Helene Hanff and “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”

helene hanff

I had a big stack of books all set to read once I reached this point of my treatment / recovery: textbooks, novels, history, Latin, et bleeding cetera.

Yes, let’s have a good big laugh at my planning.

I am not much in the mood for new books. The idea of cracking “De bello gallico,” or Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, or the pre-calc book my student assistant very thoughtfully provided for me, makes me utterly apathetic. I managed to read a science-fiction novel, and the first half of “Little Dorrit,” and I am afraid that’s about it.

But rereading  – !

I was fumbling around the shelves the other week and my hand fell upon Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road.” I devoured it, for the thirty-fifth time. It’s a charming little epistolary (!) novel in which Helene enters into correspondence with a little London bookstore back in the early 1950s. Her style is chatty and wise-guyish, and the bookseller’s letters are starchy and informational. They get to know one another. She gets to know everyone in the bookstore. She sends gifts of food (rationing was a grim fact of life in England in those days), and talks about Isaak Walton and John Donne as if she knows them personally, and the bookstore staff send her snapshots and tablecloths and – upon occasion – the books she orders.

If you haven’t read it – well, it’s a gem.

In the sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,”  Helene finally goes to London (in 1971) and stays for about six weeks, and keeps a detailed travel diary. This book was never so much a favorite of mine as “84 Charing Cross”; it seemed perfunctory, tacked-on.

Now I have read it twice more, and I have changed my mind.

This book is a minor masterpiece of travel literature. It works under one simple premise: if you dream of visiting a place for long enough, the place you dream of will be there waiting for you when you finally get there. There will be all kinds of U-turns and surprises, but at the end of the day, you will have discovered your dream.

Helene’s descriptions of London are peachy. Her observations are wry. She is unexpectedly wise. (She notes, for example, that you could take any block of a London suburb and plop it down into Queens or Brooklyn, and no one would be the wiser. You could never, however, get away with substituting a block of downtown London with a block of downtown New York.) Her descriptions of her traveling companions are poifect. She is irascible and sometimes unhappy and disappointed. It’s one of the truest travel books I’ve ever read.

Put this on your reading list, kids.

Vermont versus New Hampshire

vermont vs nh

New England is made up of six smallish states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

The territory is small, but the terrain varies greatly, and the weather varies from state to state: Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine get snow in October and November sometimes.

There are other subtle differences too.  I swear, when Partner and I drive over the border from Rhode Island into Connecticut, I can see a difference: Connecticut is more rural, and woodsier, and wetter. What happened? Did Rhode Island farmers do something that Connecticut farmers didn’t do? Or is it just my colorful imagination?

Maine is different from the rest of the New England states too. Portland aspires to be a hipster / cosmopolitan destination, but the state itself is – as Parter said recently – “Tennessee North.” It’s visibly poor and rural. No wonder it elects Republican senators to Congress.

And then there are Vermont and New Hampshire.

Vermont feels liberal and free. I love it there. I love the breeziness of Burlington, and the wind off Lake Champlain. I loved the time we spent in Bennington. I loved Rutland.

New Hampshire? Meh. It’s dull and conservative.

When you drive north into Vermont, it feels as if you’ve entered a different country. (It was a different country, for a couple of years there.) When you pass from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, it feels like – hmm – like you’re still in Massachusetts. You really haven’t gone anywhere.

Vermont is different. Vermont is independent. It’s strange, and funny, and determined to be so.

New Hampshire is dull and New Englandish. It’s got all the things you expect it to have.

Vermont is independent and hippyish. It wants to be different. It has all the things that New Hampshire has – mountains and lakes and forests – but they’re more interesting, somehow.

Kids: if you have a choice between New Hampshire and Vermont, visit Vermont. Eat some ice cream. Have some cheese.

And tell the Vermonters that I sent you.

The Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum


For a long time I only knew the Visigoth crowns from a poem by Elinor Wylie, which a friend recently quoted to me:

I cannot give you the Metropolitan Tower;
I cannot give you heaven;
Nor the nine Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum;
Nor happiness, even.

When Partner and I were in Paris last October, I noticed that the Cluny Museum was very close to our hotel. We went there on our last full day in Paris. It’s an old building with a Roman foundation; there are lots of old relics from the days when Paris was called Lutetia. As you ascend through the building, you find all manner of other works of art: later Roman, Dark Ages, Holy Roman Empire, medieval France.

And among those works of art are the Visigoth crowns.

They are not big chunky Burger-King style crowns in the Halloween-costume sense. They are delicate circlets encrusted with sapphires and pearls and other polished stones, festooned with slender strands of gold. (I counted only eight of them, and was a little disappointed. Then I learned that the ninth, the crown of King Suinthila, was stolen in 1921 and has never been found again.)

They were never meant to be worn; they were to be hung above a church’s altar, as a symbol of royalty. With a little modification, however, they would look like something an Elf might have worn in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

I want lots of things from museums the world over. I want Suzanne Valadon’s portrait of Erik Satie, which hangs in the Modern Art Museum in Paris (though I’ve never seen it in person). I want the Salomon Ruysdael waterscape that hangs in the RISD Museum only a few blocks from our apartment here. I want Ilya Repin’s gorily tragic “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” from the Tretyakov in Moscow, which would look nice over the sofa. I want a Rembrandt here and a Koons there, and a couple of the Monets from the Metropolitan in New York. Also I might throw in a couple of the Unicorn tapestries from the Cloisters, and I wouldn’t mind the Bayeux Tapestry (if only I had a room big enough to display it in).

But I think I would trade all of the above for one – just one! – of the Visigoth crowns from the Cluny Museum.

Is that so much to ask?

Going home, genetically

going home genetically

More than twenty years ago, my then-boss Sharon took a trip to Africa. She took a balloon trip across the Serengeti, and did everything that moderately wealthy people do when they visit Kenya; I think she even stayed at Treetops.



As she showed me the pictures she took there, she said something that echoes in my head to this present day: “It was strange there. It felt familiar. They say our first ancestors came from Africa, and maybe we feel at home there.”



I’ve thought about that statement many times since.



My friend Bill, Irish by descent, spent his honeymoon in Ireland. He visited the Burren in the western part of the country – a strange stark landscape, with limestone moonscapes – which also happened to be the traditional ancestral country of his family. “It was eerie,” he told me. “It was like going home.”



And then there’s me.



Last October Partner and I went to France, and spent four or five days in Normandy. I loved it. It was perfectly wonderful: green fields, grey seashores, tiny fussy villages, narrow streets, ancient farmhouses, medieval ruins.



I felt at home there.



My DNA analysis from 23andme.com tells me that my mother’s DNA stems from Doggerland, a now-submerged country along the North Sea, contiguous with Normandy.



Well, what do you know about that?



My genes felt at home there.

The limestone cliffs of Etretat

The limestone cliffs of Etretat.

The Tolstoy museum


Back in 1978 I spent a few days with a tour group in Moscow. The guides got tired of us after a while, and let us go off on our own. I noticed that some of the classic authors – Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy – had small museums dedicated to them around the city, and I decided to visit the Tolstoy museum.



It took me forever to find it; it was an inconspicuous door on a side street. I rang, and two old ladies ushered me in, babbling in Russian (I knew only a few words in Polish, which is close to Russian, but not close enough for me to fake it most of the time.) They showed me the house, which was small but magnificent; it was Tolstoy’s pied-a-terre in Moscow, full of beautiful furniture, and manuscripts displayed everywhere.



Finally the old ladies brought me into the library. There were at least fifteen or twenty folding chairs set up, and I was the only visitor; they sat me down in the front row, and got out an old Edison cylinder machine, and got it set up, and –  well, I didn’t know what to expect.



Finally, from the Edison cylinder, I heard something: a man’s voice, scratchy, evidently reading from something. The two old ladies were staring at me, waiting for my response.




Aha. This was a recording of Tolstoy himself, reading (presumably) from one of his own books. And the museum ladies were waiting for my response.



I gave them everything I had. I told them it was good, in Polish (which they may or may not have understood). I smiled.



And they seemed to be very happy, having shared their museum with me.



This is one of my best memories from my trip to Russia. It seems like a dream now, of course; I barely remember the details of the house, or of the sound of Tolstoy’s voice, or what the old ladies looked like.



But I do remember how lovely I felt as I left.


Unhygienic travel stories


It’s lucky that most of us do our heavy-duty adventure traveling while we’re young. We’re more resilient, and can take it in stride, more or less, when strange things happen. (And we know that it’ll make a kick-ass story when we get back home.)

For example: my student assistant Jennifer told me that, in China, you can use a dirty public toilet for free, but you have to pay to use a clean one.

But that’s nothing.

How about the time I chased a rat down the hallway in Morocco, until I saw it jump into the toilet and disappear?

How about the time I was having kamounia at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tunis, and found weevils cooked in with the couscous? (I just picked them out and put them on the side of the plate. I didn’t complain. I’d just paid twenty-five cents for dinner; I certainly didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.)

How about those kvass dispensers in the USSR back in 1978? (Kvass is a light beer, very refreshing, and I wish they sold it here. I think they make it by soaking bread in water and fermenting the result.)  It was sold in drink machines, just like soft drinks and coffee in the US, except that everybody used the same glass. (There was a little water-spout you were supposed to use to wash the glass out when you were done.)

But the best story of all belongs to my friend Mike, back in Morocco, as follows:

He moved into a simple house in El-Jadida, a beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast. The house had no toilet; you had to use a privy out in the garden.

His first night there, he went out in the dark to use the privy. As he sat, he could hear an odd rustling around him. This gave him the creeps, so he finished his business, went in the house for a flashlight, and came back out to see what the noise was.

It was bugs. The walls and ceiling of the privy were alive with insects, mostly huge flying cockroaches, more than he’d ever seen.

He shrieked, ran back in the house, grabbed the insect spray (which, in Morocco in 1984, was probably straight DDT), and ran back to the privy to kill the bugs.

Do you see the flaw in his reasoning?

He went into the privy and started spraying, and they all started dying. And as they died, they fell, by the dozens and the hundreds, all over him.

I still twitch whenever I think of that story.

I dare you to top it.

The one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine

I was prowling around in a wine shop in Paris in October, looking at the pretty liqueur bottles, when I heard the proprietor say, “That’ll be 123 euros.”

I was curious to see what cost 123 euros, so I came around, and saw –

A single bottle of wine.

The buyers were an older couple, probably around my age. I’d heard them a few minutes before, asking the proprietor advice on what to buy.

Evidently the proprietor had conned them into buying this gold-plated bottle of nectar. “So,” he said. “This is for dinner tonight, you said? What time?”

“Around seven,” the husband said, a little nervously. “Maybe seven-thirty.”

“It makes a difference,” the proprietor said huffily. “Are you going to drink the whole bottle tonight? You should. It won’t be good tomorrow, if you open it tonight.”

“No, of course not,” the husband said, and he and his wife both giggled nervously, and glanced at me, as if to say: Isn’t this fun?

“All right,” the proprietor said. “I’ll open it right now. You come back in ten or fifteen minutes, and I’ll recork it. If you serve it at seven – or even seven-fifteen – it’ll be just right. No later than that, mind you. All right?”

“All right,” the couple said meekly.

And they paid their one-hundred-and-twenty-three euro, and they left.

I noticed that the proprietor was in no hurry to decant their wine after they left. He turned and waited on me, and we chatted for a while. (He told me that it was too much trouble, too much micmac, to ship things to the USA, what with the duty fees and the paperwork.)

And, as I left, I glanced back and saw the one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine sitting on the counter, glowing with promise.

I hope it was worth the money. I hope it changed the lives of the people who drank it.

Or at least that it wasn’t as sour as hell.


One of my favorite composers, Erik Satie, was born in Honfleur, a little seaside town in Basse-Normandie. Normans love their seafood, and their apples. From the apples, they make a liqueur called Calvados. Here is some information on Calvados:

In Normandy, locals rely on apple brandy as a digestive. Le trou Normand, or the Norman break, is a fiery shot of Calvados right in the middle of the meal. It hits hard and fast, yet is inexplicably effective as a palate-cleanser and appetite stimulant. It’s yet to be determined whether it has as successful an astringent property on one’s palate as it has on one’s wits – but either way, it works.





We saw bottles of shockingly expensive Calvados everywhere we went in Normandy. Finally I bought a nice bottle in the duty-free shop at De Gaulle Airport, just as we were leaving the country, for a maidenly sixteen euro.

At a recent gathering of Partner’s family, we opened the bottle and shared the experience.

A few loved it. Partner’s sister Pearl took a tiny sip and poured the rest of her shot into my glass. Partner’s three nephews appeared to enjoy it very much.

As did I.

It’s fiery, but smooth.  It’s not the same as grappa (the Italian apple liqueur) at all. Grappa is thick and hot. Calvados is fierce, but sophisticated.

And, if you close your eyes as you drink it, you can see the apple orchards of Normandy.

Look for it in your local liquor store.

Disneyland Paris: the happiest place in northern Europe

While in France, we spent an afternoon in Disneyland Paris.

In a word: it’s lovely. The castle in the middle of the park is a sweet delicate French castle with slender turrets, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, “le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant”:


We were there in early October, and the park was decorated for Halloween. Europeans don’t quite understand the American concept of Halloween yet; they understand ghosts and pumpkins and such, but aren’t quite what they have to do with anything. Disneyland Paris was calling it “Helloween,” which would be a little spicy for an American Disneyland. But there were pumpkins everywhere!

Disneyland Paris has the Haunted Mansion, and the Tower of Terror, and the Thunder Mountain Railroad. The lines (in October, anyway) were very short; we never had more than a five-minute wait for any ride. We were surrounded with mostly Spanish and German tourists, and a few Brits; not many French, really. (A colleague of mine, who actually studied the business model of EuroDisney, told me that the Disney folk at first expected the local French population to flock there, and were sorely disappointed to find out that this wasn’t the case. Now they market to the rest of Europe, and they’re doing just fine.)

Disneyland Paris is small, compared to Orlando. One advantage to being smaller, by the way, is that kids don’t get as tired, and parents don’t get as worn out. Is there a lesson here for American theme parks? Too late. They’re already too big.

There are Disneylands everywhere now. Japan and China have their own versions. And Orlando keeps evolving: there’s a New Fantasyland now, with a Beast’s Castle / restaurant, and a Little Mermaid ride, and (forthcoming) a Seven Dwarves ride.

And there’s that little old park in Anaheim too, I suppose.

Whatever it’s called.

I forget.


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