Unmistakably French

P1020091I am still collecting French fashion photos, especially couples and men. So many chic people out and about! But today is crazy busy so I’m going to share my penchant for all the fancy carved details that let you know you’re in France.P1060854P1070102IMG_3076

IMG_3075
Because the railings are too beautiful not to show.

P1030324P1080847P1070070IMG_0016What are your favorite decorations? Faces? Lions? Really old dates? Coats of arms?

Advertisements

All in the Family

IMG_1772Hardware stores are my happy place. They promise solutions to problems. Often know-how is required (where it all falls apart for me), but still, those neat shelves of fixes lower my blood pressure. Hardware stores set the world straight again.

One day a while back, I was happily strolling through a hardware store when for some reason I found myself actually listening to the piped-in radio. And tears started streaming down my face.

IMG_1798
Doors and windows of Toulouse, to accompany reflections about staying and leaving.

The song, “Je Vole,” was a hit in 1978, written and performed by French pop idol Michel Sardou. The song inspired a movie, “La Famille Bélier,” about a girl whose parents and brother are deaf. She is their indispensable translator. But she discovers she has a gift–an incredible voice–and her music teacher is encouraging her to go to a special school, far from her family.

Here are the lyrics. I’m crying just typing this. It gets me, as a mother and as a daughter.IMG_1790First in French:

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

C’est jeudi il est 5 heures 5

J’ai bouclé une petite valise

Et je traverse doucement l’appartement endormi

J’ouvre la porte d’entrée

En retenant mon souffle

Et je marche sur la pointe des pieds

Comme les soirs

Où je rentrais après minuit

Pour ne pas qu’ils se réveillent

Hier soir à table

J’ai bien cru que ma mère

Se doutait de quelque chose

Elle m’a demandé si j’étais malade

Et pourquoi j’étais si pâle

J’ai dis que j’était très bien

Tout à fait clair

Je pense qu’elle a fait semblant de me croire

Et mon père a souri

En passant à côté de sa voiture

J’ai ressenti comme un drôle de coup

Je pensais que ce s’rait plus dur

Et plus grisant un peu

Comme une aventure

En moins déchirant

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

S’éloigner un peu plus

Il y a la gare

Et après la gare

Il y a l’Atlantique

Et après l’Atlantique

C’est bizarre cette espèce de cage

Qui me bloque la poitrine

Ca m’empêche presque de respirer

Je me demande si tout à l’heure

Mes parents se douteront

Que je suis en train de pleurer

Oh surtout ne pas se retourner

Ni des yeux ni de la tête

Ne pas regarder derrière

Seulement voir ce que je me suis promis

Et pourquoi et où et comment

Il est 7 heures moins 5

Je me suis rendormi

Dans ce train qui s’éloigne un peu plus

Oh surtout ne plus se retourner

Jamais

Mes chers parents

Je pars

Je vous aime mais je pars 

Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant

Ce soir

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je vole

Je n’ m’enfuis pas je vole

Comprenez bien je vole

Sans fumée sans alcool

Je vole je voleIMG_1735And in English:

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

It’s Thursday it’s five-o-five.

I’ve buckled a small suitcase

And I softly cross the sleepy apartment 

I open the front door

And hold my breath

And I walk on tiptoe

Like the nights

I came home after midnight

So they wouldn’t wake up.

Yesterday evening at dinner

I really thought my mother

Was suspecting something

She asked me if I was sick

And why I was so pale

I said that I was fine

It’s very clear

I think she pretended to believe me

And my father smiled.

Passing next to the car

I suddenly felt something strange

I thought that it would be harder

And more exhilarating a little

Like an adventure

At least less heart-breaking.

Oh, above all don’t turn back

Go a little farther

There’s the train station

And after the train station

There’s the Atlantic

And after the Atlantic

It’s bizarre, this kind of cage

That blocks my chest

That almost stops me from breathing

I wonder whether later 

My parents will suspect

That I’m crying

Oh above all don’t turn back

Neither eyes nor head

Don’t look back

Only see what I’ve promised myself

And why and where and how

It’s five to seven

I fell back to sleep

in this train that gets a little farther away

Oh above all don’t turn back

Never

My dear parents

I’m leaving

I love you but I’m leaving

You won’t have children anymore

tonight

I’m not fleeing but I’m flying

Understand well, I’m flying

Without smoke without alcohol

I fly, I fly.

If your eyes are still dry, you are a tough cookie.IMG_1787It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I truly appreciated my own parents. Especially my mother. She would do anything and everything for her children. And yet, I felt tethered to a leash. I was pushed to succeed, but in a very narrow sense, defined by traditional gender roles. Good grades in math were not appreciated–nobody would marry me, she warned.IMG_1780IMG_1781All the same, she wasn’t happy with traditional roles. She was an artist and completely uninterested in housekeeping or cooking. We her children stifled her, too. When she would sing with the radio, we would cover our ears and howl for her to stop. Leashes are attached at both ends.IMG_4324But I was rarely there for her. Flying the nest wasn’t enough–I felt the need to cross an ocean, too. I dreamed of seeing the world. I didn’t want to end up like my mom, my life a series of laundry loads and of getting supper on the table. And yet. If “Let It Go” is playing somewhere, and of course I sing/belt along, my kid gives me the same treatment I gave my mom. The circle of life.IMG_1766In a way, I was her translator. She was very shy, insecure, worried about being a problem. She joked that she was Edith in “All in the Family,” and my dad certainly did a good imitation of Archie Bunker. In a store, if she didn’t find what she wanted, she would slink out. If I said, let’s ask a clerk, she’d be horrified–“don’t bother those people! They’re busy!” But I would do it anyway, and almost always they would have exactly what she wanted. All she needed to do was ask. Or have me ask for her.IMG_1771I wish I had been easier on her, had held her hand more through situations that made her uncomfortable. How did she, such an introvert, manage teach me not to be afraid, which is not at all the same as being brave? If you’re brave, you’re aware of just how badly things can go but you feel compelled or obliged to do something anyway. If you’re not afraid, you’re confident everything will turn out fine. IMG_6034She’s the one who gave me my wings, so I could fly.

I don’t approve of Hallmark holidays, and every day should be mother’s day, something you realize most pointedly when you’ve lost yours. If your mom is still around, give her a big hug many big hugs or, if she’s far away, a phone call … and cherish every word.IMG_1792Here are links to the immortal Sardou singing his song, “Je Vole.” And here is the version by Louane, who played the daughter in the 2014 movie.IMG_1788

Day Trip to Toulouse

IMG_1793Toulouse, the pink city of the south. Pink because of the pale red bricks that dominate the architecture. A friend and I decided to brave the gilets jaunes in order to get a needed breath of city air. IMG_1768The city air has much improved since Toulouse limited so much of the center to pedestrians only. What a joy to stroll around. No crowding on the sidewalks. There’s plenty of room for those who want to stop and look in the windows and those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s perfect for flâner, that quintessentially French term for strolling leisurely in town, certainly with some lèche-vitrine (literally translated as licking the windows–window shopping) along the way.IMG_1782The car-free streets have led to an explosion of bicycles. Perfect.IMG_1765So much prettiness everywhere. And since we weren’t really interested in shopping, our eyes paid more attention to the architecture. Quite a mix.IMG_1767Do you see the old tower? And the half-timbered building?IMG_1789A steeple perfectly framed by the narrow streets. (Note the rental bike dock.)IMG_1791Then there are more modern touches. Haussmann’s influence is felt down here, though the old lanes weren’t eliminated in favor of grand boulevards. There are some boulevards, to be sure, but they follow the traces of the ancient ramparts. Plenty of Belle Epoque buildings.IMG_1774I’m so glad the little lanes survived. Like the Marais  in Paris, but without the crowds. Some of the main shopping streets were noir du monde–full of people–but they never felt like a crush of humanity. And on the little side streets, we got to eavesdrop on conversations. A group of young men, I’d say in their 20s, were in a lively discussion about cheese. You would have thought they were going over a controversial call in a sports match. For several blocks, they walked just behind us, talking excitedly, while my friend and I listened and exchanged smiles. Only in France. IMG_1794We saw groups of gendarmes at nearly every intersection and square. Near the building below, we bumbled onto the assembly point for the gilets jaunes, and passed a bunch of people in T-shirts with DIY labels of “medical volunteer.” They had spritzer bottles tucked into the straps of their backpacks. I didn’t want to be around for when those would be needed.IMG_1786We managed to avoid any action. Anyway, the timing of things here works to one’s advantage. Nothing, but nothing is going to happen anywhere until after lunch, which ends at 2 p.m. Talk about sacred. Which means the yellow vests were just getting together around then and didn’t start marching or whatever until a good hour later. By then we were far away.IMG_1775I would like to live across the street from this building. Across the street so I would see it every time I looked out my windows. I’m a sucker for Art Deco and a sucker for mosaics. They don’t make buildings like they used to.IMG_1776For example the one below. It was on a narrow street, so the interiors must be terribly dark with the metal façade, which apparently can open like shutters.IMG_1796IMG_1795On the other hand, I rather liked the geometry of the building below, with the sharp zigzags contrasting with the layered cake rounds that resemble the Guggenheim in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.IMG_1785IMG_1769I liked the repetition with the rounded columns on the Art Deco building in the foreground on the left. (More bikes!)IMG_1799We parked on one of the boulevards rather than in an underground garage, which I usually use. Another example of good city planning: two hours of parking was only €1; four hours was €2 and four hours and 45 minutes was €20. This encourages people to park for short errands and discourages the nearby office workers from leaving their cars there all day (you can’t just feed the meter, either–you have to enter your license plate number and you get a ticket that you have to leave on your dashboard.) Our feet were plenty tired before our four hours were up. IMG_1797I took so many shots that I’ll do another post with just doors and windows.

 

Good Day, Sunshine

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 9.09.24 PMIt is with great honor and reddened cheeks that I learned I was nominated for a Sunshine Blogger Award by The Vintage Contessa. Who knew!

La Contessa herself is a star, in an allegorical solar sense. She radiates happiness even though she has had some health scares. She either knows or is bound to meet everybody interesting that you can imagine. She is modest but magnetic. SHE LIKES CAPITAL LETTERS.

And, she seems like a ton of fun.

IMG_0231
A few local sunrise/sunset shots seem appropriate.

Since her sunny disposition already has received attention, I must whittle down the list to three other bloggers. This is difficult, because I have far more than three. And so, I wrote them down and drew out of a hat. Just to be fair.

But first, questions were asked, and I will be asking some as well. La Contessa asked:

1. What is the ONE ITEM YOU CANNOT FIND IN FRANCE FOOD OR OTHERWISE THAT YOU MISS?

Girl Scout cookies. Thin Mints, especially. I would even go for the knock-offs: Grasshopper cookies. 

2. What was the ONE THING that TERRIFIED YOU THE MOST about MOVING ABROAD?

This is hard because I have lived in other countries before. The first time was with the Peace Corps in Africa, and I suppose I was terrified of big bugs and of getting sick. Later, I lived in Belgium. By the time I moved to France, it wasn’t very exotic. The biggest culture shock was urban to rural, not U.S. to France. I had always been a city dweller, except for my time in Africa. IMG_02243. Do YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST FRIEND YOU MADE in FRANCE? IF SO ARE YOU STILL FRIENDS? Tell us about the first encounter!

This is a hard one, because we first make acquaintances, and it’s through life that they become friends. The first good friend was at the park. I took my baby to crawl on the grass and there was this woman with a baby about the same age. Of course we noticed each other and started talking. That led to regular—daily, rain or shine—meetings at the park. She taught me so much. The baby she was with wasn’t her own but a foster child. She is a true saint who has taken in so many children. She’s somebody I never tire of talking with, her cassoulet is so good it brings me to tears and she never corrects my verb conjugations. As I said, a true saint.

4. What do YOU MISS MOST of YOUR HOMELAND?

Family. I was very close to my siblings, despite having lived overseas or very, very far away almost all of my adult life. We can talk all night. When we’re together, I am nearly doubled over the entire time with a stomach ache… from laughing. Sore cheeks and the whole thing. I love them so. 

The other thing I miss is Mexican food. IMG_7129Now the nominees:

Michele of Hello Lovely. The name says it all. Looking at her posts is a kind of zen meditation for me. Immediate de-stressing. Plus, the woman is prolific! She does all this with a smile and oodles of chic, despite having struggled with health issues. That’s sunshine.

D.A. of Daily Plate of Crazy. Again, an appropriate name. D.A. is a gifted writer whose essays are always relevant and thought-provoking. She also has a sunny demeanor besides also facing health challenges. She teaches by example.

Elizabeth of Pinecones and Acorns.  I can gain three kilos just reading her blog, which always features beautiful, delicious recipes. We share a love of France (actually, Michele and D.A. are committed francophiles as well) and of Egyptology. Life has thrown her some lemons, too, and she has made lemonade. Sunshine.IMG_7544I feel guilty sticking to three because there are quite a few others who bring sunshine to my days. The Internet can be a cesspool, but these people restore my faith in humanity. They bring me new ideas and make me smile.

On to the questions for the three (but everybody can answer, too!). Not the Proust questionnaire, though that’s a tempting choice for a roster of francophiles.

1. How or where do you find the joy in each day?

2. Tell us about a happy day of your life—not necessarily the happiest–those tend to be milestones like births and weddings–but just an ordinary day that you look back on as a time of carefree bliss?

3. What is your péché mignon—your guilty pleasure?

4. What piece of advice or wisdom can you share with us? It can be practical or profound.IMG_7545Rules for the Sunshine Award
1. Thank the person who nominated you and include a link back to their blog.

2. Answer the questions given by the person who nominated you.

3. Nominate other blogs and give questions for them to answer.

4. Notify your nominees through social media or by commenting on their blogs.

5. List the rules and display a Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.

I hope readers will also enjoy these four writers, whose sunny dispositions come through in their work. And you’re all invited to answer the questions, too, and to name other favorite blogs.IMG_6354

 

Purging

IMG_1690I recently Marie Kondo-ed my wardrobe. (New life goal: have my name become a verb; this might be even better than having my name become a dessert or a cheese.) I haven’t read the book nor seen the show, but I had the assistance of a knowledgeable friend. In fact, a second opinion is invaluable when sorting one’s stuff. Perhaps MK herself suggests it.

I Marie Kondo-ed other parts of the house, too. Books. DVDs. Kitchen stuff. The discard pile grew. I made many trips to the déchetterie, or dump.

Next step was selling the good stuff: a vide-grenier. Individual garage or yard sales aren’t allowed here; one must go to a communal flea market. Usually the space is €1 or €2 per meter, with those proceeds going to the organizing group–usually a club or a school. Participants have to fill out a form, so as to separate the twice-a-year purgers from the every-weekend vendors that are supposed to pay tax. As all-day outdoor events, vide-greniers pause during winter, but the season is gearing up again. It was the first weekend with several–a good thing, because folks like to make a day of it, hitting several on a circuit.

The first time I did a vide-grenier, it was cut short–by noon the blazing sun had disappeared behind roiling black clouds, and everybody packed up fast as fat raindrops pelted down. I didn’t care–I had sold almost everything and had made nearly €500.

IMG_1688
Not crowded.

We loaded the cars the day before and got up at 5 in order to set up. Vide-greniers start early. I got in plenty of steps before sunrise.

Then we waited. A few people came by, but attendance was thin. We figured that selling for low prices was better than taking the stuff to the déchetterie. But even so, people haggled mercilessly. Some haggling is normal–you have something you bought for €30, used once and haven’t touched since. It seems like €15 would be reasonable, or even €10. We would start at €5 and end up at €2. If we were lucky. One guy wanted a DVD. Figuring I’d never get €2, I said €1. He insisted on 50 centimes. I accepted, half kicking myself. Then he pushed further: 40 centimes. I said, forget it. He threw the 50-centime piece at me.

IMG_1730
The other outfit (it has matching pants) from the same shop as the suit I showed the other day, la Bonne Renomée. Nobody even gave it a glance.
IMG_1731
Not fast fashion.

Other people looked carefully, then reassessed and put back a few things, as if to stay on budget. If they were polite, I gave them a crazy low price, then also handed them the things they wanted but had put back. Times are tough.

A little girl bought a stuffed animal. She was maybe four years old–she still had her front baby teeth. She had a little bag from which she primly pulled out a big polka-dot change purse. She examined her money and frowned. “I only have €2,” she told her father. The toy was €1. He explained that I would give her back €1, that €1 plus €1 makes €2. You could see it soaking into her four-year-old brain. It was too cute. She beamed and did a little jumping dance. I gave her a bonus of some colorful shoelaces, still in their package.

During one of the many lulls, I left my kid, aka The Closer, in charge and walked around. Everybody was selling the same things: Old clothes, old toys, old electronic gadgets of dubious reliability. I saw two dozen child car seats; no wonder nobody gave ours a glance. IMG_1689But it was the clothes that got me. Piles and piles and piles. I looked it up: clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and we wear each item a third less than we did in 2000. People throw away–not including recycling–an average of 70 pounds of clothes and shoes per person each year.

We have bins around here to collect clothes and shoes. It’s sorted–decent stuff is resold at places like la Croix Rouge, damaged stuff is made into rags, and the dregs are ground up into insulation. It’s where our leftovers are headed.

We packed up at 5 p.m., having earned a whopping €45. I don’t know what kind of economic indicator it is–does it reflect a widespread fast-fashion hangover? Is it that even €2 is too much for some people to spend? Was it a one-off, a date when people had other things to do, and the vide-grenier season will boom later?

IMG_1581
She doesn’t look like a vampire.

Separately, this photo was too good not to share. The window says: “Frequent Stops/Blood Samples.” I bet nobody tailgates!

Château de Rustiques

IMG_0514Driving through the French countryside, castles are as common as cows or crows. Turrets and towers pierce the treeline, no longer needed for spotting marauders arriving from afar. Sometimes you can see the full edifice, always a conglomeration of additions and wings added over centuries, different generations leaving their marks.IMG_0503Back in December, I made a detour out of Carcassonne to Rustiques, a little village I’d driven through before and decided would be worth a second look on such a sparkling winter day. This explains the vegetation, which has changed drastically to lush, lush green of spring.

IMG_0531
The old tower is on the left.

The château was closed, but it’s so big that you can still see a good deal of it. Here’s what I found out. Around the 5th century, barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Sarrasins and Francs made the locals unite for safety on a high spot from which they could spot invaders. They went one better with a tower, the oldest part of the current château, which also served as a dungeon. The Rustiquois, as locals are called, corralled the seigneur’s house and other houses in a wall with just two entries and plenty of meurtrières, or those tall, skinny openings from which you shoot arrows. The wall didn’t last–the town grew and crime fell, so the wall came down.IMG_0533There’s a document from 1063 attesting to the existence of a castellum, or watch tower.

The leader of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, granted the fiefdom of Rustiques to a family from the north, whose descendants still live in the château. That is quite a heritage!IMG_0523

Hello Lovely!

Toward fireplaceOur AirBnB, l’Ancienne Tannerie, is featured on Hello Lovely, where Michele provides a steady stream of inspiration, mostly for interiors but also gifts and fashion. Despite many challenges in life, she maintains an optimistic, gentle attitude that is a treasure to find online.

Speaking of l’Ancienne Tannerie, I have been trying out different furniture arrangements. The kitchen and bedrooms are set–the kitchen table can only go in the middle of the huge room; the bed is where you can walk around it.

From entry toward TV chairs straight
Chairs straight or angled?

From entry toward TV chairs angledBut the living room….it’s huge, but smaller than in our other apartment, la Suite Barbès, across the landing. The living room in l’Ancienne Tannerie has a gorgeous fireplace and an enormous chandelier. It overlooks the interior courtyard. It has a huge window so it’s always bright, yet it stays cool in summer because it faces north (the two-foot-thick stone walls also help insulate).

The sofa is a Louis XVI reproduction that folds out into a double bed. The coffee table is hand-carved and was brought back in my luggage from Lamu, Kenya. All the upholstery is like new, plus the colors are uncanny–the green stripe on the sofa matches the green in the carpet; the peach of the chairs is exactly the same as the tomette tile floor though it show in  photos because the velvet catches the light differently than the tiles do, and the same peach also is picked up in the carpet. And I really like that it’s all unique–nothing you will find anywhere else. Certainly not Ikea. When you are here, you know you are in France.

There’s nothing like crowdsourcing opinions! So tell me in the comments which arrangement you prefer. Suggestions welcome!

Arrangement #1: Sofa facing the fireplace. This is best for watching TV from the sofa. But who goes to the south of France to watch TV? It also gives a view of the courtyard from everywhere you sit.SONY DSC

SONY DSC
I hate that the stereo is on top of the piano, but we had to have one in order to get our Ministry of Tourism stars.

SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

Arrangement #2: Sofa facing window. The advantage of this one is that from the sofa one can see both the courtyard and the TV. It also creates a kind of corridor from the entrance to the kitchen, which seems good in principle, but which I didn’t really like in reality.From corner armchair verticalFrom TVPiano from fireplaceFrom kitchen door verticalFrom entry to TV horizontalFrom corner armchair

Toward kitchen straight
The “corridor” effect.
Straight from window
I tried to center the sofa, but then it was too close to the piano…

From entry to TVArrangement #3: Armchairs facing the window. This is where I have left things. It feels open and welcoming when you walk in. The disadvantage is that you don’t see the TV or out the window from the sofa. It also puts the sofa next to the matching armchair, which is in the corner because I wanted to separate them. What do you think?From corner armchair

From entry to TV chairs angled with molding
Chairs angled here. Same shot, chairs straight, below.

From entry toward TV chairs straightFrom kitchen with bit of chandelierFrom TV

From kitchen to entry straight
The “corridor” is more open with chairs here. Angled (here) or straight (below)?
From entry to kitchen chairs angled
Angled.

From entry to TV chairs straight less exposurefrom corner armchair 2From entry toward tv with chandelierFrom kitchenLet’s not forget the “before” photos:From entrytoward entryWhere armoire with faces now standstoward windowwhere TV now isWhere piano now isFor Easter, we were invited to the neighbors’ for an asparagus omelette. And this tiramisu for dessert:IMG_1621Was your Easter good? Easter Monday is a holiday here, and we spent it Marie Kondo-ing my closet. This suit got a thank-you and adieu because it doesn’t fit anymore. But look at the details! It was from a boutique in the Marais in Paris. La Bonne Renommée. Sadly, it has closed. I also had a kind of vest/bustier from the same shop, made completely of strips of fabric and ribbon. Gorgeous. May it find a happy new owner.

IMG_1646
Even the buttonhole shows the quality.

IMG_1649When you shop at little boutiques, you don’t see yourself coming and going.

So Many Questions

IMG_2594One of my favorite French authors is Marcel Proust. There is something about la Belle Époque (1871-1914) that’s so romantic, even though clearly life for even a well-to-do woman back then would have been horribly restricted. No yearning for that! Just look at Collette’s heroines and Coco Chanel’s chafing against social strictures.P1060666But there’s the gorgeous wedding-cake architecture, the fantastic Art Nouveau designs (like the ads of Mucha and the Paris Métro entrances of Guimard), the heyday of writers in Paris. The impressionists–Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, Degas…. And the music–Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré (this one makes me cry; I sang it once at a singalong in NYC. Nerdy thrills), Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.IMG_0349 2Proust captures the Belle Époque beautifully in his seven-volume chef d’oeuvre, “À la recherche du temps perdu”–“In Search of Lost Time” (previously known as “Remembrances of Things Past”). Even if you’ve never read Proust, you probably know about dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea, which brings back memories, and all these recollections make up the novel. I admit to a weakness for parenthetical phrases, but Proust turns every sentence into a matryoshka doll of phrases within phrases, filling nearly an entire page. I would skim back to see: What was the subject again? And the verb? It was the very best bedtime reading, whisking me away to another time and space, and the sentences so intensely complex that my brain would explode and I would sleep. It took me three years to read the whole thing, a bit over 2,000 pages. In English. I cannot even imagine tracking those sentences in the original French.IMG_1605The Proust Questionnaire wasn’t written by the man himself, but he was such a big fan of this parlor game/personality test, which he first did as a teen, that his name became associated with it. Vanity Fair magazine posed the questionnaire to a series of celebrities. The wonderful newsletter BrainPickings featured David Bowie’s answers to VF. There’s a short version of the questionnaire by Bernard Pivot, the host of a TV show, “Bouillon de Culture,” an intellectual/literary prime-time talk show that ran for 20 years. So French.IMG_1604Many years ago, some friends and I held a salon. We all worked together, but our spouses didn’t. To keep our twice-a-month dinner parties from turning into work gripe sessions that would bore half (if not all) the table silly, we would pick a topic and a leader. We’d all read up on the (usually controversial) topic, and the leader would moderate the discussion and yank us back if it veered into boring tangents about work. It wasn’t as pretentious as it might sound. Just fun for a bunch of nerds.P1090124The Proust Questionnaire, even small bits of it, could serve as a similar device, a way to move past chatter and into deeper exploration of what matters. Research isn’t necessary, but introspection is. Here it is. Feel free, in the comments, to answer some of the questions.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

2. What is your greatest fear?

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?

5. Which living person do you most admire?

6. What is your greatest extravagance?

7. What is your current state of mind?

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

9. On what occasion do you lie?

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?

11. Which living person do you most despise?

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?

16. When and where were you happiest?

17. Which talent would you most like to have?

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

21. Where would you most like to live?

22. What is your most treasured possession?

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

24. What is your favorite occupation?

25. What is your most marked characteristic?

26. What do you most value in your friends?

27. Who are your favorite writers?

28. Who is your hero of fiction?

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?

30. Who are your heroes in real life?

31. What are your favorite names?

32. What is it that you most dislike?

33. What is your greatest regret?

34. How would you like to die?

35. What is your motto?P1060662 2And if you want to wallow in Belle Époque beauty just before it’s crushed by war, check out the 1999 movie, “Le Temps Retrouvé” (Time Regained), in which Marcello Mazzarella plays the narrator/Proust; Catherine Deneuve plays the main character, Odette; Emmanuelle Béart plays Odette’s daughter, Gilberte (and OMG they look SO MUCH like mother and daughter! The eyes! The eyebrows!); Deneuve’s real daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, plays the narrator’s crush, Albertine; and John Malkovich plays the eccentric Baron de Charlus, aka “Mémé” (Granny!!!!).IMG_2596

Notre Dame

DSC_0643Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”

Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.

Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?

Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. DSC_0667It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.

When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.

The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. DSC_0659Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.

The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.

The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?

To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.DSC_0678

Unpacking Packing

IMG_1474After a light post about provincial French street style, the pace changes. As fun as it is to watch views climb, I am not writing this  I cannot get another topic out of my head. It chases me in my dreams. It haunts my days. When, the other day, it jumped out at me from a podcast I was listening to, I decided I needed to face it head on. To unpack the thoughts.P1090767I am making a bed, with podcasts to keep my mind off the mundanity of the task at hand. Mindfulness is fine, but I would rather not be mindful of housework. Like exercise, it is not something I enjoy in the moment, but I do appreciate the benefits afterward. Perhaps I should lean in, and learn to appreciate the nuances of good hospital corners on a sheet, but I’d rather go through the motions while my mind is focused on current affairs or something like that. One of the good things about the Internet is that I can listen to anything anytime anywhere. IMG_1467While my podcast lineup leans heavily toward business, I also appreciate good wordsmiths, and The Moth has some of the best. I just had a good cry along with Anthony Griffith, who talked about how his mother was his hero. Now, I listen as Kate Tellers describes her mother’s decline from cancer. It’s clear how this story will end, and I brace myself. It will be a different cry from mom-as-hero. P1090844She talks about how the hospice has given them a booklet about the changes one’s body goes through as it closes up shop. And then she says she goes into the bedroom to find her mother up, saying she has to pack.

I fall to my knees. Kate Tellers gently tells her mom that she doesn’t need to pack for where she’s going. P1090805A couple of months before my dad died, he became loquacious. He never had any sign of dementia, but his stories became increasingly strange. He said he had bought a fishing resort (we checked–not true). He said he’d just talked to some relatives..who were dead. One day when I entered his room, and he informed me that the state patrol had been there to interview him about a murder. He didn’t know anything, he assured me, but as it happened down the road from his hunting cabin, they came to check. I thought he was nuts. Of course, the state patrol hadn’t been there. He mentioned a name, and I googled it. A guy with a similar name indeed had lived near the hunting cabin and was now living in prison–for murdering his wife.IMG_1471And then, he was all worked up about packing his bags. “Dad’s gotta get outta here, sweetie,” he told me. He always referred to himself in third person, as if “Dad” were a character he was playing, not quite the same as himself. Dad was stoic, tough, worked two jobs, shouldered the burdens for the family. He himself was shy and, I suspect, a little disappointed with his life, which turned out to be more full of setbacks than seemed fair for somebody who worked so hard and did everything everybody expected of him. IMG_5957I thought, at first, he was talking about getting out of the rehab facility, which was just a temporary measure until a hospice place opened up. He had been to that facility after surgery about a year earlier and hated it, though he clearly had come to change his mind and truly loved the staff. P1090765I mentioned it to one of them. Yes, he told me, your father keeps talking about packing his bags. It’s common among people who are about to die. The hallucinations were common as well. P1090845Kate Teller’s mother died soon after wanting to pack. My dad hung on for another two months. I was at his side when he died. My siblings had been taking turns spending the night in the armchair next to his bed. One day they called me: come now. I flew in immediately. On the second night, I took a turn in the armchair. I sometimes suspect my dad had been holding on not to disappoint my siblings. Always stoic.IMG_1469Listening to the end of the podcast, I sit on the floor and sob. It’s been several years since my parents died, my mom just three weeks after my dad, yet not a day goes by that I don’t miss them. I am glad I got to be at their sides and to tell them I loved them. They were generous in telling us they loved us, too. My dad would always say, “I love you more!” with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

I wipe my eyes and text my kid: I love you.

My kid texts back: I love you more!

IMG_1472
Photos of spring from around here. The circle of life.