Last week, as I wrote here, I visited the D-Day Museum in Caen and also went to two of the Normandy beaches. At the same time, I was reading The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: the story of one of many little known heroes who did daring feats and risked their lives to resist the Nazis and the Vichy. It’s 75 years since D-Day, June 6, 1945 and new stories of resistance in WWII are still being written. To me, the most distressing stories are the ones of human blindness and ignorance as Germany became proudly anti-Semitic and built up to war.
So why, I wonder, aren’t we learning from past mistakes? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.“(George Santayana). From my perspective here in Paris, the US Constitution is being trampled on in ways that were unimaginable three years ago. I remember November 9, 2016: I had gone to bed early the night before having seen the writing on the wall. I woke up praying. The computer and TV told me that Donald Trump would be POTUS come Jan. 20, 2017. As shocked and stunned as I was, I did think “we’ve gotten through bad times before, we can do it again.” Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the environment in the White House, a man with absolutely no moral compass being declared the leader of the Free World.
I do get it: People were fed up with the status quo. They wanted change at any price. Isn’t this similar to Germany in the early 1930s when Hitler came to power. Both men got into an office of tremendous power by instigating an atmosphere of fear and hatred. I wasn’t alive during WWII. I was raised by two parents who had lived through the war and tried to teach me the meaning of freedom. I was a slow learner. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I grasped the huge price in human life that the Allies paid to win that war. And it was sometime in my 60s that I realized it’s not a given that the good guys win. I couldn’t actually grasp how people lived through the Hitler years, the Dark Ages, Spain under Franco. It scared me.
My generation rebelled against the Vietnam War. This younger generation has thrown all it’s protesting energy behind the emergency warning cry for Climate Change. Even Jane Fonda, the anti-Vietnam voice of my generation, is getting arrested for Climate Change each week.
What about the rest of us? Have we gotten so cynical that we can’t do anything. I have a friend who says “I’ll go to the ballot box but don’t talk to me about politics.” In some ways, I don’t blame her. When I visit the US, TVs blare 24/7. I don’t know if anyone actually listens. Here in Paris, I read my news. President Trump acts as if he does not believe in democracy. I think he really believes he didn’t do anything wrong on the July 25th Ukranian call. I’m told that the far-right Republicans say we are in Civil War and anything is fair game in war. Trump thinks of himself as Emperor and “off with your head” if you aren’t 100% with him.
I’m still watching the Democrats squabble among themselves and I don’t have any clear idea of the path ahead for them. Do they? I feel discouraged by my party. It’s not who is the best person to be POTUS, it’s who can beat Trump. When we get together, we don’t talk about a candidate’s pros and cons, we talk about whether a woman can beat Trump, whether a gay man can beat Trump, will the US elect another African-American president? Democrats Abroad is hosting Zoom meetings and inviting every candidate to present their platform to those of us who sign up. I think it is the only place where I hear what they stand for.
One month before the mid-term elections, Malcolm Nance spoke to an audience at the American Library in Paris. He told us, “Get everyone you know to get out the vote. This could possibly be the end of the great American experiment.” I feel that way today. But I don’t have time to get active with Dems Abroad. How many people say that and look back and wish they hadn’t believed their own voices? So I will get active. There is always time.
I pray a lot and end up saying the Serenity Prayer. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. –Reinhold Niebuhr
I don’t often write political opinion and probably won’t again for awhile but these things I had to ask. Thank you for bearing with me.
I am in Normandy with two friends for the week. I seem to be the only person I know who, until Wednesday, had not made a visit to the WWII beaches, the American Cemetery, and the Memorial Museum in Caen. Even though they’d already been, my friends insisted we had to spend one day visiting these memorial sites. So, on Wednesday, with the skies threatening rain, we set off. First stop: Caen.
Once you hit the outskirts of Caen, there are numerous signs guiding you to the Memorial. It is a large rectangular building fronted by the flags of the many Allies and surrounded by green.
Inside the front doors is a huge entry way with a Boutique on the left and a Bistro for light snacking in front on the mezzanine. Below that is the ticket counter and on the right is a restaurant for a sit-down lunch and the auditorium that runs a film “1944: Sauver l’Europe (Saving Europe)” every 30 minutes.
We bought out our tickets, tucked all our belongings into a locker and set out for a journey through history that began with 1918 and how Europe and Germany were set up for the totalitarian take-over of Germany and the next World War.
The museum is designed so that the spaces are chronological. The exhibits take on the form of newspapers, photos, uniforms behind glass; short videos remastered from the 1930s and 40s; detailed explanations in English, French, German and Spanish on the walls. There are photos of Hitler that I’d never seen before and ordinary soldiers that have survived the years and give illustration to the explanatory words.
I began by reading everything, looking at everything, soaking in old and new information. When I got to the area that detailed the extermination of the Jews, I had to skip those rooms. It’s the part of WWII I know most about. With the world once again on the precipice of vanquishing huge populations of non-white people, I can barely stand to voluntarily look at the past and it’s horrendous consequences. As I looked at the horrifying map of the trains that led to the death camps, I found it ironic that I loved a similar map of the paths of all the pilgrims walking to Compostale in Spain.
I moved on to the next rooms and realized I’d been in the museum for almost 90 minutes, reading, looking, absorbing history. I was exhausted. My brain went on strike and even though I had sat down at almost every video, my feet ached. For me, this museum would be better experienced as a two day venture. Being lucky enough to live in Paris, I could return.
I walked to the end of the exhibit on the bottom floor and found that my friend, Susan, had come to the same conclusion. So we found our way to the Bistro – a large space with many tables that seemed to be able to accommodate everyone. Her husband joined us for a light snack: he had lasagne and salad and she had the most gorgeous bruschetta I’ve ever seen. At the Bookstore/Boutique, I bought The Longest Day, a film my mother had taken me to see when I was fifteen years old and had never seen again. I plan to watch it and “Band of Brothers”, the TV series that I’ve seen three times and never gets old.
We piled back into our rented Peugeot and headed for Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. There are five landing beaches on this part of the Normandy coast. Omaha and Utah beaches are the two where the Americans landed. Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches are where the English and the Canadians landed. In between Omaha and Utah is Pointe du Hoc.
As the rain came down harder, we told each other how great this was. “We are having the true 3D experience. When the troops landed on June 6th, it was raining hard.” Once we arrived at Omaha beach, stepped out of the car and into the cold, biting, stinging rain, we were miserable. The only way to get some respite was to stand on the side of the large monument memorialising the beach.
Within five minutes, the strength of the wind and the sleet-like stinging of the rain caused us to re-access what we were planning to do. To see anything, we had to step back into the unkind weather. Susan’s husband, Dewey, suggested we give up on Omaha and head to Pointe du Hoc. “Anything that will get us back in the car.”
We drove about 8km along the coast and arrived at Pointe du Hoc at 4pm. Here, on June 6th, 1944, parts of the 2nd Ranger Battilion scaled the cliffs seizing German artillery hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches. They surprised the Germans who never thought they’d attempt the cliffs. They held on against fierce counterattacks. The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance.
After going through TSA-like security check, we entered a small building called The Sacrifice Gallery and watched a video with personal stories of the “sacrifices that made the Allied victory possible. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men that participated in the Pointe du Hoc mission on June 6, only 90 were still able to bear arms when relieved on June 8”–Brochure of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
We began the walk along the point. We came to a bunker that was taken from the Germans and became the command post of the Rangers, medical aid station and morgue. We could see, 75 years later, the huge holes in the ground that cannon balls had made. These provided some shelter for the Americans. Because of the rain and wind, we didn’t make it far enough to actually see the scale of the cliffs. Photos showed the rope ladders that had been thrown up and the soldiers climbing to get to the top. It is breathtaking and heart pounding to see what was done by the Allied Forces to save the world from totalitarianism.
I called this blog Don’t Stop Before the Miracle because so often in my attempts to break a bad habit or do something that seemed beyond my skill level, people would say to me: Don’t stop before the miracle. I took that to mean that I should just keep trying with the belief that I could succeed. As I walked through the Memorial in Caen and the beaches on the coast, I couldn’t help thinking what an example, at such a terrible cost, of continued efforts to do the right thing. At one point, all hope of the Allies winning the war seemed lost but, in the end, they prevailed. It was a miracle. And today I pray for our world and that a second miracle is in the offing. I will do my part.
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
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.
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 French, has 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.
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 Paris, France Today, France Revisited, as well as for her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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