Monday, November 21, 2011

The Seat Guru

Last night I was on a plane back from Milwaukee, packed with cheeseheads (Packers fan) and Orothodox Jews. The Packers had just won and the Orthodox were traveling in large family groups, probably heading to New York for the holidays. I, of course, could not have known this when I book my flight and reserved my seat.

However, that morning, as I was printing out my boarding pass, I did what I always do. I checked the seating chart for the plane. I noticed that I was seated near the front, which I like, but that every seat in the first ten rows was taken. Towards the back there was plenty of room. A red flag went up. "Traveling sports team." "High School field trip."

Not knowing what lay ahead I immediately changed my seat to an empty row, albeit near the back, but one where I felt I had a fighting chance at some peace and quiet with which to work and maybe even a little room to spread out.

My seating needs, however, are always quite specific. An aisel on the right hand side of the plane facing the cockpit in the middle of coach. Why the specificity? Once when I was making this request, the ticket person asked me this same question. In fact, she said, sometimes other people asked for the aisel on the right hand side. Why is that? she wondered.

Because they're left handed, I explained. Left-handed people hate to bump other people. We need to protect our wings (ie. arms, not those of the plane type). As to the middle of coach. Have you ever sat near the bathrooms? Or the galley where the crew chats away all night?

Anyway last night as I approached the gate, I knew I'd made the right move. Dozens of Packers fans, many wearing spongey cheesehead hats were waiting to board. As were the Orthodox Jewish families (I feel it's all right to say this as I am Jewish, but I was very glad not to be sitting at the end of a row amidst a family of say, eight small children.

I was Zone 7, in the back, Row 22. Three seats all to myself and lots of room to grow.

My husband often thinks we are "lucky" when it comes to getting good seats on planes. "Boy, amazing how we got those bulkheads," he said on a trip to France as we traveled with two children. Amazing. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone actually with the airlines before this occurred.

Or he thinks I'm obsessed. Why do I fight so hard to get those two little seats on the side in the middle of coach? He stopped asking that question when once on a flight to Palermo we were in the middle of this time large Sicilian families who all wanted to sit next to one another but solved the problem by shouting across the rows to their family members throughout the flight.

Am I a little claustrophobic? Yes. I can't bear being trapped between two strangers or pressed against a window when I can't escape. And a little obsessive? That was well.

But am I more comfortable when I fly. Definitely. And my husband can attest to this too.

By the way a small travel tip: The Seat Guru is an actual website where you can see the configuration of any plane before you book your seats. I use it ALL the time!!!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Au Levain d'Antan - Rue des Abbesses

So this brioche - well not exactly the one featured here - but the brioche made at this boulanger won the best in Paris prize. So did their baguettes, both of which Larry and I sampled. Of the baguettes there were 165 entries. Now I am trying to understand how a baguettes or brioche competition is judged. I get wine, cheese, tea, even dogs. But how can you judge, let alone sample, bread.

We tried to do our own tasting test. The bread was very crunchy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside. This, we decided, was a crucial feature. After that we were stumped. And beyond that we could bear eating any more bread.

I couldn't help wondering if, as with wine and tea, you spit the bread out. Well, you must. Otherwise you'd explode. But spitting out bread, I dunno. It seemed kind of gross.

Still we very much enjoyed the bread and the brioche and the amazing croissants from the bakery right across from where we were living and more or less everything else we tasted, sampled, and alas, never spit out.

Paris in the fall...

Some images from Paris in the fall...


A few weeks ago at my gym I mentioned to the guy who works at the front desk, (I'll call him D), that I'd be away on vacation. "Where are you going?" D, who is a tall, handsome man from another country, asked me and I said Paris. Then he asked if I could bring something back for him. "Just a little souvenir," he said. "A small Eiffel Tower."

"Of course," I told him and off I went on my vacation. D and I have a kind of friendship that revolves around the gym and the fact that I speak his language. We have joked together. I saw that he wanted me to bring him this and I set out to do it.

As you can imagine in Paris there are thousands of little Eiffel Tower souvenirs sold on every corner, yet I set about my task in a serious way. Whenever I came to a souvenir shop or the bookstalls along the Seine, I searched for an Eiffel Tower for D. I rejected keychains and holograms. In the end I landed on just what he asked me. A small, two-inch tall tower.

It was about a week after my return that I managed to get to the gym. D was there, but I'd forgotten to bring the tower. "I'll bring it tomorrow," I told him and his face lit up. "You remembered," he said.

The next day I did bring it by. I put it on the counter in front of him and again his fact lit up. He turned it in his hands. He liked it he told me. Something occurred to me at that moment so I asked him if he collected souvenirs like this. "Yes," he told me, "whenever someone tells him they are going away, I ask them to bring me back something small. I have a collection..."

Then he went on, "You see," he said, "I cannot travel. I can leave the country but I cannot return." He explained to me then his visa issues, that he had been waiting for a long time for them to be resolved. That he has been living in this limbo for a while. "So I like to have these souvenirs to make me think about the places where I haven't been."

I had just returned from a glorious week away while D only traveled by looking at the souvenirs that graced his dining room table and of the journeys he took in that the world in miniature he had created for himself.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Travel Disconnect

Travel, for all of its pleasures, has its disconnects as well. Which, of course, can be a certain kind of pleasure as well, but of a different breed. Travel puts us face to face with certain realities we might never encounter and at times, such as the other day in Paris, these realities can be diametrically opposed.

We'd been walking for a long time and were ready for lunch so we sat down at Cafe Panis for a meal. It's right across from Notre Dame and we knew we were taking a chance. Tourists would be everywhere and, as fate would have it, we sat down beside a nice couple from Athens, Ohio who asked us to take their picture which we did. Then we asked them to take ours and pretty soon we were having a conversation.

We hadn't gotten very far when they asked us where we were from and when we said New York, they asked where we were on 9/11. Larry and I both tensed. Here we were in Paris, a glorious October afternoon, having a glass of Chardonnay and onion soup, and two strangers are asking us about the worst day in our lives.

"I was there," Larry said.

The man sat back a little as did his wife, a triage nurse, it turned out, "You mean there?" They'd never expected this response.

"I worked downtown," Larry replied. He didn't go into the rest of it, nor did I. How for five hours I had no idea where my husband was. How he did worked right across the street and was in fact standing beside the Winter Garden as the towers came down. Neither he nor I explained that he was very very lucky to be alive.

I expected the conversation to go on from there and was relieved when they seemed to respectfully skirt it. I could tell they wanted to know more. But I could also tell that they realized we were on vacation and we didn't want to "go" there.

Our lunch was finished. They were nice and, as often happens on the road, we said our good-byes and wandered on. I bought a hat. We stopped at Shakespeare & Co. where Larry picked up a novel he'd been wanting to read. Larry was cold and getting sick so we took some steps down to the lower level walk along the banks of the Seine to the end of the Ile de la Cite.

Here it was sunny and there was no wind. We ambled. We talked about our lives, our plans. Then right at the tip of the island we sat down, just resting for a moment in the sun.

It wasn't long before a very cute pit bull puppy came sniffing around behind us. He was curious, going around a tree, checking out a man's backpack, and we were amused. Then its owner came by and struck it on its back with its leash. We heard the slap. I turned away but soon I heard another and another. The young man was perhaps trying to discipline his young dog, but in the wrong way.

I know this because we've been trying to train our hound puppy for weeks now. Cheese treats work. My French which had been coming back more and more was almost fluent. And I couldn't bear the thought of another slap on that poor puppy's back.

"I'm going to tell him about cheese treats," I told Larry who nodded because at times I can be a little crazy and I was at this moment.

"Sure, go ahead."

I got up and found the young man at a tree behind me, once more about to slap his dog. He was with a group of three or four friends and, there is no other way to say this, but because it is part of the story I must, they were clearly from North Africa. I said what a cute puppy. Can I pet him? Do you give him cheese treats?

The guy laughed. Fromage. Pourquois pas. After a moment I asked the young man his dog's name. The man gave me a blank stare. "Atta," he said.

"Oh," I replied, momentarily stunned, "that's a nice name."

Atta, of course, as most of the world, but surely any New Yorker, especially survivors of 9/11 knows was the leader of 9/11 contingent that flew into the World Trade Towers. He has also been elevated to a martyr but much of the anti-American elements of the Arab world.

Atta, I thought. I hadn't really figured that the dog would be named Atta. I was suddenly a long way from cheese treats and some discomfort over a man, beating his dog.

Walking home, Larry reminded me of the couple from Athens, Ohio who wanted to know about 9/11, then respectfully declined to ask. And how just an hour later we were speaking with an angry man with a dog named Atta.

Two experiences of the same momemt, diametrically opposed. We walked over the small bridges on the Ile St. Louis, thinking how we were living in a bipolar world. A world whose polarity would not have been made clear were we not in another country, away, raw and exposed. It was certainly not something that would happen at home.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cafe Culture

I am trying to deconstruct the reasons why I actually love Paris and why I am contemplating for the first time since 1968 when I took my exams in a restaurant and was more or less airlifted back to New York (a decision I have always regretted)living here again. I never thought I'd want to live in Paris. I had a million reasons most of which boiled down to the French being too grouchy.

But on this trip I am seeing something else. Or perhaps it is what I am not seeing. I have been here a week and I realize that I do not see people running around with big papercups filled with coffee. Indeed I don't see anyone running around with coffee at all. Instead they are sitting with friends or alone, drinking it out of ceramic cups. They are sitting in the sun. They are reading a book. They are chatting. And they are drinking coffee without being in motion.

I have been thinking a lot about the cafe culture (and the fact that it is called a culture). And I remember something I learned in 2008 - my last trip here when I was in a wheelchair. Larry and I realized that it was fairly easy to get in and out of cafes. They all open up right on to the street and they are set on corners.

It turns out this isn't an accident of fate but actually a carefully conceived urban design. When the city was developed a few hundred years ago, cafes already existed on corners. They were drinking houses, places to socialize, etc. And somewhere along the line it was decided that they should be protected. That is on corners where cafes exist (and I believe there are over 1000) a cafe will always exist. A GAP or Prada isn't going to come in and take over that corner.

This is why some cafes such as the Wepler where we stopped in for oysters and searching for the ghost of Henry Miller who was conspicuously absent (and if you reread the open scene of Quiet Nights in Clichy you will perhaps see why)has existed on the same corner for almost a 100 years.

Cafes and their locations are essentially grandfathered into the city design. Landmarked. In this brilliant move of urban planning Paris will never become a mall.

But New York. Why can't it work there? Or in other cities? Because of real estate, because of the need to do sales of coffee in volume (ie papercups), because our particular brand of capitalism requires us to keep moving.

And the French, who certainly have their own capitalism, also have culture, a way of life, that contrary to our own is literally designed for them to stop. And maybe that's what culture is. It's not just the elites or intellectuals or students either. Today a Thursday coming home at six o'clock, a cold crisp evening, every cafe was literally packed.

In my neighborhood in Brooklyn there is a beautiful fountain at Grand Army Plaza. A gorgeous gushing shoot of water and its loneliness saddens me every time I drive by. I have this vision, foolish perhaps I know, of cafes all around it. I long for it in fact. Of meeting friends in the late afternoon, of bringing a book or my journal, and just for an hour or so in the course of our busy lives also coming to a halt as we sip our cafe cremes.

I love Paris...

It has been a long time since I wandered the streets of Paris...I had forgotten how much I love being here and why.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


In the past week or so that I’ve been in France I’ve encountered what I am considering the new French paradox. It has nothing to do with why French women, who eat cheese and fois gras and beef steak, are thin and American women who diet all the time are fat. This paradox is about giving and receiving directions. It has to do with the fact that when you are in a place where you are unfamiliar, people give you directions as if you are supposed to know where you are.

This is perhaps more prevalent for me in France because, for better or for worse, my French is quite good or at least my accent is - good enough so that when I ask for directions people assume that I actually know more or less where I am going and I am only asking for a little boost to my confidance. Or so that I can practice my French by asking needless directions regarding just where the Rue du Parc Royal or the nearest ATM or the Sorbonne really is.

The French think I just need a bit of encouragement. Oh it’s only two feet away. You could walk there in your slippers. Just go straight; you can’t miss it. You know where the Rue de Perle is, right? So just keep climbing, then at the top of the street, turn right. You can see our terrace from there. But in fact you can miss it. You can’t get there in your slippers. Unless you have escaped from an insane asylum. And as to the terrace you can see it if you know what you are looking for.

Then they rattle off numbers of streets addresses and codes you need to get inside a building and whatever else and tell you, “but there is nothing simpler.” They might as well as be talking about brain surgery or solid state physics. Just make an incision along the base of the skull. Il y a rien plus simple.

Really the problem is that I speak with such confidence. I rarely stammer or appear to hesitate. I don’t even seem lost. I nod my head and smile and say “bien sur” seven or eight times. Or on the phone until it is just assumed that I understand exactly where I am going and what I am supposed to do to get there.

Here is a case in point...The other night we were going to have dinner with Jean-Michel (my French “brother”). Four decades ago I lived with Jean-Mi and his mother, Joelle, and we have seen them often over the years. Every few years we go to his place in the Marais and so it makes sense that I'd remember more or less where he is. And this year in fact we have rented an apartment "just two feet" from his place.

On the phone he rattled off his address which I understood as #6 and the code to his building which I understood as 2087. After many missteps and stopping and asking at least two people who used their SmartPhones to help us find his street, we finally arrived at #6 and I punched in the code and bingo we were in the courtyard, but nothingn looked familiar. In fact I had the sense that I’d never been here before.

Now #16 had looked quite familiar, but the code didn’t work there. And, after several more queries on the street and a phone call from a drunk Frenchman's phone it turned out that I had the wrong address, but, by a strange twist of fate, I had the correct building code. It was like something out of some weird film noir.

When we finally arrived for dinner, an hour late, Jean-Michel laughed. Oh, you know, there was no rush. You could have taken your time.

And so it goes. We missed the start of a film when the gendarme told us to just keep going, then make a left. You can't miss it, he said. Or when we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a subway maze. Oh just go back the way you came, then climb the stairs to the left, not the right. The bank? It is just down there. All these helpful directions left us wandering, bewildered, through charming neighborhoods, down many winding streets.

The next time a person in New York seems lost I will take him by the hand and lead him there myself. If he tries to repay me in some way for my trouble, I will explain that this is my contribution to karma. The next time I am in your country perhaps someone will not listen to my voice but to the pleading in my eyes, perhaps that person will take me by the hand and show me the way so that I do not find myself meandering, lost, hopelessly, down all those winding, not to mention charming little streets.

Or I will send Larry out to do ask the way next time because his French is not that good and perhaps the French will speak slowly and maybe even show him the way.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On traveling light...

It wasn't really my intention to travel light to Paris. That is, not this light. I had packed carefully. My suitcase of clothes and, as always, my backpack containing my journal, books to read, a folder of work to do, medications, chargers, hair brush, make up, assorted drugs and earplugs and what have you for the plane. But when we got to Newark Airport and I looked at the luggage in our car my backpack - the one item I never forget and never travel without, the one thing I consider to be essential not only to my journeys, but to life itself - wasn't in the car.

It seemed impossible. How could this happen? It is true that Larry packed the car. On the other hand I had walked right by my backpack on the way out the door because I wanted to dispose of a rotten avocado. An avocado? And for that all of my best laid plans - really months of planning - was pretty much out the door.

What did we have? Well, Larry had our passports because at the last minute I had given them to him. And he had my laptop which I only use for Internet and my camera. And that was it. I had nothing to read. No journal to write on. No pills that I actually need. Not the Murakami novel I'd intended to read.

I was hysterical. I said I couldn't go. I tried dozens of ways to retrieve my backpack including having a car service try and race it to the airport only to have the car get stuck in the Holland Tunnel.

As the plane took off, I was beside myself. At the airport, at my daughter's suggestion, I had gone into a bookstore and purchase a slim notebook, but not the kind I normally write in or paint in. I had one novel with me in my luggage - also a slim volume of Richard Yates. A backup novel.

I had no sleeping pill or earplugs for the plane, not short stories or ideas to work on, not the children's books I'd intended to work on.

I was for the first two days bereft, miserable, angry, laying blame. And finally resigned that I had to do what I had been avoiding for so many years.

That is, have a vacation. Travel just for the hell of it. Sit and stare into space. Sleep late. Stare at the Seine. Not look as the scraps of old short stories that had been sitting on my desk in lumps like unrising bread.

While it is true that trying to figure out how to get medication that I needed proved arduous, it is also true that wandering around the Belleville neighborhood of France and finding myself on the footsteps of the house where Edith Piaf was born - a more or less serendiptious event - probably wouldn't have happened if I had all my stuff with me.

Neither would a day of wandering along the Seine where Hong Kongese honeymooners posed for photo ops and someone was filming a music video and an old French singer crooned and lovers kissed and I just sat, head tilted back, basking in the sun. I'm not sure I would have gone every night to a different film at the Cinematheque or spent hours just hanging out in a cafe across the street from the apartment we'd rented.

As I watched all my plans disappear with the backpack left at home, a whole other trip evolved. Nothing I'd anticipated or perhaps even wanted, but the truth I found myself less burdened, less weighed down by the freight of my life.

Was I angry? Yes. Did I try and blame my nearest and dearest? I'll plead the fifth. But the truth is in time I let my anger go. I stopped dwelling on what I'd left behind and focused more on what I had with me. I felt lighter, more at ease.

I let it go. What I thought I needed. What I had to have. What I wanted. My expectations. Some notes I couldn't do without. A book I had to read. Lipstick, eyemake up. Some things I purchased. Others I forgot about. I stopped being angry. I started to have a good time.

Unencumbered and, perhaps for the first time in a very long time, I was in truth traveling light.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Umbrella: A tale of Atonement

While this is not a conventional story of a journey and writing, it does involve journeys of various types. And it seems appropriate to write this now because the Jewish High Holidays are approaching and it is, of course the time to atone. God forgives us automatically on this day, but it is for us to forgive and seek forgiveness from others. We must make our own amends. Yet each year as Yom Kippur approaches, I am reminded of what happened to my umbrella. And, the truth is, I cannot approach my synagogue or say my prayers without recalling its fate. And so I cannot ever entirely forgive.

It was a pale blue umbrella I had purchased with my daughter a number of years ago in Prague and it contained scenes of the Castle, Old Towne Square, Charles Bridge. It cost, as my daughter recently reminded me, about forty dollars, not the usual three or five dollars of a street umbrella in New York (the kind that lasts through about one storm and whose remains are strewn across city streets). But I never really thought much about the cost of the umbrella. It reminded me of Prague - a place I love. And I loved walking beneath its sky blue cover on rainy days.

One Yom Kippur eve, as I was about to head up to Temple, I saw that it was pouring. I could have easily taken any old black umbrella in our umbrella stand, but I grabbed my Prague umbrella instead. My reasoning being that in a sea of black umbrellas it would be easy to locate mine as the service came to a close (which on Yom Kippur it really doesn't; it just resumes in the morning). As the service concluded, we filed out. The sanctuary was, of course, packed, and it was raining so it took people time to gather up their umbrellas and make their way back out into the world to begin their fasts and ask God’s forgiveness.

But when at last I approached the sea of umbrella all the greeted me was darkness. Black umbrellas everywhere. And a blue one not in sight. How is this possible? I asked myself. Someone must have made a mistake. But how do you mistake your black New York city umbrella with a bright blue one from Prague. Or perhaps they forgot their umbrella. Somehow they would return it to me. But, as I walked home with rain splattering me on the head, I came to the only conclusion. Someone, on the holiest night of all for the Jews, the night when we ask God to forgive us for our sins, had stolen my umbrella.

It became a minor obsession of mine. Wandering the neighborhood on rainy days in search of the blue skies of Prague. But after a while I realized that my thief wouldn’t walk around the neighborhood with it. She (because I came to think of my thief as a she) would take it with her in a car service to the opera. But she couldn’t chance a trip to the corner store.

I have tried to be philosophical about my umbrella. I recall for me the most moving moment in Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean has stolen the priest's silver candlesticks and is captured by the police who bring him to the priest's door. And in a moment of grace that changes Jean Valjean forever the priest tells the officer that he had given Jean Valjean the candlesticks. They were a gift. I wonder if I'd be so magnanimous.

I try to imagine what went through my thief's mind as he or she picked up my blue umbrella from a sea of black ones. I do think of the thief as a woman because the umbrella was rather girlie, but it could have been a man. At any rate I wonder. What did she think as she reached for it? Did the question of sin and atonement cross her mind? The breaking of one of God's commandments. Was it an impulse or something she's done before? And did it occur to her that I might be only a few steps behind as she dashed out into the windy, sodden night. Anyway she must have figured she had another year to atone for this theft, maybe even find a way of returning it. No questions asked.

I am reminded of an incident that happened to my husband once on an airplane. He was boarding and, as he put his suitcase overhead, he put the newspapers he'd just purchased down on the seat behind him. When he turned, he found a couple, sitting in those seats and they were reading his papers. "Excuse," my husband said, "I'm sorry, but I just put those down." They looked at him oddly and told him that they had purchased them and they owned them. Of course my husband knew they were lying. He argued, but they wouldn't budge and, rather than slow down the entire plane, he gave up on his newspapers. But he told me that what riled him the most was seeing the two of them, giggling among themselves at the fast one they'd just pulled off.

Because the truth is when something like this happens the universe feels a little less safe. Our ability to deny just how dangerous and indifferent the world can be, Our world view is slightly shaky, a tiny bit off our axis, really never to return. I still wonder at the impulse to steal a pretty blue umbrella even as you are trying to atone for your sins. Now I know why at Christmas the baby Jesus is chained down in the Nativity scene near my house. But I wish I didn’t.

I have at long last forgiven my thief. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, which seems doubtful, or a desperate act. Like the priest with Jean Valjean if my thief were captured I'd give it to her now. I hope it has given her pleasure. I hope it has kept her dry.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wheelchair and Mime at the Tour Eiffel

This is a picture I took of my wheelchair and a Pharoah mime when we went to Paris in 2008 after I broke my leg. Larry and I went to Europe with the "full catastrophe." Crutches, air cast, cane, and the wheelchair to whom we gave a name. Duncan. "Have you seen Duncan?" I asked my daughter in Dublin as I dragged myself up a set of stairs at Gogerty's to hear a set. "Who's Duncan," my daughter replied. In Paris Larry bumped me up and down the streets. At some point I decided to document Duncan's excursions. In fact there are very few pictures of me and Larry on that trip to Europe ten weeks after breaking my leg, but I have many of Duncan.
"Drop everything and hit the road."

Arthur Rimbaud

A Moveable Feast

"To a man looking for fresh eyes, everything about Paris fascinates." Brassai wrote these words in his memoir about Henry Miller, The Paris Years. Because I am heading to Paris in October, for the first time in three years, these words ring very true.

The last time I was in Paris I was in a wheelchair which I had affectionately named Duncan. Trust me it was no way to travel. Clomping along the cobbled streets and narrow sidestreets of Paris. Now I am going back to do what it was that Miller loved to do, and what Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world for. Walk.

As a girl I lived in Paris in 1967-68. It was a lonely, cold, glorious, insane time. I studied cooking and failed my French class. I lived in an old working class neighborhood with Joelle, my dear French mother, recently deceased. It was in the 13th Arrondisement. The district of Paris that Miller refers to as the most putrid, impoverished, decadent, hungry, filthy, redolent and so on neighborhoods of the entire city.

I don't know if this is true though when I lived there it was a solid working class neighborhood with shift workers coming and going as I can and went from my classes.

Why Paris? Why French? Why me? When I was a girl, growing up in suburban Illinois, my mother (who had never been to Europe) began a crusade to have French taught in the public school. She believed that children in 6th or 7th grade should start learning a language and for her it was French.

My mother longed to travel. She named our dog Renoir. She had the heart for France and, I believe, if she'd been born in a different era, she would have developed a fashion line and gone to Paris all the time. Instead she was locked into girl scout meetings and Flag Day marching bands.

But she wanted me to learn French. Once a week she sent me to see Monsieur La Tate. Monsieur La Tate had a very strange, sad tic that made his head flash back and forth all the time and clearly he hadn't seen his life's destiny as being my instructor in rudimentary French. None the less I went. I was dutiful. And I learned.

In high school we were given an aptitude test in language. The test was weirdly administered in Kurdish. You had half an hour to memorize Kurdish grammar and vocabulary, then you took the test. In all my years of testing I never scored higher than I did on that language aptitude exam.

I went into AP French. My mother got our local school to start teaching French and in college for reasons even as I write these remain obscure (though perhaps not to Dr. Freud) I became a French scholar. A degree I would never complete at the graduate level, but still I learned.

In 1967 I sailed on the SS France. My mother stood on the dock. Before leaving me, she said, "You take yourself with you." I arrived in Paris in time to become part of the student revolts of 1968. Paris got under my skin.

Miller understood what Paris had to offer him. He referred to the city as "mother, mistress, home and muse. As Brassai says, Miller tried to understand how Paris worked its magic on him, but the answers were "innumerable, intangible and ineffable."

On his first trip he didn't fall in love with the city, but when he returned for the second time the city grabbed him by the throat. He cut his writerly teeth here. After spending his days and nights in its bars and cafes, Miller wrote in "Remember to Remember": One needs no artificial stimulation in Paris to create. The air is saturated with creation."

Miller never read books for their meaning. He read a book because it touched something inside of him that made him think and feel and write more. Later in his life he admitted that he had read at least five thousand books in his life and perhaps fifty of them really mattered.

I picked up this Brassai book because it was sitting on my bedstand. Larry thinks he bought it at St. Marks as something good to take away with us to Paris. And I am devouring it as I would a meal. I am dogearring, underlining, making big check marks everywhere. It is becoming one of those books that matter to me.

I envy Miller. He went to Paris. He had no money, no resources, no hope and yet as he writes in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer,  "I am the happiest man alive."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Journey's End

Fire Island. calm

It seems as if we always end the summer on Fire Island. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it has become a family ritual since Kate was small. Once we stayed in a room above a Chinese restaurant on Ocean Beach. Now we stay with friends.

There are a mated pair of swans at Fair Harbor and we see them every year. Sometimes they have cygnets. Other times they do not. This year they didn't. A few years ago Larry and I went out for a weekend alone (someone lent us their house) and we saw that the female swan had been left alone with the cygnets and she seemed to be searching for her mate. Every day we went down to the dock to see if he had returned and every day she was alone. On our last day just hours before we were to leave we went down one last time. We knew we'd be disappointed and saddened by what we saw and we were. We sat, sipping our coffee on the dock, seeing the female swimming alone. Then suddenly she made a noise. A loud, flapping noise. We looked up and in the distance we saw a swan, swimming towards the dock, and the female raced across the surface of the water to greet him. It was truly a greeting, as any human who loved someone would.

This year the couple had no babies with them this year. But then neither did Larry and I. Still we hung out at the dock as we always do. It is nice to have rituals. For holidays, for the major events in our lives, and for the end of summer too.

One ritual that's come to mean a lot. As my ferry, Voyager, was pulling away, children leaped from the dock. It's a superstition. If the children jump from the dock, you'll be back next year.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I feel I am getting closer...

to this not resembling a bowl of fruit.

Fruit bowl - Gloria's kitchen. Umbria

As my husband pointed out to me last night, this still looks like a bowl of fruit. (See yesterday's blog post). But I don't care. I like it and it reminds of that gorgeous bowl that Gloria had in the center of her kitchen table in her country house in Umbria and I like to be reminded of such things.

Monday, August 8, 2011

On Art and Memory - Rilke and Joan Mitchell

I am reading the new biography of Joan Mitchell, a painter I worship for many reasons. I love her work. It just speaks to me over and over again. Then there is the Chicago connection and the fact that she was the first wife of my cousin, the legendary Barney Rosset. But mainly I love the work. I love the way she strips everything down. The way she recalls the yellow satin curtains of her childhood and the lake (Lake Michigan, of course) and the steel blue sky and trees and a piano and it all becomes in its own way part of everything Joan does. With color. As she said to someone once, "It all comes out of the tube."

Today I've decided I'm going to paint. I'm going to take this image of the bowl of fruit from Gloria's house in Umbria and try and break it down. Not do what is expected. Which is to make a beautiful watercolor of this beautiful bowl. A bowl I can't quite get out of my head because it represents summer and Italy and a kind of balance with the world.

But I am also going to try and take what Joan took from poets such as Rilke who was one of her favorites, I am learning, and one of mine. We both love the same quote and I will quote it here on memories:

"You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memoires themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them."

This is how a great lake become a splotch of blue. How a childhood loss becomes a ringing bell. We must experience, grieve, forget, and then remember, but in this way memory like fossil fuels is experience transformed.

Somehow this thought brings me to perhaps one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. At the Savage Beauty show at the MET which alas closed yesterday. The tiny hologram of Kate Moss in white - a ghost image that rises and falls and disappears, so tiny you can hold it on your hand. What was Alexander McQueen, that mad genius, thinking of when he created this tiny whiteness of a woman. His own mother whose death seems to have precipitated his own?

This image could only have emerged from some very deep place which is perhaps that place where all art begins.

So I am going to try and paint this bowl of fruit. But I am not going to try and paint it as a bowl of fruit.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Enchanted June

Enchanted June

Just a few images of our week in Umbria. Ten graduate students and me and Gloria, our wonderful hostess. Hope to do it again next year. Every year. It was beautiful. Vineyards, olive trees, Todi on the hill, a full eclipse of the moon. Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” - Wendell Berry

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

La Dolce Far Niente

On my first day in Rome in early June I found myself for the first time in over a year with nothing to do. No obligations. Nothing was required of me. I had to be nowhere. So I decided to do just that. Nothing. Whatever happened would happen. My only goal was to remain in the shade.

Because I lived in Rome many years ago and I return often I felt no need to go sightseeing. In fact that was exactly what I didn't want to do. No tourists. Just me in the back streets where the Romans live.

I wandered for about an hour down into the area of Rome called Piazza Madonna dei Monte. The day was already hot and at a restaurant/cafe called Il Covo I plunked myself down under an arbor. I had front row viewing of the piazza. I took out my journal, my paints, my camera and I went to work. Doing nothing.

After an orange juice and iced coffee, I was still sitting, but I was starting to focus on something before me which was a drinking fountain. It was right in the middle of the piazza and the water was in constant flow. I later learned that these fountains are called Big Nose because they look like, well, big noses.

I began to watch the people coming and going who stopped and took a sip at this fountain. Some bent forward and drank from it. Some washed hands, their fruit, or their feet. Others filled water bottles or dunked their heads. Dogs came to lap. Children to play. Old people to a brief respite from the sun.

It wasn't really a decision but I just began photographing everyone who stopped at the fountain. The fountain for me started to become a kind of real thing - like a person. I felt sorry for it when it was alone or ignored. I was happy when people drank. And the fountain seemed happy to.

By the end of the day I had gone through several espressos, a bowl of pasta, a glass of wine, two bottles of mineral water and taken about a hundred shots. I loved it. I had a great time.

Later when I returned to New York I recalled that wonderful day. As I fought my way into a crowded subway, I thought about how this city where I live is all about moving people from one place to another. New York is about movement. And Rome is all about not moving. Rome is a place where all seats face the piazza and you are more than welcome to stay.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oh Canada

When it was 104 in New York, I was swimming in Lake Huron. I didn't even know that sewer plants were on fire and records were being set. It was sweet up there with Larry's family. Nice to have another country to go to and I am liking Ontario more and more. I can see why Alice Munro sticks around. At least where we were in Saubel Beach, time seemed to be standing still. My Illinois landscape, along the shores of Lake Michigan, was so similar to this. The same really. On Friday Ted and Lynn, Larry's brother and sister-in-law made a great barbecue. Nieces, nephews, everyone was there. Lots of chicken and corn. Grilled salmon and a Sunset swim. Kate made the best zucchini salad ever. I played pinball with Larry and Kate. They won. I didn't care. We got a milkshake at 11pm. Tasted like childhood. Tasted like home.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Samantha Jean - R.I.P.

This was just one of those moments while floating down the Mississippi. Samantha Jean and Tom, frolicing in the river. I was somewhere downstream, fighting the current and trying to swim back, when this picture was taken. When I finally flung myself on to the beach, Tom and Jerry looked at me, perplexed. "Where were you?"

"I was shouting for help," I told them, but they were busy taking this snap.

"Must'a been to our bad ears," Jerry replied. Both he and Tom had bad left ears.

Samantha Jean was our mascot. A real river rat terrier. Crazy creature, she growled and snapped at me at first. I couldn't believe I'd be sailing with her in a houseboat for four weeks. We grew to trust me over cheese and salami bits that I snuck her when she was on the fly deck through a small window hatch. During the worst of the storms she trembled under my bunk.

We made friends. Tom loved her. He carried her everywhere. He'd never leave her alone on the ship. They slept together in his sleeping bag every night.

In the end Samantha Jean traveled well. She had a good long live and a great trip. She was a good swimmer. And a good sport. She will be missed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On travel and wine

My last night in Rome I sat with friends, ordering dinner along the banks of the Tiber River. Giovanni, my host, ordered a ribolla and, when I asked him about it, he told me that it was about 80% ribolla grape and 10 or 20% chardonnay. I was impressed that he had this information on the tip of his tongue so I asked how he knew so much. "Did you study about wine?" I asked him.

And Giovanni turned to me in that charming way of his and said, "I never study the great pleasures of life." We both laughed and we both knew what he meant.

But, despite what Giovanni says, I took a wine class last week. WINE 101. Wines from the Piedmonte region of Italy. I headed off to my local wine store, Red, White, and Bubbly (highly recommnended) where I walked into a room of about eight people and was given a seat with ten glasses in front of me. Tyrone, our local West Indian sommalier, was pouring.

It occurred to me from the start that I might be in trouble. For years I thought I should quit drinking. Give up wine. Probably I drink a little too much, like it more than I should. So I tried. I made one or two efforts and then realized it was pointless. As the Italians, or is it the French say, a day without wine is like a day without sun. I found that if I drink in moderation I'm fine. But the ten glasses before me, even just for a tasting, seemed daunting.

Still I couldn't agree more with that old saying. The truth is I love the taste of a great rose, a buttery chardonnay, a berry-on-the-nose pinot noir. I really don't know how to talk about wine that much and I'm not sure I care. But what fascinates me, as it does with literature, is landscape.

Terroir. Specific wines come from specific regions. The rain, the soil, the sun. It changes the whole thing. Similarly I have found with stories. The narratives that came out of the island country of Greece are not the same as came from the sweeps of Russia, the expanse of America, the tiny, tidy island life of England. The same with wine. What grows one way in volcani Sicily won't be the same wine on the North Fork of Long Island.

I guess what draws me to wine is somewhat what has drawn me to journeys. Maps. Terrain. So giving up wine would be the equivalent of giving up stories. And that would be the equivalent of giving up on journeys. And it is so intertwined I can no longer tell the one from the other. Nor do I particularly want to.

So I am not really going to learn more about wine per se. I am really going to learn about geography. What makes one region produce something different from another? And what exactly are all those different kinds of grapes?

In fact the class did not disappoint. I knew I'd come to the right place when our teacher, Tyrone, told us that every bottle of wine contains a story. When you open it, you can tell if it was hot or dry that summer. If it rained a lot. You can smell the earth from which that wine grew. A bottle of wine is a time capsule. It contains our past.

I graduated from Wine 101 and staggered in to the night with my fellow classmates. I learned that wines can smell like diesel, barnyard, cat piss, and pencil shavings. And then there are the hints of bitter apple, berry, mushroom, bacon? Beyond the story in the bottle, each sip requires a lot of imagination.

I don't plan to study the great pleasures of life. But it can't hurt to understand a little more. So now each sip is a small journey to another place, another time. Each sip, even on my terrace or local bistro, takes me away.