Alphonse Allais

alphonse allais

I was avid to visit the town of Honfleur, up on the damp coast of Normandy, when Partner and I visited France in 2012, because one of my favorite composers – Erik Satie – was born there. (I should note that, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, Satie left Honfleur as soon as he realized where he was.)



Honfleur is a dour little fishing port with boggy streets and old sad-looking houses. Satie’s childhood home has been converted into a very neato little museum, good enough to be featured by Rick Steves on his excellent European travel TV show, but once you’ve seen the museum – as Partner and I quickly realized – you’ve seen the shank of the town, and the best thing you can do is bid Honfleur a modest au revoir.

Except that one little detail caught my attention: a life-sized plastic cow in the visitor center, with a bande dessinee painted on the side. (Two Rick Steves-type comments: Normandy is a farm region, so the cow motif is everywhere, and Partner begs me to remind everyone that the restroom in the Honfleur visitor center was the most toxically horrible he ever came across in Europe.) Anyway, the comic strip on the side of the cow depicted Erik Satie and Honfleur’s other favorite son, humorist Alphonse Allais, grabbing one another’s chin and singing a little children’s song. Then one slaps the other on the cheek, very hard (I have no idea if this is part of the children’s song or not) and runs away, leaving the other in tears. I was so baffled by this that I don’t even remember which one does the slapping and which one runs away.



This led me to Alphonse Allais, whose “oeuvres anthumes” I purchased on an appropriately soggy day in Paris about a week later. (“Anthumes” is meant to be a cute parallel to “posthumes,” meaning “posthumous” – see, I bought the stuff he published while he was still alive, get it?) It turns out that Allais was an essayist / journalist / humorist in a way that no longer really much exists. (If you can imagine the New York Times’s Gail Collins without the politics, or “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s Bill Geist without the peripatetic folksiness, you’ve almost got it.) Allais created characters and situations and wrote about them for a page or two. Generally there’s a punch line. If the characters or the situations amused Allais, he revisited them.




He was, in a word, a feuilletonist.


Do they exist in American literature? Did they ever? Most assuredly. It was a late 19th / early 20th-century thing to be and do. Mencken was a feuilletonist, as were Don Marquis and H. Allen Smith and Harry Golden. See? You haven’t been reading those guys recently, have you? But it’s not because they’re not entertaining or that they don’t write well; it’s only that the style has fallen out of fashion.



Allais had the famous dry Norman sense of humor, the “pince-sans-rire” (“pinch without laughing” – basically, “tell a joke all the way to the punch line, but tell it so seriously and drily that no one is sure if you’re joking or not.” Isn’t French neat to be able to put all of that in three words?) Satie used pince-sans-rire all the time in his music, writing pieces of fantaisiste music with titles like “Dried Embryos,” and ending them with long strings of Beethovian tonic-dominant-tonic chords.



Allais needs to be translated for a modern American readership.



Now who could do something like that?




For Sunday: Erik Satie’s Fourth Nocturne

satie 4 nocturne

I have a liking for the music of Erik Satie. When Partner and I were in France last October, we visited Satie’s childhood home in Honfleur, and one of his residences in the Montmartre district of Paris. He’s one of my favorite composers. He was a complex personality; he could be disagreeable and angry, and was a determined loner for much of his life, making and losing friends (among them Claude Debussy).

He wrote this small piece, his Fourth Nocturne, during the last years of his life. Rollo Myers, who wrote the first English-language biography of Satie, says of this nocturne: “Is there not something Chopinesque about the flowing arpeggios in the left hand which provide, as it were, so reassuring a support for the bare consecutive fifths which outline the melody above?”



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.

Travel tips from Apollonia

My colleague Apollonia has been to Europe many times over the past few years (she has family in Italy), so naturally I sought her advice before our recent trip to France.

She gave me ten euro in bills and coins, and some travel tips.

Here are the tips, and some commentary:

#1: “Wear this scapular on the plane. I wear it when I fly. It couldn’t hurt. You don’t want anything to happen, do you?”




No, of course I don’t want anything to happen. I wore the scapular on the flight from Boston to Paris, and sure enough, nothing happened. Then, as a control experiment, I carried it in my hand luggage on the return trip. Nothing happened then either. (Actually, the return trip was faster and easier than the away trip.)

#2: “You’ll need the change I’m giving you. You have to pay to go to the bathroom, you know.”

Only partially true. Some bathrooms have an attendant (whom the French call, charmingly, “Madame Pipi”) who collects her fifty cents as you go in. Some have an honor system: a little box outside the bathroom into which you can drop a few coins. Many are free altogether (we encountered many of these). Some, interestingly, are self-cleaning. Here’s how they work: you put in your money (usually thirty cents) and the door unlocks. You do your business and leave. After the door closes behind you, an infernal device sprays the toilet – and the whole room – with water and disinfectant.

(At the Deauville train station, an elderly couple taught us how to get around this: you pay your thirty cents, use the facilities, exit – but you don’t quite close the door. Your accomplice / partner dashes in while you hold the door, and voila! Free bathroom!)

(Of course, if you were to let the door close while your friend was in the bathroom, he’d get a blinding faceful of disinfectant.)

(Which would be very funny.)

#3: “Versailles was filthy. There were dust bunnies under the furniture. All the glass surfaces in the Hall of Mirrors were dirty. It was worse than Nazi Germany in there.”



Okay, I didn’t see any dust bunnies in Versailles. The mirrors are plenty warped, but – hey – they’re over three hundred years old.

As for Nazi Germany, here’s Partner’s comment:

“I used the bathroom in the Visitor’s Center in Honfleur. It smelled worse than a barn in there. I still have the stink in my nose. Please tell Apollonia that, if she wants to experience Nazi Germany, she should go there and give that bathroom a try.”

Travel is so broadening, isn’t it?

Les Maisons Satie, in Honfleur

Erik Satie, one of my favorite composers, was born in Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy, in 1866. His birthplace has been transformed into a –

A what?

Not really a museum. Not really a performance space.

A happening.

Satie was an oddball: a medievalist, a surrealist, an independent. He wrote his odd little pieces of music while working as a cabaret pianist. He wrote pieces called “Dessicated Embryos” and “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” and “Next-to-Last Thoughts.” He was probably at least a little mentally ill. He died of acute cirrhosis (too much bourbon and absinthe) in 1925.

The good people of Honfleur have transformed his place of birth into a kind of performance / representation of Satie’s music. In one of the first rooms, you encounter a six-foot-tall pear, slowly flapping gigantic albatross wings. There’s a room of shadow puppets and cutouts. There is – outrageously, unexpectedly – a carousel, which you are invited to ride. I mounted one of the bizarre-looking bicycle-creatures and began to pedal, and the mechanism activated itself, and a cabaret piece of Satie’s – “Le Picadilly” – began to play, and the carousel opened up, brandishing peculiar hybrid musical instruments: shoe-trumpets, umbrella-trombones. An inscription on the wall says (in part): “It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous. And remember: Satie is watching you.”

Then there’s the white room: white walls, white benches, and a white player piano. The piano, eerily, plays one Satie score after another.


Finally, you enter a small movie theater. You’re greeted by Satie himself – a voice from an empty armchair. He narrates a film showing scenes from some of his late ballets – “Parade,” “Mercure,” “Relache.” I knew the music to all three, but I’d never seen the dancing; it was beautiful and odd and otherworldly. Picasso designed the costumes and sets for “Parade,” and it shows: the circus managers who open each scene wear bizarre cubist outfits that look completely alien.

I was idiotically happy through the whole museum.

Here’s a video that gives you a nice impression of the place, through the eyes of an excited child:

My dears, do yourselves the favor of a lifetime, and visit Normandy. Sample the cheese and the fish. See the churches, and the villages.

And visit the house of Monsieur Satie in Honfleur, and ride the carousel.

It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous once in a while.

And remember: Satie is watching you.

Off to France

Attention, mes copains et mes copines!

Partner and I are leaving for France today. We will be there for about ten days; we will mostly be in Paris, with an excursion to Normandy (Caen, Honfleur, Rouen, Bayeux). We already have a dinner reservation for Friday evening at a really charming-looking place in Caen, Le Bouchon du Vaugueux, with a tremendous menu which includes rabbit and local fish and Norman cheeses. We have tickets for the Moulin Rouge in Paris. We have tickets for EuroDisney.

I know you cannot live without me, so I have set up automatic posts over the next few weeks, on general topics, which you can discuss among yourselves.

I will come back from la belle France with beaucoup d’histoires, you can just be sure.

Think of us as Eloise in Paris.

Oh my lord!

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