I’m surprised to learn, after sniffing up a storm today, closing my eyes, and hoping the olfactory part of my mind would wander down some ancient pathways, that I have no real smell memory, not even one that reminds me of ‘home’. I have three smells that take me back to earlier years. Someone taking the first puff on a cigarette. There was nothing like that smell to me and it was non-reproducible. I can picture a friend (different friends throughout my smoking career) lighting up, taking a deep inhale, and blowing out the smoke. All or much of it landing on my nose. Today I try to move away from cigarettes. Don’t really want the memory pull.
Then there is being outside on a walk and, suddenly out of nowhere, smelling marijuana. Usually, I never see where it’s coming from. But the smell takes me back to the most romantic of my memories of my hippie years when everything was in front of me, and I had left all the bad, all the painful back at home. I easily picture in my mind, friends sitting around in a circle. Sometimes we are talking. Sometimes we are listening to music. But always, it was friendly, and it was an invitation for my brain to take a break from whatever the day had held.
And lastly, there is just-baked bread. Since weight has always been problematic, I don’t have great associations with that smell as delicious and heavenly as it is. Since I’ve been in Paris and no longer worry about my weight (though I never eat bread), I’ve learned to just appreciate the smell, how aromatic it is. There is a boulangerie on the corner of my street and if I’m up and out early enough, I walk by and can inhale the staff of life while watching the cooks who have been up since 3:30 am take a break leaning up against the wall of the shop smoking cigarettes.
I must be an auditory memory person. I can hear the first three bars of “EaterPurple People ”, and I’m back in my youth, nine years old, lying in my twin bed with measles. A transistor radio propped on a chair in front of me where I first discovered Hy Lit on WIBG, Philadelphia.
I can hear the first note of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and I’m in a VW bus with four other people riding up the west coast of Italy singing at the top of my lungs. I’m returning to Florence where I had spent my senior year abroad and I was buzzing with excitement.
I can hear three strums of ‘Silver Dagger’ from Joan Baez’s first album and I’m sitting on the floor at Christmas, down in the rec room, my parents, uncle and aunt, and Peggy all sitting there. I have a guitar and I’m playing a song I wrote. We’re at the far end of the room next to the doors that open up onto the backyard. I’m wearing my dark hair parted in the middle and trying to look as much like Joan Baez as I possibly can.
These are visceral feelings I have no control over. I recently listened to the Beatles on Spotify. Here Comes the Sun started the playlist. I was instantaneously overwhelmed with memories of being young, of being hopeful, of just wanting to have fun, and not worrying about money, family, or health. I had to sit down and take deep breaths and just let the feelings roll through me. It all feels so long ago—literally another time, a different person that was there.
Would I go back there? Not on your life? What hits me is always the best of those times. Music was absolutely the best of the best. I lost myself in music. I listened to rock ‘n roll around the clock. I don’t know when it stopped but it stopped. And now it’s like sparkling sand that flows through my fingers. I can’t hold onto the feelings, nor do I want to. But I do love that I have a magic key that takes me straight back and I get to relive a tiny part of the past.
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If you mention baseball to a french person, they will either look at you incomprehensibly or roll their eyes. It’s not that they don’t know about the sport of baseball. It’s that they don’t understand such slow action and, therefore, the French do not do baseball. At the World Baseball Classic, an every four-year event that actually includes teams from all over the world, the Dutch have a baseball team, the Italians have a baseball team, but the French team is largely composed of Major League players who have some French in their ancestry.
So it is with great gratitude that I watch Apple TV+’s Weekly WrapUp every Saturday. In the US, it is shown on Friday nights, but as I live in a timezone that is six hours ahead of the East Coast, I get it on Saturdays. Now that the PlayOffs are in full swing, I get a daily report which I watch at noon. I can watch a nine-inning game in eight minutes. I’m so happy I get that. And for some people, eight minutes is just perfect. They get all the action and none of the stress of waiting, inning by inning, to learn who wins. For those of you who aren’t big baseball fans, the better team doesn’t always win. It’s part of baseball.
For Game 1 of the World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies were playing the Astros in Houston. I don’t know how fans in the US feel but, for me, the Astros have taken over from the Yankees as “the team we love to hate.” After the Astros won the World Series in 2017, it was discovered by Major League Baseball that the team was stealing signs. They did not lose their title. Fans were outraged. Maybe not Houston fans! Ok, then there is Dusty Baker who is now the manager of the Astros. He’s just about as nice a baseball person as you can find. It’s hard to imagine that he would be a party to sign stealing (any more than the rest of the teams). I know there are fans who are convinced that the Astros are still crooked.
Back to Game 1 played last Friday. It went ten innings. For a fan like me, watching a nail-biter in eight minutes just doesn’t do it. As the lead went back and forth between the teams, I was just imagining what it would be like sitting in the stands, ecstatic when it is your team ahead and down in the dumps when the other team took the lead. In the end, in the tenth inning, the Phillies won. So a word about the Astros Opening Nite pitcher. I realize that for some of you this is way more information than you care to know. But it will help you understand why some people breathe baseball. And why as my friend, Darcy’s father used to say: “there are two seasons in the year. Winter and baseball season.” He was not wrong.
Justin Verlander was the Opening Nite pitcher for the Astros. He is and has been a great pitcher. He used to pitch for the Detroit Tigers. Back in the day when the Oakland A’s finished first in the American League West, somehow their first opponent in the playoffs was the Detroit Tigers two years in a row. And twice with the two teams tied 2-2 with one game to go to play the next tier of the playoffs, Justin Verlander would be on the mound for Game 5. It didn’t matter how tired he was, like Marly’s ghost, he loomed large over the A’s. And the A’s lost. Justin Verlander is moche ( french for ugly, total yuk) in the minds of A’s fans. And here he was, ten years later, Opening Nite pitcher for the team we love to hate. It may have only been an eight-minute game, but for this A’s fan, I jumped up and down when the stats said that Verlander was the losing pitcher!!!
I grew up for the first fourteen years of my life in the Philadelphia suburbs. Nothing about Philadephia says ‘home’ to me. My mother moved from Princeton, NJ to lower Bucks County in her late seventies. So it is easy for me to root for the Phillies. The last time the Phils won the World Series was in 2008, the year my mother died. The Oakland A’s started out in 1904 as the Philadelphia A’s. In 1954, they moved to Kansas City. After a short unsuccessful stint there, they moved to Oakland in 1967. I’ve always felt a kinship to the Philadelphia A’s and, at one point in my life, was given a lifetime membership to the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Museum.
Four World Series games have been played. The teams are tied 2-2. Only the first two games were tight with the teams matching each other play for play. Last night, the Astros set a WS record: 4 pitchers pitched a No Hitter. Not one Phillies player got a hit. So what’s left is the best of three!
If you’ve read this far, thank you. People ask how I could have ever moved to Paris when I love baseball so much. I really don’t have an answer to that question. I can tell you that it feels very nice to write about baseball. I am hoping to go to Spring Training in Arizona next March. So I’ll end with a shout out to all Phillies fans around the world. Go Phighting Phils!!!
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Monday, I was sitting on a platform in the back of an old foundry in Paris overlooking what is now known as Atelier des Lumières. The Atelier is the first digital art museum in Paris. I have gone five times since it opened its doors in April of 2018. All the shows are a combination of Art and Technology. Using 120 projectors, images are thrown up on walls and the floor. They are in constant motion and accompanied by music.
After watching a show of Cezanne, Kandinsky, and Van Gogh, I decided I wanted to know more about the origins of the Atelier des Lumières. As each of the shows ended and the credits were projected on the walls, eight cities (including Paris) now house these light shows: Bordeaux, Les Baux-de-Province, Amsterdam, New York, Dubai, Seoul, and Jeju. That is six more than the last time I was there during the summer of 2020. My sister had told me she had tickets to see the Van Gogh show in Detroit (for five times the price we pay here in Paris!). I had assumed it was the Paris show that was traveling but I’m not so sure. There is a permanent installation in New York.
The first of these art and technology shows, Carrières des Lumières, started in les Baux-de-Province. There the art is projected onto the walls of caves. It is part of a much larger organization called Cultural Spaces. Bruno Monnier, the president of Cultural Spaces, wanted to bring the idea to Paris. He found an unused foundry from the 19th century called Chemin-Vert located in the 11th arrondissement. It was created in 1835 to meet the needs of the Navy and railways for high-quality castings. It closed in 1929 due to the International crisis. Monnier has taken the space, left it intact, and cleaned it up while fitting it for all the projectors. It opened in 2018 with a show of Klimpt’s famous paintings. It is hard to describe the show if you haven’t seen one. My photos are static but the images are constantly moving like a giant slide show. Music is chosen specifically for certain periods in an artist’s life. The result is captivating. It’s not a stretch to call it a completely immersive experience. Children often run around chasing the images on the floor and become part of the fun of the show.
After writing the above, I walked to Parc de Bagatelle to check on the peacocks and the cats. I couldn’t go on Sunday. I saw how fast the peacock tails were growing in. I thought of sitting in the Atelier watching these famous artists’ depictions of nature dancing on the walls. And, of being in Bagatelle week after week, looking at the trees turn colors, the roses die away, a few defying nature and hanging on to their stems, the peacocks strutting around, their tails growing so fast it just might be a slide show. There is no sign of the females. There aren’t even that many people even though it was a lovely autumn day. The cats were all out enjoying the warmth of the sun.
The regular volunteer was just finishing up feeding time for the cats. I asked him how long it took the peacock tails to complete the circle to full growth. He said April. They molt in August. Four months is the short time they are full and probably the equivalent of mating season.
I asked him about kittens. He said most are born between September and December. We never see them because the mothers hide them in the thick bushes on the periphery of the park. I had visions of bushwacking my way through those bushes until I found a litter. Then I’d steal one and raise it—much to the chagrin of Bijou who is the true Lady and Mistress of my small apartment. A girl can dream.
Being at Bagatelle week after week is as immersive an experience as the digital art show at the Atelier. One shouldn’t compare apples and oranges but, if I were forced to choose…..
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I was sitting on my couch yesterday talking with a good friend who was visiting Paris from California. She asked me if it was smarter to rent something here or to buy. I said that it depends. Why was she asking? She said that the general atmosphere in the US has become unbearable for her and her husband because of politics. She had visited with another group of friends two days ago and that had been the focus of their conversation. Selling and moving to Paris (these were all people who love Paris). I was a bit stunned. She lives in California and I saw California as a refuge from all the insanity. I guess not. You can’t not know what’s going on all over the country if you own a computer or a TV or both. Maybe with the mid-terms coming up, the volume has risen so high that the desire to run away from it all must seem so attractive.
I left in 2013. Before there was Trump (although we were going through the Tea Party mess). I wasn’t making myself crazy by trying to decide to leave my country because of principles. I left because I could. I had retired. I wanted to experience another culture, really experience it, and came to Paris for a year. That was one month short of nine years ago. I haven’t gone back. To be considering a permanent move without knowing anything about what the future holds seems very brave to me.
That was the other thing we talked about. The future. We are both at the age where one has to be thinking “where do I want to get old?” “Where do I want to be old?” The US has wonderful Continuing Care Retirement Communities. France does not. France has a wonderful medical system. The US does not. If I can no longer live independently, if I have to depend on someone or someones, what country do I want to be in?
These are huge questions. Honestly, I try not to think about them very often though I should. Yet, it was a pleasure discussing it all with my friend yesterday. A pleasure because we are like-minded and putting it all out on the table. I recently put an offer on a house in Normandy. I had an inspection done by a wonderful Scotsman and I told him my age and asked if he could look at the house with that in mind. He was happy to. He told me the house wasn’t suitable for someone my age, meaning if I had to redo a room or a bathroom to make it more handicap accessible, it wasn’t possible in that house. I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to even think of that question much less ask it.
To me, thinking about leaving the country feels like a little death. It’s great to move if you are going towards something, have excitement about new things, having a chance to start over again somewhere else. But that isn’t what people are saying when they are talking about leaving. They say it with sadness, that it is so scary to live in the US right now. I don’t envy them.
Meanwhile here in Paris….. I was down near Notre Dame last week. Before the fire in March of 2019, my favorite view of Notre Dame was looking at it from behind; the roof held up by flying buttresses. I’d stand about half a kilometer east on the left bank and take deep breaths looking at the extraordinary beauty of that cathedral against a blue sky. Now all you can see is scaffolding. And cranes. And more scaffolding.
Two years ago, there was talk that Macron wanted the rebuilding finished by the 2024 Summer Olympics which are being held in Paris. No one believes that can happen. According to the Smithsonian website, the clean up was finished this past August and the rebuilding started in September. The government is still hoping to finish it in 2024 and has actually announced that it will be open to the public in the Spring of 2024.
There was a contest, at one point, to design a new roof for the cathedral. There was even one with a swimming pool, I’m told. Now the new Notre Dame will look exactly like the old Notre Dame. Which makes me glad. “The French Senate rejected calls to replace the spire with a modern design, ultimately voting to restore it to its “last known visual state.” But France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission did approve proposals to modernize Notre-Dame’s interior with new additions like contemporary artworks—a plan that some critics described as a “woke Disney revamp.” “A parallel initiative to invigorate Notre-Dame’s surroundings is also underway. Funded by Paris City Hall, the redesign includes planting more vegetation in the area and installing a cooling system, the New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden reported in June. Per the Times, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that Notre-Dame “had to be left in its beauty and have everything around it be a showcase for that beauty.”—smithsonianmag.com
And finally, I’ll end with a word about the peacocks in Parc de Bagatelle. I took my Sunday walk to the park four days ago. The first thing I do when I arrive is check up on the cats. If there is a volunteer there feeding them, I have a chat. That’s how I learn the stories about them. And now that I know that peacock tail feathers have a life cycle, I’m watching the male peacock carefully. I saw a peacock before a cat. He was looking in the opposite direction. It looked as if some pine needles had gotten caught under his back feathers. As I got closer, I realized what I thought were pine needles was the very beginnings of the new feathers.
Scattered on his back are what look like tufts of cotton. When the tail is completely grown out and he makes a fan to attract a female, it’s possible to see all the white fluff. This seemed unusual to me – to be able to see so much fluff even when both back wings were flat on his back. But I’m just learning and watching. I have no idea what the norm is.
It seems that today has been about cycles. The life cycle of the peacock tail of feathers, the cycle of a beautiful cathedral that has had parts destroyed by fires in the past, and the lifecycle of a political movement. With nature, it is truly a cycle. I lost my home in California to fire and built a lovely home from the ashes. With what’s happening in the US, one can only pray it cycles out and get into action to give it a big shove. That means Go Vote!
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. She was in Paris to celebrate the launching of her latest book The Candy House in French, as well as participating in Festival America. I belong to a writing group through AAWE (Association of American Women in Europe). Through a unique partnership of AAWE, Editions Robert Laffont, and AAWE, Jennifer spoke at the beautiful American Center for Art and Culture in the 16ème. My writing group had the honor of being volunteers at the event on Friday.
I’m embarrassed to admit that before this summer I had not read any of her books. When I learned she was making a special appearance at ACAC, I read three of her books backwards! First the Candy House (2022), then Manhattan Beach (2016), and finally A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011). My overall impression was that this was one brilliant woman who had an ultra creative mind and was also very complex. I wasn’t sure I understood The Candy House very well and resorted to reading reviews in the NYTimes and New Yorker. I was a bit afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow her thinking.
I had absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Jennifer walked into the venue with a backpack slung over her shoulder, a simple black top, a short skirt, and knee high boots. She greeted everyone with a huge smile. The room filled up with a large Franco-American crowd of at least one hundred people. Answering questions posed by the interviewer, she gave generous, thoughtful answers and captured everyones’ hearts. When someone asked her “Do you think young people are still reading?” her response got a rocking spontaneous applause. “Reading is the only way that someone can step into someone else’s head. The world now is full of devices. My sons have told me that apps are built to be addictive, but looking at the phone keeps you on the outside. I say put your device in another room and read for pleasure. Nobody is selling you anything when you read a book. Reading is an act of resistance!”
When asked about her favorite books, she responded, House of Mirth by Edith Warton and The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. “To me, they describe America.” When she signed the book I bought, she was as generous with her dedication as she was with her responses. It was clear to me that Jennifer was having fun. She used that word multiple times in describing her writing, how she wrote, what inspired her, how her thought processes went.
I mentioned that she was here as a part of Festival America. FA was founded twenty years ago by a Frenchman who wanted to shine a light on American writers who were under-represented by the media. African American authors, indigenous authors, Asian-American authors. It has evolved into an every other year celebration of American authors. “An unparalleled event, the AMERICA festival (invites), every two years in Vincennes (Val-de-Marne, France), around 70 authors from North America (United States, Canada, Quebec, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti). Since 2002, it has set itself the goal of celebrating diversity on the other side of the Atlantic – a cultural mosaic that is Indian, Hispanic, African, Anglo-Saxon, French and Francophone – and giving the public the opportunity to better understand their cultural realities.”-actes-sud.fr
I had read recently that a nineteen year old young woman from Oakland, Leila Mottley, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Her book, Nightcrawling, has been applauded everywhere, translated into French, and won the Festival America prize at the end of the festival. I was so surprised to see her on the stage with the other authors. Afterwards, I saw her and told her that I was probably the only other person in the building from Oakland. She didn’t seem particularly impressed!
“A news item inspired Leila Mottley to write her novel, the first manuscript that she dared to intend for publication” writes Le Point, a french magazine, “In 2016, the media talked a lot about the rape of a young girl by the police and I was struck to see that we knew nothing about it. (Yet) they kept showing how the police lived the case. Women of color are particularly the target of violence because the law does not protect them in the same way. By imagining Kiara, I wanted to give the visibility she didn’t have at the time to this young black woman, to her world. And, to follow her into the night of prostitution, she had herself reread by a sex worker.”
I haven’t read the book yet but am so proud of her, a follow Oakland resident. A friend told me that the Bay Area Book Festival, in conjunction with the Oakland Museum, is planning an event for her in April, on the launch date of the paperback. Leila was asked to say something at the Opening Ceremony and she giggled like the teenager she is and spoke eloquently about what matters to her. She is something.
To finish this blog, I’m including a video of the Native Americans who performed a drumming concert for us.
Because I live in Paris and because I love the American Library in Paris, I get to meet some great writers. I’m fairly sure this wouldn’t happen to me anywhere else. Paris is small for a world class city. Everyone comes to Paris. When Audrey Chapuis, Director of the American Library, introduced Ann Patchett at the Yearly ALP Gala last Thursday evening, she told us that Ann had sworn off traveling after the pandemic. Wasn’t going to do much anymore. But when offered the opportunity to speak at the largest fund raiser the Library has every year, she was easily persuaded. And I got to meet her. When I told her I was a budding author at 74 years old, she looked at me and said “Good for you!” Then she wrote ‘Write often, read everything, love in Paris’ on the title page of her latest book of essays These Precious Days.
Maybe it doesn’t mean much to the average person but it certainly does to me. I got to meet Ann Patchett! She wrote to me personally in my book. I’ve read the inscription every day. It makes me smile. Then comes the problem: when one’s favorite writers are people like Ann Patchett and George Saunders, it is hard not to compare my written words to their written words. They are great writers (in my humble opinion). Not only that, they are great speakers. It is not every author who is also someone who can captivate an audience. You can hear Ann’s talk on YouTube on the Library Channel. And if you haven’t already done so, listen to Saunders’ commencement speech on Kindness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruJWd_m-LgY
I’ve been writing creative non-fiction for over six years and a journal forever. I write this blog. I wrote a memoir of my eating disorder Saving Sara My Memoir of Food Addiction. I wrote another book with five women on the practicalities of abstaining from addictive binge foods. I’ve definitely honed my skills and learned the craft of writing non-fiction. Now I want to try my hand at fiction. I am a beginner. I love words. It shouldn’t be so hard to put a sentence together. Right? Wrong. With fiction, I first have to choose a Point of View (POV). In non-fiction, that’s a done deal, it’s my POV. Choosing the POV in novel writing is huge. Is it one of the main characters with all their baggage flavoring their thoughts? Is it a distant third person and the story is told from some unnamed observer?
I have an idea for a novel. I’ve had it for awhile now. It’s why I felt able to entertain the possibility of applying to the Stanford Writing Certificate program in novel writing. But to get into the program, as part of the application process, I have to submit 3000-6000 words of fiction. The application letter kindly says that it is ok to send in published work. They just want to know how the applicant writes. I not only don’t have published work, I don’t even have finished works. I have had to hire an editor to help me so that I don’t completely embarrass myself. She is the one who has stressed my need to pick a POV. I am a quick learner and I’m smart enough to know that if I were actually to write this novel, I need a structured environment with teaching and feedback to proceed. I just have to get in to the program.
Steven King started writing when he was nine years old. He started submitting his fiction to many different places when he was fourteen. Ann Patchett wrote as a teenager, published her first book when she was twenty-seven. George Saunders‘ story is more like mine. He wandered around doing many things in many different countries. I think he majored in a science in university. Since he started writing, he has won many awards including the Man Booker prize for his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And these are the people I find myself, hopelessly, comparing myself to. I told my editor. She said “That’s good. It means you will keep improving yourself.” I didn’t expect that.
So who else have I had the great good fortune to listen to while residing in Paris. Colsen Whitehead before he won the Pulitzer Prize; Richard Russo; Ta-Nehesi Coates was a visiting fellow and wrote most of his award winning book, Between the World and Me, down in a small cubicle reserved for Fellows; Lauren Collins, who writes for the New Yorker, married a frenchman and lives in Paris. She comes to the Library often to interview other writers. I subscribe to her newsletter and wonder if I ever could put together a sentence as she does.
Just a few days, I went to hear Colm Tóibín talk on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ve not yet been able to get through more than a few pages of Ulysses at a time. I went because it was Colm Tóibín. He wrote Brooklyn, made into a wonderful movie; The Magician about Thomas Mann another writer I tried to read but couldn’t get more than a few pages. (Colm told me to read Buddenbrooks. He said that was an easy book to read). Maybe it’s because he’s Irish! Mr. Tóibín makes anything sound fascinating. I loved The Magician and am now part way into The Master, his 2004 book on Henry James.
I think you get the idea. I’m in Writing Mecca. If I can restrain the part of me that loves to say “You aren’t good enough,” I can listen and learn. I can say “Pay attention. Maybe one day you will be good enough.”
When I hear the word Paris, my brain always goes in one direction before it hits a fork in the road. That first direction, the knee-jerk response to the word ‘Paris’ is romance. Not romance in the sense of falling in love with a person–although Paris is certainly famous for being the ‘City of Love.’ Pull up photos of Paris on the internet and you will find the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and a couple kissing, arms wrapped tightly around each other, with an iconic Parisian structure in the background. No, for me the romance is the feeling the city instills in one almost immediately. I remember when I first moved here, I would walk the cobbled streets and the quais along the Seine, and my heart would feel so full, it often felt like it would burst open. Uncontainable. The beauty of the Haussmann buildings with their iron terrace railings, the light, the fact that no building is allowed to be over six stories high so one can always see plenty of sky. From almost anywhere, it’s possible to see Sacre Coeur and Montmartre sitting on its hill over looking Paris. There is life lived out on the streets. There is a heartbeat, a bustle to the daily activity. It literally pulses around me–even now two years after the start of the Pandemic, the streets and the sidewalks of Paris are alive.
The fork in the road?: I live in the 16th arrondissement. I am ten minutes from the Bois de Boulogne with its many gardens, Parc de Bagatelle, the two lakes near the Porte de Passy. The Bois is not the first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘Paris’. My shopping area is Avenue Mozart. I walk one direction and come to the neighborhood of Auteuil where my hyperCarrefour is. I walk the other direction and come to rue de Passy with the fancy stores that have migrated over from the Champs Elysées which no longer has any designer shops. If I’m lucky, on a clear day as I get close to Passy, I can see the top of the Eiffel Tower down a side street. The 16th arrondissement is not touristic. There are no iconic buildings that shout Paris. Only on walking down to the Seine and looking north and east, do I remember on a visceral level where I am.
Then there is the Pandemic. For two years, almost all my ‘networking’, getting together with friends and book clubs has been on Zoom. People my age have been very cautious about going out especially in crowded places. I was at a wonderful expo ,”The Morozov Collection” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a couple of weeks ago. I was listening to a guide give a short talk on the paintings on the first floor. We were packed around each other, leaning in with one ear closer to her than the other. I suddenly remembered reading an article on the risk of catching Covid in Paris. The article said that in a room, a closed space, that contained fifty people or more, the likely hood that someone had Covid was 98%. In a space with thirty people, the likely hood was 65%. I jumped back from the crowd listening attentively to the guide as if I’d been burned. I walked to a place where I could be six feet away from others. I felt angry. I knew there were other options for getting information about this expo but Covid was stealing this particular option from me.
I spend 75% of my day inside my apartment, I can stand on my terrace and look out over the courtyard. At night, on the hour, the lights from the twinkly Eiffel Tower bounce off the windows of the apartment building across the courtyard from me. I remember I’m in Paris. Paris is opening up but, after two years, it feels like it takes a cattle prod to unearth me and push me out to go Paris Centre and see all those sites that once made my heart swell to bursting. Fear of being around too many people has become ingrained in me. I’ve not kept track of how many tourists are here and whether the centre is crowded the way it once was. Walking near Notre Dame was like doing slalom skiing, a curly queue road to getting anywhere. I used to love it.
Having returned from Oakland, California where there is so much space, where I live in a home with a backyard, where neighbors walk together all the time, I’m struck by the contrast. They follow the rule of two out of three. A mask, social distancing, outside. One tries always to do two out of the three. It is easy to walk or hike in the many parks mask-free. Free being the operative word. Such a freedom to not be afraid all the time. Cautious yes, but not afraid. And iconic?: my bedroom window looks out over the San Francisco Bay. I can see the Golden Gate bridge, the pyramid building, the fireworks from Crissy Field on the fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.
Would I move back to California? To the US with its insane politics, mean and cruel treatment of “others”, a polarity that has caused people not to entertain interesting discussions in fear of distressing someone? Would I leave Paris? And immediately the Paris of romance jumps into my head. It sets off a longing that is physical. And I’m right here in Paris! I long for the pre-Covid Paris. In truth, for the foreseeable future, there will only be ‘Paris in the time of Covid’. Until everyone is vaccinated, and I mean most everyone in the world, this is our lives. I read recently that Fauci was quoted saying that by the end of this thing, most of us will have had Covid. More and more people that I know are getting it–breakthrough cases.
For almost two years, I’ve woken up accepting life in the time of Covid. That was before three months in California with all that space, the ease of getting together with others, speaking the native language, the wonder of the state that I have lived in (excepting the past eight years) since 1971 and re-experienced the beauty of that area. So what is troubling me? What would stop me from fantasizing about a permanent move back to California? Two days ago, Sunday, I met my friend, Barbara, out in the western suburbs. She took me to a park in Le Vésinet that she had just discovered. It was a beautiful sunny day, still cold. It is February in northern France after all! We meandered around the park, a wide open space with an island in the middle of the river that ran through it. Then we walked over to a canal with a trail that changed names three times as it crossed over streets and other walking paths. I couldn’t help comparing it to my Friday hikes with Jeanni and Rocky while in Oakland. It compared very nicely. I turned to Barbara at one point and said “this is the happiest I’ve felt since I returned a month ago.” It’s not the same as California and Oakland but Paris and France has plenty of wonderful spaces to walk and to hike.
No, it’s the language. I took French as a middle schooler. I flunked it. My french teacher would preach to me, “stop thinking in english, you must think in french.” I could barely think an interesting sentence in english much less in french. I stared at her sullenly as I had no idea how to respond. I took French again in college and even won a place to spend 4 months in Dijon during my junior year. I lived with a french family who told the college administrator that I was far too “timide” and refused to speak french with them. That timidité has never gone away. I’ve taken immersion french, I took weekly classes and I have improved. I understand street french, meaning I can converse with shop owners where no more than a couple of sentences is required. I can follow a conversation with about 75% understanding. But I couldn’t go to a dinner party and give my normally quite opinionated views on the world. I’ve conquered so many things here: french administration, getting a bank account, getting the Carte Vitale so I have health coverage, apply for and renewing my residency card every year, having to declare monies to two countries every year. But unless one learns the language well or one is completely inconsiderate of living in a country that speaks a different language, only learning the language will make one completely comfortable. It is said if you move here and want to speak fluently, get a french lover or work in a french business or both! I’ve done neither. I’m trying to push this 74 year old brain to “keep at it” on will-power and an on-and-off desire to be a good citizen.
More on France/Paris vs California/Oakland next week!!!
I spent three months of this winter in Oakland, California. I have been back in Paris over a week and, until today, suffering my usual jet lag. Before I moved to Paris, I had lived in Oakland since 1971. I still own a home there. Since I thought I was moving for only one year eight years ago, I thought it was high time to spend some energy on my house and do needed repairs. I also had a very large project in mind–to clean out and organise my garage, my attic, and a storage area under my living room. In the end, I only did the garage but how wonderful it felt to purge, give away, sell STUFF that has been sitting there for years.
Some readers noticed that my blog wasn’t arriving in their mailboxes and wrote to ask me if they had missed something. I wrote them back and said I was taking a break for the winter. I should have written that here before I left but I don’t think I’d really realised how deeply I would get into my “home projects” and that there wouldn’t be much energy for anything else.
When I first arrived in early November, the weather was lovely as only the Bay Area can be. I visited my friends in Pacific Grove and we walked on the beach and enjoyed sun on our faces. I had left Paris just as it was starting to get cold. So it felt heavenly to be able to go outside in just jackets. Then it started to rain, and rain some more, and rain even more. It rained for almost four weeks straight, to the point that people like me were wondering if it was making a dent in the worst drought that California has known in a very long time. A couple of weeks into the rain, the temperature plummeted. I would wake up in the morning to 38 degree weather and, if we were lucky, it went as high as 48 degrees. Every morning, I would check my iPhone: weather in Oakland vs. weather in Paris. Paris was consistently 20 degrees higher. What am I doing in Oakland, I would think to myself, shivering my butt off? (The rainfall did nothing to make the drought better. As anyone who saw the photos of the Big Sur fire knows, there was no ground wetness/saturation. Fire just spread like…..well, like wild fire).
Most of my work kept me inside. I hired a wonderful woman who organises professionally and she took over how my garage would turn into a garage again. She said “you might even get a car in here!” She turned an odious job that I had resisted doing for years into something that was achievable, something satisfying, and dare I say it–Fun! By the time I left Oakland to return to Paris, STUFF had gone to the Salvation Army, Creative Arts Depot which resells arts and crafts and office supplies to people who can’t pay high prices, to consignment stores, and too much of it into the trash bins. Two auction houses came to look at the myriad of things I’d bought over the years that I no longer needed. I got excited that someone else might enjoy things that had given me pleasure.
Fridays were my reward day. I found a book that I’ve owned forever called “East Bay Hikes.” My friends, Jeanni and Rocky, joined me in walking. Each Friday, we found somewhere to hike for three to four hours. I grew up hiking–mostly in Vermont and New England. When I moved to California in the 70s, I hiked the Sierras and the Rockies in Colorado. Then I went back to graduate school and life took over. I don’t remember it happening. What I know is that I was hiking places within 15 miles of my home that I’d never been to. Easy to get to, open every day of the year. It was glorious, it was exhilarating. It was fun. As my weeks wound down, Jeanni and I started a list of places to go on Fridays the next time I go back to Oakland.
By the end of December, the rain stopped, the temperature rose slowly and, according to my not very trusty iPhone, it was colder in Paris than it was in Oakland. The days were beautiful. I could work outside, clean up the garden areas. And the sunsets…. I was told that something happens in January, the longitude or latitude of where the sun is setting (way past what my brain cells can integrate) and the sun puts on a show of dazzling reds, oranges, deep purples for at least thirty minutes. The sight gives complete meaning to the word ‘breathtaking’. Every evening I would take a photo from my bedroom window thinking that it couldn’t get better. Then it would get better.
The month of January was so wonderful that I hardly got anxious at all about getting the PCR test for entry onto a plane, entry back into France. I didn’t worry too much about whether the flights would be cancelled even though thousands of flights were being cancelled because Omicron was taking out the staff of airplanes, hospitals, and numerous other places. I was full of whatever will be, will be because I would have been happy to stay in Oakland another couple of weeks.
I hadn’t really visited with many friends. I still have a baseball family (Go A’s) and we manage to stay in touch. Between Christmas and New Year’s, we met in Walnut Creek for a very long luncheon. I was able to listen to baseball chatter and gossip that was so familiar but hadn’t heard in a long time. My friends still adore the Oakland Athletics but there isn’t much love for the Front Office or the baseball strike. Ticket prices have doubled in less than four years and no one knows whether they will be going to Spring Training games when they get to Arizona at the end of this month.
Once “Project Garage” was winding down, I was able to meet and walk with more friends. The Bay Area boasts of one of the best dog parks in the country. Point Isabel. With or without one’s dog, friends can meet up and walk a short stretch throwing balls to our canine babies or walk four or five miles north along the coast. And there too, if one timed their walk correctly, it’s possible to watch the sun set over “my city by the bay (Lights by Journey).
Now I’m sitting at my dining room table in Paris, remembering California and how quickly the three months flew by. I could do this every year if I wanted: live in both places. And how lucky would one girl get?– to live in two of the most beautiful cities in the world!!!
After a summer to forget — cold, lots and lots of rain, waiting, always waiting for warm weather, Paris and France have had the most glorious Autumn. Many days in a row of sunshine and warm days. And it lasted. Starting from the beginning of September until now. We are supposed to be in for a week of rain but 80% chance of rain on the iPhone usually means an hour or two and then it will be dry or a few sprinkles. At least so far this week.
Since the finish of the first lockdown at the end of May 2020, I’ve taken to walking more and more. I started requesting audiobooks from my library and listening as I walked and, as one does with a really good book, it’s hard to stop reading so my three miles turned into four miles turned into five miles a day. Not everyday but many days. So I’m not sure when it actually hit me how many people were out on the streets. Walking to the American Library requires crossing the Pont d’Iena which takes me almost to the foot of the Eiffel Tower. When Paris is full of tourists, walking is a bit like slalom skiing. Trying not to walk into people who are only looking at their iPhones as they take photos or are standing at the very edge of the sidewalk trying to take a photo of the girlfriend who is posing at the edge of the bridge. Someone like me either walks through them, waits, or steps into the road to get around the boyfriend. After a number of these opportunities to be polite, it gets old, and I just want to barrel through not caring if I show up in the photo 🙂
Here in the 16ème, it’s a lovely bustle of people. No tourists, plenty of Parisians going from small store to small store doing their daily shopping. The light is different. The air is different. It’s autumn and there is a sense of pulling in for the winter. Electric lights turn on earlier in the late afternoon and, if it has rained, it gives everything a sense of magic, a sparkle, a pause for a deep breath. I don’t care how long one has lived here, there are just moments of wonder, at the specialness of waking up in Paris and it always being beautiful, especially after everything has been washed clean by a good rain.
Eighteen months ago, we were sending photos back to the US of ‘Paris Vide’ – a Paris so empty of everything that it was easy to think that no one in any generation of us living sentient beings had seen anything like it. Slowly as the lockdowns became less strict, as people emerged from their homes, and younger braver people started walking the streets, ‘Paris Vide’ disappeared forever. The rules have changed over the last year as more is known about Covid and social distancing and the efficacy of wearing masks. Here in France, the majority of people still take the virus seriously although every week, there is a protest somewhere in France against the Passe Sanitaire, against masks, against protecting one’s neighbor from dying. But for the most part, everyone wears a mask in a store, on the metro, on a bus, and anywhere that it is impossible to socially distance.
Anyone who has ever visited Paris knows that this is a café society, a sidewalk culture. Paris is not Paris without people on the street, having a coffee next to the sidewalk, arguing with your friends so that anyone passing by sighs a sound of relief–Paris is being Paris. I don’t believe that we will go back to anything but, until this morning, when I read the French news, I did think we were emerging, as a city, with everyone’s health and best interests in mind and let’s get back to being Paris.
This morning, however, the news said that Covid hospitalisations has risen 15% in the past week. France is declaring it an epidemic again and masks will be required on the street. “The French public health body Santé Publique France says that the epidemic has returned with the increase in Covid cases and hospitalisations in France.” The Local. I shouldn’t be surprised. We were told that there would probably be a rise in winter as there has been in the past two winters. Yet, there was excitement getting the Booster shot and all my friends getting the Booster and, lest there be any doubt whether the vaccine works: “Among those who are admitted to intensive care, 13.8 per million are unvaccinated, 1.3 per million are vaccinated.” The Local.
I don’t want to end on a down note. The truth is that everything is much better than it was a year ago. The French government has done a great job of getting people vaccinated. We’ve all been told that a year ago 48% of the French said they wouldn’t take the vaccine. Today, over 90% of the French population has been vaccinated. Vive La France!
France and the US have always had a strong friendship – most of the time. The Marquis de Lafayette came to fight in the American Revolution when he couldn’t find a suitable job for his aristocratic rank in France. The story is that he became like a son to George Washington. Even fifty years after the American Revolution was over, when Lafayette made one final visit to the growing USA, people cheered him wherever he went. Wikipedia says that there is a city or town named after him in every state.
Benjamin Franklin, who lived much of his adult life in Paris, was adored by Parisian society. A statue of him sits in a small garden park near the Trocadero. He also was friends with the young Lafayette. There are books that say that Lafayette and Jefferson were very close–first during the American Revolution and after when Jefferson had moved to Paris as the first American Ambassador of the brand new republic.
The Americans were not nearly as helpful to the French during the French Revolution. The ones living here either went back to the US or stayed clear of what was going on. Lafayette, himself, never supported a complete break with the King and for awhile, played both sides of the fence. He eventually had to flee France, surrendered in Belgium, and was held in a miserable prison for a number of years.
Today, both Lafayette and his wife, are buried at Picpus Cemetery along with many outliers. Starting in the early 1800s, the land was used for mass graves of those guillotined during the Revolution and after. Lafayette’s wife lost her mother and other family members during the Revolution. She became a founding member of the Picpus Society which is why they are buried in Picpus Cemetery. “In permanent recognition of his role in aiding the American cause, an American flag has flown over Lafayette’s grave ever since the end of WWI. The flag is changed every year on July 4 in a highly orchestrated ceremony attended by French and American dignitaries, including representatives of the U.S. Embassy, the French Senate, the Mayor’s Office, the Office of the Mayor of the 12th Arrondissement, the Society of American Friends of Lafayette, the Sons of the American Revolution in France, and the Society of the Cincinnati in France.” –Francerevisited.com The friendship between France and the US has managed to survive many obstacles through the years.
One of the largest chapters of Democrats Abroad is in France, and Sunday evening, the Paris contingent celebrated on the banks of the Seine at a funky bar called Les Nautes. It was the first live get-together in 2021. Plus, for many people, it was the first “night out” since the curfew was lifted. The larger part of the bar is outside seating: perhaps ten picnic tables that the staff of the Paris Chapter decorated in red, white, and blue and a Pride Flag proudly flew over one of the tables.
I heard a few lovely Biden stories. Our newly elected National Chair of France DA is about to leave Paris and return to the US with his fiancée. When I asked him why he ran if he was leaving, he told me that while Trump was president, getting Visas was a hard and long process. He was told it would probably be a minimum of two years. So he ran for office–and won. Then Biden was elected President. One of Biden’s first moves was to reverse that Visa policy and fiancés went to the top of the list. So Jonathon and his french love are headed to Texas in August and the very capable Dani F, National Vice Chair, will become our new Chair in France. This is a story I might not have heard unless I had known someone trying to get a Visa to the States. I, once again, thanked whomever above that we have a new President and one that has been around Washington so long, knows every in and out, and can address this kind of thing. It doesn’t hurt to have good advisors also!!!
Most of us didn’t talk politics. We all expressed gratitude for Independence from Trump. Then we reminesced to the French amongst us about the tradional 4th of July food that gets served at these picnics: Hot dogs on buns–the hot dogs were there but not the buns; Potato salad–Someone kindly brought potato salad and it went quickly; Cole slaw–not present although it is now sold in french markets; Corn on the cob–Corn is only eaten by animals in France. If you live in a district that has many Americans, you might find one of two cobs wrapped up in cellophane but they usually end up on the day old pile to be sold for one or two euros; Fruit salad–someone remembered that in many parts of the US, the fruit salad was stirred up in mayonnaise. Tune up huge groans of disbelief.
Paris has been having record-breaking rain–in my opinion. Every day threatens at least a small shower and we haven’t had more than three or four really warm days in a row all Spring. On Sunday evening, my iPhone said 90% rain all day. It said that for 6 days prior. I was bound and determined to go party anyway and, it seems, so were a lot of others. The gods smiled on us ex-Pats. There was a small shower just before the event started then sun. Then a threat but it never materialised.
One question I had for Dems Abroad and did not get a 100% confirmed answer is: Do I need to register this year to vote in California’s special election. As most of you know, unhappy Republicans are trying to remove Governor Newsom from office. So Californians are going to the polls this November 2. There are some other elections occasioned by vacancies after the Presidential election of 2020. Here in Europe, I have to re-register every year there is an election to make sure I get my absentee ballot. However, that might not be true for a special election. The assumption among those I asked is that California is good about absentee ballots and, if I voted in 2020 (I did), I will automatically receive my absentee ballot in September. It’s never smart for a Democrat to assume anything so you can be sure I will be calling the Registrar of Voters soon.
It stays light this time of year until 11pm. I didn’t want to go home while it was light so though people were leaving at 9:30pm, I asked my friends if we could slowly walk to the metro ( they live in the Marais but dropped me off at #1). I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the Seine and the light–something I don’t get where I live in the 16th. Here is my parting gift to you. This is the Paris I love.