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Archive for May, 2011

MFK Fisher, the incomparable chronicler of France (and food) wrote that her husband used to regale her with tales of the “real Paris” – in the ‘20s – while they were living in France in the ‘30s. Later she revisited old haunts while introducing her children to France in the ‘50s, telling them about the “real Paris” of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Now Woody Allen has made a fanciful film for romantics of all ages on that very subject – finding the Golden Age of Paris. The Woody Allen-like protagonist of “Midnight in Paris,” the hapless would-be writer Gil, wants nothing more than to wander the moody streets and conjure the artist greats of the past, but his hard-nosed fiancée is there to shop. You can see where this is going, and eventually our hero does time-travel to a far, far better place – Paris in the ‘20s, schmoozing with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Zelda, and Gertrude Stein. Then a dark-haired beauty leads him to an even more distant perfection – la Belle Époque – where the likes of Monet and Degas pine for the authentic Paris of the Renaissance over the strains of the can-can. This film is a delight, both a poem and a paean to a city that might be most beautiful in the rain. As for it’s most magical moment? The ‘60s, of course, when I was there. Or was I?

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Brotherhood of Monks from "Of Gods and Men"

Seeing the great French film “Of Gods and Men,” recently, which documents the lives of a small group of Cistercian Brothers living their monastic lives among the rural people of mountainous Algeria in the early 1990’s, I was reminded of my friend Hugues. A French colleague had asked if I might be able to put up his protégé for a couple of weeks while he found a place to stay and learned the craft of print journalism, to say nothing of learning English. All I knew was that his young friend was a broadcast journalist and would let me know of his arrival. One evening – my birthday to be exact – my doorbell rang and a curly-haired young man with mischievous eyes carrying a large backpack stood on my stoop. He looked like the Little Prince who had just dropped in from a distant planet.

The two weeks stretched over several months and young Hugues attacked English, food, wine, cigarettes, adventure and journalism with equal enthusiasm. He charmed everyone in his path and was a regular in the newsroom where I worked. “I don’t give a flying fuck” became his trademark expression.

Some months after his return to France, where I assumed he was successfully plying his trade, I got a phone call from him while at work. “I have important news,” he announced, and suggested I sit down. Colleagues, also fond of him, gathered near the phone to learn his fate. w I assumed he was engaged. “I am taking religious vows in one week,” he said to our astonishment. “I am very nervous,” he went on. “I’m smoking and drinking whiskey like hell.”

Then, after eight days, he went completely silent – hard to imagine for a garrulous young broadcaster, but normal for a novitiate after taking vows. In a year or so, he had acquired a new name, and I began to hear from him again through letters notable for their quirky mix of French and English, bad handwriting, and monastic addresses. He had struggled with his decision, but stuck with it. He moved to various countries in Eastern Europe, where he served as a priest, worked with the poor, the deaf, the abandoned. His life was very hard, but rich. At times he suffered. At times he thought – why, I was never sure, given my marriage and family life, my lack of a faith like his – that I, too, had a similar calling. He always assured me, and I find this comforting, that he prays for me regularly.

Still, I had trouble envisioning his life, understanding how, exactly he lived, and more importantly, why. Then I saw “Of Gods and Men,” and felt I had seen my old friend in his chosen life. I saw the goodness, the anguish, the humanity of those monks, and the strength they found in their God and their community. Although the Hugues I knew has long since disappeared, I recognized his resolve and his strength in those brave Cistercians, and knew that had he been there, he, too, would have made the decision to stay and serve in the face of certain death. At last I understood.

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