My Name is Lucy Barton

I wanted to read Elizabeth Strout’s latest book: My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, New York, 2016) because I loved Olive Kittredge. I loved the book and I loved the HBO series. It was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Paris.

I am a member of the amazing American Library in Paris which houses the largest collection of English language books on the continent. I put a Hold on Lucy Barton and then waited five months for my turn to come around.

When I picked it up, the back cover fell open to a photo of Ms. Strout. The photo is captivating. She is looking the reader right in the eye with a look of such kindness. She has a smile on her face that tells me she would be great company, someone to sit down with for a cup of tea and just talk about life. I can’t tell if her hair is blond or white or a combination of both. She has such an air of being young, approachable but full of depth – what I call experience. This photo contrasts so much with the glossy photos that often accompany action driven books. I was fairly sure just by looking at her that I would be reading a character driven novel.

My name is Lucy Barton is short, 191 pages. I read it in two sittings. Then I put the book down on the floor, sat on my couch and asked myself “how does she do that?” How does she write such simple sentences, such simple scenes and make them so full of all the pathos that makes up our lives” This book is for mothers, anyone who has a mother or has had a mother or has been a mother. This book is about relationships and marriage and children and doctors and first time loves. But it is all about Lucy Barton—how she reflects on her far past, her not so far past, her present and for a large part of the book, a hospital stay where she went for two days and stayed for nine weeks.

One morning, she woke up to find her mother sitting at the end of her bed. And this starts the story that almost every woman I know yearns for—some indication of her mother’s enduring love. Lucy calls her mother ‘mommy’. I’ve been embarrassed to say ‘mommy’ in either speech or writing since I was about fifteen years old. I had decided my mother wasn’t a mommy. If Lucy Barton’s mother was a mommy, mine was too. And just allowing the word back into my vocabulary, allows me to mourn her passing in a whole new way.

Lucy Barton was born dirt poor. She managed to leave home, go to college and live in NYC. She makes observations like: “It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government—education, food, rent subsidies—are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government. I understand this in a way.”  And she does, it’s just an observation. One of hundreds that made me put the book in my lap for a few minutes and think.

Lucy Barton is a writer. Elizabeth Strout is an author. There are some wonderful insights into the life of an author. Are they autobiographical? I don’t know and don’t care. They speak for themselves. When Lucy attends a talk by an author she’d run into in a clothing store, some of the audience attacked her (the author) for reference to a past president. The moderator was fascinated and pushed the author, asking her how she responds “She said that she did not answer them….’It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ and that alone made me glad I had come (thought Lucy)” He pushed her some more .“He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.”

3:30am in Paris

Out my window, it’s dark.  The Quai is mostly clear.  The Seine is quiet, all the young people who sit on the concrete sidings until 1 or 2 in the morning have gone home.  The spotlights on Notre Dame have been turned off.  It’s that time of night when the only people awake are those that are tossing and turning because they can’t sleep.

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I’m not looking out the window.  I was deep into sleep and had set my alarm to wake up before 3am.  Hillary Clinton is ‘debating’ Donald Trump. She actually looks lovely in a red suit and he looks exactly the same.  His hair is combed forward and looks at bit like a small mop. Both are standing in front of a huge blown up photo of the Constitution.  When she talks, he stares at her with a huge frown on his face.

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Here in Paris, the news doesn’t show either of these two at campaign rallies 24/7.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw the Donald on France24, Al Jazeera or BBC news. I’m very familiar with Hillary’s voice but I’m surprised that I recognize Trump’s voice.  He seems to be doing exactly what he has done for a year and a half–criticizing “Secretary Clinton”, criticizing government, criticizing everyone that isn’t him.  As I’m writing he is bragging about how he forced President Obama to produce his birth certificate.  I’m stunned.  What is it with him?  He can’t produce his income taxes but because President Obama is black, he engaged in this birther theory year after year after year.

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I, and many of my friends that don’t live in the United States, are frightened.  The slight possibility that Donald Trump could be President of the United States is so appalling that it is barely imaginable.  Whatever one thinks of Hillary, I happen to be a fan, she is prepared to be president.  She is probably more prepared than any other candidate in history.  She’s been in the White House, she’s been Secretary of State and Senator from New York.  She was shown to work well with Republicans in New York. If she were a man, there wouldn’t even be a competition.

I’m surprised I actually woke up and got out of bed for this.  I could have read a transcript in the paper in the morning.  I could have read the critics’ observations and declarations of who the winner is.  I needed to see for myself the narcissism, the outright lying, the incredible immaturity of the man who wants to be Commander-in-Chief.  I give her huge points that she is standing there and still has a smile on her face.  She must be seething inside. No matter the question, he has to have the last word.  Lester Holt, the moderator, is not doing a good job of managing his outsized ego.  One of the critics is saying that this is a debate for the fact checkers.

The debate is winding down. It’s time to go back to bed.  I don’t know if I can sleep.  This is as serious an issue as any I’ve known in my lifetime.  I will finish by quoting Hillary: “I hope you get out there and vote as if your future depends on it.  Because it does.”

Sunday on the streets of Paris

Last night, Saturday night, the weather was delicious.  At 9pm, the warm breeze caressed sleeveless arms and everyone, Parisian and tourist alike, was smiling.  The streets were full of walkers, the bistros and restaurants spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets.  It was one of those nights when I didn’t want to go home.  I just wanted to walk this gorgeous city and feel the warmth, hear the happy chatter and soak in what I think of as the essence of Paris: the sidewalk culture.

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Today is Sunday and oh how things change.  It is rainy, cool and grey.  Soggy joggers are running along the Quai des Grands Augustins looking a bit like soaked puppy dogs.  Bikers are riding by with yellow, blue and white rain jackets unfolding like sails behind them.  There are no cars, only taxis and buses.  Today is Car Free day in Paris!  Anne Hidalgo, our mayor, has been trying to bring attention to the pollution.  She hopes to have part of the central city completely car free by 2018.  Fortunately, Paris has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.  So today, only taxis, public transport and electric vehicles will be allowed to run.  Normally, it would be a wonderful day to roam the city, walk in the roads and enjoy everything that Paris has to offer.  We will see who braves the rain.

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One group of people out and about enjoying the streets are the skateboarders.  Hoards of them in groups of thirties and forties are passing under my window.  They are singing to the skies as loudly as they can so happy are they to have the roads to themselves, well practically.  Some are dressed as if it is already Halloween.  A bride zooms by, then King Kong followed by two characters from Toy Story with huge smiles on their faces and arms up in the air.  Who cares about the rain they seem to be saying.  Look Ma, no cars!!!!

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Fall is in the air

img_1178There is a different light in Paris when summer turns to Autumn.  Today is officially the first day of Autumn but, unofficially, it arrived last Saturday.  From a week of hot days, sun dresses and sandals, we got rain and grey.  Some say that grey is the official color of Paris.

Out my window, I see people walking with sweaters and coats.  Most importantly, the scarf is back.  It’s too hot to wear a scarf in summer.  Now we can pull all our wonderful scarves out of drawers and closets and put them in whatever familiar place they reside in homes.  Mine is on my  coat rack at the entrance to my apartment.  I never wore a scarf before I came to Paris.  Well, maybe in the dead of winter if I was really, really cold and had handy a warm woolen scarf.  But not the signature French piece of clothing.  True Parisians don’t wear a lot of color: black, grey, navy blue, sometimes brown.  Then they add the scarf.  Something thoughtfully chosen, that has a lot of color and distinguishes one person from the next.

The sun is out today but looks washed out.  It has lost its summer intensity.  Often I can tell the temperature by just looking at the sun on the water, in the sky.  Not today.  I just checked the temperature on my iPhone and I wasn’t far off.  It’s a nice day, good for walking.  It’s Fall.   It’s dark when I get up at 7:30am and it’s almost dark when I’m walking home at 7:30 at night.  I’ve always loved Autumn but losing the light really makes me sad.  I love Paris in the summer with its endlessly long days, hot weather and slow pace of life.

La rentrée, when children go back to school, families return from vacation and work starts up again in Paris, is coming to an end.  No more holidays until the school holiday in mid-October.  In the US, we have Halloween to look forward to.  And believe it or not, the Parisians, especially the younger Parisians, love Halloween.  I don’t see many pumpkins but there are lots of parties and dress-up and fun that last through the night.

And so the days move on.  It is still Paris!

 

What I did on my summer vacation

I lay on the sand, my head propped up by my beach bag, earbuds in so I didn’t have to listen to unwanted conversation, on a borrowed towel that had Snoopy grinning from ear to ear.  I had my bathing suit on but felt self-conscious and didn’t take my sun dress off until I was sitting down and felt invisible amongst all the other beach goers.  Two gorgeous young blonds of maybe twenty years old lay near me, topless, their breasts being the very definition of perky. In front of me, closer to the water, two Italian women were talking as one put up a sunbrella.  I had picked my spot carefully as it seemed one of the few places where I wouldn’t be kicking sand into someone else’s belongings if I so much as moved an inch.

I was spending the week in Antibes on the Cote d’Azur.  My friend, Meg, lives there and we like to trade apartments periodically so that she has time in Paris.  I had no idea what to expect. In Paris, Barbara warned me away from the Riviera during the months of July and August knowing I hated crowds and might well be miserable. 

“Posh” said Meg, “come down and see for yourself”. 

And so I did, slightly intimidated by all the rumors, gossip, stories infamous and otherwise of life on the French Riviera.

It took me three days to find a real beach.  Not because they didn’t exist but because I was slow to acknowledge that sand, sun and blue water were the true attractions along this pricey real estate that extended from Marseilles to Menton close to the Italian border.  I put towel, book, iPhone and earbuds and a bottle of drinking water in my beach bag and found my way to the Quai. I walked 15 minutes east to the free beach.  I passed a large cafe with at least one hundred chaise longues for those who wanted to be pampered with soft towels, coffee and sturdy umbrellas.  I never learned the price of admission.  The rest of us took our chances.  Our chances were far better the earlier in the morning we got there.  I’d arrived about 9:30am, stood looking out at the sea then at all the bodies that had already set themselves up for the day.  And found my perfect spot.  It seemed to have my name on it.  A large empty area about half way between me and the small waves defining the edge of sand and water.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had just laid prone on sand lusciously soaking up sun feeling like some kind of lizard on a rock.  I slowly relaxed, shed Paris and all my responsibilities, and literally was in the moment.  That lasted about 60 seconds.  A small voice urged me rather vociferously to get up and go into the water.  Getting my very thick hair wet is an unexamined dislike of mine that often prevents me from enjoying swimming, swimming pools in general and other forms of sea and ocean play.  I got up and went to the edge of the water.  I stuck one foot in. It was cold, not freezing but cold.  I started walking and found the bottom was full of stones.  It hurt to walk on them.  I couldn’t see how far the stones went.  I forced myself to continue delicately trying to avoid the biggest stones.  Then I just went for it.  Splashed myself all over and jumped in up to my neck. 

How to explain.  I was swimming in the shallow blue sea.  I looked to my left and could see what was still standing of the Antibes battlements from the Greek age.  I looked in front of me and saw endless blue and boats bobbing on the blue.  I looked to my right and saw Cap d’Antibes jutting out from the beach, green, foresty and what looked to be large villas peeking out of the trees.  I was in love.  I was immersed in a warmth that delicious doesn’t begin to describe.  I felt about ten years old doing a doggy paddle, flipping over and doing a back stroke, dunking my head so that my hair was good and wet.  I watched other beach goers step their way carefully though the stones and get wet.  They were large people, small people, beautiful people and not so beautiful people.  I loved them all.  I took a deep breath turned over onto my back and floated.

I’m the star of my video

Walking home from my Carrefour this morning, I passed a young woman in her late twenties.  She had a huge smile on her face.  In her right hand, she was holding one of those sticks that allows you to hold your phone at arm’s length, camera pointing at you, so you are the focus, front and center, of your own video.  She  was walking down rue Saint Andre des Arts oblivious to other strollers.  Rue Saint Andre des Arts is more a walking street than driving but taxis use it, delivery trucks use it and people who don’t know better use it.  If one walks down the center of the street, it is advised to pay attention!  The street is also very touristy.  It runs from Place Saint Andre des Arts, which is close to the Saint Michel fountain, several blocks and becomes rue Buci.  Students and walkers can get cheap food that doesn’t require sitting at a table: pizza, crepes, veggie Libyan fare, etc. It’s a fun street, a noisy street but not particularly photogenic.

I don’t think any of this mattered to the young woman.  She video herself in front of buildings, in front of the neighborhood movie theatre, in front of people eating their food never  once looking at the sights themselves.  I thought to myself “Is there anything more self-centered than walking down streets in Paris videoing yourself?”  I find it astounding.   it has become common place to walk in Paris this way if you are a tourist.  Never once looking at the real thing, younger people go home with a video of Paris in which they are the star.

The other day I was at the Musee d’Orsay about a 20 minute walk from my apartment.  I was in the Van Gogh room during a rare moment of low tourist presence.  Suddenly a man darted in front of me taking a photo of the painting that I was looking at with his iPhone.  Then he took a photo of the description at the bottom and right of the painting.  I watched him go around the entire room repeating the same action.  Photo the painting first then the name and description of the painting.  He never once looked at a painting.  It boggles the brain.  These people, that man, the young woman, had to have spent a considerable amount of money to get to Paris, the #1 tourist city in the world. They have to be staying somewhere.  Paris is not cheap.  It is beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful.  When the sun is out, it doesn’t matter where in the city you are, one can’t help but catch her breath and smile.  They will go to wherever their homes are, show the video, show the photos and friends will sigh and say “You are so lucky that you got to go to Paris”  But are they really here?

Of course, I may be totally off base.  Perhaps the man was working on a thesis of Van Gogh’s painting in the d’Orsay.  He knew the paintings by heart and just needed photos to support his writing.  And maybe the young woman was Parisian and walks rue Saint Andre des Arts every day.  And today she was playing at being a tourist.

Welcome to my blog

My dining room table sits at one of the four windows in my living room.  I have positioned myself so that I see the Pont Neuf and the river Seine whenever I sit to eat, to work on my computer or to read.  My view out my window reminds me daily of the extraordinary path I’ve taken to be sitting here, how very lucky I am and how much I appreciate it.

I see both daily life and tourist life out my window.  The bouquinistas line the Quai along the Seine and both tourists and Parisians alike stop to have a look.  They are full of old books, sometimes first print books, old posters as well as magnets, various sizes of the Eiffel Tower and paris postcards.  Everyone looks though not everyone stops.  The bouquinistas are Paris as much as Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower are Paris.

The buses 27 and 24 on their way to Gare St. Lazare pass under my window.  Parisians going to work, getting to the trains to go the suburbs or just going one or two stops because of fatigue.  Along side the buses are the Hop On Hop Off buses, the upper level full of tourists getting the complete tour of this beautiful city before deciding where to get off and spend some time.

The river hardly has a ripple today.  The Bateaux Mouches come through one of the arches of the Pont Neuf carrying hundreds of tourists who want their first look of Paris to be from the water.  The river Pompiers are just up the river and some mornings, one can see their inflatable boats come by slowly while a couple of the men will be swimming the river in wet suits looking for debris, god forbid people, anything that shouldn’t be in the river but is.  Across the river from me is the famous 36 Quai d’Orfeveres, the homicide unit of the French police.  A movie by that name has made it into one of the better French Film Noir movies of that era.

So now you know where I live.  This is a blog about daily life; books that I’ve read, writers that come through Paris often stopping to give a talk at the American Library; movies that I’ve seen and recomment, events big and small that happen here in Paris. This is not a blog about wine or food.  There are plenty of those and much better than I could ever do.  But I might mention a fairly inexpensive restaurant and why I like it.

I hope you enjoy!