Amazing Genoa. Previous Lifetimes.

Summer is upon us, with weather in the 80’s and 90’s, and highs next week predicted to go over 100. We have at the last minute put together a plan to escape to Normandy for a few days.

A dear friend back home (hi, Esteban!) has been prodding me to write up a trip I made to Genoa in April, a magical experience that I’ve been keeping all to myself.

I’d long been wanting to visit that city, which my husband and I passed through decades ago. At the time, we stopped there for a single day and I can remember only one moment: We were ascending some medieval turret or cathedral tower through a narrow stone staircase with slim, vertical slits allowing a view of the port. It was hot, I was panting from the climb, I looked out at the view over rooftops toward the water and the busy port, and—in a sudden flash—I had a moment of sensing a powerful past connection with the place. Ascribe it to a neural misfire, if you wish, but I experienced it as a groping for some veritable past lifetime experience.

Genoa, View Toward Port
Genoa, View Toward Port

Decades later, when I was doing my training as a hypnotherapist, I had the opportunity to enjoy a regression with my mentor. There I was, horizontal and in a state of hypnosis, when—whoosh—I found myself reliving a scene from a previous lifetime in Genoa.

Depending on your beliefs, you may wonder whether this experience was authentic or a “mere” product of a trance. Personally, through working with clients and on my own, I’ve come to believe that previous lifetime experiences are “real,” though sometimes approximate or metaphorical. In any case, it ignited the creative part of my brain, sparking the idea for a historical novel that I have on the back burner.

Thus it was that I was determined to make it back to Genoa at some point during our year in Paris.

Porta Soprana, Genoa Gate to the Medieval Center
Porta Soprana, Genoa
Gate to the Medieval Center

With my novel project very much on my mind, I flew down for a week’s vacation with my family and we landed in an apartment I’d rented through VRBO, wonderfully located on the top floor of an old building near the ancient city wall. The most extraordinary element of this apartment is its library. The apartment belongs to a family that collects books about Genoa, its art, history, and culture, including tomes of photographs from the late 19th century, collections of paintings by local artists, and volumes about the many palazzi. I was in paradise—and took it as a cosmic go-ahead signal for my projected historical novel partly set in this city.

A little staircase next to the kitchen leads to a rooftop terrace offering a 360 degree view of the city. In the distance is the port with hydraulic lifters, cruise ships, elevated motorway and marina. In the mid-ground, the medieval center has rooftops crowded so close together that they make one textured surface. Closer in: the cupolas of nearby churches, cornices of the buildings, and rooftop gardens. Finally, the city is set against hills with a fascinating mix of lovely and atrocious construction—a huge medley of architectural styles stretching across a terrain sweeping up and away.

I was very drawn to the system of public elevators and funiculars that enable people to get up into those hills quickly. The Santa Anna funicular took us in just a couple of minutes from the old center to a more recent neighborhood, probably dating from the 19th century, that was greener, quieter. We got out, walked around and stopped in a garden restaurant that served pinza, a kind of light pizza made of farro flour.

We ordered the quattro staggioni (four seasons) pinza, supposed to come with four kinds of topping. But, alas, all the mushrooms were gone, apologized the young, very slim waiter. So just leave them off, I joked, and then it’ll be a pinza tre staggioni. The waiter was amused, and when he returned with the food, he said “Ecco la tre staggioni,” presenting it with a comical flourish.

After eating, we returned to the funicular to go back down. There was only one other person inside, an older woman. We were sitting inside waiting for it to leave when, lo and behold, who should step in but our waiter, carrying a piece of pinza and a zero-calorie coke.

The woman said to him, “Look at you having lunch, tutto completo, and is that a beer you’re having, too?” And he said, “No, it’s a zero-calorie Coke,” and she asked, “Why the zero calories?” and he said, “I have to watch my waist line or else”” – and he made a funny gesture for very, very fat, and she said, “Oh, me too, if I don’t watch what I eat, then–” Funny gesture for very, very fat, at which point they were both laughing and so was I. Then the woman (not guessing that I understood Italian) said to him, “Look at the stranieri (foreigners), who are so excited about the funicular, while here we are, taking it every day.” At which point, I of course wanted to surprise her with my Italian, so I said, “Yes, because for us it’s special.” She was delighted I’d pierced the language barrier and began talking about the old days when the funicular ran on water instead of electricity.

That scene in the funicular felt magical in a way that had to do, more than anything else, with my deep love for Italy and my new love for that particular city. It’s one place I hope to visit again.

View from Vernazza, Cinque Terre
View from Vernazza, Cinque Terre

We also made a day trip down to the Cinque Terre. Here is a photo of the view from Vernazza.

Paris Spring. Cheese. Black Radish.

April and May in Paris engender a kind of spring fever in which daydreaming runs rampant. This is the season when—in spite of the hassles of previous months—I find myself having foolish thoughts, such as—why not stay? Indefinitely? Well, we’re dependent on my husband’s California professorship, so that’s impossible… So why am I still staring at the properties displayed in the windows of local real estate agencies? How about buying an apartment for summers and retirement? Oops, haven’t the means for that, either. How about finding someone to swap apartments with next summer, and the summer after that, and so on till the end of time? That might be possible. Hmm.

We’re returning to the States in mid-July so a sense of time running out is upon me.

Androuet Cheese Store Rue Cambronne, 15ème
Androuet Cheese Store
Rue Cambronne, 15ème

The very least I can do is make a point of sampling more of the enticing specialty foods sold in our neighborhood. Recently I tried a cheese, “Salers Tradition,” which has the distinction of coming from the milk of a cow that still has its calf beside it. I liked the humanitarian aura of that one. I also bought a slice of another called “Napoleon,” which has the texture of a dryer cheese but the stronger taste of a creamier one, like Chaumes. The storekeeper explained that this cheese comes from an area in Haute-Garonne where there happens to be a hillside formation resembling Napoleon’s bicorn hat. Also, he added, Napoleon is said to have passed through there.

My purchase of the Napoleon cheese was a source of great hilarity for my kids: There goes Mom with her Napoleon thing. They know I’m perversely fascinated by all things Napoleonic, including the way various nineteenth-century writers, such as Stendhal, worshipped him in spite of the murderous wars he led. A cheese named in his honor suggests that this hero worship continues in various forms to this day.

Napoleon Cheese. Note pic of sheep.
Napoleon Cheese.
Note pic of sheep.

Back to spring in Paris. Here’s the essence of the thing: what comes up with the joy of spring in Paris is a gluttony for more joy. And it’s a special kind of acquisitive gluttony as though there might be some way to hoard or stock up on experiences of Paris so that I can draw upon them when we are back in California. The moveable feast thing.

The gluttony brings up the spiritual challenge to be in the moment, enjoy things as much as possible, and be ready to let go of it all when the time comes to leave. I’m up for the first two, but definitely not for the latter.

Desert Wine. Black Radish Remedy.
Desert Wine. Black Radish Remedy.

The French have a cure for the sin of gluttony, and it doesn’t involve going to Mass. It’s called le drainage du foie—a liver cleanse. They are firm believers that spring is the best time for this ritual. The regimen for le drainage involves drinking elixirs of various vegetables and plants they consider detoxifying. These include black radish, desmodium (which I’d never heard of before), and artichoke. One consumes these substances by buying a box of little glass vials, called ampoules, which contain extracted juices. Right now I am doing a cure de radis noir, which was suggested to me by both a general physician and an acupuncturist. Theoretically these daily shots of radish juice should eliminate all the ill effects of the cheese, pastries and wine that I consumed over the winter. I’ll keep you posted.

p.s. I’ve promised friends an account of our recent trip to Genoa. Hopefully I’ll get to that soon.

Au Revoir 7ème, Bonjour 15ème

A smog alert has been in effect for the past few days, and alternate driving days for even- and odd-numbered license plates have been introduced. Silly me, at first I thought that was fog engulfing the Eiffel Tower, but no, it’s man-produced air-borne dirt that’s making its way into our bloodstreams now! IMG_1081

As a consequence of the driving ban, the city streets are quieter than usual, as they were right after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. That Mayor Anne Hidalgo has the power to swiftly cut traffic in half must be a product of either centuries of monarchy or a legacy of French socialism–I haven’t decided which.

I gaze out at the gray sky from a corner of a new apartment as I take a break from unpacking. Yes, we finally decided we had to move. The neighbors’ dinner parties had been starting at 11 p.m., wearing us out. Once I went downstairs in my bathrobe and knocked on the door, and they refused to answer. The new apartment we found is on a little street in the 15ème arrondissement near the intersection of rues Cambronne and Lecourbe. We’re in a little building with only two units—the proprietor’s downstairs and ours upstairs. It’s clean and bright and quiet.

The Mairie du 15ème Around the corner from us
The Mairie du 15ème
Around the corner from us

In a comforting coincidence, our new neighborhood happens to be one I’ve come to know well over the previous months because I see an acupuncturist/osteopath located a few blocks from here. Taking the number 80 bus from the Champ de Mars, I would get off at the Cambronne-Lecourbe stop and walk up rue Cambronne toward his office. The need to keep my body in working order thus introduced me to a quartier that I’d never visited before. Unlike our previous neighborhood in the 7ème, with its expensive shops and tourist attractions, the 15ème is middle-class, geared toward families and working people, with lots of utilitarian shops, many of them mom-and-pop businesses. It feels more like the “real” Paris I came to know when I was twenty-one and living in a scruffy corner of the 9ème (which has since been gentrified). I think we’ll be happier here.

In our new neighborhood, the epicenter of commercial activity can be found on Cambronne, a rue commerçante, lined with produce stands, a fish monger, two Chinese take-out places across the street from each other (same owner or competing?), a Lebanese eatery, a French boulangerie with a whole grain emphasis, and a Tunisian bakery. There’s also “audissimo,” where I had my made-to-measure ear plugs made last fall, and an appliance store with a terrific collection of old-fashioned transistor radios. Purchasing one a few months ago, I gifted myself an afternoon of delight, marveling at the simplicity of its operation. A gentle rotation of a dial and you’re listening to French, Arabic, Hebrew. No menus, downloading, lost connections. Simplicity is bliss, no?

Half-way up the commercial stretch of Cambronne is a lovely triangular place with a café where I’ve promised myself an outdoor drink when warm weather comes. Last night, running out to the Chinese traiteur, I found the place animated by a wonderful jazz band drawing a crowd of listeners.

Having written that sentence I’m wondering if in English we would say a public space is “animated” by musicians? Or is that a misuse of the French, as in “une place animée” (a lively square—except for it’s a triangle)? Right on schedule, my English is being contaminated by my French. The other day I found myself talking about pair and impair license plate numbers. Send me your edits.

Back to the acupuncturist. I sought him out early last fall, after reading online that he had a Japanese approach. I’d visited a number of acupuncturists here before settling on Dr. Folke, and in my search found three types: the Vietnamese, who work in an aggressive Chinese tradition, i.e., the needle is inserted with enough vigor to create an electric shock; the French, who are often médecins généralistes combining acupuncture with Western medicine—these folks, who tend to have a haphazard approach, are held in deep contempt by the Vietnamese; and, finally, those working in the Japanese tradition, who have a lighter touch and combine needles with shiatsu or other bodywork techniques, like osteopathy.

On first stepping into Dr. Folke’s cabinet (office), I was surprised to hear piped in music from Radio Nostalgie, which plays hits in English and French from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I was used to the mellow-you-out atmosphere of California, where an acupuncturist is likely to have zen flutes or Tibetan bells on the audio system.

Dr. Folke is a terrific practitioner of both shiatsu and acupuncture, so I figured there might be a reason for his choice. (If you’re in Paris and want a treatment, I highly recommend him. Japanese Medicine Clinic). After several months of seeing him, I dared—j’ai osé—to ask why he didn’t have soothing Japanese music instead of rock and pop. As Dr. Folke travels to Japan regularly, my question wasn’t completely out of the blue. His answer: “Au Japon, on croit que la nostalgie a le pouvoir de guérir.” (“In Japan, they believe in the curative power of nostalgia.”) People listen to the music of previous decades, he said, not only because looking back feels good but also because it’s a remedy for hurts of all kinds, physical and emotional. Nostalgia, he added, is not to be confused with rumination. Whereas rumination has a downward, depressive energy, nostalgia dwells on what was sweet or uplifting in the past.

His explanation gave me pause. A couple of years ago I read a New York Times article about a psychological experiment in which a bunch of baby-boomers were isolated for a week in a house where they were allowed to consume only foods, news, and music of their youth. Their vital statistics were tested before and after the time warp and, lo and behold, they tested “younger” after their week’s immersion in the past! So who am I to question Dr. Folke’s combining the medicine of ancient Asia with rock & roll?

Paris 1947 photo George Levine
Paris 1947
photo George Levine

Meditating on Paris, quiet streets, and the ways in which nostalgia sweetens the past inevitably leads me back to stories my parents’ told me about their trip to Paris in 1947, when the streets were emptier than I’ll ever see them. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, that trip deepened my mother’s francophilia, which led to her enrolling me in a lycée français in New York, which in turn led to my being a French major—a choice that paved the way to my coming abroad after college, when I met MH (my husband), whose current sabbatical has given us the opportunity to return. In other words, there’s a clear link between my parents’ 1947 trip and my being here now, yet again.

Paris 1947 photo George Levine
Paris 1947
photo George Levine

And I suppose I’m looking for what my mother treasured and taught me to seek here— the valuation of history, the reverence for beauty, and the cult of pleasure. Looking at my father’s photos makes me nostalgic not only for the Paris of my own youth but for the diaphanous, unvisitable Paris of my parents’ era, which drifts further into the past every year.

Paris (Im)perfect, London, and “Geometry”‘s Journey

Paris (Im)perfect” is the title of a blog, in which writer Sion Dayson presents Paris as it is, without the usual myths and embellishments. Sion introduced herself to me after a book event I recently did with my agent at the American Library in Paris (more about that below) and invited me to be a guest on her site. I encourage you to visit it. I love her blog’s title because, as readers of my own know, Paris can be a far from perfect place to live, as encounters with French bureaucracy, prejudice, and narrow thinking can make for a mixed bag.

Detail of Turner's "Crossing the Brook" (exhibited 1815)
Detail of Turner’s “Crossing the Brook”
(exhibited 1815)

We are back from London, where we went for a little over a week. I was sleep deprived before we left Paris–the dratted neighbors—and consequently felt unwell part of the time we were away, so it was an uneven trip for me. But I did somehow get to five museums and our girls had a great time. We visited the Tate Britain, where I rediscovered Turner, and the National Gallery, where I saw Uccello’s The Battle at San Romano, which stands in the background of a scene in one of my favorite movies, Merchant and Ivory’s A Room with a View.

Jessica at the National Gallery before Paolo Uccello's "The Battle at San Romano"
Jessica at the National Gallery
before Paolo Uccello’s “The Battle at San Romano”

The astounding Courtauld Art Gallery provided more treats, as did a spectacular exhibit on the history of the wedding dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Did you know that it was Queen Victoria’s choice of a white dress for her wedding that started the tradition of brides wearing white? Before that, a bride might wear a gown with a floral print and was likely to choose one that could be worn later for parties and other occasions.

We also saw a terrific exhibit about Sherlock Holmes’s London at the Museum of London. In the gift shop of that museum I picked up a map of Londinium, or early, Roman London, which, it seems, was founded on terrain topographically very different from what exists today. The Thames was wider and more shallow, and Londinium was scattered in and around areas of wetland and river islands. I’m absolutely fascinated by this map, which I keep opening and scanning, in search of what exactly, I don’t know.

London is sprawling, exciting, a bit chaotic, and very modern in feel, undoubtedly because the wartime bombing provided the opportunity for reconstruction in the twentieth century and beyond. Returning to Paris and alighting from the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord—”alight” was the word the conductor used on the train P.A. system–I once more took in the particularities of a city that continued to be frozen in time when the French capitulated to Hitler without a fight. A city that, with its wide boulevards cut by Baron Haussmann and its trees pruned into perfect horizontal lines, has succeeded in organizing two millenia of construction into a dense, easily chartable urban mosaic.

Perfectly Tailored Trees Champ de Mars
Perfectly Tailored Trees
Champ de Mars

The day after we got back, my literary agent, April Eberhardt, and I held a panel discussion entitled, “Between Agent and Author: How It Works,” at the American Library in Paris, where I’ve been teaching workshops on writing the novel. The idea was for us to talk about The Geometry of Love’s journey into print in order to give an honest picture of publishing today. I spoke a little about the many versions of my novel I wrote before meeting April and the revisions I made later on, under her astute guidance. And April spoke about a third model of publishing that has appeared in the past few years, called “hybrid” or “partnership” publishing.

Half-way between traditional publishing and self-publishing, the hybrid model involves the author paying to be published but it provides much more than the DIY model: a partnership press “curates” the book—provides editing, quality printing, basic marketing, and mainstream distribution. Profits are shared equitably between author and press, and the author retains all rights, meaning that the book can stay in print indefinitely. The Geometry of Love, published by She Writes Press, was distributed by Ingram, one of the two main book distributors in the U.S. Ingram’s team of booksellers did a wonderful job of pre-selling my book, with the consequence that it has sold well in bookstores. In fact about 80% of the sales have been to bookstores and public libraries. (If you’d like to help the book sell on Amazon, please consider writing me a review there).

I’m happy to say our panel was very well attended. Many of my students came and other writers, too. Having published my first novel in my fifties, I spent a couple of decades beating myself up for being slow and wasting my talents. It’s easy to be philosophical about it in retrospect and say, a book takes as long as it has to take, but at the time the frustration and self-disparagement were very painful. Helping other writers move along a little more efficiently provides some compensation for the epic struggle I went through to finish my own book and be published.

Language Acquisition

With the cold weather, we’ve been spending more time inside. We’ve even had snow flurries a few times, though nothing sticks to the ground.

After six months here, my husband and I realized that our girls’ acquisition of French has been happening more slowly than we had hoped. In the teenage years the brain stops being a sponge that easily absorbs foreign languages. Even for my younger one, who is in an immersion program at her school, the road has not been easy. So we recently decided to spend some time every evening reading French with them. Armed with some graded, simplified novels for learners of French, we are trying to carve 15 or 20 minutes a day out of their evenings—already crowded with excessive homework—to wade through French prose.

Flurries
Flurries

Watching them struggle, I’ve had another opportunity to remember and reflect on my own experiences learning French. At the very beginning of this blog, I wrote a little about my education at the Lycée Français de New York, where I started school at the age of 6—how authoritarian and oppressive the system was and how my imperfect command of the language made me feel like second-class citizen. Although I learned to speak French fluently, I felt I was never speaking it fluently enough. Decades later, I still feel that way. Sometimes I speak, even think and dream in French, as though it were my native language. Other times—if the subject at hand is technical, for example, bathroom ventilation or how to prepare a leg of lamb—my command breaks down for lack of correct vocabulary and I stutter helplessly.

One of the oddities of my education was that, although I grew up in New York, I learned how to read in French before English. (Of course I didn’t learn how to read English at home or in kindergarten—this was in the 1950s, before child development was rushed). Reading began in onzième (first grade) with the alphabet, sounding out words, and reading sentences—all in French. Learning to read in English started the following year in dixième.

Mastering French became a major, on-going project. In fourth grade we were assigned Jean Valjean from Les misérables. Over the course of a long series of weekends I sat on my parents’ couch with my Larousse dictionary, frustrated to the verge of tears, as I slogged my way through Victor Hugo. In high school, when I became more conscious of how un-native my command was, I didn’t wait for reading assignments and moved on to Zola, Flaubert, and Balzac. That was probably the beginning of my passion for the French nineteenth-century, which provided an alternate universe I could step into when my father lost his business and things got tough at home.

Somewhere along the line, something curious happened: in spite of bouts of frustration and impatience, I actually began to enjoy sitting on the couch with a dictionary and slogging my way through foreign languages. Not Latin—four years of it, and I still found it impenetrable—but Russian later on and eventually Italian gave me great delight. Later on, in my early thirties, I worked for a while as a professional translator of French and Italian and found it rewarding. Every new word I learned gave me a tiny sense of self-improvement.

My youthful “slogging” through texts in foreign languages bred a kind of constructive laziness: you can’t look up every unknown word and sometimes looking them up doesn’t help anyway, so you start guessing. This had an interesting impact on my reading of English: I learned to tolerate not understanding things and to keep going in the hope that eventually the context would make it all clear. One of the consequences of this, humorous in retrospect, was that when I was nineteen I read much of the late Henry James without a clue as to what was going on. By that I mean, for example, that I didn’t grasp that Milly Theale, one of the main characters in The Wings of the Dove, was dying. However, I was so intoxicated with James’s prose that I kept reading, energetically underlining the most beautiful passages with a blue pen.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few words and usages that I’ve picked up since my arrival:

Arobase: The name of the @ sign used in email addresses.

Beauté des pieds: a pedicure. The word pédicure exists but seems to be frowned upon. (I haven’t had the courage to have one yet, as I fear my pieds are not beaux enough for admission).

Bouillote: hot water bottle.

Cadenas: padlock (of the kind that are being attached to bridges over the Seine to symbolize romantic attachments).

Chambouler: to mess up, upset (a plan, schedule etc.).

Créneau: Slot in a schedule. So, if you wanted to have that beauté des pieds done at a certain time, you would say, Auriez-vous un créneau libre à…?

Gueule de bois: Hangover. Literally, “throat of wood.”

Saisisissez votre code: Enter your pin number. Saisir meants to “seize” literally. I still can’t wrap my mind around this one—instead of putting in your pin, you’re grabbing it.

Sermentine: a baguette with two tails.

Soin: literally means “care” but is used for face and body products. How’s that for marketing?

Tuyau de vidange: a (kitchen or bathroom) drain. But they don’t.

Dark Days in France

People are still recovering from the recent terrorist attack in which a total of seventeen people were killed at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and in a kosher supermarket. Unfortunately and nonsensically, the incidents have triggered a new round of anti-immigrant, as well as anti-Muslim sentiment. I feel much compassion for the many peaceful Muslims living in France, who could not have identified with the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that emerged from the terroris acts. And also I feel for the thousands of Jews who are seriously contemplating leaving the country for Israel. All of which leads me to reflect on how many minorities there are in France who may feel like outsiders, and on how, the more diverse France becomes, the more it seems like a club to which fewer and fewer of its residents feel they belong.

 

Peace Monument, Champ de Mars
Peace Monument, Champ de MarsThe fact is that France is a country where minorities have never been comfortable, even those who have French citizenship. Since our arrival here I have had two conversations with black men from Martinique, one a taxi driver and the other a bus driver, who, sensing I was American, started talking to me about what if feels like to be an outsider. For these men, although French citizens by birth (Martinique has the status of a département), see themselves as outsiders. They complained about how cold people are here compared to Martinique, where it’s easier to strike up a conversation with anyone, anytime. They undoubtedly find Parisians cold not only because of a difference in culture but also because of unspoken prejudices against people of color.

As deep as my love is for France, I have always, as a Jew, been aware of French prejudices. Living here in the 1970s, I had my first experience of feeling uncomfortable as a Jew because my last name elicited comments spoken with a bit of a sneer: “Levine, c’est quel genre de nom?” or “Levine, d’où venez-vous exactement?” (“Levine, that’s what kind of name? Levine, where do you come from exactly?). If one isn’t “pure French” (i.e. of white, Christian French descent), then one automatically belongs to a category that is regarded with suspicion. There is no tradition of an inclusive melting pot here.

The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine, by Jacques-Louis David
The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine, by Jacques-Louis David

 

I was at the Louvre on Sunday contemplating the grandiose painting by Jacques-Louis David of the coronation of Napoleon. Refusing to recognize any authority higher than himself, Napoleon is said to have grabbed the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head before turning around and crowning Josephine Empress. This enormous painting left me reflecting about how many of France’s problems are the consequence of Empire. France colonized portions of Africa and the Caribean, spreading the French language in the process. As a result, inhabitants of former colonies, many of them Muslim, came to see France as a land of opportunity and immigrated here.

 

It’s hard to feel hopeful about the situation in France, let alone the growth of terrorism in the world. But the people here, some of them, are hopeful. In the grocery store downstairs, the Moroccan owners have hanging behind the cash register the famous photo of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands. It’s probably been there for over twenty years now and they are in no haste to take it down.

Neighbors, Guardiennes, and Helpful Moroccans

I haven’t posted in over a month—since our return from Rome. My spirits sank in November—right on schedule. What I mean by that is: This is the fourth time I’ve taken a year abroad and I know from experience that the moment invariably comes, after the first wave of excitement and euphoria, when you realize that you are far from home and that starting over from scratch isn’t that much fun.

Okay, I promise to end this post on a positive note. The main problem recently has been noise coming from neighbors in several directions. The ones in the building next door go to bed late and wake up early. The ones downstairs seem to be doing some light remodeling, which is driving me nuts. There’s been drilling at odd hours—like 11 p.m. The upshot is that I’m a lot more tired than usual, which takes the gleam and glamor off things.

Many buildings here have a “code” you have to tap out on a keypad in order to open the front door, so that it’s not easy to have direct contact with the noise-makers. However, recently MH (my husband) had a conversation with our “guardienne” (the current word for “concierge”) who suggested he try to get the code for next door from the “Moroccans”—namely the guys who run the little épicerie downstairs that’s wedged between our building and the next one over. MH, who often runs down to the Moroccans for a liter of milk, did indeed get the code, which admitted him next door, which in turn led to a conversation with that guardienne, who said she would leave notes to the residents of the sixth floor, asking for greater consideration at bed time.

Having "Obturateurs" Made Weird or what?
Having “Obturateurs” Made
Weird or what?

In the meantime, I’m having custom-fit ear plugs made. I stumbled upon a store called “Audissimo” which specializes in both amplifying and blocking sound. To make my “obturateurs,” the “ear prosthetic specialist” placed a tiny cotton ball deep in my ear (“an ear tampon!” my teen daughter screeched in delight when I described it) then squirted some soft goo to fill the canal. Once hardened, the form was removed and sent to a lab. The process is similar to what the dentist does to make an orthodontic model or a mold for crowns.

Okay, enough complaining. On the positive side, Christmas lights have gone up on streets, including the rues commerçantes, like Saint Dominique, around the corner from us, and the Rue du Commerce, in the 15th. They’re also in the big stores, like Bon Marché, and the Beau Grenelle mall, not far from us. They’re lovely.

Walking about leads to lovely discoveries, like a glove shop that my friend Katherine took me to on the rue de Rennes.

IMG_0932
JB Guanti Nothing but gloves

I am teaching two groups of writers at the American Library in Paris, and this has been a delight. First chapters of different genres—psychological, literary, crime, and young adult novels—are being circulated for group critique. As always I am grateful and honored when aspiring writers share their work with me. In between meetings I am having “café hours” to talk about students’ writing or simply to socialize. This has been most rewarding and lots of un.

I enjoy the friendliness of the shopkeepers in my neighborhood—the lady from the vegetable stand, who asks how my last soup turned out, the two ladies at a boulangerie we call “The Pink Bakery,” and the crew of male butchers who give recipes and roasting times as a matter of course.

A couple of dear friends, one of them my literary agent, have come through town and brightened things up considerably. Another dear old friend will visit at Christmas.

Routines are taking shape and friendships forged and reknotted as we head into winter.

Roman Holiday

View from Campidoglio
View from the Campidoglio

We recently returned from a week in Rome. The weather was lovely, and we walked hours every day, taking our girls to many of the usual tourist sites.

I lived in Rome in 1978-79, and it’s always a bit of shock to return and see the ways in which it has changed. It was a rather quiet city then, with little in the way of modern amenities or entertainment. Now it is a bit more sophisticated, with huge crowds of visitors, a metro system, and some “world class” museums and restaurants.

Life in the little streets is the same, however. In a small piazza just steps from our apartment in the “Monti” area, on the steps around a fountain, there was social activity at all times of day: mothers and caretakers with babies in the morning, high school kids at lunch, young adults, perhaps college students, and working people in the early evening hour, on their way home for dinner.

Ochre Sunset, via Leonina
Ochre Sunset, via Leonina

Italians love to live in the streets, and it used to be mostly gatherings of men that you’d see. Now there are more women taking the time to meet their friends for an hour of talk and exchange.

On the last day we were there, we went to the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was a Sunday and, as it turned out, entrance on the first Sunday of the month is free. Both sites were swamped, and it was a very different experience from what I used to have decades ago, when you’d see maybe a dozen other people if you were lucky. A visit to the Forum back then meant sitting on pieces of ancient stone and glimpsing feral cats peeking out of tall grasses. The Palatine hill, jut behind the Forum, used to be a wild space, with vegetation out of control.

All of the monuments are now protected by fencing so that you can’t touch them. The vegetation in the Forum area is minimal, having been trampled. Think of the last time you went to a blockbuster art exhibit and had to fight the bodies—that was what it was like, multiplied by a hundred. We did see a couple of lizards in the grass, but all the cats are gone.

So Perfect: The Eye of the Pantheon
So Perfect: The Eye of the Pantheon

Much of the crowd was, to my surprise, Italian. Listening in, I heard many dialects I didn’t understand and realized that this Sunday of free entrance was an opportunity for many Italians to make a trip to Rome and proudly show their kids their unique heritage.

Astrological Bread, Via Leonina
Astrological Bread, Via Leonina

It was something of a relief to exit the Forum. Standing on the long and broad via dei Fori Imperiali, which was closed to traffic, I glanced at the sea of bodies stretching to the right and left, surreal in its density and extent. The eerie masses testified to the population explosion which was predicted in the 1950s, then actually happened. And tourism exploded as well. The result is this: masses of people out in the middle of day, mingling happily and peacefully — the village stroll Italians call passegiata, on a gargantuan scale – and it had a feeling of festivity to it. That all these hordes of strangers, coming from dozens of countries and speaking languages unknown to each other, could coexist in this way, sharing a single place and experience for an afternoon, suddenly struck me as miraculous, a kind of spontaneous world’s fair. Maybe it’s okay that the cats are gone, that you can’t get close to the stones anymore. Something else is happening, and it’s good.

The Pedophile at the Dinner Party (1975)

The colder weather feels wonderful and reminds of my first two autumns I spent in Paris in the seventies and of a brief relationship I had then. I first met Gabriel in 1975 at the home of my mother’s journalist friend, Francine Doré. Gabriel was thirty-eight, the author of several novels and of a scandalous column in Le Monde. I was a young woman of eighteen, on my junior year abroad.

The Dorés lived in the 5th arrondissement, right across from the Val de Grâce church, so that the living and dining rooms at night had a stunning view of its perfectly proportioned, illuminated dome, providing a glamorous, quintessentially European setting for a party. The night I met Gabriel, Francine was having a birthday celebration for her second husband, Weston, a ex-Mormon who always greeted me at the door with the words, “Enter, and be saved.” I never knew whether he was being ironic or not.

Rue du Val de Grâce
Rue du Val de Grâce

Francine always had me arrive early so she could check my outfit. On the night of Weston’s birthday I appeared in corduroy pants and a bulky wool sweater.

“No,” Francine said, “this will not do.”

Colette, her daughter, drove me back to my apartment nearby where I quickly put on my only party item, a long blue and black print dress, and some rhinestones. Back at the Dorés’ home minutes later, I listened as Francine told me about the guests she had invited. One of them, an illustrious writer and the son of white Russians, had been part of the Russian Orthodox community before he became critical of it. He was acclaimed not only as a novelist but also as an important essayist and thinker. Francine had met him many years before when she had interviewed him. As he lived only two blocks away, they soon became friends and he was a frequent dinner guest.

Francine warned me that Gabriel had recently come out as a pedophile, defending his “lifestyle” first in a book and now in a column he wrote for the leading newspaper, Le Monde. She continued her friendship with him even though she found his recent revelations about his private life deeply disturbing.

“Can you imagine,” she said to me, “what it must be like to be a young boy of 12 or so and to be seduced by a man who is so cultivated and charming? How it would mess you up?” She paused and then added, exemplifying a typically French combination of discretion and tolerance, “When he comes over to visit, we never discuss his writing or his sexual habits.” Finally she concluded, as the first guest rang the bell, “Whatever you do, don’t get involved with him.” And then she seated me next to him at the dinner table.

That Gabriel had not been thrown in jail for his conduct and that a leading newspaper would actually publish a column by him can only be understood by considering the context. There is a long tradition of fascination in France with libertinism not only as a literary subject but also as the enactment of a “philosophical” or even political choice of radical freedom from social constraint. Gabriel had succeeded in presenting himself as taking the libertine lifestyle to its logical conclusion so that many saw him as a writer picking up where André Gide had left off. Decades later I find myself still puzzling over not only this white-washing of predatory behavior but also the way in which I blithely, if briefly, became involved with him.

At the time I knew him, some parents were beginning to bring law suits against him, but as far as I know he was never thrown in jail.

Fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg
Fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg

The first guests included Pierre, an art critic, and Vladimir, a Russian painter. I’d seen their faces before in the constant stream of writers, artists and critics that Françoise directed into her home and fed copiously, thanks to Nana, their housekeeper trained at the Cordon Bleu. Finally, there was Gabriel, almost bald, tall and thin, with a gentle smile and magnetic blue eyes in large, Russian orbits. It was not unusual for there to be only male guests. Françoise modeled herself after Simone de Beauvoir, wanting only great minds in her salon, and at the time most of such minds–at least the ones in evidence–were male.

When Françoise seated me next to Gabriel, I overheard her whisper to him that I had ambitions of being an écrivain. The French word had a power for me that “writer” lacked.

“What are you writing?” Gabriel asked me.

“Only diaries at the moment,” I said.

“Why do you say ‘only’? I’ve begun to publish my diaries. And they’re selling very well.”

La Closerie des Lilacs
La Closerie des Lilacs

He continued asking me questions, flattering me with his attention. At the end of the evening, when Francine offered to drive me home, Gabriel insisted on walking me instead.

The short walk from Francine’s home to my apartment just off the Boulevard du Montparnasse took us past the horse fountain at the end of the Jardin du Luxembourg and then La Closerie des Lilacs, a restaurant famous for having been patronized by Hemingway who went there to spend lavishly on champagne and oysters whenever he got some money.

“Have you been there?” Gabriel asked, nodding toward the Closerie as we crossed from the Boulevard Saint Michel toward the Boulevard Raspail. The streets were quiet and the air very cold.

“Of course not. It’s too expensive.”

“I’ll take you some time,” he said.

When we reached my door he bowed a little formally, kissed me on the cheek and, after promising to leave a copy of his latest novel in my box the next morning, disappeared.

What happened between us that fall was brief in duration. He soon broke off with me because a 16 year-old girl had inspired him with such a strong passion that, for the first time in his life (he later told me), he had been moved to be faithful to her. A couple of years later I took up with him again when I returned to Paris.

Gabriel presented all the seductions and absurdities of the Don Juan: charisma, a combination of adulation of and disregard for his lovers, and a mind-boggling amorous schedule (which I later got a picture of from reading his published diaries). When he disappeared that first autumn, I was disappointed, but quickly moved on. What I regretted most was that he had never did take me to the Closerie, a restaurant I couldn’t possibly afford on my own.

Behind my mindless acceptance of his behavior, there were a number of factors. I was eighteen and remembered that at fifteen I would have been happy to have been sexually initiated by an older man. I think I just didn’t “get” what he was doing until I read his published diaries years later. It was an illustration of the degree to which awareness–what a human animal actually hears and sees–is conditioned by culture and context. In this case, the glamor of that dinner party, with its white table linens and champagne, distinguished guests in fascinating conversation, and aproned cook scurrying in and out with perfectly prepared courses, while outside the window the dome of the Val de Grâce glowed splendidly in the night spotlights–all of it went to my head. Besides, what I was seeking at that age was experience. And I got it.

Visite Médicale and an Old Lady in the Waiting Room

 

About twenty years ago I went through a disabling illness that lasted about a year and a half. Tests turned up nothing except indicators of an unspecified autoimmune disease and thyroid antibodies. Because of the thyroid antibodies I was told I had Hashimoto’s syndrome, a condition in which the body attacks its own thyroid gland. Years later, when I was retested for the antibodies, none turned up. “So I guess I don’t have Hashimoto’s after all?” I asked the doctor, who responded grimly: “Once you have Hashimoto’s, you always have Hashimoto’s.”

I decided to take my fractional dose of thyroid hormone but not pay too much attention to the diagnosis, which seemed dubious if its main indicator kept coming and going over the years. Still, the word “Hashimoto’s” hung over me as an uncertain destiny and led me to being a little disconcerted when, shortly after my recent arrival in France, I checked in with a doctor who thought he detected a nodule on my thyroid. “It’s probably nothing,” he said, “but you should have an échographie [sonogram] of your thyroid. Have you ever done that? No? They diagnosed you with Hashimoto’s on the basis of a blood test but never did an ultrasound of your thyroid?” He shook his head in disbelief.

So I went to a center to have the test done. In France, you walk in, give a few facts, and you’re ready for the test. There are no pages and pages of forms, disclaimers, wavers to fill out.

While waiting to be called, my eyes met those of an older woman, probably in her 80s, who was there with an assistant. She was a bit frog-eyed, with bright lipstick, a thick face and neck, and swollen calves and ankles that suggest edema. Her intent staring at me might have seemed rude, if the kindness in her expression hadn’t led me to assume some senility behind her lack of manners. She reminded me of a certain Jewish aunt of mine, who had diabetes and became very puffy in her fifties.

The imagery center has a waiting room with about six doors off of it. Each door leads to a closet-like room where you leave your things and undress if necessary. Then you pass directly into the exam room. In other words, you don’t have to parade down a hall in a paper gown past other patients in paper gowns. That’s nice.

I put my things down and entered the exam area to wait for the technician who, it turned out, was not a technician but a doctor. You see actual doctors here doing all sorts of things that U.S. doctors pass on to assistants in the United States. The fact that the sonogram operator was a doctor meant that I didn’t have to wait for days to get the good news. I got it immediately–within seconds!

“You’re thyroid is completely normal. They told you in the U.S. that you have Hashimoto’s? You don’t have Hashimoto’s.”

“I’ve tested positive for antibodies a few times over the years.”

“Autoimmune processes are very complicated. They come and they go. They get turned on and off.”

“French medicine tends to be more subtle than American,” I said, hoping to get more information if I buttered him up a bit.

“American medicine looks at numbers, charts, averages. Here we look at things case by case. And in your case I can tell you with complete confidence: you do not have Hashimoto’s.”

This consideration of the unique case is something I’ve seen in French medicine before. There is a subtlety of approach, a recognition of the complicatedness of the body and the way its processes escapes categorization.

Back out in the waiting room, feeling much relieved, I sat down to wait for my paperwork. The frog-eyed lady was there again, staring at me. I heard her exchange some words in English with her assistant.

As I got ready to go, her eyes locked with mine again, so I asked in English, “Are you American?”

“Half-American, half-Corsican,” she said.

“That’s an interesting mixture.”

She leaned forward and said with maternal concern, “Is everything okay, sweetie?”

I nodded, touched by her concern. “Yes, the test was fine. Everything is okay.”

“Oh I’m so glad.” She gave me a big smile. “Take care of yourself, sweetie, okay?”

The way she kept calling me “sweetie” was delicious. It reminded of how, when I was growing up in New York, the Jewish ladies in the stationery store and the deli on Third Avenue in New York used to talk to me. Except the word they used was “honey.” “Here you go, honey.” “Enjoy the baloney, honey” (I always got an extra slice for free). Recently I’ve been thinking that I have now reached the age of those Jewish ladies on Third Avenue, so I guess I can say “honey” to anyone younger than me and it won’t be taken amiss.

Leaving the medical center, I reflected that there I’d been thinking the woman stared at me because she was senile, whereas she had, with great compassion and sensitivity, seen me as a young person in need of care and tending. And she, as the elder of the place and moment, felt it was her place to offer it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that American-Corsican woman was at least half-Jewish.