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Fire at Dawn

A remembrance from That Paris Year, Alan Squire Publishing, 2010

“Dawn, a discovery really, for eyes unaccustomed, like Jocelyn’s. Hard, glittering fall, already stiffening with cold, making the towers, spires, and sighing rooftops of the old part of the city stand erect. Or, perhaps, they just stand out because many trees are prematurely bare. At this season, she notices, there was also room for the sun, that unruly invader from the east, ripping the cover from night and spilling red across the unknown vastness of Europe. The bells in the towers of Notre Dame shudder then, but do not give in to the sound as daylight engulfs the great stones in a fiery rose.

     She climbs up the river walk along the Seine just as the first pigeons awake and fly from their granite perches, just in time to see the cathedral walls erupt in light, and she asks herself:  Who else could be up at this hour? A few silent captains, working rusty barges up the river, drivers of the tin-sided trucks delivering bread. The insistent lovers of course, the beggars, the occasional prostitute also walking the river’s Left Bank before dawn. Or perhaps, in livelier sections of the city, cabaret-goers and artists wandering Montmartre, intellectuals and first-class hustlers in the all-night cafés of Montparnasse. The clerics, doing whatever mysterious things they do, while others sleep or sin. And now, of course, the pigeons.

     She stands, stranded in silence on the upper embankment, a short silvery half-river from Notre Dame, singed rose in first daylight. She knows, certainly, there is meaning in it, but cannot see it. Perhaps because the other fire burned, once again, across her eyes…

     Soon the bells of Notre Dame break the silence, followed by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and others all over the city. And for a moment, at daybreak, she concludes it possible to think a known God still exists in Paris.”

 These words of fiction reflect impressions gathered decades ago during my first Paris year. They are now refracted in the splintered images of the countless times since that I have stood in awe by the same flowing river watching the stones catch the changing light, or inside, looking out through the mystical rose light of the great stained-glass windows. The pink-tinged fire of dawn playing on the solid exterior has now exploded in hideous, ravenous fire, consuming so much beauty, history, and hope in its maw. I now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other mourners worldwide who perhaps still hope against hope that a known God still exists in Paris.

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I was lucky enough to kick off National Poetry Month as one of the poets reading at an event at Book Passage in Corte Madera, flagship of the iconic Bay Area bookstores. Rebecca Faust, great Poet Laureate of Marin County, presided. I chose an old poem, first published in a chapbook, Travels, by the Argonne Hotel Press in 1996.

I chose it because, with its retelling of Odysseus’s homecoming to Ithaca from his wife Penelope’s point of view, it seemed a good segue from celebrating National Women’s Poetry Month to celebrating National Poetry Month. Also, it was on my mind because I am soon to accompany Wanderland Writers to our writing adventure in Greece.

Penelope and the Suitors

She had heard the whispers:
fish-tailed maidens
with nets of gold hair,
those sirens, their bitch calls piercing
his ears, painted hands strumming
his legs
and Circe. Ah, Circe,
wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,
that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.
But only Helen’s face
oval goddess beauty
that he had looked upon
haunted her

and her heart, slow constricted fist beyond the leap of yearning, stopped its beating.

Now, they said, he was dead.

For the first time in twenty years she laughed, twenty years of rock island, stone, sea, swells of waiting.
Now he was near and those who could not follow his wake said he was dead, those who could not tell dying
from coming.

At last near coming home,
the waves pulled back from the beach
like parted lips, like
hands running over hips,
rounded still, and she laughed
again knowing how the gods and suitors
wet their tongues.
Hair to waist, laced with silver
precious metal, like gold
on the looking-glass
where her face, smooth and finely laced,
finely colored from
twenty summers’ sun was,
she knew, lovely.

So, what had he heard?

If he knew her, he would know
she did not remain untouched,
not by the sinewy black one
who loved her like the night,
or the fisherman with the wise beard
casting his net of stories
about her, rubbing her back,
or the philosopher who thought best
with his slender fingers,
or that young artist with Vulcan eyes,
all like the seasons, her weave of patches
a coverlet to cover
the marriage bed.
That was what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus, closed her eyes to see him wearing those twenty years.
But she saw only his likeness, Telemachus, the son,
beauty in his fierce and tender restlessness,
the boy left behind, the guard charged by men
to do what no man can:
Separate a woman from her desire.
Still she waited, had waited, waited and wanted
husband, blood-mate,
twin of the inner mirror
whose likeness only knew
the holier longings of love.
Then he came. Strong-chested.
Broad-armed, steeled in beard and bone.

Did he know at last what this journey had been for?

He saw her first, her eyes
the lissome blue his glance once
skated over,
mirrors on a pristine lagoon.
Now, around them, little creases,
terrain,
a holding place
before plunging
into the deep sea.
You are the most beautiful, he thought.
Yes, she smiled.

Come in.

Within days of the reading, I received a copy of writer, friend and publisher, Rose Solari’s reissued book of poetry Difficult Weather.

Winner of he Columbia Book Award for poetry, it was published by Gut Punch Press in 1994. In the introduction to the new edition, published by Alan Squire Publishing, Katherine Young makes the observation that for the first volume of a young poet, these poems are “extraordinarily mature.” In reviewing the book now, I found it was like revisiting an old friend who has, in every respect, stood the test of time.  Among others, the themes of family and the struggle for one’s own identity are particularly strong. And on this reading, I was especially taken with the poem “The Beginning, 1939,” in which the poet goes to her own imagined roots in an early moment in her parents’ relationship. The sounds of the piano, often associated with her mother, echo through it.

 

 The Beginning, 1939
for Joseph and Mary Solari

 
That she was beautiful. That her nails
were red and tickled the palm of his hand.
That she could talk and laugh so generously
 
she gave his answers grace. That her eyes
 could flush past brown and into black.
These were the reasons he turned away

from his books in the evening, and spent
his paychecks on small clusters
 of gardenias, which she would tie

around her wrist with a wide green band,
or folders of new sheet music, songs
 she would hum on the streetcar or sing

while they walked. He’d never courted a lady before,
 had never known how much
 small conversation mattered; he’d never

learned to waltz; he’d never felt
this foolish or this happy. After
 he’d called on her, he’d walk back

to the rooming house, remembering things
 she’d said. It was summer. The sky
 was full of heat and water. He’d take his time,

promise himself that when he saw her next
he’d leave no long tight pause for her
to fill. And he would pause beneath a gas lamp

and pull the photograph she’d given him
into light. It was a profile. Her sitting
at her piano. Whatever tune she had been playing

then was one she knew by heart: the music stand
was bare, her chin was tilted up, her eyes
were closed. And while her left hand was dissolving
 
in a bass chord, into shadow, her right hand —
a little closer to the camera —
was caught in the air between the last note and the next.

And in that last note, suspended in air, the reader gets wind of what is to come: difficult weather.

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As March draws to a close, taking with it National Women’s History Month, I am impressed with how many stories of strong, brilliant, achieving, and up-and-coming women I have read about who are making waves in politics, the arts, sports, academe—everywhere.

But it also puts me in mind of the past, and my singular good fortune to have known, and long been a part of, The Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), a group of women explorers and leaders in their fields who banded together in 1925 because men wouldn’t let them through the door.

For me, the association began in the early ‘80s, when recently returned from several years living in West Africa, I decided I wanted to make a career switch from academia, my intended destination, to writing. Having become fascinated with a myriad of generally unknown women explorers in Africa, and having done considerable research on them, I decided to start there. I got  a research desk in the Library of Congress and burrowed in. But quickly I found myself in company. At the time, the acclaimed poet, Maxine Kumin,

was the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the Poet Laureate) and I was invited to brown bag lunch sessions with her and other women scholars.

Before long I met and was befriended by Luree Miller, inveterate traveler, adventurer and author of several books. She was doing research for On Top of the World, her marvelous book about five women explorers in Tibet.

She was also an enthusiastic member of SWG, which she soon nominated me to join. Not only did she become a mentor and invaluable friend, but she shared so much—books, research, contacts, friends, and most importantly, what it means for women to help each other—that my life was altered permanently.

Among women of her generation whom I came to cherish was the artist and writer Ben Booz who traveled the world with Luree as they produced travel stories together using Ben’s drawings instead of photos.

Then there was Jane Coon, who had been close to Luree during their days together in India, and who would become US Ambassador to Bangladesh while her husband, Carleton, was Ambassador to Nepal.

Closer to my age was Ann Parks Hawthorne, photographer extraordinaire and specialist in Antarctica. Pictured here with her hero, Jackie Ronne,

who was the first woman to winter over in Anarctica,  she would become my life-long friend and companion as we traveled the country as a kind of “Thelma and Louise” of journalism, on assignment for a Washington news service.

We would all come together in a special way in 1995-96, when Luree succumbed to the cancer she fought so valiantly. On the days when she had chemotherapy, Jane would drive her, then return with her to her Capitol Hill townhouse where Ann and I would join Ben in cooking her dinner, which she would enjoy in company before the nausea set in. As her support group, we called ourselves the Gang of Four, and during that year Luree taught me as much about how to die well as she had taught me about living.

I am including a link to an article I wrote for the Washington Post Magazine in 1985 about SWG. Some of Luree’s shared research informed this piece.

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1985/12/15/where-women-go-first/c59c8197-8102-490d-b9b0-adc24aae4c78/?utm_term=.85582694ff50

To learn more about the Society as it is today, (now happily housed on Capitol Hill due to Luree Miller’s efforts), here is a link to its website.

www.iswg.org/

 

 

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As an unabashed Francophile, I have always taken notice of the French connection to places I have visited: The amusing presence of bidets in parts of the Sahara for example; the military-looking line up of women by a toll road outside Hanoi, armed with … baguettes. Small wonder then I would seek the same in the most French of all U.S. cities, New Orleans.

The name itself conjures many associations for me. Decades ago, I did a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Charles, Duke of Orleans, in whose name Joan of Arc lifted the English siege of Orleans in the 15th century. Seeing her statue valiantly raising her sword as a symbol of the American city certainly links to its deep French roots.

As of course, do the names of its founders, the brothers Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville who finally found the elusive mouth of the Mississippi in 1699. D’Iberville died soon thereafter, but de Bienville lived to found the city in 1718, named to honor the Duke of Orleans. By 1722, the grid plan for the city, the part now known as the French Quarter was laid out. It includes streets named Iberville and Bienville.

The brothers envisioned a great trading city on the mighty Mississippi, but who would build it? The Native Americans of the region, notably the Houma and the Muskogeans had largely already been hugely diminished by European diseases and cruelty. To populate the new “French” city, a P.R. campaign was launched to lure Europeans–that is French, Germans and Swiss–to the lush “paradise,” failing to mention infestations of mosquitos and annual flooding. Moreover, to sweeten the pot, French criminals and prostitutes were offered freedom in exchange for relocating to the colony. Then there were the Africans, brought in as slaves in the early 1700s. A cultural shift was setting in already.

To be sure, French speakers from everywhere were drawn in. Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750s after the English takeover of Canada; aristocrats fleeing France after the revolution in 1789; Haitians, both white and black, after the slave rebellion of 1791.  A happening success culturally perhaps, but from a financial standpoint, not so much. Not seeing the anticipated pot of gold, the French happily dumped the less-than-profitable enterprise on the Spanish in 1756 in exchange for military support in the Seven Years War.

So, with a Spanish flag flying over New Orleans, and Spanish language and Spanish law in place, it was a Spanish city, right? Not so much.  With the arrival of different classes and races, a population of mixed peoples, high-born, low-born, slave and free—Creole— had quickly arisen.

Mardi Gras parades, a mixing of Catholic ritual and African traditions began when the Mistick Krewe of Comus took to the streets in 1857, and is still going strong.

Music that started with slaves drumming and dancing on Congo Square morphed into brass bands, then jazz and all that came after:  honkey-tonk, swing, rock n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop.

The Acadians, or Cajuns, also created their own strong culture—with unique versions of French, music, and cuisine–steeped in their agricultural roots, on the land and bayous outside the city.  Black residents in the neighborhood of the Treme started their own parades by adopting tribal names and elaborate feathered costumes in solidarity with the Indians who had been pushed aside. Then the Yankees came, building an English-speaking enclave in the posh Garden District. So by the time the territory–still not an economic golden egg–was passed back to Napolean from Spain then quickly purchased by Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. in 1803, what manner of place was it?

My guess is, what it had been from the beginning: at heart French still. But French with a twist, closer to a culture born of Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba, than one of Paris or Montreal or, mon dieu, Washington. By weather, custom, instinct, cuisine, and music a place more Caribbean than continental.

And so, to my mind, it remains–tropical and French, but with that twist. On my family’s first trip there long ago, my father ordered milk for my young brothers to drink. The waiter at the famous restaurant, Antoine’s (established 1841), scoffed and brought them wine mixed with water.

The French Quarter, with its iconic architecture built in the Spanish style after fires burned the city down in the late 18th century, has always been considered French.And now, with its crazy Bourbon Street, its multi-colored parades, its jazz, its beignets,  its po’ boys, gumbo and jambalaya

never found on a menu in Paris, its French words in a town where the language is rarely spoken, its laissez les bons temps rouler philosophy? I see the French connection, somehow holding it all together.

.

On my most recent trip, we made a visit to a restaurant in the 9th ward which had been particularly devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This was at the invitation of a friend who had grown up there. Though the ward has been much restored, the address we had was on a dark and pot-holed street, and an uninviting wood fence didn’t seem to indicate a restaurant. Yet behind it was a lively, attractive space for outside dining, a happening bar filled with locals of every race, an impressive menu and a superb wine list with many French wines, and a Japanese chef. When we asked the young waiter what the restaurant’s name, N7, meant, he replied: “It’s for the national highway. The one that goes through Provence.”

 

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This title, in a bow to the famous book by Gabriel García Márquez, is intended to draw attention to two major features of Love in the Time of Cholera: the marvelous love affair of two very old people in an ancient, unspoiled environment. The resemblance to my own story is slight, but evocative. Márquez’s lovers are very old and find themselves in the fecund embrace of the Amazon jungle. My husband and I first came a few years ago as a less old amorous pair to an ancient city in Southern France, Aix-en-Provence, and fell in love with it. We have returned  many times to renew our bonds of affection.

But this year we came in the time of canicule—heatwave, extreme weather—and find our affection tested. Rather than the overpowering humid heat of the jungle, our beloved city faces desiccation, thirst, withering. It is a city transformed.

One of our great pleasures in Aix has always been to wander the narrow streets, with medieval towers and arches bordering Renaissance beauties, such as the great clock tower in the central square, and running along side the graceful private houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their massive wooden doors and elegant staircases. We’ve taken comfort from the sun in their shadows and warmth from the cold in heat of their walls, reflected in the earth tones of their colors—pink, yellow, beige, terra cotta.

But in the canicule, their passing heat creates an oven, their contours quiver, and beneath, cobblestones and marble of the streets appear to melt. We are dizzy in this present, trying to find our breath.

The fountains, for which Aix is famous, reflect this new reality. In many the usual welcoming sprays are reduced to a trickle. An exception is the most famous fountain, the Fontaine de Quatre Dauphins, on rue Cardinale. After a recent renovation, it is gushing with water from the mouths of its Four Dolphins, and residents are taking advantage of it by plunging in.

At the other extreme is the fountain at the base of the statue of the “Good King,” Roi Réné, who stands as protector of his city at one end of its main, wide boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau. Among other things, Réné was a poet who enjoyed poetic sparring with his famous cousin, the Duke Charles d’Orléans, himself a renowned poet. One of Charles’ celebrated poems, Je Meurs de Soif Auprès de la Fontaine (“I Die of Thirst next to the Fountain”) perhaps finds new meaning here. Hot and thirsty citizens sit under a sparing shade at its bone-dry edge.

Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are confronted by Aix’s altered state, exacerbated by the hot sirocco winds from North Africa. At the beautiful Caumont Centre d’Art, the formal French garden with its maze, on fine days filled with visitors, is empty.

Inside, the paintings of Nicolas de Stael, featuring his year in Provence (1953-54), reflect the burning colors of the region, the colors of canicule.

At a party organized by friends in the neighboring town of Puyricard, the Provençal feast is interrupted for a great celestial moment as we watch the close passage of Mars. The Red Planet. The Burning Planet.

As the night sky is transformed, so is the city we have come to love, as we experience it through unforgiving, shimmering heat. It feels a tinge desperate, newly exposed, its drying façades showing cracks like lines in old skin. Like ours.

So, in heat, are we still in love? The charms of Aix—its beauty, music, art and architecture, its high culture, its books—are all still there. As are dear friends. Of course, we would prefer to return to them in temperate weather, under blue skies with a hint of breeze. But we now know, the heatwave is everywhere. Europe, from Scandinavia to Greece, is burning. Islands and coast lands are drowning. Giant storms spawn terror on land and sea. The Amazon forest, “lungs of the Earth,” vastly deforested, bakes and struggles to breathe. Our homeland, California, is in flames.

So will we return to this alternate Aix? Again and again, as long as we are able. We, a late-married couple, understand especially that the vows of love are taken “for better or for worse.” That includes Love in the Time of Canicule.

 

 

 

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It’s a given nowadays that at some point in our distant ancestral past, bipedal and no doubt hirsute forebears marched out of Africa. Thousands of years later, mine showed up in Northern Europe, from whence they sailed to North America only hundreds of years ago—hardly a blink in the continuum of time.

But in the millennia between the African exodus and their establishment in the British Isles and Northern France, where were they? What were they doing?

I have no idea in specific terms. But in general terms, the limestone rocks and caves of Southern France offer rich clues to our passage from nomadic early humans to our present, early 21st century version of Homo sapiens sapiens—Sapiens for short.

I had only to look at the extravagant limestone cliff overhangs in Les Eyziers en Tayac—with what appear to be window holes in them—to see the ways that rocks and stones connect us through time. For there, below the ledges that sheltered early humans, dwellings, hotels and restaurants are still built into the same rocks. And elsewhere, in nearby Rocamadour above the Dordogne River, for example, castles and church spires tower over an entire medieval town spun from rock, making its residents truly cliff dwellers.

But our remote ancestors did not actually live inside cliffs any more than they lived in caves—which were too damp, dark and dangerous to occupy. What they did is take and make shelter there—and in many cases extraordinary and symbolic works of art—while they lived in portable shelters, rather like the Plains Indians of North America. These were easier to heat and pack up for relocation when the need arose for hunting.

Les Eyziers is the site of Le Musée National de Préhistoire of France, and as such, houses artifacts, displays and an astonishing number of flint tools which were the bedrock of the stone-age culture. But for me, hunting my ancestors, what stopped me in my tracks was the model, based on fossil remains, of a Neanderthal woman (named Wilma to be sure) and her baby. Her slightly furrowed forehead told me that it was no easy thing to bring up and protect that child in the environment in which they lived, a small ice age with tundra to live upon and herds of wild animals their best resource for survival.

But what also moved me was her coloring—reddish wisps of hair over freckled white skin and gray-green eyes. The coloring of members of my family. This, of course, is quite possible considering that for most people of European (and Asian) ancestry, Neanderthals are us. For several thousand years, beginning about 40,000 years ago, the two species, Neanderthal and Sapiens, coexisted until the Neanderthal…disappeared. There are many ideas about what happened, but one thing is certain: in part they disappeared into us. From 1%-4% of the DNA of most modern Europeans and Asians is Neanderthal.

Even as the Neanderthals were beginning to fade, an even closer ancestor, Cro-Magnon, was busy making highly sophisticated art inside caves throughout Southern Europe and the Middle East. For me, experiencing the images inside the reconstructed cave of Lascaux II was astonishing. The cave itself is small, and was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys in what is now a lush woodland. The pictures, with one exception only of animals, project colors and a realistic knowledge of the animals’ anatomy and movements that become transformed into stylized scenes of ritualistic meaning.

Many experts believe the paintings are shamanistic, and the shamans themselves are seen in the form of horses that disappear beyond the rocks, symbolizing that they themselves also go beyond the known world into one unseen. The portrayal of light, shadows and movement would be best seen by torches carried into the darkness.

Although there are also many different theories about the meaning of these cave paintings, one aspect of them seems beyond dispute: that the rock structure with its arches overhead and its narrowing passages leads the artist, and the viewer, deeper and deeper into the heart of a mystery. And that the space is a sacred one. Not unlike modern places of worship inside stone structures with domes, narrow passageways, and refracted, mysterious light.

Not unlike European Gothic cathedrals, with their high arching ribs, their stained glass windows and candles scattering holy light, their altars inside naves containing the heart of their mysteries. I sense my ancestors felt at home first in one, then migrated to the other.

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It is a day during spring break for my grandchildren, the lucky ones, who have a lovely home, an thriving family, a marvelous school. It is a day we are sharing with those who are refugee children, who have none of the above. After playing at their house, after games and toys and selected gifts of books and a fine lunch, we all pile in a car and go to the nearby mall to see the newest hit children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”

No continent nor country has a monopoly on the blatant gap that exists between its citizens who are materially blessed and those who live among them in desperation. But as I am again a visitor to Jakarta—and an avowedly “blessed” one—I am today painfully aware of how the gap becomes a gilded crevasse Asian-style.

Today I spent much time with some of these refugees, who number in the thousands here and represent only a small percentage of our fellow humans who are trying for mere survival. By fleeing impossible homelands for unknown futures, they are ensnared by separation from home and family, by poverty, uncertainty, and the imprisonment of endless waiting.

Today, I chatted and walked among them because of my daughter, Heather, who with her friend Ashley saw the need, and two years ago took on the arduous task of founding a school, a center, a gathering place for these desperate and misplaced persons trying to find a safe harbor somewhere in the world. The center is called Roshan, meaning Bright in Farsi, the most common language for its habitués who mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Today while in the reception area for the school, I chatted with R., a young man from Iran who has been here for three years. He now works at the school as a guard in exchange for a room, good digs for one in his position. In decent English he tells me his story. About wanting a life for his family, about the little three-year-old daughter he left behind who is now seven, about missing her terribly. About waiting. “How is it with Mr. Trump?” he asks. “Always we hear news from Internet.”

I leave the Roshan Center to return to my daughter’s house, where S., from Pakistan, is waiting at a table in the sitting room, her round, smooth face looking up from behind her headscarf. My grandchildren and her four children are playing in various corners of the house—a palace by the standards of the shelter where they are now living. Twice S. has fled her abusive husband—a culturally courageous act, and in these circumstances, also a dangerous one. A refugee—a woman– with no means of support and no legal protection, she has tried to keep her family together under horrible circumstances.

 The first shelter she landed in kept them as virtual prisoners and often forgot to feed them or bring water. The mosquitos were so prevalent that she contracted dengue fever and was sent to a hospital while the children were left to fend for themselves. Someone contacted my daughter, who got S. released from the hospital and brought the family to her own house until a different, better shelter could be found.

Still, the abusive husband is on the prowl to find them, which makes going out very difficult and  renders it impossible for the children to return to school, where they were thriving and the girls at the top of their classes in English. For an hour S. and I sip tea together while she tries to explain her plight in the English she, too, acquired at Roshan Center, when she was able to go. “Mr. Trump?” she says, as if posing an existential question. “For me, my situation…” she shakes her head to complete the thought.

The mall where we have come for an afternoon’s distraction is a marble and gold splendor, similar to others I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. We thread our way past the name brands vaunting the first-class tastes of the world’s wealthy—Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to find our plush seats in the air-conditioned theater. There, together, we watch the unfolding drama of the rough-hewn beast and the feisty girl with a wise heart in a crumbling castle where wolves in the forest and vain and heartless men from the village threaten to crush all vestiges of human hope.

Hope, and love—this is a fairy tale—prevail of course, and the children, move on to eating fancy gelato,  giggling and discussing the meaning of the story they have, however briefly, shared. Then S. and her children get back in the car to return to the shelter, where the next day it will be again impossible for the children to go to school. Where, today, they will wait. Meanwhile, my children will return to the lovely house with sunlight and a garden, the house on the other side of the crevasse, and resume their lives among the blessed, which will continue tomorrow.

……………………………..

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                                    RedBudsCourt

 

The answer seems to be a resounding “Oui.”

Doug and I pulled into our beloved Aix-en-Provence a little over a week ago, and returning had the familiar feel of coming home after a long vacation.  The traffic signs, the bends in the road,the first great embrace of spraying fountains.FountainLarotonde Except we didn’t exactly know where we were going.  

This time, instead of going to the lovely country house with its shaded terraces 600 meters from the city limit where we lived last year, we were coming to a small rented apartment in the center of town. This time, instead of coming in fall when the honeyed light of summer turned the buildings golden and came to rest in the plump vegetables, we came in early spring, just at that season when the leaves seem to leap from the skin of empty branches. TreeTowerSt.J.deM

This time, while the food markets are full of first strawberries and asparagus and the usual mounds of olives, cheese, bread, sausages and wonders as far as you can see, my eyes are drawn even more to the flower markets, where the scent leads me, too.marche aux fleurs

 

And even more, this time, instead of wandering, and getting lost in the winding medieval streets like the ingénues we were, we go purposefully through the maze wherever we intend, brushing past the newly arrived struggling with maps. We cross town by foot several times a day (it’s easy, especially since to Doug’s relief we’ve ditched the car), hop on the bus system we know well (I even had a valid ticket) and have plugged right back in to where we left off.

 

 My first day back I tended to the essentials: I went to the fabulous Cité du Livre and renewed my card for the Bibliothèque Méjanes. Within minutes I had my hands on valued books I need to revisit. Next act—whip out my “fidelity” card, still valid, at the local Monoprix and save a few Euros.

 But the main sense of being back, of belonging, is not so much in plugging into a well-functioning system as it is being back in the embrace of wonderful people. There are of course, friends, like our incomparable pal Maurice who rushed to meet us at Deux Garçons (see previous blog) our first night back, who comes to films with us, who had us to dinner, and who is ever ready to bail us out of whatever mess we might be in.  

Then there are those who greet us like friends. Isa, manager at the nail salon who loves kooky sneakers and wears her hair piled up in rolls like conjugal snails, leapt to give me kisses on the cheeks, saying “Where have you been?” And, while filing my nails, coyly quizzed me as to whether I would say nice things about her in my next novel.  

There’s Anne, the manager of the one-in-a-million bookstore Book in Bar (see previous blog), who came from behind the counter to give me a big hug and say, “I just sold one of your books two days ago, so I knew you must be coming.”

Anne

 

 And there are all Doug’s hiking pals who arranged a “low-stress” hike just for him along an old Roman canal last Saturday because of his foot issue (7 ½ hours, but on flat terrain) and welcomed him like a long-lost member of the tribe. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” they quizzed him, knowing our stay here is a shave less than a month.Hikers

 

And then there  are Alain and Alexis, the Click and Clack of brotherly love in the French wine trade. When we stopped by their shop for the first time (note this is on our regular route), Alain, who was about to leave, gave us both a bear hug. “Ah, c’est vous enfin,” he said, then immediately began pulling bottles from the shelves that he remembered we had liked. “Un bon Paradis,” he said, handing one to Doug before reaching for a white Cassis he knew I would like, then moving onto some highly recommended Côtes du Rhône. We chatted briefly—about his kids, who sometimes waited in the car when he made deliveries to our house last year—about the weather. “It’s perfect,” he said. “You have brought it from California. 

When he left, we turned to chat a bit with Alexis behind the counter. He acknowledged that terrorism is up this year, and tourism is down. The state of things is not good. There are problems with the Euro, the terrible situation with refugees, a great cynicism about politics, and open talk about the break-up of the European Union. He had just been to a “dégustation” in Paris and the whole city seemed tense and afraid. 

I nodded sympathetically, instantly tuning into that French pessimism that I know so well. “What is the solution?” he asked despairingly.

Then he gave the perfect Provencal answer, adjusted to the season.

“Drink rose,” he smiled. “What else can one do?”

rose

 

 

                                    

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Virgin Mary in Cordoba

Virgin Mary in Cordoba

 

It began in Seville the Saturday before Semana Santa, or Holy Week. On the evening that my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I took our newly arrived Wanderland Writers group to a welcome dinner through the winding streets of the old city, we passed a local church en route. There, for the first time, we encountered members of a local parish, or a brotherhood, wearing their characteristic headgear that could be described as “desert Bedouin” waiting to follow—or carry—an enormous “float” consisting of a statue sacred to that church ( a “paso”) and mounted on an elaborate carriage.

From their home churches, floats are typically paraded through the streets on a prescribed route, including circling or entering the cathedral before returning to their home churches sanctified. In the case of this, our first procession in Andalusia, the statue was of a Jesus on the cross, so realistic one of our writers thought it was a real human and feared the throngs surrounding him meant to do harm.PaseoSev.
To announce the coming procession, floats are frequently preceded by gold and silver staffs, banners and incense burners from the church, carried by officials, and followed by very lively bands heavy on drums and horns. Most disconcertingly for North Americans unaccustomed to Spanish Catholicism, often a phalanx of the marchers wearing robes, with covered faces and pointed hoods, march in front of the floats.
These are meant to be penitents, using the hood and mask as a mark of humility and anonymity, but the costumes are identical to those of the Ku Klux Klan, which adopted them (there is no relationship between them, I have often been assured) and may be green, blue, black as well as the familiar white.white hoods
Before our several days in Seville finished, we had seen many of these processions, as well as the inside of dozens of churches lit with candles, packed with worshippers, and celebrating special masses. To some of the faithful, these rituals of Holy Week, reminders of the suffering of Christ and the promise of redemption to come, are so powerful that they emerge from church weeping. At the same time, in perfect summation of the wonderfully contradictory nature of Spaniards, Semana Santa seems to be an enormous and often joyful party.
As my husband and I left Seville and crossed Adalusia, we found the same spirit everywhere: streets crowded, bars, restaurants and “tabernas” packed, families, young people, older couples, children—most dressed in their finery—staying up late on chilly nights to applaud the processions, follow in the streets, then celebrate with food and drink.FamilyG.

While “early-bird” Americans might be ready to fold their tents at 9:30, the Spaniards, including babies in strollers and well-behaved tots folded in their parents’ arms, were just getting started.
Although Seville, once a powerhouse of trade and wealth following the voyages of Columbus, is known for its displays of gold and silver—and its lavish processions during Semana Santa, as we left Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Seville behind, we found much the same fervor everywhere.
In Cordoba, the original Visigoth church was taken over by the conquering Moors in the 8th C., and eventually turned into the remarkable Mosque, or Mezquita, by successive reigning Caliphs through the 10th C. The site, at the center of the most prosperous, tolerant and cultivated city in Europe, was so awe-inspiring, that after Christian Reconquest in the 13th C., the new monarchs left it alone, and new Christian church structures were simply fit inside. Cordoba’s Cathedral with gothic, Renaissance and baroque features is contained within the cascades of Islamic arches and design. Indeed, 16th C. Emperor Charles V, having given permission to rip out the center of the mosque to build the altar area and choir, is reputed to have said to the architects, “You have destroyed something that was unique to the world.”

Even knowing the Mezquita/Cathedral’s storied history (it is now a World Heritage Site), it was still jaw-dropping to see throngs of worshippers gather in front to greet hooded penitents and the intricate floats—including one of a Virgin Mary in an elaborate white gown, gold crown and long purple robe— that emerged into a holy Christian night from the perfect Moorish arch over the Cathedral’s front door.

BlueHoodsC.

Surely, we imagined, away from these ancient and important cities, the celebrations would be on a smaller scale. So, as we entered the beautiful, small Renaissance town of Ubeda (which, along with its sister town Baeza is also a World Heritage Site) we were in no way prepared for what would greet us. Maunday Thursday, as the day is named on church calendars, is a national holiday throughout Spain and meant to recall the night of Christ’s Last Supper. If rolling floats with Jesus suffering, his betraying companions, and his weeping mother were now our familiars, so were impassible streets, crowds of elegantly dressed citizens, and the pounding of passionate drums, the wail of horns. Little Ubeda was in every way the equal of its more famous Andalusian cousins. In fact, it added something new (at least to us).
Following the processions of floats, musicians, hooded penitents, came a formation of exquisitely dressed women wearing black from head to toe, their coiffed heads topped with combs and mantillas. Like widows, these women in black meant to invoke mourning for Jesus. MantillasU
Grenada, the luscious “Pomegranate” and last stronghold of the Moors so coveted by Queen Isabella that she finally conquered it in 1492, followed. It was our last stop in Andalusia, and, we thought, we had seen what Semana Santa had to offer. That did not take into account our garage right on the parade route being “closed for religion” for 24 hours at a stretch—nor what Good Friday had in store. We had learned from our travels that Seville, while blessed with huge quantities of gold and silver from the treasure of America, did not hold a monopoly. All the towns and cities of the region seemed to have plenty to display. It seemed to us that this display of wealth, which formed kind of foundation for many of the “pasos” must have a symbolic meaning—perhaps of balancing the messages of suffering with those of the Church’s strength.

But as the Good Friday processions rounded the corner where we were staying in Granada, we witnessed a different balance: a bedrock of gold work so dazzling we could hardly see the body of Jesus hanging on his cross. Only his nailed feet were visible beneath a cloud of incense; the gold dazzles in our sight still.

/PaseoChrist'sFeeetG

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Hong Kong Tree

Decades ago, I spent a few magical days in Hong Kong, and since then have only flown over or through the airport. This time, en route to Indonesia, I thought my husband and I could break our trip with a bit of rest and a quick look at that iconic city.

I imagined crowded, crooked streets, noise, hawkers, blinking lights, noodle shops, lanes of fabulous cloth bordered by the signs of fabled tailors. In my mind’s eye, fancy hotels and glittering high rises were somewhere on the periphery, and the beckoning harbor busy with ships always in view.

As it turned out, fatigue overcame adventure and we slept more than intended. In fact, we never left Hong Kong Airport, a city in itself. Instead of the bustling, pungent metropolis, we encountered only a clean, air-conditioned version of Santaland that could put most American malls to shame.

It started with the multi-storied Christmas tree in our airport hotel. The closest comparison that came to mind was Neiman-Marcus in downtown San Francisco with a gigantic frosted tree filling its Victorian atrium. Well, a tree is one thing, but what to make of surrounding scenes of snow-covered houses, twinkling lights, colored balls—and Santas everywhere. And, of course, sales. What to think of the endless American Christmas music, 50s-style, with long-dead crooners throbbing from every loud-speaker: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and of course “Rudolph”?IMG_1237

Trying to make sense of this, I rummaged through what I know of Hong Kong—it’s famed Buddha, its British past, its (presumably) Communist present, to account for the Christmas boom.Airport Scene While pondering and waiting for our flight, two elf-like young people in seasonally red suits with Santa hats followed the moving walkway singing Christmas carols. I was with them through “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But when they burst into “Feliz Navidad,” my Buddhist-British-Communist construct fell apart.

Landing in Jakarta, where we’ve been many times in recent years, I figured I’d be on surer ground. I figured wrong. We’d actually never been here at Christmas. Encountering streams of blinking lights, ubiquitous Santas, greetings, holiday sales, vast decorated trees, and oh, yes, did I mention American Christmas songs? in this capital of the most populous Moslem country in the world did come as something of a surprise.

I had never imagined people greeting us with “Merry Christmas” here; nor taking our grandchildren ice skating on a rink crowded with bundled-up Indonesians, many of them gliding by in hijabs;skating nor watching them climb on fake polar bears. As for Santa climbing a frosty Eiffel Tower nestled between Cartier and Louis Vuitton….Tour Eiffel

Outside the palm trees bend in a thunder storm and the bougainvillea climbs up my window sill clamoring for the sun. I strain to hear the call to prayer, as I always have on previous visits. But this time I hear “Jingle Bells” and wonder at the transformation. I try to picture other great Asian cities I’ve visited—Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok, Singapore—and imagine them as variations on the same. That is, I imagine them with dazzling displays of Christmas greetings, none of them having to do with Christianity.

That big C writ everywhere? How about Commerce, Cash, or Capitalism—far from humility, charity and loving thy neighbor as thyself, but powerful global messages for our time.Jakarta Mall

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