Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Gypsy

April 26, 2005

I walked into the boulangerie Garcia this morning, on my way up rue Vielle du Temple to Adrian's, and found myself in a line of people extending out the door of the tiny bakery, most picking up their baguettes for lunch, though I was there for my usual breakfast pain complet with nuts and raisins and apricots. Got a big smile and "Bonjour, Madame!" from the proprietress, which added to my already growing sense of reluctance to leave Paris ... It's just so good to be here every day, it just feels so unfailingly good to be here, where I can walk alone at night, unafraid, see the moon shining over Notre Dame, the lights glittering on the Seine ... Where I can strike up intelligent conversations with strangers, run into friends on the street also out on errands, or sitting in cafes ... W here I can get pretty much anywhere I want to go on foot or by public transportation -- and I've just heard that gas in the U.S. is up to $3 a gallon, while people continue to drive SUV's and Bush kisses the cheeks (ass cheeks?) of Saudi princes ... Where I can even smoke a cigarette, if I want to, and where the streets are regularly packed with demonstrators for one "manifestation" or another, and not herded into "free speech" cages, as they are in "the land of the free, home of the brave." As someone said the other day, "How can America EXPORT democracy when it doesn't HAVE democracy anymore?" Oh la la.

So I've been soaking up as much of the city as I can, knowing that I'll be sur la route again in another week. Yesterday afternoon, I got an ice cream cone from the place on the corner and sat in the little park at the end of rue des Guillemites, watching a well-dressed French grandmother playing ping pong with her grandson, and some pigeons diving into the trash bin for pieces of a discarded sandwich. I'd been to see my doctor in the 17th, and it's always a pleasure to see her. One gets a half hour or hour of the doctor's attention during medical visits here, and since I'd only needed some prescriptions refilled, I got to spend a little time chatting with Julia about the adorable shoes she was wearing. Then I picked up three months worth of prescriptions -- which would have cost a few hundred dollars in the U.S., and for which I paid a total of 11 euros (about $15). I stopped in at the neighborhood travel agency and booked a ticket on the EuroStar for London, pleased that I was able to accomplish the whole transaction in French. In the evening, Adrian came by and we walked the rest of the way together from the Marais to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, where we joined a crouching-room-only crowd for a presentation by Leonard Pitt, author of Paris Disparu. The beautiful Sylvia, who runs the place now, was flitting around with that puppy in her arms, the almost-comparably beautiful golden lab that she swears she's not going to keep. But she kept kissing the puppy's head as she greeted clients and rang up sales, and the puppy kept licking Sylvia's cheek, her perfect, translucent English Rose face. Wherever Sylvia goes in Paris, people stop her to kiss her hello; everyone seems thrilled and delighted just that she exists. And she's brought so much new energy and vitality to Shakespeare & Co., running the bookstore and numerous weekly events and taking care of her father, too. George is in his 90's now, but still a presence, with his lanky frame and long white hair. As Adrian and Kim and I were leaving the bookstore at dusk, George was standing in the doorway that leads from the square in front of Shakespeare & Co. down into the basement, surrounded by a group of young people lighting birthday candles. For a minute, we thought it might be a birthday celebration, and we stopped so that we could help sing the birthday song. But no, it was just the beginning of an expedition into the bookstore's bowels, to see what treasures might be down there still ...

Kim and Adrian and I walked up the hill toward the Pantheon and went into one of Adrian's favorite restaurants, Les Fetes Galantes, for dinner -- a cozy little candlelit room with pink tablecloths and an entire wall tastefully decorated with lacy lingerie, especially brassieres in various sizes. Naturally, there was a couple seated at another table who knew Adrian. Naturally, the owner's son brought a complementary kir for each of us almost the moment we sat down. Naturally, the food was elegant, simple, delicious, and not expensive. There was even a vegetarian dish for Kim. And then there were profiterolles for dessert. At the end of our meal, the proprietor/chef, the handsome "Bibi," came out of the kitchen to see how we'd enjoyed ourselves, to try to offer us champagne -- we had no more room, so he poured it instead for some other women at a nearby table --and to flirt and philosophize. He kept saying that it's such a small time in each of our lives that we're really happy, and I kept insisting, no, my happiness is very, very big these days ...

It's like I was saying to Adrian this afternoon ... In a few weeks, I'll be in the Carpathians, sleeping in what I still think of as "the seed room" of Sarah and Lukasz's place in Rzepnik, then hanging out in the meadow with Nasim, while Lukasz walks around in his underwear with his coffee cup in hand, greeting the wildflowers he so adores, while Sarah cooks lunch on the woodstove ... And then I'll be on a train again ... And then I'll be sipping brandy with Tom and Cathy -- whom I've known since Tom was my professor at Transy 30 years ago -- on their elegant garden terrace overlooking Zurich. I love these extremes. I love my life, I told Adrian. And she said, "You really ARE a gypsy, you know."

We'll always have Paris...

April 25, 2005

The workshop poets gave a final reading on Friday evening at Polly Magoo's, upstairs and next to the backgammon room. Everyone read beautifully and the audience, by all reports, was "blown away" by the quality of the poems. Even the French barmaid was listening attentively, and asked if she could buy me a drink afterwards. Jenny H. brought a bouquet of lilacs and Jen D. brought books. Even Sarah's old flame, Christophe, came. I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, by his handsomeness. Similar to Lukasz's handsomeness. That man-standing-out-in- a-meadow-in-his-underwear kind of good looks. Christophe, for his part, was surprised by Sarah's performance -- "comme les autres!" he said. Later, a big group of us went to Zenyama for sushi and beer and etcetera. Then some of us walked back to the right bank across the Ile St. Louis. A warm spring night. So I treated Eve and myself to a midnight ice cream cone from Bertillon. When we strolled up rue Vielle du Temple, we saw Jen D. and Steven sitting at a sidewalk table in front of l'Etoile Manquette. Stopped to chat with them for a while. Then I turned the corner into rue "Saint Cross of the Buttonerie" and headed home to bed.

On Saturday, everyone -- but everyone -- who'd been involved with the workshop all week slept until noon. (Don't ask how I know.) A gorgeous, breezy, sunny afternoon. I got all my laundry done and hung it to dry (bad me!) on the balcony. In the evening, Jen D. and Steven and Elizabeth and I dined on the terrace of the Grizzli cafe. Amazing duck (!) spring rolls and salad with toasted camembert and a tartin of monkfish and aubergines and dried tomatoes that was to die for -- French food again, at last, after lots of meals at places where American vegetarians could also dine ... Then Jen and Steven and I metro'd to the 18th for the big soiree at chez Carolyn. Carolyn was dressed as a nurse (not a bunny!) and her apartment was packed with cute French boys, as promised. I borrowed one of her feather boas -- the electric blue one -- and invented a new dance with Jenny H involving jelly-lizard castagnets and predatory moth-like motions. Home in a taxi at 2 a.m.

Sunday was rainy, and Steven and Nancy and I met Lisa at her lovely home on the villa des Tulipes -- a sweet little cobblestone alley strewn with wisteria -- for tea. Then we all opened our parapluies and headed for the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt. We ooh'ed and aah'ed and drooled over lots of lovely antquities, but ultimately my only purchase was a bright red t-shirt emblazoned with the golden arches and the word "McShit," though I tried on a lot of little silk dresses, too. For Steven and Nancy's last Paris meal, we went to le Coude Fou.

I'll miss being surrounded by all these poet friends here. It seems we're all dispersing now for the summer. The workshop participants have almost all returned to the US by now; Lisa is heading off for a few months in Canada; I'm getting ready to head to London for a long weekend, then off to Poland and etc ... But we'll always have Paris, as the saying goes. More soon ...

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Crazy, busy & exhilarating

April 22, 2005 1 a.m.

Just back from a rowdy evening at Cafe les Philosophes with Sarah Luczaj and Christine, Herzer, who asked me please to start blogging again, if only for their sake, so I promised I would start immediately ...

I'm back in the Marais, having left chez Poilloux in Aflortville mid-April, and taken up residence again at rue des Guillemites. Les Philosophes is right around the corner and serves late every night and has wonderful food and adorable waiters. We managed to decide all at once what we wanted to eat, though we'd started by wanting almost everything on the menu ... three salades des Utopistes and a plate of haricots verts and a plate of pommes sautee to share. Absolutely perfect. On our plates was everything our hearts desired, including beets and chevre chaud. I insisted that Sarah and Christine go downstairs to check out the existentialist toilettes. Both chose the mirror inscribed, "J'ai conscience," instead of the mirror that reads, "Je doute." That's the kind of mood we were in. And when a sweet little mouse -- definitely not a rat -- came scurrying out of the kitchen, running around the cafe, poking in and out of its hiding places, snitching crumbs off the floor, the whole place was laughing, enchanted. Our waiter looked at us giggling and announced, "Me, I'm afraid!" Then he got a broom and dustpan and started sweeping up the crumbs. Out on the sidewalk at midnight, I was kissing my friends goodnight when I felt something squishy under my boot. Uh-oh. But when I looked down, it wasn't dog poop but whipped cream. Only in Paris ...

It's been a crazy, busy, exhilarating week here, with the third Paris Poetry workshop in full swing. I think most of the participants are averaging three or four new poems a day -- amazing poems. And our afternoons at Rose The ("tay," as in tea) with the local literati have been stimulating and productive, too (and the tarte citronelle and berry crumbles --"croomble" in French -- too delicious to resist.) When it turned out that Jim Hall couldn't make it to Paris for the workshop this year, I asked my poet pals here to pitch in and they rallied in fabulous fashion, helping me to organize the afternoon sessions and evening readings. They've brought tremendous energy to the week of activities, and it seems we've become one big, happy, semi-functional poetry family.

Those of us who didn't spend the day shopping -- I name no names, you know who you are -- spent our "off day" Wednesday listening to Heather Hartley talk about Appollinaire. We trekked out to Pere Lachaise cemetery in the afternoon and gathered around his grave. His tombstone is inscribed with a "concrete" poem: "My heart is a flame turned upside down." Heather read to us, in both English and French, from Appollinaire's work, and then we sat on the graves and ate baguette sandwiches and chocolate. But this offended a guard who came along later and said we should "show some respect." We supposed he meant something more like Catholic solemnity. We left then, even though we vehemently did not agree. (He seemed spoiling for a fight.) Eve told us about building a snowman next to her husband's grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And I told my friends I WANT them to read poems and eat chocolate on my grave when I'm gone.

There was a reading at WICE on Tuesday evening, hosted by Barbara Beck, and a fabulous reading by Paris poets last night, downstairs in the jazz cellar -- formerly a dungeon -- of le Caveau des Oubliettes. Beautiful, afterwards, to be walking across the Seine at twilight with a happily windblown if slightly chilled group of chattering poets. Tomorrow evening will be the big closing reading by workshop participants at Polly Magoo's. Then we'll all say so long until next year, and I'll have another week in Paris before I'm sur la route again. But now I'd better get some sleep ...

Monday, April 11, 2005

Beaucoup de catching up...

April 11, 2005
Alfortville, France


Beaucoup de catching up to do, and maybe a little explaining ...

The last week that I spent in Paris before going back to the US for my Easter visit, I was staying in the 15th arrondissment -- a charming place in a charming neighborhood, but alas no land line and no local cyber cafe, so I fell way behind on all things related to cyberspace. It was actually kind of nice, in some ways, to have a vacation from the computer. And I may have another break like that coming up again soon, as the laptop continues to be temperamental and I think she needs to go back to Guillaime for a check-up. But I do want to write about the visit I made to the Shoah memorial as soon as I get caught up here ...

So I got up at the crack of dawn on March 21 and made my way to DeGaulle airport to catch my flight to Cincinnati, only to be told by the Air France agents that I was booked for a flight on the 22nd, and no, there wasn't any space for me on that day's flight. So I called Adrian and she hooted and invited me to come back to Paris and spend the night on her couch. About the umpteenth time she's saved my life in this lifetime. The silver lining was that I had the chance to attend the opening night of Sophie Honeyman's performance on a paniche on the canal St. Martin that evening, "The Dream of the Red Pavilion." Sophie (Ian's wife) is a dancer who practices a (now) rare style of traditional Chinese dance. There was singing, too, and poetry recitation, and lute-playing and all kinds of intricate percussion, and gorgeous costumes and masks. I have this strange kind of luck, after all, because the paniche was packed and Ian was only able to get me a ticket because someone had cancelled at the last minute. And the late night walk back along the canal was lovely, too.

Thus I was able to get a good night's sleep on the couch at Chez Leeds, and made it back to the airport the next morning in plenty of time, in spite of the "greve" that meant most trains weren't running and so the streets were completely snarled, the traffic a mess. But I had a book to read in the shuttle and a pain aux raisins in my coat pocket. And there was still time enough at the airport for one last cafe creme, one last cigarette, before boarding my flight. And then it was smooth sailing all the way.

My brother John picked me up in Cincinnati in his big red truck and drove me out to Bullitt County -- a whole 'nother reality from Paris, but I like moving between these extremes. We picked up John's girls -- Kayleigh and Hannah, ages 11 and 7, respectively -- at their mother's house; they crowded into the cab of the truck between us and we all had a snack of M&M's straight from Hannah's purse. John and I stopped talking politics, at that point, because we were both just getting too depressed. I hadn't realized until I got back to the States what a relief it is not to be confronted with the idiocy and criminality of the Bush administration on a daily basis, to have at least some sense of psychic distance from the sad state of US politics ... Not to mention not having to look at those red, white and blue "W" bumperstickers on the highway.

Then it was on to Mom's, where some of the rest of the clan was waiting -- my brother-in-law David making a sandwich in the kitchen (the bumpersticker on his pick-up says, "George W. Bush is a punk-ass chump"); my niece Rachel and grandniece Chloe curled up on the couch together, taking a nap. Mom was at work until 10 p.m., so we all had a good time sliding around on the new kitchen floor in our stocking feet -- the Woloch version of synchronized swimming, invented one Christmas by my ex-brother-in-law, Jerome (once a Woloch, always a Woloch). I had to give Chloe a bath before I could get in the tub myself, then I sat up talking to Mom for a while after she got home from the Senseless Bureau, and finally passed out about 1 a.m.

I spent most of the week, when I wasn't catching up on paperwork, doing things like playing "Bad Barbies" ("Les Barbies du Mal," as Brendan Constantine says) with Chloe Balou, who is the most brilliant and beautiful 6-year-old in America. She's only in kindergarten, but she reads and writes and uses the internet and counts to a hundred in English and Spanish and puts pepper on her mac-and-cheese. She's also ticked off that she wasn't allowed to vote.

My other grandniece, Paige, had had a terrible accident on her bike the Sunday before I arrived, breaking her wrist and scratching up her face, and we were all terrified that she'd be scarred. But she was already healing beautifully when I saw her. She's a brave little thing, if a bit reckless. She told me, "Oh, I was going way too fast."

On Saturday, I drove to Lexington, because it just so happened that my visit in Kentucky coincided with the annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference. I was a presenter at the conference last year, and it was one of the best times I've ever had, so I knew it would be worth the trip. Besides, Christina Lovin, one of my former students at New England College — irony of ironies — was being presented with an award for a sonnet crown about coal mining she wrote when we worked together. So I got to hear Christina read, and Louise Gluck — who was amazing — and to see a lot of friends, like Jim and Mary Ann Hall, and Rebecca Howell, who puts the whole conference together. And I ran into Beth Ann Fennelly there — a surprise — and my old college pal, Terri Isaacs, who's now the mayor of Lexington and still a hoot. A bunch of us went to Natasha's later to hear The Bats. At first, we were told they didn't have a table, then someone saw T.I. and said, "Oh, but since you're with the MAYOR ..." The Bats are a rock 'n roll version of the L.A. HAGS and they threw pop tarts into the audience and sang about menopause.

Then I got to spend Easter Sunday with my family but, since it was raining, we had to cancel the Easter egg hunt. So I put on a pair of Chloe's bunny ears and hopped around handing out treats. And we all ate way too much chocolate and my nephew Jesse danced like a maniac in front of the t.v. ("Well, at least he's doing something PHYSICAL," Aunt Bobbi said.)

On Thursday, John took me back to Cincinnati and I caught my flight to Paris. Arrived in DeGaulle on a sunny Friday morning, took the RER to Alfortville, unloaded some of my luggage and showered and took the RER back to the Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV to Geneva. Jan picked me up at the station there and whisked me right to Off The Shelf bookstore, where a crowd was already drinking wine and waiting for the reading to start. I wasn't sure I'd be able to speak coherently, at that point, but the reading went well and there was a lively Q&A afterwards and the books sold like hotcakes. Then Jan and her husband John took me to dinner at a brasserie with a couple of their colleagues. Fascinating folks. It seems as if everyone in Geneva is associated with the UN or and NGO or the World Health Organization. So the political discussions are deep and wide and well informed. And everyone, but everyone, is completely bewildered by the rise of the American right wing and the popular support in the US for the Bush administration. What can I tell them?

I stayed with Jan and John that weekend, in their lovely apartment in Nyon — about fifteen minutes outside of Geneva — overlooking the castle and the lake. I led a workshop around their dining room table all day Saturday and most of the day on Sunday. I'd inadvertently left the power cord to my laptop in Alfortville, so when I wasn't teaching I relaxed, walked around the lake with Jan and John, looked at the Roman ruins being excavated, had lovely meals and stimulating conversations. There was a dinner party at their house on Sunday evening, and a lot of talk about the death of the pope and his legacy. The consensus seemed to be that, while he did wonderful things to promote peace, it was a tragedy that his position on contraception did nothing to slow the spread of HIV in Africa.

On Monday morning, I caught the TGV back to Paris, and returned to chez Poilloux in Alfortville. I'm staying here at Pierre's and Isabelle's, temporarily — they're off in Borneo with the children until late May — and it's been a nice little respite this past week. They left clean sheets on the bed for me, and lots of coffee, and sweet notes welcoming me to their home and telling me how everything works. I'm a ten minute RER ride — 20 minutes on the metro — from the center of Paris, and have lots of space to spread out and work, and lots of peace and quiet. I use their third floor apartment mostly for sleeping, and work in the big ground floor room, where the windows look out on the garden and the cherry tree that's in bloom, white blossoms falling on the patio like snow. The tulips are blooming, too. Simon is out there now, kicking around a soccer ball; his dad, Mario, is upstairs in their apartment on the second floor.

I've been going back and forth to Paris most days, for readings and brunches and dinners with friends. Getting some writing done, but also busily making final plans for the third Paris poetry workshop, which begins on Sunday night. Jim Hall's health problems prevented him from coming to Paris this spring for the workshop, but the whole poetry community here has rallied to help me keep the ball rolling. Jennifer Dick and Lisa Pasold and Ellen H. will be leading afternoon sessions, and Sarah Luczaj, who arrives from Poland on Friday afternoon. I'll be moving back into the photojournalist's apartment in the Marais this weekend, and spending two more weeks in Paris before hitting the road to London, Basel, and then on to the Carpathians.