Thursday, February 24, 2005

Meeting Margaret Atwood

Feb. 24, 2005

The sky was doing something between raining and snowing when I turned the corner onto rue de Parcheminerre -- it felt something like cold spit coming down -- and I could see far enough down the dark little street to be able to tell that there was already a line at the door of the Abbey Bookshop. There was also a little table set up with a crock of warm spiced apple cider and cups just beneath the Canadian flag that flies from the entrance. So it wasn't as if proprietor Brian Spence and his staff weren't trying to be hospitable. It's just that the last-minute appearance by Margaret Atwood had attracted a huge crowd.

I had to slip sideways into the bookshop, which is only wide enough at its widest point for two people to stand side-by-side, or sidle past one another. And there, about half-way down the center aisle, was Margaret Atwood sitting cross-legged on top of a table, signing books. A small, bright-eyed woman who looks right into your eyes when she speaks to you and was warm and friendly when I told her that I wanted a volume of her poems, although she was signing copies of her latest novel for the people in line. She looked around the packed bookshop and noticed, on the packed shelves behind her, the one copy of her selected poems. I recruited, via his petite female companion, a tall guy who was standing near the shelves to reach up and get it down for me-- everybody pitches in, in situations like this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood's work, but not as big a fan as my pal Collin Kelley, for whom I'd made the pilgrimage, so I had her sign the book to him.

Then I had to make my way out again, and across the square to the church where Ms. Atwood was going to give her talk. Plenty of space there, and warm wine and warm chocolate chip cookies, too. Brian Spence asked the audience, on Ms. Atwood's behalf, to move as close as possible to the edge of the stage, so we pulled our chairs right up to the edge. I don't think he or Ms. Atwood noticed that they were standing directly underneath a huge crucifix bearing a likeness of Christ's bloody and beaten body. But it seemed ironic to me, given that Ms. Atwood was cheerfully, quietly and very seriously talking about her latest novel, Le Dernier Homme (the title of the just-published French version of Oryx and Crake), as a "joke-filled account of the end of the human race."

What followed was a fascinating and polite discussion of science, ethics and genetic engineering. "Science is a tool," Atwood said, "that we use to fulfill our desires. What we should be questioning are our desires." She also said that the book has gotten a good response from scientists; and that her scientist brother commended her for getting the stuff about sex right, although he wasn't sure about the purring business. Atwood told us that a cat's purr has a frequency similar to ultrasound and, therefore, has healing properties -- which is why your cat will come and lie down and purr on whatever part of your body is ailing you, and also why a cat who senses a non-cat-lover has entered the room will go directly to that person and rub up against them and purr, in order to try to"heal" that person of his malady. "It's about the only unselfish things cats do," according to Atwood. In her novel, the re-engineered humans form purring circles to heal one another. I think it would work for me, if anyone wants to try the next time I'm sick ...

After the talk, I walked back to the metro with David Turner, an Aussie architect who's been living in Paris forever, and whom I hadn't seen in the past four or five years. I stopped at a Chinese place on rue Rambuteau for some soup to bring home with me, since I'd had a long day already -- wandering through the Marais and over to the Canal St. Martin with my beloved Ms. Genevieve Altamirano, who's been here in Paris for the past week with her pal, Beata, and Beata's family. The two fifteen-year-olds made great strolling and shopping companions for me, since they don't mind walking fast or stopping abruptly to look at a window full of beautiful shoes or ducking into a boutique that has every sweater on sale. We stopped at the antique musical instrument shop on rue de pas du Mule, just in time to hear the proprietor play a tune on some instrument we couldn't identify -- maybe a cross between a standup bass and an accordion? -- and found a wonderful little shop off the rue de Turennes called"le the (w/an accent) des ecrivains" ("writer's tea"), which turned out to be not a cafe, but a stationary store full of exquisite notebooks of handmade paper and other trinkets any writer would love. Gen and I bought glittery, transparent bags that say "lire" ("to read") on one side and "ecrire" ("to write") on the other. And by the time we got to the Canal St. Martin, the locks were operating -- a stroke of luck -- while a boat full of garbage waited to passdown the canal. Genevieve wanted to see the place where her favorite scene from the film "Amelie" had been shot, and Beata proved to be an all-around good sport, willing to go wherever everyone else wanted to go.

Genevieve -- ever her father's daughter -- had to stop and use one of those coin-operated street "toilettes," which I've never dared use myself. She said it was sparkling clean, and even had a mirror! Then we walked back across the place de la Republique and stopped for crepes fromage, delicious and warm in our hands as we carried them away, the snow just beginning to fall. I delivered the girls to Beata's mother in the Marais, and tried to convince herto extend their stay so that I could spend more time with Genevieve. But alas, their flight departs for L.A. in the a.m. ... Bon voyage, chere Genevieve!

Et bon nuit et beaux reves ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow...

Tuesday Night, Feb. 22

It's snowing in Paris! It's really really cold but it's really really pretty! It's that I'm-walking-around-inside-a-snow-globe kind of snow! In the afternoon, it's all swirling down in soft little flakes that somehow don't seemto be all that wet, and there's a line of four-year-olds following their teacher across the street to L'Ecole Maternelle, looking like, well, little rosy-cheeked French babies! And at midnight, you're walking under the archway along the place de Voges, your toes are frozen inside your high-heeled boots but you feel happy as Christmas! Maybe you've been spending too much time with Carolyn Heinze because you're talking about yourself in second person and using lots of exclamation points and feeling all bubbly about being in Paris! And hey, you don't have the flu anymore, finally! Now Michele has it, poor thing! And she's flying to Korea on Friday! Okay, enough already!

So ... the red hat and lipstick and the dancing on Friday night did the trick, and by Saturday evening I felt well enough to go to Carolyn Bazzini's birthday dinner at Marie et Edith. Which was lovely, even though Carolyn didn't let me wear the tiara or wave the magic wand. We ate like queens and we giggled like, well, Americans.

On Sunday I felt even better, and met Ian and Sophie at the Musee Carnavalet in the afternoon for a harp and voice concert, then drinks at Cafe Boucheron afterwards. On Monday, I led my petite poetry workshop, then met Jenny Huxta and Carolyn Heinze at a cafe in Beauborg for warm spiced wine.

This evening, I met Louise Thunin at her pied-a-terre in the 15th, then we took the metro (a very long metro ride) together to the Bastille for the Paris launch party for Lisa Pasold's book, Weave. Everyone was there! (Oops!) It turns out that Ian knows Lisa and her husband Bremner through the music scene, and Anne Pawle knows Ian through the Welsh community, and oh, I've known Jenny Huxta since she was 19 and landed on my doorstep in L.A. at the end of a solo cross-country drive! Everyone knows everyone somehow! And Lisa read beautifully and we all drank wine and ate gingerbread and Ian and I pretended to speak Polish and then Louise and Anne and I went to a little cafe and I ate a really BIG salad!

And Genevieve Altamirano is in Paris! I'm going to see her tomorrow and we're going to visit the tomb of ... St. Genevieve! And then we might do some shopping together! And today was the 30th birthday of my nephew Jimmy's wife, Mandy! Happy Birthday Mandy! And soon, in America, tomorrow -- though it's already tomorrow in America here -- it will be the birthday of Brendan Constantine! Happy Birthday, Brendan Constantine! I love you!

And speaking of friends ... I got the very sad news earlier this week that my friend Ron Hendricks had passed away in Atlanta. I hadn't even known he wasn't well. He was a good friend to me, especially at a time when I needed a good friend, and I'll miss him and I wish I'd been a better friend to him. I wish we'd managed to put together the city-wide poetry reading by kids that we always talked about putting together. I'm glad he left us his poems, which are fine and funny and big-hearted and sweet as Ron was. I'm glad I knew him.

Sweet dreams et mille bisous ...

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Cure For The Flu: New Hat & Red Lipstick

Friday, Feb. 18

I've been sick all week and I'm really really sick of being sick. I woke up on Monday morning feeling as if I'd been hit by a truck. Actually, I barely woke up. I stayed awake just long enough to determine how awful I felt and rolled over and slept for most of the day. So I spent Valentine's Day in bed, which might not have been so bad if I'd had some BON-BONS.

On Tuesday I thought I was better, so Louise Thunin came by in the late afternoon, according to plan, and we had tea and then went to the BritishCouncil together for the Pharos publication party and reading. I made it through the reading, which was good, and even most of the way through the dinner afterwards, though all I could eat was a cup of soup. Then I made my way back to the Marais and went back to bed. My only consolation has been that I'm reading Everthing Is Illuminated, which is surreal and hilarious and suddenly heart-breaking.

I'd promised Jenny Huxta that we'd celebrate her 28th birthday with a hen party here on Thursday evening, and by Thursday evening I was ready for some company and some diversion from my misery. So all the girls came with snacks and wine and we ate and drank and talked until 1 a.m.

Today I felt no better, physically, and my crabbiness had reached epidemic proportions. Joe called to see if I was going to Sonia's big surprise birthday party in the evening and I whined to him and let him talk me into going. He agreed to come around and collect me at 8. I figured I might get him to carry me if I couldn't walk.

Then I ventured out to pick up my computer -- finally repaired -- and a gift for Sonia. And I stopped at a little shop on rue Vielle du Temple that had some adorable hats in the window. I told the saleswoman I was sick but determined to go out this evening, and needed a hat. Of course, nothing looked adorable on me. But she fixed me up with a little red number and told me to try some red lipstick, too. Voila, a French cure for the flu -- a chic new hat and red lipstick. Now why hadn't I thought of that?

I was determined to fix myself up and look presentable for the party, even if it meant trimming my bangs with a breadknife. I trimmed my bangs with a breadknife. Don't laugh till you've tried it. And the red lipstick DID help. And Joe didn't carry me to the metro, much as I whined.

We were among the first to arrive at the Indian-Latino (yes) restaurant off rue St. Anne. Joe asked the bartender to fix me up with a "grog." It took a couple of tries, and I think what I finally got was a hot mojito, but it started to work some kind of magic. When the bar filled up, we all went downstairs to the "cave" and waited for Shakil to bring Sonia. She was very, very surprised and very, very pleased to see 50 or so of her closest friends crammed into the cave drinking cocktails. If she doesn't marry Shakil, I will, even though I keep swearing I'm not going to get married again. He's gorgeous and sweet and he really knows how to do the twist. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...

So we were served tapas and then buriyana -- all of which took a very long time, and though I was happier after I ate, I was STILL crabby. The cute dj in the next room was playing bangra music way too loud. Then he started playing classic American rock 'n roll. And I decided, well, to DANCE. I did the jitterbug with Adrian and the twist with a sexy blonde Frenchwoman and a lot of French guys did the twist together and smoked cigars at the same time. They are SO talented. Then I introduced them to the concept of the "soul train." Well, some of them got the concept and some of them didn't, but everyone was having fun. Actually, this is the third or fourth time I've attempted to introduce the soul train into French culture. I'm sure they'll catch on eventually.

I made it all the way to the cake and champagne and feel no worse for it. In fact, I feel better than I have all week. Maybe it was the hat and lipstick? Maybe the cure is red hat, lipstick, soul train, cake, champagne, in that order? We'll see how I feel tomorrow. Sweet dreams.

Finding Falafel

Feb. 9-13, 2005

There are a lot of red shoes in Paris this year. And the windows of all the chocolate shops are full of red hearts for St. Valentine's Day.

And all of a sudden it's bitterly col, or at least it feels bitter to me, after how mild it's been for the past few weeks. Someone said it was snowing here this morning, but I didn't see it. When I woke up the sun was shining and I opened the doors to the balcony. But by the time people arrived for the workshop at 10 a.m. teeth were chattering and I had to turn the heat back on.

This weekend I taught an intensive poetry workshop for WICE. On Saturday we met at WICE headquarters on blvd. Montparnasse; but since the group was small, I invited everyone to meet me in the Marais today. (I resisted, however, the temptation to teach in my p.j.'s.) Kathryn Clutz brought madeleines. David Nutt (yep, the name suits him, a retired British businessman who's now the scion of because he thought it would be fun to start an internet business selling French cheeses, and it is) brought his wicked laugh and the smell of pipe tobacco. Jan Harrington brought her luggage because she'd be catching the TGV back to Geneva as soon as the workshop ended. Ann Pawlebrought ALL the homework revisions and a new poem. Janyce Griffiths, the quiet Canadian, tries to fade into the background but today she brought a poem that featured glowing feces.

We worked all morning then went out to have lunch in the neighborhood. Sunday, and all the good falafel places on rue des Rosiers were packed. So we ducked into a Jewish deli and had really dreadful food -- Jan, for example, ordered a HOT DOG, which turned out to be a better choice than the salad I sent back for lack of an egg -- but really great conversation. People here always seem to want to know WHO in America voted for the likes of Arnold and W, and WHAT were they thinking? And always, it just comes down to stupidity and greed and short-sightedness, as far as any of us can figure.

Anyway, it was my first bad meal in Paris this trip, EVEN including the little dinners I make for myself on the rare evenings I stay in. I have perfected my omelette fromage, so don't snicker. Friday night, I'd had dinner with Brett and Aileen at their apartment on rue Montorgueil and got to spend sometime being entertained by their three -- count 'em! -- little girls, ages 5 and 3 and 16 months. I also met their friend Corine, who's agreed to give me French lessons while she's temporarily unemployed. Saturday evening I met Sonia and Shakil and Shakil's son, Devon, for Japanese on rue St. Anne. This evening after the workshop, Brett came by and we walked around the corner to the rue des Rosiers, where I finally got my falafel at a place called Chez Hannah. Et voila.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Encroaching "Frenchness"

Feb. 9

Fernanda arrived in the morning and this time I was ready for her, already drinking my first cup of coffee. We talked as she worked, and she’s very patient about helping me with my French, though I could end up speaking French with a Portuguese accent.

In the evening I stopped by the Village Voice and let Kathleen talk me into buying a handful of books — expensive here, but we must support Odile.

Then I walked over to Jeff’s and Mary’s for dinner. The two tiny circus dogs, Pandora and her puppy Snowbell, fluffy and white Maltese, greeted me ecstatically. “They love excitement,” Mary said. Jeff had prepared prosciutto and mango for the entrée; duck and salad for the plat. And then there was cheese, of course — Jeff knows how to choose the perfect camembert, Mary says; he simply tells whomever at the fromagerie, “I’m putting my life in your hands” — and we passed around the chocolates Heather had brought. John Baxter held forth about the wonders of E-bay. The wine was very old and Mary told us that, if you took in a little air with your sip, you could taste the berries on your tongue.

When it was time to go, I walked out with Jeff and the dogs — all three of them. Pandora and Snowbell and le pauvre Jake, who doesn’t stand a chance of getting much attention with those Maltese around, photogenic though he is. (Also, Jake snores like a little old man.) My cell phone rang in my pocket while we were walking up the rue du Regard. A call from the States, where it was still afternoon, and here I was at midnight on the other side of the world. Little technological miracles. What would my grandmother think? A couple of beautiful Black women passed and laughed at the little dogs, circling Jeff on their red leashes. “When I had one dog,” he said, “women used to stop to talk to me. Now they run the other way. I think I’m becoming a real eccentric.” No Jeff, you were already eccentric.

Riding home on the metro, I could smell the perfume of someone sitting nearby — something flowery and soft — and I breathed it in. On the stairs going out at the station at Les Halles, the smell of old piss was so strong I had to tuck my nose and mouth into the collar of my coat to breathe. Three men were lying on their backs on the concrete floor near the door, settling in with their bottles for the night. “Les Clochards.” I remembered the Hungarian woman who taught me that word, years ago in a café across the street from the Gare du Nord. We were eating mussels and drinking white wine. She was telling me how her son, when he was small, wanted to take Christmas gifts to all the clochards, to the men and women who lived in the streets. How, when his friend died, also still a child, he told her that his friend had become “a little fish in the heart of god.”

Feb. 10, 2005

Is it a sign of encroaching/increasing “Frenchness,” perhaps, that although there’s a boulangerie on every corner I feel compelled to make the trek to one of the two already my favorites? This noon – hunger at noon; call it breakfast or lunch — it was the boulangerie Garcia (the lovely madame at the counter may or may not be of Spanish descent; black-hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck) on the rue Vielle du Temple, almost to the rue de Bretagne. I like the “pain complet” with nuts and raisins, and sometimes apricots, but apples today. I like to put the little wrapped package into the pocket of my coat and see how far I can make it back down the street before I reach in and tear off a piece to put in my mouth. Perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious just like that. I make it a couple of blocks.

It’s always an event, a joy, just to go out into the streets, to partake of the street life, even if I don’t always make myself as presentable as a Frenchwoman does for a trip to the shops. I passed a woman on Vielle du Temple who at first looked to me like one of my own relatively slovenly tribe. Bare-legged, in a skirt and sneakers. Then I got closer and saw that she was wearing, on an otherwise bare face, the most gorgeous shade of lipstick, the color of currants. And that was enough.

I love seeing how the men greet one another here — and not just in the Marais, where so many men are gay, although that’s sweet, too. A man stopping on the sidewalk to lean down over a baby in the stroller and smile and make faces. Men who look like laborers, or who look like scholars, calling out to each other, smiling, kissing one another on the cheek. Does it just seem this way to me, or have I seldom seem men in America so unabashedly happy to meet one another?

The sky today is that sky I think of as pigeon-sky: a pearly gray. And a wind just sharp enough to make me throw my shoulders back as I walk.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Familiar Faces

Friday, Feb. 4 – Tuesday, Feb. 8

On Friday I saw a poodle with dreadlocks in the Marais, took down the clock of birds that hung over the kitchen sink (too much ticking), and met Jenny for dinner in the rue Montorgueil, which I am almost able to pronounce. (Try it; see what it does to your mouth.) Au Rocher de Cancale, a café with history, I’m told. Beautiful salads in a beautiful old candle-lit room on the second floor. Beautiful waitress (“Look at her, she can always waitress” – I still wonder if my ex’s lawyer meant that as a snipe or a compliment) who brought another and then another carafe of water when Jenny and I kept talking long after our plates had been cleared, our wine glasses drained. Beautiful walk home alone in the dark through the beautifully crooked streets. Other women also out walking alone at — what was it, one a.m.?

I dreamt I was turning sharp pirouettes on the polished floor of my parents’ old bedroom. I dreamt my first husband was dusting our house with a vengeance. I dreamt I was shaking sand out of the pots and pans Pierre and Isa brought back from the beach.

On Saturday, my little family from Alfortville was coming for lunch. Naturally, they would be late. Naturally, I waited almost too long to get out to the shops. The boucherie was already closing its shutters at one p.m. No poulet roti. The woman at the fromagerie was already locking up – the French have their weekend, after all. No stinky chevre rolled in ash. But the best bakery I’ve found yet in Paris was open for business. Just when you think you’ve tasted the best bread ever made, you taste better bread. And the Italian traiteur sold me aubergines and champignons, little rolls made of ham stuffed with cheese, olives and artichokes. And I had salad and could whip up a vinaigrette. And Jenny was bringing macaroons.

At 2:30, little feet on the stairs and Lila, light as a feather, rushing right into my arms. She’s six this year and she dances non-stop. She balanced on one leg and posed in arabesque, a perfect imitation of the little gold fairy on top of the column at the Bastille, visible through the balcony doors. Antoine, serious since birth, an avid reader from the age of two, lay on the couch pouring over the books his parents had just bought for him at the FNAC. “No, no, no,” Pierre and Isa teased, “put that book away. You’ll have nothing to read on holiday.” This spring, as they do every spring, they’ll take the children to Indonesia for two months. They’ll spend all day, every day, together, swimming and snorkeling, Pierre taking photos, Isa and Antoine reading to their hearts’ content, Lila wandering into the village on her own, enjoying the attention she draws, little star of her own island life. The whole family speaks Indonesian now, though Pierre tells me they still sometimes confuse the words for “head” and “coconut” because they sound so much alike. We always make one another laugh. Isabelle’s laughter and mine still rhyme. These two are, I think, the happiest parents I’ve ever seen. Pierre watched Lila drawing pictures, chided her that every sentence out of her mouth always begins with “Mais non, “or Mais oui, Papa.” Then he looked at me and said, “You know, with children, it’s all happiness.”

We spent the late afternoon at my table, with cups of strong coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes and, yes, the tiny, intensely sweet macaroons Jenny had brought — “Cookies for Barbie,” I said. Pistachio-flavored and café au lait and chocolate and something pink — framboise, perhaps? Jenny sang songs and played games with Lila. Pierre poured over Peter’s books of photographs with something like reverence, something like awe. Later, Isabelle would articulate for me exactly what it is that makes those photographs so moving: “You can tell, this is a man who really loves people.” Who was it said that’s what genius is, “love, love, love?” I’ve yet to meet Peter Turnley in person. Maybe it should feel strange to be living in his apartment, surrounded by his work, but it doesn’t. It feels, in fact, like an excellent place to do my own work. I can sit here contentedly for hours, reading and writing and musing and staring out over the rooftops of Paris.

At dusk, everyone bundled up and kissed me goodbye. I washed the dishes, took a shower, answered some e-mail, then got on the train to Alfortville so that I could have dinner with the family, too. (“You still know the way from the station?” Pierre had asked. “By heart,” I reminded him.) It always takes longer than I think it will take to get there, though once I made the whole trip, door to door from Adrian’s old place near the Etoile to the garden on Rue Louis Blanc, in thirty minutes flat. That was the same summer, if memory serves, that I got lost in the Bois des Vincennes and, without meaning to, walked all the way to Alfortville. “You just followed your heart,” Isa laughed. This time it took almost an hour, which made me only half an hour late.

Alfortville has hardly changed at all in the ten years since I first visited, though Pierre and Isabelle tell me it’s become very “fashionable” lately to buy a house here, and thus as unaffordable as all the other suburbs of Paris are becoming. But it still looks to me like a small French town, fairly nondescript, a little frayed at the edges, a little turned in on itself, compared to Paris. I walked the long blocks from the RER station, along the empty back streets, into the center of town — as always, deserted after dark — then turned the corner onto rue Louis Blanc, walked past l’Hotel de la Poste — where we’d all posed for photographs once, that first visit, John Brandi and I and Pierre and Isa and Jean-Michel, too, because we thought it was hilarious for there to be a “hotel of the post,” and because we were all hungover, and madly in love — and finally I came to number 12, unlatched the gate, walked down the long path through the garden toward the big white house, a walk that always and forever makes me feel like some kind of prodigal bride.

Lights were glowing on the first and third floors; the second floor — Mario’s floor — was dark, as it often is these days. When I got to the door of what had once been Pierre’s apartment and is now “the family room,” I could see Isabelle in the kitchen, at the stove, her back to me. She was still wearing the red sweater she’d worn to Paris, but had turned her cream-colored scarf around so that the long ends of the bow were out of the way of her cooking pots. When this was Pierre’s apartment, it was two rooms, plus the kitchen and bath. After Antoine was born, Pierre and Mario knocked down the wall to make a communal space, and renovated the apartment on the third floor for the family. We always have meals here now, when I come, and I’ve sometimes slept on the fold-out couch. Isabelle laughed when I called her name, then opened the door to the stairwell and called up to Pierre.

So we had a lovely dinner of fish and fennel and a very old bottle of white wine — “Almost too old,” Pierre said. Inevitably, we rehashed old times. Inevitable, too, that we got into a discussion of politics, sinking almost into despair. Their sense is that America is taking the world down a very dangerous path, “And we can do nothing,” Pierre almost spat. But the children were with us for part of the evening, reading and drawing while we talked, trying the different sauces for their fish during dinner, and it’s not so easy to despair when they’re around. Lila even laughs at my jokes in French, how I call her hair “horses” (“Chevaux?” “Non, cheveux!”); and Antoine obeys his papa’s entreaties to speak to Cecilia in French “doucement.” In this context, I know, doucement means slowly, gently. But really, it translates as “sweetly,” as in, “Speak sweetly to Cecilia.” Should anyone feel so cherished?

At midnight, Pierre grabbed his coat and his bike — so that he could ride back home — and walked with me to the metro. He kept pulling me back out of the crosswalks; “Be careful, everyone’s drunk at this hour!” (Not that we were completely sober.) He’s the only human I know who walks as fast as I do, sometimes faster. Still, after we’d said goodnight and I’d run down into the station, the announcement came, “desolee’,” that the service to Paris was “termine’.” I went back up to the street — too late to catch Pierre and too rough an area to walk back alone – and considered waiting for the night bus. But when a taxi came along (which so seldom happens in Alfortville) I grabbed it and was home in the Marais in fifteen minutes. Et voila.

Pierre had asked me what I was doing while I was in Paris, if I was looking for another husband? I told him I wouldn’t consider getting married again unless I could marry both him and Isabelle.

Sunday was a good day for working all day: quiet and overcast. But by evening I needed an escape; I needed a BIG American movie. And so did Jenny, as it turned out. We met in Les Halles and went to see The Aviator. I loved it, and couldn’t help thinking how my dad would have loved it, too. He had always been fascinated with Howard Hughes. I understand that fascination better now. They were both in love with flying. Daddy would say, “Your old man always loved flying machines.” He never got over it. He must also have loved the way Hughes stood up to the system and won, when Pan Am was trying to get a bill passed to give them a monopoly on transatlantic passenger flights. I needed to see that triumph over the system, too, especially now, especially after my own recent encounters with “old-boys” networks. Sometimes it happens; sometimes the bastards are left sputtering, up to their ears in their own shit.

On Monday, I revised an essay, wrote a review of Lisa Pasold’s WEAVE for the Cider Press Review and worked on some new poems. Somehow, in Paris, writing poetry doesn’t seem like such an absurd way to spend one’s days. Pamela came by in the evening for a kir; Solange is still “incarcerated” in rehab, while her foot heals. But she sounded chipper when we called to say hello. Then we walked to the rue des Rosiers for falafel. Pas cher and delicious. When I walked Pamela to the metro at Hotel de Ville, a guy with a radio was dancing in front of the BHV.

On Tuesday, more writing, and shopping – since these are the final days of “les soldes.” But I’ve been more in the mood to stroll the rue du Temple, looking in the windows of the wholesalers, and the rue Rambeauteau – stopping in at the boulangerie, the fromagerie, the poissonerie, etc — than to shop for clothes. It’s been warm enough these past few days that people have been sitting outside at the cafes. I’ve started to recognize some familiar faces – the old man I see every day at the café on rue Rambeauteau, a pack of cigarettes ripped open on the table, a cup of black coffee. Sometimes someone is sitting with him and other times he’s talking out loud to himself. I’ve been asking myself why I enjoy so much just looking at people here, and it struck me that it might be because it seems that no one here is trying to look like anyone else, or everyone else; everyone looks exactly like him- or herself, which makes everyone fascinating to look at, and beautiful.

In the early evening, I met Kathleen Spivack at le Select in the 6th. “We need beauty!” she pronounced, and told me how well I looked. I’m feeling more at ease than I have in years, more at home in the world, as I always feel in Paris.

Later, I was rushing back from the little market a half-block away from my apartment and ran straight into Jenny Huxta, just heading into Au Rendez-vous des Amis. She was with her filmmaker friends who are here from London to make a documentary. The camera was rolling as we laughed and kissed, surprised and not surprised.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Crazy Day After A Crazy Night

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005

Yesterday evening the plumbing repair went on and on, and finally Tony -- despite his earlier optimism and growing determination -- left at 9 p.m., with a promise to be back in the a.m. with parts. So I packed a bag and walked to Dale's place, just a few blocks away. Took a (long, hot, luxurious) shower there, then joined the Sisters of St. Tongue around the table for something like (Dale's version of) jambalaya, wine, lots of chocolate afterwards. Adrian was there, and Sonya; Sylvie and Eva and Carolyn ("Howdy, Pardner!") Bazzini; Melissa showed up fashionably even later than I did. We talked politics and sexual politics and power and what's-becoming-of-teenaged-girls-in-America-now? And I stayed late, talking to Dale after the others had left, came back after midnight to the apartment, which was in post-Tony disarray, but I couldn't clean it up, couldn't even run any water.

Finally dozed off about 3 a.m. and woke to the doorbell at 8:45. The housekeeper had come, at last. (I'd been expecting her all Wednesday morning, had even risen early to be ready for her visit, so I was already a bit annoyed.) Why was she speaking so loudly -- so un-French! -- and why coudn't I understand her? And why was she smiling so broadly, almost laughing? Was it my attire -- Erica's big gray bathrobe, white socks and glittery slippers, my hair in two braids sticking out from my head a la some demented hag Pippi Longstocking? I got Brad on the phone to translate. Fernanda -- Portuguese, it turns out -- had had a doctor's appointment yesterday. Well, she couldn't do anycleaning when she couldn't run water, and I did't want to have to sort the mess out myself, once Tony finished, or wait till the following week for Ferenanda to return and get the apartment back in order. So, after much gesturing and some negotiations, Fernanda agreed to come back at 10:30.

At 10:15 I was making coffee (with bottled water) when Tony called, on his way with the part. He and Fernanda showed up at my door within a few minutes of each other. I had taken out the pigtails but hadn't yet dressed. I apologized for the way I'd behaved earlier, and Fernanda smiled and urged me to "rest tranquille." Then she and Tony went to work: crawling under the kitchen cabinets, checking out pipes and gutters from the balcony, loudly bemoaning the state of French plumbing, etc. At 11, I decided I'd better get dressed. Brad showed up a few minutes later. By then, all the drains were draining and the apartment was immaculate. A miracle for 63 euros. Mr. Turnley got very lucky, I think. But there was still my laptop to deal with -- the screen had started flickering wildly the night before and now it refused to boot up at all. I talked to Jenny Huxta, found out about a place near Beaubourg that does repairs, packed everything up and headed out.

Walking down rue St. Croix des Brettoneries (St. Cross of the Buttonery is what I call it) I saw a man actually picking up his dog's poop with a plastic bag. In France! But maybe he wasn't French? There was a woman standing off to the side, watching him with a look on her face of utter heartbreak and disbelief. A few steps farther down the sidewalk, another woman was getting off of her motorbike, taking off her helmet, shaking out her hair. She was wearing blue four-inch stilleto heels and neon green stockings under jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Remember where you are, I told myself. And decided to smile, square my shoulders, try to reclaim my inner je-ne-sais quoi.Then there was handsome Jimmy, from Guadaloupe (always wear your best sweater and lipstick when going to talk to tech guys) telling me that my mother board was shot, and it could take a month for the repair. Looks of despair, gentle begging. Finally he gave me the address of a place on rue de Turennes that might be able to do it in two weeks or less. (Though he tried to convince me, first, that I should just upgrade to a new G4, and he could transfer all my files to that almost immediately. Would that I had a few thousand euros tospare right now.)

So, on to the metro, to the 6th, to Jeff's for lunch. His tales of his sister-in-law's battle with cancer put my little problems right into perspective. We ate salad and bread and cheese and ham, while Lilith the cat slinked across the table between us, occasionally landing in my lap. We talked about what we're writing, what we want to write, how impossible it is to know if the work you do has any merit. And we laughed really hard, as we always do; and, as always, I forget what it was that made me laugh so hard. So, back to the Marais again... Waiting for the 96 bus on rue de Rennes I bought a postcard for Carine -- Sarah Bernhardt in black and white, with the caption, "Point n'est besoin d'etre jolie, il faut le charme." ("No need to be pretty, charm is the thing.") I still had my laptop in a shopping bag. I was still wondering, as I had wondered and would continue wondering for the rest of the day, what it is about beauty here; how it is that humans go around as if they feel beautiful, beautifully human, even old as some of us are. I kept wondering what had become of the feeling I used to have when I flew through these streets with my coat unbuttoned, sure that love was around the next corner, or at least some grand adventure was.

I got off the bus at the Place des Voges and walked up rue de Turenne until I finally found the computer place, "Aldorande" -- after much wandering around a courtyard next door, unmarked doors and misleading street numbers. The young man who greeted me -- alone in the shop -- said, "of course," when I asked if he spoke English. He also spoke, in addition to French, German, but bemoaned that his Danish had gotten rusty. He looked at my laptop and nodded his head: yes, it was the motherboard -- or more specifically, something in the video card, which is attached to the motherboard -- a problem this model has had from the beginning, so Apple would repair it for free. HOWEVER, he told me that Apple had closed some service centers in France, so the repair would take three weeks to a month. I considered whether crying would be effective with this guy, but decided against it. Instead I told him that I was a writer, all my work was on that hard drive, I'd lose so much time and money and ... He called his "chief" and got the okay to put an "express" order on my beautiful machine, so I should have it back in ten days, two weeks at the most. Merci, Guillaime.

I was just around the corner from Adrian's place by then, and Adrian had had the brilliant idea that I could use Erica's old iMac desktop while my computer was in the shop. Heading down rue Saintonge, I passed Adrian's favorite papeterie, and decided to go in and buy a notebook, since I might have to resort to writing by hand -- which might not be a bad thing, temporarily. But of course the only notebooks they had were notebooks with those little grids on every page, because the French "adore" them, the proprietor (a charmingblonde man) told me, because they learn to write with these grids in school, and to make every letter the perfect proportion by fitting each letter into one square. I told him that I was a writer, a poet, and that such perfection made me too nervous to write. He searched and searched for a notebook with blank pages or lines. I finally said I'd take one with the grids. He wouldn't have it. He put his hand over his heart and insisted he couldn't bear knowing it might have an advserse effect on my writing. He went into a back office and came out with a stack of blank paper, which he gave to me. Wouldn't take money. "Ecrivez bien!," he said. I thought he was going to kiss my hand, too, but he didn't. Just laughed. Even when they're only kidding, the French are so passionate.

Adrian was in her pre-travel frenzy -- getting ready to leave for a conference (and then Mardi Gras) in New Orleans in the morning. But she stopped what she was doing to help me load Erica's computer onto a set of wheels. We wrapped it up in an old beach towel, wrapped bungee cords around the wholething, tried "bumping" it down the stairs -- four flights, pas d'ascenseur -- butI finally picked it up and carried it in my arms like a well-fed dog. In her courtyard, we loaded it back onto the cart and I was on my way. It was much easier than I'd expected to wheel the computer through the Marais -- you always see people hauling strange cargo around in ingenious ways here -- and I got it back to rue des Guillemites without incident. Set up the computer --- which seems monstrous, and so ORANGE, after my little iBook -- and immediately got online to deal with the backlog of e-mail. (I'm begging people NOT to send me too many messages in the next few weeks.) And it's working, mostly -- freezes up from time to time, which means I have to shut down, have a bit of chocolate, and then reboot. But there are worse things. Et voila.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Poetry and Politics

Feb. 2, 2005

I've settled into a fairly sweet routine of reading and writing and wandering the streets, these past few days ... trying to restrict my socializing to the evenings, but that's difficult when so many of the folks I know here are writers and/or work at home.

So ... I met Jennifer Dick for coffee late this morning at Le Boucheron on the rue de Rivoli. I spotted her sitting in the back of the room when I walked in. Amid the hello bisous she whispered in my ear and asked if I'd seen Vanessa Paradis sitting by the door. Well, I hadn't noticed her, since beautiful women are everywhere here, but I kept stealing glances in that direction in the hope that Johnny Depp might join her. No such luck.

Jen and I went to a couple of shops and finally purchased my new cell phone, which vibrates in my pocket just before it starts ringing and then plays a tune that sounds to me like a theme song from a cheesy French movie. Even if I DO figure out how to use all the options, I don't think I'll change that ring.

Good news in the lit-biz department from my pal Mr. Keillor, who wants to include "Slow Children at Play" in his new Good Poetry anthology. This on top of the recent good news from Best American Poetry and Billy Collins' inclusion of a couple of poems in the new Poetry 180 has gone right to my head ... and added to the anxiety in re: whether the newer work has any merit. Well, there's always something to be anxious about ... And the good news from the new low-res MFA Program at Western Connecticut that I'll be part of the faculty, starting this August. Et voila ... and enough, already, in the tooting-one's-own horn department.

Last night I participated in Adrian's ParlerParlor French/English conversation group -- there's always a demand for Anglophones because there are so many Francophones trying to perfect their English --and I heard again about a recent development in French bureaucracy that first blew my mind a few days ago, when it came up in conversation at the poetry soiree at Joe Ross's: they put MICROCHIPS in dogs here. Really. I keep thinking everyone's pulling my leg about this, but apparently they're not. If you bring your dog to France from the US you must get a microchip implanted under Fifi's skin. Joe's wife, Laura, told me that, in this way, your dog can be scanned, just like your groceries are scanned at the supermarket. (Is this really true?) And my French friends last night kept trying to explain to me how this is a good way for owners to keep track of their dogs -- if Fifi gets lost, her chip helps you find her again, somehow? -- and that it also has something to do with various "categories" for pets. I'm not sure I understood what was being said about pit bulls in this regard, but the whole thing seems a little ominous to me. Then again, I wonder if these chips also somehow control canine behavior, and if this is why there seems to be so much less doggy-doo on the sidewalks than I remember from years past? In any case, the French don't seem to share my alarm.

They do, however, seem to share my alarm about what's happening in U.S. politics, for which I'm endlessly grateful. I'm also grateful that, being French, the French are so very polite about this. It's always me who casts the first anti-Bush aspersion ... which elicits a world-weary and complicit smile from whoever I'm speaking with, and another deep drag on her cigarette, before she murmurs in agreement and what seems like relief that I'm not one of those Americans who actually voted for the idiot-king. I really and truly can't think how to carry myself in the world when my government is behaving in ways so much like the ways the Nazis behaved in Europe in the 30's.

And I keep coming back to what Sharon Doubiago wrote in Hard Country about not wanting to be a poet during the Vietnam war, "because what could I say/ when people were being murdered in my name?" I'm just going to follow my mother's example of open defiance, however that defiance can be expressed. She made her own sign, last fall, and taped it to the rear window of her Escort: a picture of Cheney -- sneering, of course -- that she'd downloaded from the internet, with a caption that read: "I felt a lot better after I said the F word, and so will your kids." Mom lives in small-town Kentucky, where a lot of people have been convinced they're voting for "morality" when they vote Republican. She left her pro-Democrat signs up long after the recent elections. She told me she wanted the signs to be there to remind people --when their wages keep going down, their taxes go up, their kids are sent off to Iraq -- who they voted for. I told her someone might start shooting her mailbox. She said she didn't care. My mother, the anarchist. May she live 100 years and never back down.

Yesterday I logged onto AOL and saw the double headline: "Is the Press Too Free? (Tell Us What You Think!)" and, just under that, "Hillary Clinton Collapses." Is the press TOO free? Is the press too FREE? No wonder Hillary collapsed. I felt like collapsing myself.

For a couple of months now I've been carrying around with me the post-election issue of something called Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal. I suppose I should burn it, but I'm just too agog. A good friend in Atlanta, who's not really sure why it's delivered to her mailbox, except that her parents are big Bush supporters, gave this tabloid to me. "They really love him," she told me. "But why?" I asked. "Well, they think he goes to church like they do, and they really like that tax break." These are upper-middle-class folks, which means they live very well, even by American standards, and that tax break doesn't amount to more than a couple of hundred dollars. "But do they need it?" I asked. "No," said my friend, and shrugged. So there you have it. My friend seemed as dismayed by her parents' attitude as I felt -- well, she's probably more dismayed, since they're her parents, and she's a progressive and a Democrat, herself.

She gave me the National Liberty Journal so that I might get a sense of what the mindset of the "religious" Republican right is like. "Moronic" is too mild a word. "Terrifying" is too mild a word. I know you've heard all of this before, but if you haven't read the National Liberty Journal, or something like it, you may not have a real sense of just how smug and delusional and dangerous this mindset it. Oh, and let's not forget self-congratulatory. Although every statistic about the election indicates that Bush was only elected -- if he was elected at all -- by the slimmest of margins, and that the "evangelical" voter turnout only increased very slightly, almost imperceptibly since the last election --these folks now think they own the U.S. government. The front page boasts headlines about "The Evangelical Revolution" and "The Return of a 21st Century Moral Majority," along with a map of the U.S. that is almost completely red, with only a few flecks of blue -- and "The Faith and Values Coalition" intends to convert those blue counties to red as soon as possible. Falwell himself wrote the lead story, which outlines TFVC'S "three-fold platform: (1) the confirmation of pro-life, strict constructionist US Supreme Court justices and other federal judges;" (Oh give me a DECONSTRUCTIONIST Supreme Court justice, please! Give me a POST-STRUCTURALIST Supreme Court justice, while you're at it.) "(2) the passage of a constitutional Federal Marriage Amendment; and (3) the election of another socially- fiscally- and politically-conservative president in 2008." There you have it, my friends, the plan of a big fat stupid white guy with a god-complex for "mobiliz(ing) religious conservatives around a pro-life, pro-family, strong national defense and pro-Israel platform, designed to return America to her Judeo-Christian heritage." Because "Our nation simply cannot continue as we know it if we allow out-of-control lawmakers and radical judges -- working at the whims of society -- to alter the moral foundations of America." Oh lord help us, they're working at the WHIMS OF SOCIETY! (Which could result in an actual majority of society being allowed to affect the society?! Quelle horreure!) And those OUT-OF-CONTROL LAWMAKERS! I don't know about you, but I get an image of guys like Senators McCain and Feingold running around in circles, ties askew, going berserk trying to pass godless legislation like campaign finance reform. What's next, an attorney general who advocates torture? Whoops.

I really don't know which mindset I despise more: the greedy idiocy of thinking it's worth saving one's self a few hundred dollars in taxes, in the short run, no matter what that costs in the long run in terms of public education, healthcare, libraries, roads, etc.... -- and to hell with the record deficits this administration is running up, and the costs of its war-mongering -- or the willful stupidity of believing that two human beings who happen to be of the same gender being allowed to make a legal commitment to love and support one another is somehow going to threaten all the happy, happy heterosexual marriages in America. And anyway, isn't LOVE -- not arrogance nor self-righteousness nor fear --supposed to be at the center of Christian theology? My mother says she's going to create bumper stickers reminding people, too, that Jesus Christ is The Prince of PEACE. I think all of this is even more upsetting to her because she feels as if her whole spiritual belief system has been co-opted by the cynical and manipulative likes of Karl Rove. I still hold accountable all those who simply believe what they choose to believe, and choose to believe what's easiest and most convenient for them to believe, and most self-serving.

I should, I know, end this rant, because we've all heard it all before, it's just too depressing, etc., etc. But I'm willing to bet that I'm the only person in my circle of friends who's ever seen the National Liberty Journal (and y'all keep in mind that I've NEVER seen Fox News, except for the excerpts included in the OUTFOXED documentary, so this stuff is probably more "news" to me than it is to a lot of people) and I've been wanting to share the outrageous language in its pages for months. To wit: in the "Moral Majority Timeline" on page 12, under 1988, the copy reads, "At the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan has appointed three Supreme Court justices and 378 federal judges and has almost single-handedly defeated the 'evil empire' of communism." ALMOST SINGLE-HANDEDLY DEFEATED COMMUNISM! RONALD REAGAN! This is news I'll have to tell those slacker Poles next time I go to Poland, and somebody tell the Czechs, too -- Reagan did it, not you! Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane ... able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! And speaking of Eastern Europe, the mother of my good pal Ed Landler was a Jewish refugee from WWII Hungary. She's still going strong in the San Fernando Valley, at about 90 years old. I asked Ed what his mother thinks about what's going on in the US now, because I keep thinking this is what it must have been like to be alive during the Nazi's rise to power. Ed summed up his Mom's take on the situation in a few words: "This is worse." The stakes are higher; the weapons are deadlier.

Several different people in the past few days have forwarded to me via e-mail the transcript of an interview Amy Goodman did with Seymour Hersh. Hersh asserts that our government, in effect, has been taken over by a cult; and that what we're seeing with the latest Bush cabinet changes is the purging of all those who aren't "true believers."

It's interesting to contrast this with politics and attitudes among Europeans. At about the same time I first started reading and fuming over the National Liberty Journal, I read an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Italy (written by Ian Fisher, reprinted from the New York Times, and on page 9 of the AJC, unsurprisingly). The article discusses the relationship between church and state in Italy, which is almost overwhelmingly Catholic. And what struck me most is that the (mostly) peaceful relationship between church and state in Italy is the result of political and cultural maturity -- i.e., that people are willing to mind their own damn business about things that don't affect them, personally, and willing to think collectively -- and unselfishly? --when it comes to the common good. In other words, they're aware of the differences between private and public life. Fisher writes, "Italians routinely ignore the conservative Pope John Paul II on matters of private morality, like contraception, divorce or marriage ... but admire him deeply for his stands on caring for the poor or his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq..." It's just the opposite in America, isn't it?

And finally -- I swear I'll get off this soapbox in a minute -- I read a letter to the editor in Tuesday's London Observer from the Rev. Dr. Nigel Scotland, urging that the government NOT "curtail free speech ... (and) open debate on the dysfunctional aspects of religious belief and practice. There needs to be a recognition ... that all religions have the potential to lead to abuse, the curtailment of human rights, war and genocide." Amen. The apartment in Paris that's become my temporary home belongs to a photojournalist, so books of his haunting and gorgeous and heart-breaking photos surround me. One of those books, In Times of War and Peace, is full of images of the kind of suffering humans inflict on one another in the names of our gods and our systems of belief. They're subtle and powerful images. I wish they were plastered on billboards across America.

But I'm in France, and the plumber has finally finished fixing the drain in the shower, so I can clean up now and get to the party that's already started a few blocks away. It's a "hen party" hosted by Dale Novick, who's moved to Paris permanently from the States, and a whole bunch of my favorite women will be there: Adrian, Sonya, Carolyn, et al. There's going to be bitching galore about all of the above, and also laughter, and chocolate, and wine.