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

Maya, une voix

If you are in Paris between now and July 27, run don’t walk to see Maya, une voix, at the Théatre Essaion in the 4th arrondissement. Until the 15th of June, it plays every Friday and Saturday night at 19:45H and from June 28 through July 27, every Friday and Saturday at 21:30H. Anyone who knows anything about Maya Angelou will recognise the story of a young girl sent north with her brother at a young age to live and get an education.. She is raped and, as a result of the trauma, little Maya doesn’t speak a word for five years. This 70 minute production begins with the adult Maya’s awe at being asked to write and then read a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992; goes back in time to her childhood trauma and how she begins to speak again through writing words; and ends as she opens her mouth to read her poem at the Inauguration.

I learned about the production because Ursuline Kairson, who plays both the adult and young Maya, is a friend. Ursuline came to Paris many years ago as a blues and jazz singer and has never gone back to the US. I got to know her when I first moved here and love following this incredibly talented woman as she takes on so many different kinds of projects. http://www.ursulinekairson.com/en/

Ursuline Kairson

The singing is in English and the speaking is in French. If you have a medium grasp of French, you will follow the story. There are four other talented women in the show. Each one wears many hats and, with each change of an apron to suspenders to a sheriff’s hat, the new character is absolutely convincing. We were not allowed to take photos or I would put up many photos of the variety of characters in this vibrant and moving spectacle. After the show, some of us stood around the door outside talking and when the actors came out, we learned that two of the women are pregnant!!

Besides Ursuline, whose voice still jumps and twirls out to the audience, I was especially struck by Julie Delaurentiou. Julie is French but speaks English fluently. She did almost all the translations. She morphed from woman to man and back again with an ease and conviction that I found stunning. I said to someone after the show was over “That woman is going to be a star”. I then learned she is a trained Shakespearian actor. It’s not really fair to say one of them is better than the others. All five woman were extraordinary and for a mere 15euros, I saw a first-rate production in an intimate setting and got to meet all the actors after. What more could a theatre goer want?

Please watch this trailer to get an idea of these women, Eric Bouvron who did the staging and even hear a the real Maya speaking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=96&v=p0G0KMnu5G4

Théatre Essaion

  • 6, rue Pierre au lard 
    (à l’angle du 24 rue du Renard) 
    75004 Paris
  • 01 42 78 46 42
  • Métro 1–Arrêt Hôtel de Ville
  • 11–Arrêt Rambuteau
  • 1 4 7 11 14–Arrêt Châtelet
  • Bus38 47 75 29–Arrêt Centre Georges Pompidou
  • for reduced priced tickets, go to http://www.billetreduc.com

A bientôt,

Sara

David Milch

I think everyone in the world has seen David Milch’s name somewhere on TV. Maybe it’s never registered with you. I’ve been seeing it a lot lately because I’ve been watching reruns of NYPD Blue, in order, here in Paris. I never saw it when it first came out on TV in 1993. I was busy rebuilding my house that had burned down in the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, busy watching the Oakland A’s in the evening and just busy. Together with Steven Bochco, Milch created a new kind of prime-time police drama. It ran for 12 seasons. Here in Paris, there are two episodes every weekday night. We’re just starting Season 9.

I love NYPD Blue. I love the flawed characters, I love the characterisation of New York and I love the writing. Imagine my shock when I returned from vacation, picked up my New Yorker and learned that David Milch has Alzheimers. He is 74 years old and was diagnosed in early 2015. He knows he has Alzheimer’s and has a whole list of things he wants to do. The article “Hello Darkness” was written by Mark Singer, a long time contributor to The New Yorker. Singer first met Milch in 2004 when Milch was writing the second season of “Deadwood”–which I have not seen but intend to having read this New Yorker article.

Milch is a complicated man. He is very smart and educated. He is a surviver of many addictions and many relapses. He also has bipolarity. As Singer says, somehow through it all, “he remained in command of prodigious gifts.” He was a writing professor at Yale and Robert Penn Warren was his mentor when he was an undergraduate there. While I’m reading a long list of academic achievement, I’m picturing Sipowicz muttering obscenities under his breath just loud enough so that Danny and Diane can hear. They roll their eyes. Sipowicz is one of a kind. Wikipedia says that Milch was inspired by his relationship with Bill Clark, a former member of the New York City Police Department who eventually became one of the show’s producers. But still…..I know how academics talk, I was raised by two of them and my sister is one. They do not talk like Sipowicz.

Photograph by Ryan Pfluger for The New Yorker

The more I read (New Yorker May 27, 2019), the more admiration I felt for Milch, for his talent, for his journey, for surviving addictions (among other things he made a fortune and lost it all to a gambling habit), for his family that has stuck by him. When Singer quotes him, he sounds like a gentlemen’s gentlemen. And how unfair this diagnosis of Alzheimer’s seems. “More than anything else, one would like to think of oneself as being capable as a human being. The sad truth, imposed with increasing rigor, is you aren’t. You aren’t normal anymore. You’re not capable of thinking in the fashion you would hope to as an artist and as a person. Things as pedestrian as not being able to remember the day. Sometimes where you’ve been. There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to remember where I live. And then there are compensatory adjustments that you make in anticipation of those rigors, so that you can conceal the fact of what you can’t do. It’s a constriction that becomes increasingly vicious. And then you go on.” p. 28 New Yorker.

Here is France, the name of the Director is always put above the name of the stars on a movie advertisement. Sometimes the stars names aren’t there at all. But the director always is. He’s the smart one. If you ask a french person about a movie and now, more and more, a good TV show, s/he’ll tell you who the director is. I’ve always sat through all the credits at a movie. I sit through all the credits for TV shows. I like knowing who did what even though I don’t know any of these people. After a while, you start recognising names. Like Danny Elfman composes a lot of movie music. So I knew the name David Milch very well. To me it was always Milch and Bochco. Which isn’t correct. Milch has gone on to do a lot of excellent work without Bochco. Things I’ve seen and not seen. So strange as it seems, reading this article was almost like reading about a friend who had become very, very ill. Only I don’t know where to send flowers. So I’m writing this tribute to a man who has entertained me for years, who turns out to be a complex, brilliant, interesting man who has struggled with some of the same demons I have. I pray he gets everything done he wants to get done.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Creator David Milch at the “Luck” Press Conference at Four Seasons Hotel on February 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

I’m told that the movie Deadwood will air on HBO this week. Having not seen the first two seasons, I’ll probably wait but if you are a fan and I hear there are many of them……

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers in Spring

I spent last week down in Le Gers, the tiny village of Pouy-Roquelaure, where I spent most of last summer. I wrote about my time there in a number of blogs. It seemed magical to me with the music, the kindness of the people, the freshness of the food, the multitude of sunflowers surrounding me everywhere and the heat which I love but is not everyone’s friend.

Le Gers in southwest France

I have spent most of the winter dreaming up ways to return. People who live there don’t want to leave in the summer so home exchanges are difficult. The British will buy up large country houses, fix them up and then rent them for Parisian prices. I didn’t want that. I ended up renting a smallish place near the town of Nerac for a month starting in mid-July. But first I did an exchange with my friends: Paris-Pouy for one week.

Le Romieu

Two things interested me. Learning the history of the area starting with the Gauls. Is this where Julius Caesar came and started unnecessary wars so he could abscond with a lot of stolen loot? There are three exquisite areas, one near Montreal and two near Eauze, that show a village and probably village life.

The European elections were this past weekend and I wondered how Le Gers would vote. I asked a British friend and she thought the majority of Gascognians were still of a socialist bent which surprised me. The Gilets Jaunes were born out of poor countrysides and I would have thought that Le Gers might be part of that. But if my friend was correct, Le Gers would be the colors of the rainbow when all the winning parties were put on the map.

Condom

The area I love is in the northern-most part of Le Gers. I arrive by train from Paris to the Agen Station which is in Lot-et-Garonne. Twenty five minutes south is the tiny village of Pouy and forty-five minutes south is the the town of Condom–both in Le Gers. The Compostale of Saint-Jacques, that starts near Paris in Le Puy, comes down south to Lectour which is east of Condom, winds its way slightly north again to the beautiful village of La Romieu then southwest to Condom before making its way west to Eauze. This is a land of pilgrims as well as agriculture. There have always been pilgrims and always been foreigners.

Eauze

Visiting Eauze last Friday, I learned that I was right. Centuries ago, Eauze was called ‘Elusa’ being the ancient capitol of the Elusates who were the last to surrender to the Roman army of Julius Caesar. Nowadays, Eauze is the capitol of the Armagnac region, situated in Le Gers on the border of the Bas-Armagnac and the Ténarèze, home of the best Armagnacs.

Eauze is a small town with a friendly old historical heart and calm character. The architecture looked a lot like Strasbourg with the half-timbered houses. We did a self-guided walking tour and visited the lovely simple cathedrale of Saint-Luperc that had a chapel dedicated to Saint Jacques. We ended up at the Elusa historical sites that we didn’t have time to visit on this trip. We had been to Séviac last summer so we had a good idea what would be seen. We did see many pilgrims wander into the centre of town looking weary, dusty and slow. They all headed to the Tourist Office to have their Compostale book stamped.

Elusa: Eauze during the Roman Empire

During the era of the Roman Empire, Eauze was called ´Elusa´ and acted as the capitol of Novempopulania. Novempopulania is Latin for ´land of the 9 peoples´ where it was a Roman Province in today’s ´Aquitaine´, formed after the successful conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. Elusa became the capitol of Novempopulania by the end of the 3rd century and developed into an important administrative and religious center. But after the downfall of the Roman Empire, Elusa lost her important position and slided into decay.–Tourism in Le Gers website.

Elusa: Eauze during the Roman Empire...

So what did Le Gers look like when the French woke up Monday morning after the European Elections:

Results for Condom

Taux d’abstention : 45.41% People not voting.

Jordan BARDELLA PRENEZ LE POUVOIR, LISTE SOUTENUE PAR MARINE LE PEN–25.56%

Nathalie LOISEAU RENAISSANCE SOUTENUE PAR LA RÉPUBLIQUE EN MARCHE, LE MODEM ET SES PARTENAIRES–22.05%

Raphaël GLUCKSMANNEN VIE D’EUROPE ÉCOLOGIQUE ET SOCIALE–9.40%

Yannick JADOT EUROPE ÉCOLOGIE–9.27%

François-Xavier BELLAMY UNION DE LA DROITE ET DU CENTRE–8.29%

Manon AUBRYLA FRANCE INSOUMISE–5.94%

Nicolas DUPONT-AIGNANLE COURAGE DE DÉFENDRE LES FRANÇAIS AVEC NICOLAS DUPONT-AIGNAN. DEBOUT LA FRANCE ! – CNIP–4.12%

Benoît HAMON LISTE CITOYENNE DU PRINTEMPS EUROPÉEN AVEC BENOÎT HAMON SOUTENUE PAR GÉNÉRATION.S ET DÈME-DIEM 25–3.59%

Fourcès

In Fourcès, next door, a village I would live in easily, En Marche was easily the winner with only 30% of the village not voting!!!

Taux d’abstention : 30.6%

Nathalie LOISEAU RENAISSANCE SOUTENUE PAR LA RÉPUBLIQUE EN MARCHE, LE MODEM ET SES PARTENAIRES – 29.25%

Jordan BARDELLA PRENEZ LE POUVOIR, LISTE SOUTENUE PAR MARINE LE PEN – 18.37%

The rest of Le Gers seems pretty much the same. Marine Le Pen did not take all of Le Gers. In fact, if the colors are accurate, it looks pretty even between Le Pen and Macron.

So what is the take away? Twenty-one hundred years ago, Le Gers (Gaul) fell to a Trump like dictator only wanting money and power and not much caring how he got it. Today, France is in a battle that is not so dissimilar. If Le Pen were to win in the next elections, she would fight tooth and nail to have France leave the EU (we’ll see what happens in Brussels between now and then). If France left the EU, there might not be a EU left. Macron wants power, wants to lead the EU. Perhaps if he settled for working out his France issues, relating to the French people, he might make more strides. But I’m only an American with not a lot of knowledge of French politics so you must take what I say with a few grains of salt!!!

A bientôt,

Sara