Seurat Paris”—I felt a jolt of exultation for my younger, more idealistic self.

Over time, as I learned more about the American Library and its place in the history of literary Paris, I recovered some long-repudiated belief in the city’s magnetic pull and inspirational force. Conjuring scenes of my old heroes in the library’s reading rooms made me swoon all over again, decades after their work first moved me. However, the most thrilling thing was not the library’s function as a monument to the past. Rather, it was the lively thrum of its present activity. Clearly not only ghosts walked here. Writers, readers, students, and scholars converged daily upon the place.

Writers don’t need smoky cafés or any other clichés of the writerly life, but they do need a comfortable space to write. They need access to books. They need quiet. And, perhaps surprisingly, they need community, just like the rest of us who might be floundering in a new city.

I recently became the director of the American Library, and I hear stories from people all over the world—“trailing spouses”, “expats”, immigrants, and Parisians alike—about what the library means to them. Again and again, the need for sanctuary in this beautiful but sometimes alienating city emerges. I hear familiar tales of disillusionment, and then reconciliation, with Paris after people discover the library. Some speak of forging deep friendships in book groups. Others remember carrying home teetering stacks of books to read to their children who are now grown. Many tell me about the experience of writing books here, comforted by the silence of the reading room and the company of others.

These stories remind me of the potential of any library to be a refuge for its public. Romantic notions of artistic communion pale in comparison to what libraries regularly do. Yes, libraries protect history, but they also safeguard the future by providing spaces dedicated to people learning and creating. Stalwart, they serve communities unbeholden to any fleeting cultural moment.

At the American Library, the rate of book borrowing is up, across genres and in every age group. The children’s area fills up during every Story Time. Literature-loving teenagers flock to Friday night festivities. Crowds congregate for evening author talks. Lapsed readers fall in love with books again as they wander the stacks, reminded, in a very tangible way, of the breadth of human knowledge.

And that’s more exhilarating than any bohemian bacchanal.

A bientôt,

Sara

A Place to Be Alone, with Others

Dear Readers

I’m reblogging something my friend, Janet Hulstrand, wrote this summer. We both learned about the efforts to Save The Paris Cafe. Anyone who has wandered the streets of Paris and stopped periodically for an expresso, a café creme or allongé, knows the joy of taking a rest and watching other walkers as one regroups and chats and considers the possibility of more walking or just letting the world pass them by. Please read her wonderful piece, look at the site and start reading!!!!! https://savethepariscafe.com

by Janet Hulstrand

When people ask me what they should be sure to do while they’re in Paris, I always say the same thing: “Just be sure you leave some time to simply wander—walk, sit in a park or café, and take some time to just watch the world go by.”

I say this even if the person asking me is only going to be in Paris for a day or two. It seems to me to be even more important if you only have a little bit of time in Paris to have this very Parisian, and most wonderful experience—that is, to take the time to do “nothing” and just enjoy the beauty and the inherent interest of the world surrounding you.

The French have a word for this kind of thing: flâner is the verb, and it is variously translated. Most often it is translated as “to stroll,” with secondary definitions including to lounge, dawdle, wander, or loiter. Harriet Welty Rochefort, in her book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the Frenchhas a chapter called “Hanging Out Without Feeling Guilty.” It seems to me that this is the best way to describe what it means to flâner that I have ever heard.

Each summer, I assign the American students in my literature class in Paris to find a café that looks sympa to them, and then to spend at least half an hour there. (“Longer is better,” I say.) I tell them they don’t have to order more than a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine if they don’t want to, or can’t afford to. Then they are to spend at least some of their time there writing about what they see, hear, observe, or think about. I give them this assignment fairly early in their month-long stay in Paris because I want them to know that this is something they can do in Paris even if they are there on a very tight budget. And I want them to understand through personal experience that it is indeed one of the most wonderful things Paris has to offer them—and everyone.

Watching the world go by. Photo: Patty Sadauskas

That is, to have a place to go where you can be alone with your thoughts, but surrounded by the interesting display of humanity around you. A place where you can take the time to relax—read, write, think, and watch the passing parade. Perhaps most importantly of all, to not be hurried away by anyone, but to feel truly welcome.

A café doesn’t have to be old in order to be a very pleasant place to pass the time, but sometimes that is part of the charm. My own favorite café in Paris is the Café Bullier, on the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse and Avenue de l’Observatoire. This café has been there for a long time: Hemingway referred to it in A Moveable Feast (as the “Bal Bullier”). When I sit in the Café Bullier, I like to find a seat from which I can look across the boulevard to the Closeries des Lilas, now famous as one of the cafés in which Hemingway liked to work. But what I like most about the Café Bullier is the warm accueil I always experience when I am there, whether I’ve come for a leisurely cup of coffee or glass of wine, or a meal. (The service is always both professional and friendly, and the food is always good too.)

Because of my love for Parisian cafés, as well as cafés elsewhere in France, I avoid going to Starbucks when I am in France. I have nothing against Starbucks in general, but I do feel like there are plenty of Starbucks in the world, and that when in France, it’s better to support local, independently owned cafés.

After all, they have played such an important social function for such a long time—and to me, this being able to be both alone and surrounded by people, to do your work in peace and calm, and to not feel rushed about leaving is truly one of the greatest things about Paris.

Of course one of the reasons Parisian café owners are able to allow us this wonderful luxury is that there are so many of them—so many cafés, so many tables, so much space in which to do this. There is not the need to “turn tables” as there is in other places that are both more crowded and—let’s face it—more mercenary.

But Parisian café owners have to be able to earn a living too. So shouldn’t we all be helping them do that?

Because Paris just wouldn’t be the same without them.

JANET HULSTRAND is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher who divides her time between France and the United States. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and she writes frequently for Bonjour ParisFrance Today, France Revisited, as well as for her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.

Vaux-le-Vicomte

South face of Vaux in the evening with 2000 candles lit in the formal gardens

I had never heard of the Chateau, south of Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte until one day when I was complaining to my friend Barbara how much I dislike visiting Versailles with all the crowds. She mentioned that there was a precursor to Versailles designed by the same architect, Louis Le Vau; the same landscape garden designer, Andre Le Notre; and the same painter, Charles Le Brun; all of whom were unknown when Nicolas Fouquet hired them to build his masterpiece. She added that on Saturday evenings the whole place is lit up with candles. That was four years ago and I’ve been contemplating a visit there ever since.

North facing entrance to Vaux-le-Vicomte

Vaux is not easy to get to so I was easily put off. It’s best to drive, there is ample free parking. There is the R train that leaves Gare de l’Est and arrives in Melun about 15 minutes away. One has to take a bus, or a taxi or a very expensive shuttlebus. When Barbara asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said I’d really like to go to the Chateau. So with another friend of ours, she organised a Saturday evening visit this past Saturday.

Looking out on the gardens from the entry hall

We entered the Chateau and were given audio guides. As we walked through the rooms, we were entertained by a 3D recording telling us the extremely sad story of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances for King Louis XIV. When Louis’s Prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, the same year work on Vaux was finished, a conspiracy was hatched to remove Fouquet from office forever. Colbert, who had aided Mazarin in a huge embezzlement of the King’s money, decided to ruin Fouquet so the King would never learn of the theft. He planted suspicions and lies in the ear of the King until the King decided to arrest Fouquet. But before that happened, Fouquet invited the King and everyone of nobility to an enormous feast at the Chateau as it was almost finished. King Louis, 23 years old at the time, was full of jealousy at the beauty of Vaux and arrested Fouquet three weeks later. Fouquet never lived in his chateau or saw it again.

The Salon

All the above characters had their own voices. We could hear Nicolas Fouquet naively thinking how happy the King would be at the Feast. We heard the King calling Nicolas arrogant for thinking he could have a more beautiful place than the King. Learning the story and seeing the harmony of architecture, gardens and paintings made one very sad.

Gobelin copies of the original tapestries that hung in the Chateau

King Louis XIV took many of the furnishings for his own and hired the three artists to build Versailles and its gardens. The three went on to become hugely famous designing and painting many buildings, chateaux and gardens that are known around the world.

Fouquet’s wife held on to the estate but after some time had to sell it. It went through two more owners who changed the name and, after some time, the Chateau and gardens fell into disuse. In 1875, it was in such disrepair that it was auctioned off to whoever would pay anything. It was bought by Alfred Sommier, a 40 year old man, who had fallen in love with Vaux. He changed the name back to Vaux-le-Vicomte and slowly restored the Chateau back to it’s original beauty. The estate has stayed in that family to the present day. The gardens have been fully restored and there was a search for wonderful art to decorate the walls. In 1968, Patrice and Cristina de Vogué, children of Sommier’s nephew, opened the Chateau and gardens to the public on a permanent basis.

One of four 17th Century cabinets at Vaux-le-Vicomte
The dining room

After we had completely walked the Chateau, visited the dome for a 360o view of the gardens and estate, we walked out into the gardens just as the sun was setting. Two thousand candles were lighted. They sat in the windows and lined the garden walkways. It was fairy tale beautiful. If someone visiting me asked ‘Should I go to Versailles?’ I would do my best to discourage them and help them find a way down to the extraordinary Chateau and gardens known as Vaux-le-Vicomte.

https://vaux-le-vicomte.com/en/

A bientôt,

Sara

The Water Dancer

I have never met Ta-Nehisi Coates though he was living in Paris at the same time I was. He was a fellow at the American Library in Paris and wrote ‘Between Me and World’ while there. That book went on to win the National Book award and changed his life. In his words,” it was like being hit by a Mack truck.”

I was sent an advance copy of ‘We were Eight Years in Power’, his 2017 book of eight articles previously written for the Atlantic during the Obama Presidency. I reviewed that book as highly as I could. I then went backwards and read his earlier books. I watched many videos of him on You Tube and always felt sad that I hadn’t met him when he was here. I’ve come to like the man in the videos as much as the man who writes such articulate evocative essays. I have always been struck by his use of language, the elegant phrasing in his essays and his easy street vernacular when chatting away with an interviewer.

Now he has written a novel The Water Dancer, his first such book. He has adopted an almost mystical, mythical style of storytelling that, to me, is completely different than anything before. How does one write about something so heartbreaking as the treatment of slaves, the separation of families, of couples, the courage of so many people putting their lives on the line to rescue others from “the coffin” (slavery in the deep south), the life of Harriet Tubman and all the stolen moments, memories and stories of an entire race of people.

This is the story of Hiram Walker, born to a black mother whom he can’t remember and a white plantation owner. Hi narrates his unexpected life from five years old when he thinks he lost his mother to his late twenties. When he has flashes on his mother, it is of her dancing with her sister, Emily, feet pounding the floor, bodies bonelessly swaying without shame in complete abandon like the water dances in the river. Water is a character in this enthralling telling of a boy first just wanting to remember, then wanting to be free and then wanting to understand.

He lives his teenage years in his father’s house underneath in the Warrens, he tries to escape, is captured and emprisoned. In time, he makes it north and becomes part of the Underground railroad. As he works with the other dedicated members to free brothers and sisters, literally, family takes on a new meaning to him and drives him in ways he never could have conceived.

I don’t pretend to even begin to know what it is like to be Black in America, what the word Freedom means to a man enslaved for real or by what we white people put on them, what it must be like to watch the US going backwards in this Age of White Supremacy. This elegantly written book that seems more dreamlike than factual has brought me as close to “understanding”, to “feeling” the losses that never end, as anything I’ve ever read.

My admiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates and his many forms of language continues to grow. This is a book, I will read again.

The Water Dancer A Novel Historical Fiction Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World

A bientôt

Sara

Nérac, Calignac et environs

Having spent three weeks in the little village of Calignac, I have fallen in love with this area. I’m told that Lot-et-Garonne is one the poorest areas of France. This most southern part of the district that abuts Le Gers is more like Le Gers. Nérac is a bustling large town that is busy all year long. The river Baise flows from Agen and it is very popular with tourists to rent a boat and take a week going from town to town along the river.

Here the river runs under the bridge with old Nérac on one side and the Chateau where Henry IV spent his teenage years and newer Nérac on the other side.

The Saturday outdoor Nérac market is one of the largest in the area and attracts natives and tourists alike. It goes on rain or shine although many of the non-food stalls don’t show up on rainy days.

At the Saturday Nerac Market
The Saturday Nerac Market is one of the largest in the area.

During the heat wave (canicule), if anyone was silly enough to go outside, we sought places that were shady to rest. Like the small mini-park below that is just before the bridge in Nérac.

Walking along the river Baise in Nérac.

I visited an artist friend in the small town of Francescas, which lies just before one enters Le Gers. There are miles and miles of small roads all numbered D131, D112, etc, winding around each other, going in and out of these small towns and hamlets. Some have only houses left although they once would have had an ironsmith and a boulangerie. Others will have a café that might also sell bread.

Francescas

In the town of LaPlume on D931, the ruins of an old church, L’Eglise St. Nicolas, sit without a roof, its insides empty but a thriving and full cemetery. LaPlume has a new church (around 1856) but it seems that the old church is being somewhat restored. There will probably never be a roof but in the future, it may be much more presentable. Meanwhile wire mesh keeps teens and partiers from going in.

The Cemetery at LaPlume looking out over Lot-et-Garonne

No matter how lovely a balade en voiture is, it is always nice to head ‘home’ at lunchtime for a nap, a good book and food out of the garden.

Heading home to Calignac
Vegetables out of the garden here where I am staying!!!
Lavande from the garden.
Looking out the window from the room I’ve been writing in.

As all my readers from last summer know, sunflowers are everywhere. Huge fields of them, alongside all the roads, next to hiking trails, visible from house windows. They are planted in late Spring and reach their peak in mid-July. These sunflowers aren’t grown for cutting flowers. They are grown for sunflower oil which is prolific down here. People cook with sunflower oil and use olive oil for eating. Now a couple of days into August, the large, heavy heads of the sunflowers are bowing down toward the ground. They will eventually turn black and in early Fall, will be mowed down and their seeds will become huile de tournesol.

Sunflowers at sunset

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers bis

France is divided into 101 departments, 96 of which are in mainland France. The first two numbers on the postal code tell you which department you are in. 75 is Paris. 32 is Le Gers where I spent the summer last year. 47 is Lot-et-Garonne where I am at this moment. I tried very hard to find a place to rent or house-exchange in Le Gers but no one wants to leave in the summertime! So I am in a very small village called Calignac, next to a large town called Nérac and both are about 30 minutes driving from Condom which is close to where I stayed last year. So I’m still telling people I’ve come down to Le Gers but really it’s Le Gers bis (just behind or next to)!

I arrived last Monday evening. For whatever reason, I had a hard time leaving Paris. I have been looking forward to this vacation for a year but as I said good bye to Bijou and closed the door of my apartment, all I could think of was how much I love Paris. I made the train on time and, voilà, down in Le Gers. I slept on and off for the next two days.

Calignac

One of the reasons that people don’t leave Le Gers in the summer is the music. There are festivals in every area of the department. In Condom, during the summer, there are organ recitals every Tuesday evening at 6pm in the Cathedral. They are followed by an optional tour of the Cathedral followed by what’s known as the Night Market. The night market is an extremely popular event all summer long and one could go to one every single evening of the week. In french, it is known as the Marché des Producteurs régionaux. Different “companies” or farms bring gourmet meals in trucks to sell. Long tables are set out in the town square or nearby. People come in droves to eat together or meet and party with their neighbours. Often there is a band or bands playing and the evening will go on until the sun finally sets around 10:30pm.

Cathedral of Condom–evening of Les Amis de l’Orgue

We went to the first organ recital of the summer last Tuesday. Gospel music on the organ and trumpet in the confines of a huge cathedral space! Absolutely divine!! Literally.

One of my favourite towns is La Romieu. It lies west of Lectoure and east of Condom. All three towns and villages are on the Compostale of Saint Jacques. This weekend is the the 9th Music Festival en Chemin. And last Thursday, the 18th, was the Avant-Premier concert held in the Gardens of Corsiana, a private large garden reminiscent of Longwood Gardens in Penna. My friend, Barbara and I, arrived early to see the gardens quietly before everyone else arrived. We brought a picnic dinner which we ate on one of the many picnic tables on the property. At 8:30pm, an outbuilding that has been constructed for weddings, small concerts and events was filled up with at least one hundred people and the concert began. The quartet was made up of a family: 2 brothers and 2 sisters on violins and a cello. They are young and only recently have been traveling and now are winning awards for their interpretations of Mozart and their playing. It was a magical evening and a wonderful start to my summer vacation in Le Gers.

The Quartet Tchalik

If only I could figure out how to attach my videos, I would also include the sound of the summer music. But…..

A bientôt,

Sara

Catching Up in Paris with Somers and MacLean.

A month has passed since I last wrote. Since then my sister, Dr. Margaret Somers, and our friend, Dr. Nancy MacLean came to Paris to visit. They gave a joint talk at the American Library in Paris–which I moderated–and the next evening answered questions on American politics and political economics at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore.

The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore: Nancy MacLean; Margaret Somers; Nita Wiggens; Penelope Fletcher.

We then made a whirlwind visit to Bretagne and la Côte de Granît Rose visiting with my friend, Roland, who kindly lent us his three-bedroom home while he slept in his boat–which he loves. He insisted we weren’t putting him out in any way. He even took them on a boat ride around L’ile de Brehat. On the way home, the engine fell off the boat–not down into the murky depths but was dragging along while the men, Roland and Nancy’s husband, worked at pulling it up. Nothing like coming to France on vacation and having a big adventure on the water!

Nancy, Bruce, Sara and Margaret in Pontrieux, Brittany

Because of the very difficult situation in the US, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about how US government works, the forces that do not want Democracy because it gets in the way of making mega-billions (numbers I can’t even imagine), the huge efforts to end all social programs–which help our neighbor who may not be as lucky as we are in life circumstances. It has been eye-opening and appalling–if only at how much I’ve taken for granted–that others want a Democratic system that works for all us as much as I do.

My sister is an academic and has written a wonderful book along with a colleague, Fred Block, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique. Nancy has written a best seller Democracy In Chains; the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. They were invited to the American Library in Paris July 2nd for an Author event.

Sara, moderator; Nancy MacLean and Margaret Somers at ALP

It was quite an honor to moderate and ask both of them questions. The two books actually address a similar topic: the growth of the free market as something that promotes financial equality for all. Somers’ book lays the historical background and MacLean’s book goes from 1958 with the fall-out of the Brown vs the Board of Education supreme court case to the present day and the Koch brothers.

Dr. Margaret Somers, Dr. Nancy MacLean, Sara Somers, blogger

It is beyond the scope of this blog to tell in more detail the specifics of Somers’ and MacLean’s talks or to review their books. I do encourage anyone interested in learning more about political economics to read these books. It’s one thing to listen to either sides’ rantings. It’s another to get educated information and form an opinion based on facts–even though facts seem to be going extinct.

Dr. Margaret Somers, Amy Sulkies Below, Dr. Nancy MacLean at The Red Wheelbarrow

The next evening, at the Red Wheelbarrow, there was lively back and forth of questions and answers. It was a beautiful Parisian evening and when the gathering finally left the bookstore, it was still light out, the energy was high and it was hard to contemplate going home and to bed. There is something about Parisian nights and the the sky still being light at 10:30pm that makes one just want to stay out and join the bustling sidewalk culture that is at the heart of Parisian life.

Bruce, Margaret, Sara near Lezardrieux.

The next morning, we all got on the TGV fast train to Brittany. What a pleasure it is to show friends some of the most beautiful places in France outside of Paris. All too soon, both women were on the way to Potsdam, Germany where they gave keynote speeches at an International Conference: The Condition of Democracy and the Fate of Citizenship.

Happy Bastille Day, July 14th,

A bientôt,

Sara