Caen


Partner and I stayed in the city of Caen, in lower Normandy, while we toured northern France. In the four days we stayed there, we both fell in love with the city. It is modest and charming, and has wonderful medieval structures still standing – the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames and Palais Ducal, all built by William the Conqueror, and the St. Pierre church built by William’s grandfather.

Caen has streets full of shops and bakeries and bistros. We had our best French meal in Caen, at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux.

Ah, we thought: a real French town, unchanged since the Merovingians.

But then we talked to the concierge of our hotel.

It was at the Hotel Kyriad on the Place de la Republique, which I highly recommend to you if you’re ever staying in Caen. It was charming, and it had a wonderful breakfast buffet, and some really nice concierges. Our first was a funny skinny dark-haired guy with glasses, very French, very animated and helpful. Then, after a day or two, he was replaced with a tall blondish Norman-looking fellow with a doleful/cheerful expression.

On the day we were checking out to go to Paris, I noted a postcard behind the counter, a picture of the hotel in days gone by: LE VILLA DES CLOCHERS, the Belltower Building. The building has no belltowers now, so I asked the tall blond Norman concierge, in my (still halting) French: “Is this a picture of this hotel?”

He smiled sadly. “Yes and no. Look –“

It turns out that he was something of a history buff. He pulled out some old photos, from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. He even had an aerial view of Caen in August of 1944. In it, you could see that the city had been almost completely flattened. “You see,” he said very calmly, “a lot of the old churches survived. Medieval stone – who knows? It stood up. Maybe you saw the Church of St. Etienne-le-Vieux?

“Across from L’Abbaye aux Hommes?” I said. “We thought it was a ruin -”

He nodded sadly. “Yes. From World War II. It was left unrepaired, as a reminder of the war. But most of the rest of the city has been rebuilt.”

“What about the bombs?” I asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “They estimate that maybe two out of ten are still unexploded. People find them all the time when they excavate or build new foundations for buildings. They have ‘controlled explosions.’”

Partner and I left Caen about half an hour later via train to Paris, but as we left, we saw the city through new eyes.

We’d seen Caen as a clean beautiful city, nicely preserved. We hadn’t realized that it had rebuilt so completely.

How very frail we human beings are, and how frail our creations are: our cities, our civilizations.

But sometimes, even if they’re destroyed, they can be rebuilt.

(Somehow this gives me hope. I don’t know.)


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.


The French stereotype


What do Americans look like? Well, apart from the Hispanics and blacks and Asians who make up 50% or more of our population, we look like – well, we’re all over the map. Look at me: I’m Italian / Polish / Dutch / English, with graying hair and blue eyes; some days I look like a Calvinist cleric, and other days I look like a doughy Polack.

And what do the French look like?

This should be easier. Most of them are descended from two thousand years of local stock. They’re –

Well, they’re all over the map too.

The classical authors, including Julius Caesar, couldn’t agree on what the Gauls looked like. Some said they were tall and fair; others said they were short and dark. Everyone agreed that the later invaders, like the Normans, were big and blond. The Germanic tribes were blond, almost certainly (maybe they were the ones Caesar was describing).

Mostly the people I saw in France were short and dark, and very lean. Young people were mostly very skinny; older people seem to get (at most) a little stocky, but not grossly so (nowhere near American obesity). We ran into a few tall/fair individuals, but mostly in Normandy, where the Vikings came ashore a thousand years ago.

When I was living in North Africa, I got used to being the tallest person in the room (I’m a gigantic five-foot-ten). It was pretty much the same in France, with very few exceptions.

What are we supposed to look like? And where did any of us come from in the first place?

Beginnings are mysterious; origins are obscure.

Who can say?


For Sunday: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis


The first time I went to Paris was in March 1984. I was hopping from the USA to Morocco and had only about six hours to waste, so I raced into the city from the airport, had a cup of coffee and a brioche, and visited the Hotel des Invalides, which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why? Because Archy the Cockroach went there back in the 1920s and wrote a whopping good poem about it.

Partner and I visited the Invalides again in October. Napoleon is still there, in his gigantic stone tomb that looks like a cross between an overstuffed sofa and an enormous old-fashioned radio. And, like Archy, we left feeling “solemn but likewise uplifted.”

Herewith: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis.

paris france

i went over to

the hotel des invalides

today and gazed on

the sarcophagus of the

great napoleon

and the thought came

to me as i looked

down indeed it

is true napoleon

that the best goods

come in the smallest

packages here are

you napoleon with

your glorious course

run and here is

archy just in the

prime of his career

with his greatest

triumphs still before

him neither one of us

had a happy youth

neither one of us

was welcomed socially at

the beginning of his

career neither one of

us was considered much

to look at

and in ten thousand years from

now perhaps what you said and did

napoleon will be

confused with what

archy said and did

and perhaps the burial

place of neither will be

known napoleon looking

down upon you

I wish to ask you now

frankly as one famous

person to another

has it been worth

all the energy

that we expended all the

toil and trouble and

turmoil that it cost us

if you had your life

to live over

again bonaparte would

you pursue the star

of ambition

i tell you frankly

bonaparte that i myself

would choose the

humbler part

i would put the temptation

of greatness aside

and remain an ordinary

cockroach simple

and obscure but alas

there is a destiny that

pushes one forward

no matter how hard

one may try to resist it

i do not need to

tell you about that

bonaparte you know as

much about it as i do

yes looking at it in

the broader way neither

one of us has been to blame

for what he has done

neither for his great

successes nor his great mistakes

both of us napoleon

were impelled by some

mighty force external to

ourselves we are both to

be judged as great forces of

nature as tools in the

hand of fate rather than as

individuals who willed to

do what we have done

we must be forgiven

napoleon

you and i

when we have been

different from the common

run of creatures

i forgive you as i know

that you would forgive

me could you speak to me

and if you and i

napoleon forgive and

understand each other

what matters it if all

the world else find

things in both of us that

they find it hard

to forgive and understand

we have been

what we have been

napoleon and let them laugh that off

well after an hour or so of

meditation there i left

actually feeling that i

had been in communion

with that great spirit and

that for once in my

life i had understood and been

understood

and i went away feeling

solemn but likewise

uplifted mehitabel the

cat is missing

archy

The Moulin Rouge


Before we left for Paris, Partner got us tickets for the Moulin Rouge. The tickets were hard to get; the show sells out very quickly.

And now I know why.

First of all, the neighborhood is exactly what you want it to be: it’s a slightly less grubby version of the old Times Square in Manhattan, or Boston’s late lamented Combat Zone. We arrived early and had a drink in a sidewalk café, and watched a pretty young prostitute pick up a nice young man at the next table. Romance!

The show was old-fashioned burlesque: big costumes, big musical numbers, and a little dash of Cirque du Soleil. The theme was “Feerie”: Fairyland.  There were two jugglers, one serious, one very funny. There was a big “exotic” musical number that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese. There were little ballads. There was, of course, the Can-can. (We were seated at a table with two very serious Frenchwomen, who only applauded the Can-can.)

Then there were the breasts.

They were everywhere, and they gave me quite a turn. I think I must have seen seventy or eighty of them. They were (mostly) very pert. (There were lots of bare behinds too, but they made less of an impression on me, for some reason.)

There was very little beefcake. There was one very nice number with two handsome acrobatic male dancers, one shirtless and the other in a t-shirt, who did elaborate handstands and carries. I could have done with a little more of that.

Upon leaving the club, I realized I’d left my American cap behind. To hell with it! I thought. I went to a street vendor and bought a very rakish hipster hat for seven euro.

So now I take a piece of the Moulin Rouge wherever I go, and my little American cap is floating around Montmartre somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe that prostitute has it.

Vive l’amour!


Caffeine nation


I have not been drinking much coffee for the last ten months, because of my kidney stones. (I read something online about “dark beverages” making them worse, and – although no one can really quite agree about what causes kidney stones – I decided to make the great sacrifice.)

It hasn’t been that bad. I have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, just to wake up; then, at work, I switch over to a mug of ice water. I like the sound of the ice tinkling in the cup; it reminds me of summer evenings on the veranda.

But, while in France recently, I decided to drink coffee again. Why not? They brew coffee the way I really like it: brutally strong and dark. Even the instant Nescafe in the hotel was delicious. I had three or four cups every morning, and usually a cup or two more after lunch or dinner. It was invigorating. (Most days I took a Xanax too, just to keep from vibrating myself to death.)

The French love their coffee. There’s a café / bistro every few yards; I saw very few people eating, but everyone was having a cup of coffee. We watched a French TV game show one evening – one of those stupid panel things where comedians try to top one another – and they were jumping around and screaming so much, you’d have sworn they were all on meth.  Aha! I thought. Caffeine!

My kidney stones hardly bothered me at all during the trip. Okay, I thought. So much for “dark beverages.” So, upon my return to the office, I went back to my cup-of-coffee-every-fifteen-minutes routine.

I became a different person.

I was snappish and irritable. I popped off at people. I became anxious about stupid things. (Also, my kidney stones began gnawing at me again. Go figure.)

It’s just not worth it.

I’m back on ice water, and I’m a lovely sweet calm person again.

(For what it’s worth.)


Montmartre


Our very first day in Paris – though we were both still deathly weary from the plane flight – we went, on foot, up into Montmartre.

(This seemed appropriate to me, since my favorite composer, Erik Satie, used to walk back and forth between le Chat Noir (the Montmartre bar in which he worked as a cabaret pianist) and his home in Arcueil (south of Paris) every day. He drank his way from bar to bar on both trips, and he carried a hammer in his pocket, just in case he was attacked on the way.)

So we climbed Montmartre. It was a brilliantly sunny early-autumn day. Partner knew the way, as he’d visited it several times on Google Earth, and he amazed me; he knew exactly which streets to take.

We ended up in front of Satie’s house on the Rue Cortot:

 

Next door is the Musee de Montmartre. It is a huge rambling old house, in which Renoir worked, and Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo lived, and Aristide Bruant, and many others.

It is beautiful. All of Paris is laid out at your feet. Look:

Partly we were still dazed and jet-lagged. But partly also we were wandering in an earthly paradise. If I didn’t have a photographic record of it, I’d swear it was a dream.

Two of my friends in Tunis used to call me “Hajj” as a joke; it’s the title of respect given to a man who’s visited the Holy Sites in Mecca.

Well, I’ve earned the title, because Montmartre is my Holy Land.

But don’t call me Hajj.

Call me Monsieur Hajj.


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