Friday, April 30, 2010

last day in Paris

Yesterday, Lynn's TGV train arrived seven minutes late, rare for French trains. I was waiting at the Gare de Lyon, we got the bus back here, and our two days together in Paris began, of course, with lunch and a little glass of wine. I have stayed so often with her and her family in France, I'm glad to be the hostess here, for once.

We stepped out into the most heavenly Paris day to wander at will. One cultural activity was arranged, to see the Klee exhibit at L'Orangerie. Otherwise, our only task was to enjoy the day and, could it be, do a little shopping. Strangely, Lynn has lived in this country since 1970 but never in Paris, so I know my way around the city better than she does.

It is fascinating to watch a Frenchwoman shop, even one who used to be Canadian. She inspects with a steely gaze the material, cut, colour, price, fashionability, durability and general excellence, and is so critical and thrifty, it's amazing she has any clothes at all, but somehow, she does. We wandered all over the Bastille, stopping in little boutiques, I rhapsodizing over the picturesqueness of buildings and streets which Lynn has seen many times, and she giving a piercing look at what was available in the shops. I found two scarves, very reasonable and pretty; she found a top, a skirt, a dress and some earrings. A most successful day.

We stopped for a beer on the Place des Vosges, exactly where we stopped for a beer during her visit here last year, and then continued our wandering until we could hardly walk any more, at which point we walked home. As we came out onto the Place Notre Dame, the dusk sunlight was beaming directly on the cathedral, making it glow gold. Magical. The incredibly beautiful purple trees here, which I've never seen anywhere else, are in bloom; a city gardener told me they're Polovnia trees. Let's get some Polovnias, Toronto.

I improvised dinner from what was in the fridge but ... disaster, no wine, we'd drunk it all at midday. It was after 9 p.m. when I ventured out to find more, imagining what luck I'd have in search of a good bottle of wine after 9 p.m. in Toronto. Not even half a block away from the flat was a small grocery store with, of course, a huge selection of wines. I nervously chose a 7 euro Cotes de Rhone which had won a wine prize somewhere, and when I got back, Lynn said, "Great choice, you can never go wrong with a Cotes de Rhone." I felt like I too had won some sort of wine prize. And it was delicious.

Today, off to see Paul Klee, one of my favourite painters. (Wait - haven't you heard that before?) And at l'Orangerie, one of my favourite museums. We got off the bus at the Louvre and walked down the Tuileries Gardens to get there - what a route. It's hard to take in, sometimes, just how many magnificent buildings and gardens there are in this city.

It was a small exhibit but beautiful, showing off the simplicity, humour and spiritual depth of his colours and arrows, letters and faces. I didn't realize that Klee was also a musician and a writer, and early on, couldn't decide between his three gifts. Lynn liked the work but, ever the linguist, was upset by the clumsy English translations underneath. At one point Klee was quoted as saying that he would not "vent gall." The lady beside me, the linguistics professor, vented a lot of gall at that one.

In 1939, one year before his death and in great pain from illness, Klee painted 1253 works. Hard to imagine. More than three a day, is that possible?

We toured the exhibit downstairs, many masterpieces per square inch - it's extraordinary that this museum is not more crowded, it's so rich - and upstairs, those gracious curving rooms full of Monet's waterlilies. I said, "These make you want to just relax completely and float away."
"That's what I do all the time anyway," said my companion, and it's true, she is famous for her floating.

Then more wandering, casting an eye in an occasional shop, this time in the St. Germain area, those marvellous little streets, rue Jacob, rue des Saintes-Peres, rue de Buci. We found a restaurant for lunch, finally, on the rue de Grenelle - "A La Petite Chaise" just looked nice and was reasonable, so we went in to discover that it's the oldest restaurant in Paris, founded in 1680. Certainly the first time I've dined in a restaurant more more than 300 years old. It was a very small room, very yellow, simple, full of French people eating well and with gusto - one of the best places to be on a Paris afternoon. We had the menu - an entree, a glass of wine and coffee for a very reasonable price; we both had maigret de canard, the duck, and it was heaven.

We ended up in the most important shop of all - Monoprix, where in the huge basement grocery section, we bought tonight's dinner, and I bought six kinds of smelly cheese and some Poilane bread to share with the troops at home.

Now it's 7.30 p.m. I've started piling stuff in my suitcase. The day has turned cloudy and colder but the window is wide open to the sky. My friend is working on her computer, I on mine and we're having our aperitif - another little glass of wine and an hors d'oeuvre, a spicy salami called rosette, before we make dinner. A museum we're both interested in is open till 11.30 tonight, so we may venture out again - but my guess is that we will just stay here and talk the night away, as we began to do in 1967 and continued as often as possible afterwards.

Early tomorrow, Lynn will leave for the train back to Montpellier, and I'm off to the airport. Another idyll over. I go home after slightly more than a month away, full full full of everything I've seen and done. And also, of maigret de canard.

P.S. 10.30 p.m. Lynn just reminded me of an event which I'd obviously determined to put out of my mind forever. As we strolled this afternoon, we came upon another Laduree store, with the famous macaroons. I went in to buy some to take home. It was a tiny, beautiful dollhouse store, with exquisite arrangements of little iced gateaux and tartelettes around the macaroon display. As we stood in line along the counter, I fished around in my handbag to get out my wallet, and as I did so, I knocked over the plastic price holder that was on the counter. It fell down into the gateaux, squashing and smearing two artistic toppings.

Horrified, I grabbed the plastic thing and put it back on the counter, covered with icing. Luckily, the staff hadn't noticed, and I did not confess. I bought eight macaroons, all colours, lily of the valley, mimosa, cassis - red currant - caramel and rose petal. A delicate treat to have at home, while hoping that someone took pity on the ruined tartelettes and bought them anyway. Lynn and I left with tears from suppressed laughter.

One thing is sure: my friend will never let me forget my clumsiness at Laduree. And now, all of you know about it too.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

sweet and slow

I was typing away this evening, 9 p.m., when I heard the cat. I know her from last year, a beautiful tortoiseshell with white boots who comes into the courtyard outside my window and meows. I admire her from my window, and she looks up at me, enjoying the admiration. This time, I met her mistress, the concierge of the property next door. We chatted, I leaning over my window sill and she in her garden, about her lovely cat, who was adopted at one week old after her mother died and was not expected to live. Her name is Titi. I told her mistress how much I love it here in Paris and in the flat on the rue Claude Bernard, and that I will be back once I've gone home to visit my own, deeply disturbed cat.

It was just about the most perfect day imaginable - a bit of a chill in the morning, progressing to sweet sun and then very hot. This morning, I did errands, preparing for the arrival of my dear friend Lynn tomorrow. At the market on the rue Monge I made friends with the Lebanese food vendor, bought a stuffed eggplant and some dips, and he threw in a lot of free stuff. If I lived here, I'd visit his stall every Wednesday because of his generosity; that's how markets work. Stopped at the great Mouffetard baker, where an elderly couple was speaking in the unmistakable accent of Quebec. They told me it snowed the other day in Montreal! And that they come to this bakery every day. "Ca va nous manquer," they said; they'll miss it, and so will I. And then I bought a bunch of deep purple lilac from a Roma child, to bring some spring into the room.

I also did a little preliminary check in some shops - Lynn is my great advisor where shopping is concerned, and perhaps we will be doing some together. In the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, after my eggplant lunch, I worked in the cool quiet of the flat.

The plan was to go to the Louvre this evening, since Wednesday night it stays open late - in my experience, supper-time is a good time to go. So I set off by bus at six, but the Pyramid was jammed, and so was the entrance at the Carousel du Louvre. Why weren't all these tourist off having their dinner? On the bus, I'd seen le tout Paris out on this heavenly night, sitting or walking by the Seine, wandering the streets - and I decided I just didn't want to claw my way through the crowds on such a perfect night. No Louvre this trip.

I walked home slowly, first along the Seine on the right bank, over a pedestrian bridge that's covered with locks, people have hung hundreds of locks on the metal sides for some reason, and lots of kids were sitting on the ground, making the bridge a kind of clubhouse, with the river flowing underneath and stunning views on both sides. On the left bank, I meandered through the winding streets around St. Germain, looking at the little shops, the packed streets and noisy cafés, the light by now making the yellow-white of the stone glow pink. Emerged finally at the Jardin du Luxembourg which has a giant photo display I've wanted to see on the nomadic peoples of the earth - about 40 very large photographs mounted with captions, so I walked slowly around the perimeter looking at the lives of the nomadic people of Tibet, Siberia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, China, while on the other side of the fence, joggers pounded by.

One of the captions talked about stories - that for nomadic people, listening is one of their greatest pleasures but also vital for survival - they learn from the stories of guests what is going on around them, and the children learn from the stories of their elders. We've forgotten, in our western world, the significance of stories.

I came home to watch the light fade through the big open window, to chat with a neighbour about her beautiful cat whose name is Titi, and to continue work on my own small and vital story .

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

my piece of the pie

Yesterday was actually a bit cold, and since I have a bit of a cold too, an easy day was prescribed. The mornings here have been chilly - as low as zero degrees - and then in the afternoon, very hot - layers are essential, as you remove bits and pieces. My plan was to climb the towers of Notre Dame, but there was a long line-up in a bitter wind, so I bought a purple beret and walked around the Ile de la Cité instead, those marvellous narrow medieval streets. Many things are closed Monday and it was very quiet - decided that I'd try, for once, to get a glace at the famous Bertillon there, since there didn't seem to be a line-up for once - but there was no line-up because it was closed for the week. I discovered several quiet parks a stone's throw from Notre Dame, one with a memorial to the many people, not only Jews but gypsies, political prisonners and homosexuals, deported from France to the camps during the war.

And then walked home, to find the doves back together on their antenna where they belong , if briefly. They're obviously married - billing and cooing when necessary, and otherwise, business as usual. Had a tranquil evening of reading and work. I spoke not a single word aloud yesterday. The Banff Centre for the Arts used to be my ideal writer's retreat - now I come to Paris. It seems a waste to sit in here, silent, with all Paris outside the door - but it's also such a rare experience - no telephone calls, no friends or family, and I can't even get the TV to work -just a big window onto a quiet courtyard, books and notebooks and the computer - and a lot of good food and wine. Ideal.

Today, feeling better, I found a museum on-line I wanted to visit, got the bus there, and realized I had the wrong museum. I'd decided on the Musee Cognacq-Jay, and ended up at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. Those hyphens - so confusing! Ah well - there was an exhibit on Spanish art so I went in - the building itself is spectacular, a gorgeous mansion full of Italian art - the Spanish exhibition was in very small rooms and crowded, but good. I'd forgotten, you know, that Picasso was Spanish. Miro, Dali - and the older guys.

Went home for lunch - that's the difference with last year, when I would have eaten my ham sandwich and then walked for another seventeen miles - and this afternoon, another excursion, a walk to the Institut du Monde Arabe, to discover Arab art and inventions. Only it turned out that the museum was closed and will be for some time. It was one of those days. I went to the 9th floor where there's a terrace and a restaurant - highly recommended in the sun, with a glorious view of Paris and mint tea. I gazed at the view and walked home via Mouffetard where I bought dinner, breakfast, and at the bakery, today's most special treat - a miniature lemon meringue pie. Just for me. You can't have any, even if you ask nicely. Only three more days - I have to savour every bite.

P.S. My friend Margaret has given me the important news that this week is the 30th anniversary of Post-It notes. I was on my honeymoon in August 1981, staying at a wealthy American friend's spectacular house on Vancouver Island, when I discovered she had these yellow things that could stick to the fridge or anywhere. Wow, I thought, these are really useful. I became at that moment a devotee of Post-It notes, or Stickums, as I called them, and always now have all sizes, shapes and colours. Essential. How did we make lists without them?

Scary that they're 30. But then, the baby daughter who came with us on the honeymoon will turn 29 next week.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Is the love over so soon, my little dove friends? She waited anxiously for an hour tonight, perched on the television antenna looking hither and yon, and finally he arrived - I assume it's the he who arrived because that one's a bit bigger, and because, let's face it, how often does the male sit around waiting anxiously for the female to come over and play? He flew in and great was the fuss, much cooing and billing, grooming and entwining of necks. Awwww. Then he mounted her in a flurry of feathers - over quickly, perhaps too quickly? - and that was it. They spent the next two hours two feet apart, beaks buried in their own feathers, paying not the slightest attention to each other, and now she has flown off. To see her friend Muffi and complain about him, no doubt.

The death of romance on a television antenna in the pink-blue dusk sky of Paris, with a jet trail a minute, way way above.

Today was market day in the Bastille, two huge markets about ten minutes from each other, one the usual, every kind of food plus hardware, clothing, jewellery, African art ... and the other, all that plus a brocante, a junk fair. Junk - music to my ears. Both jammed, full of fantastic smells - cooked chickens, oysters, cheese, lilac bunches being sold by the Roma on every corner - and the vendors shouting about their wares. The second was really fun, tons of junk, old magazines, books, pictures, clothes, lace ... I couldn't resist an old pewter sugar bowl for 5 euros. What a steal! Just what I need - an old pewter sugar bowl! Oh well, junk fairs are not for the rational.

Back to my very own Mouffetard market which was also bustling, as usual, plus of course music and dancing on the village square - to the great bakery, where I bought a piece of eggplant pizza for today's lunch, a piece of leek quiche for tomorrow's, and some sour cherry clafoutis for as soon as possible. It was hard to buy so little. And some reblochon and morbier at the cheese vendor next door.

After lunch, which I ate (pizza and clafoutis divine) listening to a French radio station play music from old American movies - had to get up and dance to Debbie and Gene singing "Good mornin'," one of my favourite songs - I was off again, wanting to go somewhere by bus and get my money's worth on the last day of my seven day transit pass. Walked to Luxembourg to buy the Sunday Observer and le Journal du Dimanche, sat in the Garden reading, and then just got on the first bus that came along. Got off at Pont Neuf and walked over the bridge, stood looking at boats on the Seine and strolled into the most graceful place - square - encircled by tall graceful houses and restaurants, so beautiful my heart hurt, my heart hurt with love for the beauty of this city.

There was no line-up at the imposing Conciergerie nearby, so I went in. The site was a royal palace from the 6th century on, turned in the 14th century into a parliament and then used also as a prison, especially for prisoners during the Revolution. Marie-Antoinette spent 76 days here until her execution in October 1793; Robespierre, on the other hand, was held overnight and executed the next day. It's macabre: they've recreated various kinds of cells, including the Queen's. She's there in the cell, a dummy sitting in a chair with her back to us - you almost expect her to whip around, like Norman Bates's mother, and be a grinning skull. There's a list covering three walls of almost 3000 people beheaded during the Revolution, most of them driven in tumbrils from this prison to the Place de la Concorde, to be executed in front of thousands of screaming citizens. Quite horrendous.

My history lesson of the day. Final bus pass ride home. The rest of the day spent reading, working and Skyping, watching the fading of dove love with the fading of the day, and eating supper followed by much cheese. The sky is dark blue now, a few birds still singing, the antenna empty, my fingers tapping. My sugar bowl gleaming dully. There's the night's first star.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

photos, Prague to Paris

the Walt Disney castle in the Prague Old Town square

an ordinary Prague street

the gorgeous National Theatre

yours truly embarrassingly out of place in jeans and sweater in the National Theatre lobby

surreal statue honouring Franz Kafka

Paris: the most incredible tree in the Jardin des Plantes, even better than last year

my classmates at cooking class

the merchandise at the second-hand clothing store on rue Monge - not like Goodwill, that's for sure

I want to live in the apartment with the open window, around the corner from the Pantheon

The little park on Boulevard St. Germain, for today's ham sandwich

Saturday rhapsody, with writing

Even the birds in a Paris springtime are over the top. Through the open window, I watch a pair of pale brown doves making love on the television antenna outside - side by side, she tenderly grooms his neck, he grooms hers, he leans way over to her, she to him, they're entwined, if they didn't have beaks I'd think they were necking, and then a brief mounting ... so romantic!

This morning, before even a cup of coffee, I went to the bakery right next door, from which wafts the most luscious smell all day long, to buy a fresh breakfast croissant. And then off to the day's excursion: the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, which just opened a week ago in a new location on the Blvd. St. Germain. (The #84 bus goes right there, in case you're interested.)

Heaven - as spectacular as the British Library's collection, only nearly deserted and very simply done, a celebration of print from Sumerian plinths thousands of years B.C. to a note from John F. Kennedy. Letters from artists, scientists, musicians and politicians, and manuscripts from writers - to name a few, Cranach the elder, Rubens, Monet, yes, writing about the fog in London, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse (who had terrible messy writing), Mondrian, Magritte (who had amazingly neat writing), Camus, Hemingway, Baudelaire, a letter from Robert Graves the poet to his friend Lawrence of Arabia - "Prince," he called him - Goethe, Tolstoy in pretty good English: "Yours truly, Leo Tolstoy", it's signed, Dickens who had the most beautiful ornate signature, Dostoyevsky, de Sade, Balzac, Hugo, Rousseau, Voltaire, Moliere, a letter from Winston Churchill to his aunt in 1943 signed "your own loving Winston," Napoleon, all the kings of France, Ravel, Liszt, Freud - very weird, slashy writing, someone should analyze it - Edison, Curie, Eiffel, Isaac Newton in Latin, Pasteur, Einstein's theory of relativity in an interactive computer display, you push a button and see the next page - over 400 pages worth; a surreal picture of Einstein and his wife watching the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena in 1931, a receipt signed Joh. Seb. Bach in 1743, manuscripts from Haydn - extremely tidy - Mozart - extremely messy and small - Beethoven - extremely messy and big. A postcard in 1912 from Stravinsky to Debussy, which begins "Tres cher ami", Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Mendelsson, Puccini, Verdi...

Mon dieu. Awash in handwriting and music, dots on the page. We're forced to realize that all those legendary names were just people who wrote lists and letters to landlords and cousins, who had small signatures or big, simple or ornate, who corrected their writing with tons of marks or with almost none.

Upstairs, a special exhibit on Proust. He sent the manuscript of his first book, Swann's Way, to 5 publishers who kept it for months and then turned it down, and eventually paid himself to have it published, with a big extra fee for all the revisions at the last minute. His next book, which with the first was part of the monumental, groundbreaking In Search of Lost Time, won France's biggest literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt, in 1920.

Bought a magazine about the museum and a few postcards, one of which is a quote from Victor Hugo in 1856: Il faut s'aimer, et puis il faut se le dire, et puis il faut se l'ecrire, et puis il faut se baiser sur la bouche, sur les yeux et ailleurs.

In my awkward translation: One must love oneself, and then one must say so to oneself, and then one must write so to oneself, and then kiss oneself on the mouth, on the eyes and elsewhere.

Full of love, if not for myself, then for writers and artists everywhere, I walked in the heavenly sunshine along the Blvd. St. Germain, stopping to eat my sandwich in a little park and for a creme in a cafe, to watch the crowds go by, then home. I went back out to buy bread at the bakery recommended by my hosts last night, some wine, and on the way home, stopped in the stationary stores near here to drool and buy a Clairefontaine notebook and some pens. Annie and Paolo were right: the bakery on the rue Mouffetard makes by far the best bread in the quartier. After dinner, I had my cheeses on the new bread - oooh, crispy outside, chewy inside, you just want to eat more and more. I noticed they have desserts and many treats - my exploration there has just begun.

But the biggest treat of all comes at the end of this lengthy saga. I have not heard from my daughter since we made the fateful decision on Tuesday for her not to come, and have been writhing in guilt - here I am enjoying myself, there she is suffering in Toronto. Friend W'yson sent his advice: "A mother's guilt is never done," he wrote. "Enjoy your time, and the hell with the guilt. Easy to say, but easier to do, I'm told, as you realize you'll soon be home again. Tear off an unadulterated piece of ENJOY - savour and chew slowly. Life is a paradox filled with complexities! Chewing helps."

I have been chewing, W'yson, but needed to talk to her even so, so late this afternoon I called. She has been busy digging and planting a garden in the small yard behind the apartment she and her friends rent; she's perfectly at peace with our decision, we wanted to be safe, we'll travel next year, all is well. "Anyway," she said, "mine was one of the first flights out in days; I would have felt guilty taking the place of someone who was desperate to get home. Maybe the karma I got from that will serve me well on my own travels."

It will, my love. It will.

Friday, April 23, 2010

stuffing her face

The newspapers are back. According to "Le Monde," it had to do with the distributors and the printers; the newspaper apologized, saying, "Le Monde deplores these actions which can only further weaken the written press sector and put its future in danger."

So I was wrong - there was nothing cavalier about this strike. When I went out this morning, there was chanting and screeching down the street - about a hundred of the "badly housed" had gathered in front of a government housing office, to protest very loudly. The police were standing around with transparent shields, but they looked bored.

Il y'a toujours quelquechose. There's always something.

This morning, a long metro ride to the other side of the city for a free cooking lesson; I'd read about it on a website listing things to do in Paris. Turned out the free lesson cost 20 euros and lasted only half an hour; classes were free on the opening weekend only. However, I found out we'd get to eat what we made. A group of young people have opened Kitchen Studio, a small restaurant that also sells prepared food, gives these half hour courses through the week in a large snazzy teaching kitchen, and will arrange for private parties to have a cooking lesson and then dine together on what they've cooked. They're even set up to film events for TV, if need be.

Seven of us were handed white plastic aprons, told to wash our hands, and then pointed to our individual stations. It was all ridiculously easy, as of course a recipe completed in half an hour could only be. We made a sauce vierge: learned how to use just the outer part of the tomato and dice it, cut up green onion, garlic, olives and basil and mixed them in olive oil, then we scored the skin side of a filet of dorade (chad) and grilled it on the huge central stove, and then reduced spinach in a great deal of butter. It wasn't exactly Julia Child. We ate grilled dorade covered with the raw sauce accompanied by the spinach. It was interesting to see the place, the group experience was fun - the others all live or work nearby and pop in regularly on their lunch hour to learn to cook and then to eat - and lunch was delicious.

This evening, more dining: I was invited chez my friend Annie and her husband Paolo. For those of you not with me last year, one day I was standing at a bus stop and found out that all the transportation in Paris had just been shut down by a midwives' march. Annie saw me looking lost, offered to help me find my way, and after we'd walked for half an hour, talking all the way, she asked me in for a cup of tea. She's an editor for and assistant to Jean-Paul Sartre's daughter, helping her compile his unpublished work, and her Italian husband Paolo is a film studies teacher. At dinner, I told them about my fantasy of someone giving me an apartment, where would I chose to live, and they looked at me as if I were mad: is there a decision here? Where else but Paris?

One of their good friends, I learned, is Jean-Francois Menard, who translates Harry Potter into French. What a difficult job that must be, I must find one and take a look. How to translate muggles? Quiddich? Horcrux??

We sat in their dining-room, lined floor to ceiling with books, and ate Italian-Jewish food cooked by Paolo, his mother's recipes, he said - pasta in a kind of fish sauce and an artichoke omelette, made with fresh artichokes peeled and grilled. Delicious. And gariguette strawberries with cream. Even the bread was especially good. They used to live near here and told me where the best bakery is on the rue Mouffetard; in case I couldn't find it, Paolo took me for a tour of the street on Google maps. While we were at the computer, he couldn't resist showing me a few short films of his granddaughter, who is, it's true, amazingly cute. He showed her at barely 3 singing the Beatles' "Michelle." There were about a hundred more on his computer, so I made a graceful exit.

No galleries, no major excursions ... pas grand chose today. Some days, a girl just has to veg. The only thing that continues, no matter what, is eating. It's midnight now, and I'm still full.

PS. I've discovered on a website that Harry Potter has been translated into 65 languages, including Welsh (Harri Potter a Maen yr Athronydd), Macedonian, Khmer, Greenlandic, ancient Greek, Occitan (Harry Potter e la peira filosofau), low German, West Frisian, Basque and Afrikaans. What a phenomenon! "Muggles" in 65 languages, with # 66, Scots Gaelic, to come this summer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

she loves Paris

As I did my errands this morning, I passed a newspaper kiosk and heard a man approach the vendor and say, "Toujours en greve?" The vendor nodded. I wondered, until I passed another kiosk and heard exactly the same exchange, in that familiar French tone of frustration and resignation: "Toujours en greve?" Still on strike? Then I noticed - there were no French newspapers for sale. At a time when newspapers are losing gazillions and struggling to stay alive, the French newspapers are on strike. I asked the vendor why. He shrugged the famous Gallic shrug. "Les syndicats," he said. The unions. That's all.

I love this country.

I love this city. Spent some time today mulling over this dilemma: if someone offered me an apartment free in London, New York or Paris, where would I want to live for part of the year? It would be a given that all the apartments would be quiet, sunny and central, in Paris exactly around here, in the 5th. I decided I would pick Paris. Because it's so ... elegant here, because of the food and the cafés and the fantastic bus system (though I know, New York and London have that too) and Monoprix. Because I speak, and love speaking, French. Because all my friends and family would be so happy to visit, and we could easily zip over to London to see some fantastic theatre and then come back where the weather is better, if not the political climate. I was born in New York, have family there, love it - but it's a grid, an organized American system of straight streets and straight towering buildings with barely a bit of sky visible except in that wonderful park. Here, the history, the winding scrabble of streets, around each corner some amazing bit of historical delight, and then cheese. If any of those rich people organizing salons want to offer me a place in Paris, I would be happy to accept.

Here was Madame la Parisienne going about her morning - after rising, a bit of work, checking email and booking herself a place in a half hour free cooking class tomorrow, she went on her promenade in the quartier. First to the brulerie, the local place which roasts its own coffee beans and has a huge selection of coffee, teas and heavenly artisanal jams. With the man's help, I decided on a robust Java, from India. Then on to swing through Monoprix to see what's new - there's something new every day - then to buy groceries on the rue Mouffetard. Today at FranPrix, three kinds of cheese on sale, a chevre, a brebis - sheep's cheese - and a kind of roquefort, for less than five dollars each, plus a frozen delight for lunch.

Across the street for my first visit, this time, to Picard, which only sells frozen stuff. I walk in there and drool. Freezer after freezer of delices - the most amazing delicacies, ready to go. I bought berries, ratatouille, a gourmet assortment of mushrooms that just needs to be tossed into a pan with some butter, and a dinner of fish and roasted vegetables. The desserts looked incredible. FranPrix was playing Sinatra singing "New York New York," and Picard - must be the same sound system - had Sinatra singing about how much he loves Paris. Me too, Frankie.

On the way home, stopped at the resale boutique nearby, where I'd left a couple of things to be sold last year. They'd sold and she wrote me a cheque for 35 euros! Unfortunately, on the way out I spotted something I've been looking for - a pair of long linen shorts, exactly what a girl needs for looking chic on her bicycle in summer. They fitted me perfectly and cost - 35 euros. So I gave her back the cheque and took the shorts. Then stopped at the bakery right next to the flat, bought half a baguette and a pear clafoutis for dessert. Lunch: Coquilles St. Jacques - scallops and leeks in a cream sauce from FranPrix, heated up in the toaster oven in its own little ceramic dish, with bread to mop up every bit of the sauce and a little glass of red. Then salad, my 3 new cheeses and a cup of Java with a few squares of Lindt dark chocolate mousse.

How could I live anywhere else?

After lunch, a trip on my new favourite bus - the 84. I'm fighting a cold - everyone seems to have a cold, the alternation of very cold mornings and hot afternoons difficult on the system. So I decided to take it easy and go to a park to sit in the sun - Parc Montsceau, on the right bank. Picked up bus map, figured out route - there's a bus from the Pantheon, a five minute walk from here, which goes to the Parc Monceau via the most fantastic route, along St. Germain and tiny Left bank streets, over the Seine, through the Place de la Concorde and all around the Madeleine.

It's a lovely park, with bits of ruins and statues dotted about. You can lie on the grass, unlike many French parks - it's an "English-style park," they say, which means casual, not as prissy and groomed, so it was full of young people and children, lying and playing in the sun. I sat for an hour reading a French literary magazine about Marcel Proust and watching a grandfather (or perhaps a father) play with two little ones on the grass nearby. Then walked down to the Madeleine - passed a bakery placard which announced that the baker was a "sculpteur en pain," with many baked Eiffel Towers to prove it - to visit the famous gourmet emporia Fauchon and Hediard - talk about delices! The most expensive of everything. At Hediard, I could have bought a 250 gram bottle of Canadian maple syrup for 18 euros - around $25. Did not. I was tempted to buy a few madeleines, though, in honour of Proust. Did not.

Actually went into the Madeleine church itself, full of giant religious statues, big and cold, but the view from the front steps, down to Concorde and across the Seine to the Assemblee Nationale, is spectacular. As I stood waiting for the #84 back, next to Chanel and Gucci, I saw the Laduree shop, which sells Paris's famous little macarons, puffy light biscuits with cream filling. I've wanted to find Laduree and there it was, on the other side of one of the busiest streets in Paris, with a line-up stretching well outside the door. To hell with macarons.

Now a little glass of a 4 euro wine which is surprisingly good, and after supper, for dessert, my clafoutis. There's just a pace here, an appreciation of and delight in the senses, all the senses. Though yes, it's also an infuriating country where everyone goes on strike just for the hell of it. In my imaginary apartment, there would be no strikes. Just friends visiting. My daughter. My son. Frank Sinatra.

P.S. Just read some newspapers on-line and there's almost no mention of the volcano and airports. Only two days ago, it was front page news, and now, it's gone. If Anna were booked to fly today, she'd be coming. C'est triste.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

yin and yang and jet trails

A few minutes ago, as I sat working by the window, I looked up and saw a long white trail being scrawled across the sky. Quite beautiful in a whole new way. Airports are functioning again, and now I wonder if Anna and I made the right decision. The timing was just that bit wrong, having to decide yesterday afternoon when a new ash cloud seemed to be looming. But now - up there is a trail. The world is slicing through the skies again, but my daughter is over there, and I am over here.

I will confess to you - since Anna doesn't read this blog - that the selfish part of me is fine with that. The selfless mother part wants to be showing Paris to her right this minute. Before it's too late and she vanishes completely into her own life, I want to share the riches of this culture with her - the care people take with food and dress, the quantity of sublime cultural experiences - a whole other way to live.

But the selfish me is perfectly content alone in my silent little flat, deciding each day what to do, changing my mind whenever I feel like it - it's the ultimate in self-indulgence and good for the soul. I will probably spend late mornings and afternoons seeing things and late afternoons and evenings writing. That's what I did today, and it worked wonderfully. In the morning, I plotted a path to the Musee Marmottan-Monet, right on the other side of Paris on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne - once again, as last year, trying to avoid the metro and go by bus. I found a route not too far from here and set off with my trusty picnic lunch - two sandwiches today - and water.

I ate my paté sandwich on the bus, looking out at wisteria, cherry blossom, lilac and Paris whipping by and listening to two Parisians, strangers to each other, help two French girls visiting here for the first time plan their itinerary. By the time the girls got off at Trocadero, by the Eiffel Tower, the four were giggling like old friends, and I thought again that Parisians are not at all cold and standoffish, at least, to people who speak French. The Tower was spectacular, silhouetted against the blue sky and surrounded by that welcome sight - swirling jet trails.

The Musee is a beautiful huge house that used to be a royal hunting lodge and holds a big collection of Impressionist paintings, including the very first, an 1872 painting of Monet's that he didn't know what to title. He said, "Call it 'Impression of the rising sun,'" and the rest is history. There's a subterranean room of Monet's work including some of his water lilies, in front of which a young American mother with three young children bent down to ask her oldest, "What does that make you think of, Josh?"
"A plant in the sky," he said confidently. Could be, indeed. Monet is so visceral a painter - a trio walk through a field of wildflowers in summer, and just by the shimmering green of the shade umbrellas they hold, you can tell how hot it is, smell the flowers and the pungent earth, hear the crickets. You can see how rainy it was on his trip to London, how misty the early mornings were in Giverney - surely no painter does mist better. There's a section at the museum on his eye operations and glasses, so I guess there's a question about whether he was really seeing mist or just having eye trouble.

There's a lovely quote engraved above the stairs down, Louis Gillet about the waterlilies, that they show "ou le coeur se raconte ... se livre ... chante ses emotions."

Where the heart tells itself stories - gives itself over - sings its emotions.

Upstairs there was a really good special exhibit of paintings by women through the ages; the museum itself has many canvases by Berthe Morissot, the only female Impressionist. And there were panels about the many salons run by women, which nurtured artists of all kinds, painters, musicians, writers. Proust seemed to be at them all. I wondered - where are the salons of today? Where are the rich people who like to entertain artists and be entertained by them, introduce them to each other and to other rich people and, not incidentally, give them much-needed free food and drink? Step up to the plate, rich people! Bring back the salon!

On the second floor are illuminated manuscripts from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, exquisite artwork done by priests in books of hours and missals.

A good time was had. Post cards were bought. Time for lunch; my ham sandwich awaited. My plan was to go into the Bois de Boulogne nearby, find a tranquil spot and have my own little dejeuner sur l'herbe, but as I walked into the wood, I discovered that a major arterial highway into Paris runs right under this part of the Bois, and I'd have to go quite far into the shrubbery to get away from the noisy rush of cars. I found a small park near the museum instead, ate my sandwich and chocolate, and got the bus back, getting off at the Eglise St. Germain and walking up the rue de Rennes. I had an important engagement with Arcus Shoes, which seems to understand my difficult, big, bunioned feet as no other shoemaker ever has. And sure enough, I found the perfect pair of flat, comfortable, lightweight shoes that FIT. To hell with art and culture, I think I came back to Paris just for that.

Well - and cheese.

And art and culture. Really. But Arcus shoes too.

Along Gertrude and Alice's rue Fleurus, across the Jardin, home. Walked around in here admiring my shoes until I forced myself to sit down and start work. And, with a stop for supper and several stops for email and Facebook and YouTube - and you - I've been at it ever since. It's 10.00 p.m., and I've said seventeen words all day, asking directions and pointing to shoes. If Anna were here, I would have said seventeen thousand. I miss her, miss her terribly, and I feel guilty for enjoying my solitary day. But onward.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

final decision

Anna and I just had a final talk and came to the same conclusion: it makes no sense for her to jump hurdles to get to Europe right now, at the most chaotic time ever for world aviation. Even if she made it to Paris, and there's still no guarantee of that with this fresh explosion of volcanic ash, she might not make it back out; that's not something to have hanging over you on vacation. She can apparently get the fare refunded minus $200, so she is going to ask for that, and leave a place free for someone who wants to get home. I nearly wept today, missing her so much, seeing everything I want so deeply to share with her; this will be tough for us both. But it's too dangerous. They have no idea what's going on up there, what that dust means to planes, what the volcano is doing, where the winds will go next.
So I am feeling sad today, but I'll get over it. It's just that we gave up last night, then had our hopes restored this morning, then had to give up again. This morning I bought food at the market for us to eat together and now will eat it alone. But ... I'll eat it. It will be eaten. We both feel strongly that this is the right decision. I miss her with every fibre in my body. But it's just a cancelled trip. We're all healthy. It's really not a big deal.

Went to Café Rostand this afternoon for a coffee with my new friend, an hour in the sun across from the Luxembourg gardens, commiserating about our worries for our children and our parents, and for her, her granddaughter too. But enough. Now it's clear - I am here alone for ten more days (I hope only ten, since I have to get home too), and will make the best of it. I will get some work done and somehow, just somehow, enjoy Paris too.

My beloved girlie, how I wish you were here. I promise to bring back a great deal of cheese. Today, near Luxembourg, I passed the Air France offices - the line-up was out along the street, with staff patrolling to keep order. Look, right now, there's something in the sky - not a bird, not Superman, it's an airplane, heading east. Haven't seen one of those for awhile. But it's the only one.
P.S. And just to cheer me up, I received notice of my royalties for the year from Syracuse University Press. The first year after publication, I received nearly $500; the second year, under $100, and this year, my royalties were - $6. That's minus six dollars. But the press has generously wiped out that debt. Hey Paris - let's par-tay!

PPS. In my usual melodramatic way, I have exaggerated the royalty situation and have just read the statement more carefully. I did in fact make substantial royalties this year - with a total of 727 books sold, the royalties were $2.90. Because of some complicated dealings which I don't understand, this luscious figure turned into minus $6.00. But originally, the figure was on the plus side. Just.

In mourning, I have drunk several big glasses of a Bergerac (red wine) that cost $4.00 and is really not bad. I've eaten a large meal which featured giant white asparagus stalks, and eaten a lot of chocolate and cookies, and now I will just have to move on.

enough already, volcano

Last night, Anna and I said good-bye to our Paris visit and spoke of planning it for next year. She posted on her Facebook page, "F U Eyjafjallajokull." This morning, I awoke to an excited email from my mother, saying that Air Canada had called Anna (who does not have the Internet) and told her that her flight would leave tonight, Tuesday night, to land Wednesday morning. I went on-line immediately, to see that Charles de Gaulle airport is still closed and a new plume of ash has exploded into the atmosphere. This is a crazy, worrying situation - much as I'd love my daughter here, I don't want her to come if it's dangerous or will be insane at the airports, as I can only imagine it will be.

Only 6.30 a.m. her time - not a good time for a chat. We'll talk later and see what the latest is.

If it is safe to travel and she comes, or if it isn't and she doesn't, I will simply enjoy one experience or the other. I ache to share this city with a young woman who appreciates good food as much as Anna does, the cooking, the presenting and the eating. I bought flowers this morning, and wanted to show her how, at the flower shop on the market, they ask if the flowers are just for you or for a present - because if they're a gift, they will make a beautiful package of them. I want to show her the cooked roast suckling pig and roast potatoes ready to go at the butcher, and take her where I went before my errands, to my new favourite café which gets the morning light. They had run out of croissants, so I walked to the bakery across the square, bought a brioche studded with orange bits and ate it with my creme as I sat reading in the sun.

However, alone I will be happy too. Alone I will work, listening to myself instead of to someone else.

I am reading a beautiful memoir: "Wordstruck," by the broadcaster Robert MacNeil of PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer Report. (I almost, as I wrote, mentally pronounced it "repor" as Colbert has trained us to do.) MacNeil is not only Canadian, but he was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as was I - he even went to the same grade school, Tower Road, also acted with the Halifax Little Theatre and at the Dalhousie Theatre (though he was a student there and I had a child's part in a student production.) He also was an avid reader from an early age, moved with his parents to Ottawa and went to Carleton to study English, fell in love with words and the poetry of T. S. Eliot and worked as an actor, loved the radio and worked there, then gave up acting to become a writer and broadcaster. Many similarities, though he, of course, went on to become a famous newsman and write many books, and I am writing to you. He rhapsodizes about words and the English language the way I do about wine and cheese. A wonderful book.

Going to take it easy today - feeling a bit wobbly, perhaps all the accumulated stress of the past 2 weeks hitting me, not to mention the uncertainty of what's going on right now - and anyway, if my daughter does arrive, it will be good at have had a day of rest and silence. Only one engagement - coffee at the famous Café Rostand at the entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens, with the woman I met last year completely by chance, when we were both stranded by a strike. Now that feels Parisian - meeting a friend for un café near the Jardin du Luxembourg. And maybe, tomorrow, I'll go there with my girl.

Or maybe not.

Monday, April 19, 2010

at home, chez moi

Last night, suddenly, I saw the modem box on the floor in the apartment begin to twinkle again, tried the Internet, and there it was. No idea how it came, all of a sudden, to work; it just decided to stop being mean to me, I guess. This morning, fearing it was a momentary blip, I turned on my machine with trepidation – yes! Connected to the planet. Another act of God.

I went back to the kind tabac man down the street to get my transit pass renewed and buy an “International Herald Tribune,” to find out what’s going on with travel. Anna and I will talk later today, but it’s pretty sure she will not be on a flight to Paris tonight. She may come later in the week, or we’ll have to rebook … for next year, I guess. Nothing to be done about acts of God. An article in the “Tribune” said that stranded businesspeople are actually being forced to relax, visit galleries and read books. An upside to all this. Another article pointed out that the last time this volcano erupted, in the 1700's, it caused a famine which probably led to the French revolution. I wonder what will be the long-term results of this worldwide upheaval.

I have written to my bosses at U of T and Ryerson to make sure they have up-to-date phone numbers of everyone registered for my classes. I leave here May 1 and start teaching May 3. I’m sure all will be well by then, but just in case ...

So nothing to do now, like the international businesspeople, but relax and enjoy the day. For me, it’s an enormous pleasure and relief to feel so at home, to do a load of laundry and hang it in the sunny window to dry, to go outside without my thick vest and GoreTex jacket for the first time since leaving Toronto.

Warning – the tedious groans of pleasure have begun. Yesterday’s – my first pain au chocolat, first chevre on fresh bread, first glass of Crozes-Hermitage, and then the big slab of tarte tatin for dessert – many groans. Not to mention Paris in spring, the trees, the flower beds thick with colour, the air sweet through the traffic.

As I wandered around the little Latin Quarter streets yesterday, I came upon a sign: “Here in 1921 James Joyce wrote Ulysses.” A thrill ran through me. A thrill also ran through me on my first visit to Monoprix, with its wonderful fashions, cosmetics and household products. Me voila, the shallow and the deep. Today, I walked down to the Jardin des Plantes, one of my favourite places, to find that incredible pink tree even more spectacular than last year – enormous and laden. Had my lunch on a bench there – yes, you knew it, a ham sandwich and dark chocolate. Walking through and out the other side, I discovered something new that I’ve been meaning to visit – a sculpture garden along the banks of the Seine. Another of today’s groans: strolling in the hot sun by the river, looking at modern sculpture, most of which, unfortunately, has been covered with graffiti, but it’s still a great place - with, just up ahead, the spires of the grand lady herself, Notre Dame. People were picnicking and reading, and the clichés are true – there were young couples passionately kissing, everywhere. Well, it is spring. It is Paris. Yesterday the Jardin du Luxembourg was so crowded on a hot Sunday afternoon that I could barely move. A park more crowded than Grand Central Station – that’s some park. The sculpture park today, unbelievably, has free wifi provided by the city. Oh, and a big sculpture by Sorel Etrog, who moved to Canada and created the Genie award statuette.

The Bateaubus leaves from there, a waterbus which plows up and down the Seine stopping at various sites – I’ll take it one day, what an inexpensive and extremely picturesque way to get around the city. There’s also a sign advertising free “sport nature” every Sunday from 9 to 12, led by professionals: “Gymnastique d’entretien” – maintenance gymnastics - and “footing.” Might have to miss that. I will be too busy eating. Last groan before coming home - couldn't stop myself going in to the bakery RIGHT NEXT DOOR to this place, buying a little slice of Provencal pizza covered with fresh tomato and olives, which he heated up for me. Ate sitting by my open window. It's so quiet in here. I am one happy and grateful woman.

Now 4.30 p.m., the sun pouring in, jeans hung over the window rail to dry, birds singing. I want to introduce this city to my daughter, but perhaps it won't happen this week, this year. In any case, Paris and I will continue to make friends.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


3 p.m., I'm back in the hotel lobby - can't get my computer connected to the wifi in the flat. Otherwise all is well - the place looks the same, cosy, neat and quiet, sunny and wonderful. I did my grocery shopping on the rue Mouffetard, including gariguettes and thick white asparagus, bread, yogurt and eggs, cheese and wine - a Crozes-Hermitage on sale! - and a tarte tatin, because I'm worth it. Had to go back twice - couldn't carry it all home at once. Stood and watched the dancers again, just like last year - Sundays, after mass, they play accordion and sing and dance on the Place Mouffetard. And it's spring, the heart of spring. Sheer joy.

At last, I will eat right again - it feels as if I've lived the last few weeks on bread and chocolate. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But the thought of fruit and salad and good good cheese ... thrilling. And also, of course, more good bread and chocolate.

The plan was to walk and walk. But I've spent the last hour trying to get the internet to work. It must be something easy but not, of course, for MOI.

Paris, Sunday morning

A big fight going on by phone at the check-in desk of this little hotel, as I sit stealing the McDonald's internet in the lobby - a woman lost a deposit for five nights here because she couldn't make it in on her flight. She is talking about calling the police, but the clerk can't do anything - she didn't come, she loses her deposit. These scenes are playing themselves out all over Europe, people stuck everywhere going mad. I cannot believe my good luck with that bus; an article in the paper talked about a couple of French tourists stuck in Budapest, standing for hours for train tickets and bus tickets, trying step by painful step to make their way home.

My daughter, who is supposed to fly in from Toronto Tuesday morning, has instructed all her Facebook friends - all 400 of them - to blow the cloud away from Europe. Let's see what they can do.

In the meantime, it's still heavenly here, though rain and cloud predicted for tomorrow and Tuesday. Yesterday's chores were to walk around looking at Paris, to find a café facing the sunshine, which I did on the rue Monge, and had two beers, reading and circling interesting things in "Pariscope." More walking, dinner in the little Indian restaurant next door, bed. After my 3 hour bus-bumpy sleep the night before, I slept wonderfully in that tiny room. This morning's chore was to find a café facing the sunshine - the opposite direction - which I did, right on the Place Mouffetard, read the paper while eating a croissant and drinking un grand creme.

There is no pleasure like that. I think you could fly to Paris (well, no, get the bus or train now, at least within Europe) just for that - to sit on a Sunday morning in the sun, while the medieval church across the square rings its bells, an ancient fountain cascades nearby, the trees explode with colour, the little market is full of patrons buying - yes, remember from last year? special gariguette strawberries and thick white asparagus - and all around are single people, couples, friends, families, sitting in the sun drinking their coffee and reading their Sunday newspapers.

Last year, I kept saying, "I'm here!" It was hard to believe. This year, I know I'm here, I know my way around and feel much more at home. Now I have to figure out why I'm here. But I learned something this very morning, about simply sitting at a table in the sunshine, relishing the coffee, the sounds of splashing water and French conversation, the smell of gasoline and spring, the taste of a feathery croissant, being here, being alive and taking it all in. Maybe that's all I need to know.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Paris is hot...

...literally and figuratively. This will be brief, as I'm groggy - survived the bus and here I am. The first part of the ride was tough - we were packed in like sardines, a very firm, broad woman beside me with an enormous box at her feet and a very sharp elbow. We left at midnight, I tried to sleep, they woke us up at 2 a.m. for our first rest station break, then for something else - I remember seeing 3 on the bus clock and the next thing I knew, it said 6, so I got 3 solid hours while we chugged through the Czech Republic.

And then at 7.15 we came to some German town where my friend got off and I could stretch out. Much border control, police up and down the aisles, several more stops - a German rest stop, hooray, I could almost speak the language, and then the French one - yes! These are my people! In to the Gare de l'Est half an hour late at 2.30 p.m., and a fairly uncomplicated metro trip - only one endless transfer - back to my little hotel, where I have, once again, the world's smallest hotel room. Just for tonight - tomorrow I move to my rental apartment and can at last feel at home. More or less at home. Paul Anka is playing here in June, by the way, if any of you are interested.

Now to deal with the chaos of international flights, to figure out if Anna is going to get here or not - on the metro a woman who works at Orly Airport said that thousands of flights are backed up and they're not refunding tickets because the volcano is an act of God. And the young woman sitting next to me at this noisy Starbucks - where the Internet doesn't work today so she gave me her private password - told me that the French trains have been on strike for weeks. I'd first wanted to get a train to Paris. Mon dieu, it is a miracle that I am here at all.

Paris is in full spring bloom, flowers, trees, people out filling every sidewalk cafe - still in jackets but the sun is hot and bright. I can speak the language, understand the transit system, read the menu. This is a wonderful thing.

Stay tuned.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Wouldn'tcha know - my last day in Prague and it's beautiful. Ah well - my last impression will be a warm and sunny one.

I've just finished "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, which I'm ashamed to say I've been meaning to read for years and hadn't yet. What a masterpiece it is, though so hard to read in many places, with its hideous stories of slavery. But the force of the writing! Here's a quote:

In Ohio, seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it. When Paul D had been forced out of 124 into a shed behind it, summer had been hooted offstage and autumn with its bottles of blood and gold had everybody's attention. Even at night, when there should have been a restful intermission, there was none because the voices of a dying landscape were insistent and loud.


This is from the last page:

His hands are limp between his knees. There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."

I thought of all of you. According to GoogleAnalytics, there are over 300 people who read this blog at least four times a month. I guess more than 300 people are with me on my little jaunt. You are all friends of my mind, and I hope I am of yours.

Out into the Prague sunshine,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ash, Aida, Agnes

I'm so out of touch, I had to hear from my friend Patsy on the other side of the planet - all the way from Gabriola Island, B.C. - about the plumes of ash from an Icelandic volcano that have shut down all the airports in western Europe. Ye gods! Suddenly, wow, I am feeling amazingly good about my 14 hour bus ride to Paris tomorrow night. Something in me, despite the advice of my much smarter friends, kept saying, flying will be stressful, book the bus. So I did. Every single flight out of Heathrow has been cancelled, and now Charles de Gaulle as well. The chaos must be indescribable.

The only problem is that my daughter is flying in to France this coming Tuesday. Let's hope that ash has settled down by then.

In the meantime, tonight was a multicultural affair. I was in a solid gold Czech theatre watching a cast of Czechs with slavic cheekbones and black Cleopatra wigs perform an opera about Egypt and Ethiopia written by an Italian. And I sat next to a woman from Phuket, Thailand, in western Europe for the first time to visit a friend - she had never seen anything like "Aida".

The National Theatre, built in the late 1880's, is so utterly splendid, it makes yesterday's look like a pine box. Well, I exaggerate of course, but everything inside is ornate and golden. Gorgeous. The opera was not, however, of the highest calibre. I'm not complaining - I paid less than $50 for a great orchestra seat, at the end of Act 2 there were at least 90 people on stage - though no elephant - singing their hearts out - a full orchestra - I don't know how they pay everyone when the tickets are so reasonable. The singers are good, but directors here - yesterday's too - are still of the stand-and-deliver school of opera, motionless singers facing front. One character sang, "How he starts when he sees her!" meaning the hero looking at Aida, but in fact Aida was standing behind him while he warbled at the audience. The libretto also mentioned that he was young, but unfortunately, he was, shall we say, not.

Anyway, it was a great pleasure to be there, and it was also a great pleasure to come home after Act 2. I know it ends sadly but with great and glorious song.

It was dark grey, cold and raining all day, but I went out finally to find the Convent of St. Agnes and its collection of medieval art. The place dates from the 1100's, the art starts in 1180 and moves as far as the 1500's, mostly Marys, endless lovely Marys and babies and crucifixions and saints. Wonderful, except for the crucifixions; they seem to be particularly bloodthirsty here, much blood spraying about, but I try to avoid them everywhere in any case.

I also wandered into Bata shoes, another great Czech institution, here a 5 story building full of shoes. But almost NO BIG SHOES. I am very disappointed in Bata. So in revenge I went to the Marks and Spencer up the street and bought another warm undershirt. I bought two in London and decided I needed more. I may never take them off.

You know, you make travel plans in good faith. Who could imagine a trip being cancelled by a plume of volcanic ash?

celebrating Wolfgang

Today's plan was to take the #22 tram past the Castle to the Strahov Monastery, which has a famous library - but it's cold, wet and gloomy, zero visibility, not a day for a long excursion. Yesterday was very cold - I've not been lucky with the weather in Prague, at least outside - this comfortable flat is as cosy as can be. Have spent some time this morning instead playing on the computer, Facebook, YouTube, reading newspapers - what joy to be able to catch Jon Stewart in beautiful downtown Prague! Saw his sequence on "open-carrying" - Americans with visible pistols in holsters on their hips as they go about their daily business, like the Wild West. From here, it looks like a country of crazy people. But then I guess, in their own ways, all countries are crazy. Except of course Canada.

Well, no - Canada elected Stephen Harper twice, so we're crazy too.

Several newspaper headlines brought true joy flooding through my heart. "Salad dressing good for the brain, study shows." Loved that. And the second, even more important: "Vatican makes peace with the Beatles." Omigod, that is such a relief, I cannot tell you, I was so so worried that after John's totally unforgiveable "We're more important than Jesus," the church would never forgive. But they are bigger than that. As we all knew.

Last night, I stopped at the box office of the State Theatre to tell the man there, whom I'd informed about my missing tickets and who'd said he might be able to help, that I'd found them. He held up a piece of paper - he had found my booking and located my seat numbers. I told him I was ashamed of having been such a bother, how grateful I was and that I'd blog about him. So here it is: the man who works in the box office of the State Theatre in Prague is a terrific guy. Especially in comparison with so many surly people in this former Soviet state, who have no idea what the word "service" means. Many thanks for your kindness, sir.

And then, as expected, I saw a stunning opera in the most elegant, ornate theatre - more delicate than a jewel-box, a perfectly-painted oval with gold decoration, endless cupids, chandeliers, the sides all small boxes, the ceiling stunningly painted - intimate and sparkling. When the lights dimmed, the room still glowed with light because of all the gold on the ceiling, walls and boxes.

The Czech singers were superb, though the production was a little fusty, and the translation was unintentionally hilarious at times. Donna Anna, who has just nearly been raped by the Don who has then killed her father, sings heart-wrenchingly to the audience, a line which was translated as "A multitude of feelings are tossed in my soul." I will keep that line, as it perfectly describes most of the days of my life. Tossed like a salad. And salad dressing is good for the mind.

But mostly, the great beauty of theatre and talent of singers aside, the evening was about the sublime Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - like Van Gogh, another tortured genius who died tragically young and under-appreciated. No one, I notice, has made a movie about Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote one masterpiece after another and had 21 children. There's not enough pain and conflict. Poor Wolfie, who became a professional musician at the age of 7 and was only 34 or 35 when he died - way too much drama. Incredible, what he accomplished in that short time. I tried to imagine what opening night in 1787 must have been like, lords and ladies in their wigs and satin sitting in the perfect little theatre, watching the 31-year old composer conduct, that gorgeous music flowing out.

Walked home in the bitter cold, full of music, a multitude of feelings tossing in my soul.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

found my vstupenka

You knew this was coming, didn't you? Guess what I'm looking at beside the computer - two red vstupenka - tickets - which were, of course, right under my nose. Because they're attached and turned inward, and the back looks like one ticket to a national monument, I thought that strip in a pile of papers was just a used ticket from something I'd seen. Finally this afternoon, I opened it up and found two opera tickets, face to face.

Yes, stunningly silly. There you go. C'est moi. Ah well.

This morning, the sun was shining and I got an early start - wanted to get to the Jewish ghetto before the crowds. I marched smartly through the Old Town - though had to stop and gasp in the Old Town Square, because during the night they'd taken down the thicket of market stalls, temporarily up for Easter, so now I could see the square in all its glory. But no stopping, important to get to my destination before the massive tours and school trips.

Started with the magnificent Spanish Synagogue, in which I was completely alone, and then went straight to the old Jewish Cemetery, the main place I wanted to visit. Managed to fit in between two school groups and have it more or less to myself. Which is the way to see it - in solitude. It was founded in 1478 and was used as a cemetery for the next 300 years; because of lack of space, Jews were buried on top of each other, and the hundreds of mossy headstones are jumbled and tumbled. In silence, you feel and hear the breath of time. Mystical and very moving. There's a wall where fragments of fifteenth century headstones have been embedded; visitors have written messages or prayers on little pieces of paper, rolled them up and stuck them in the crevices. So I did too.

My ticket (the cheapest, naturlich) allowed the visiting of several more synagogues and sites, which combine to present the most exhaustive history of Jewish life in this region. They've done a marvellous job of laying it all out, with artefacts, art, clothing, paintings and plenty of detailed description and history.

I am always, in my travels, looking for identity - last year to my mother's village in England, this year to my Jewish half in Berlin and Prague - to see if something resonates. Everything does, but nothing in particular. I see these marvellous Jewish places, things, history, life - I admire them and am connected to them through my family and my work on my great-grandfather's life - Prague is not that far from Ukraine, where he was born and lived till the age of 38. But though it is all in my blood, it is not my identity, spiritual or actual. I know that for sure now.

On my way home, I passed the entrance to the Jewish Cemetery, where at least a hundred people were piled up on the street outside the gates, waiting to get in. Home to have lunch, find opera tickets and have tea with a friend of Helen's. Suzanne, a Canadian married to a Czech, told me that when they moved here in 1992, not long after the "Velvet Revolution" that got rid of Communism, this city was completely grey, the houses, the people, the air. (There was so much pollution, she told me, that the city parks were dying.) I had no idea that all the buildings were painted their cheerful pinks, blues, yellows, greens in the last 20 years. There's a memorial in Wenceslas Square to the victims of Communism - hundreds of thousands hanged, beheaded, arrested, died in prison, shot crossing the border or driven into exile. A Czech politician has said it will take 3 generations before the shadow of the Communist regime is lifted from the land. But Suzanne thinks the Czech Republic will recover, because it was such a prosperous, creative and vital country before.

The country is fast adopting Western ways, for good but also, of course, for bad; Prague has become a huge centre, apparently, for the sex trade and the making of pornography. Suzanne told me about going to an event during which Vaclav Havel, then President, made a speech, after which she and her husband went with him and his friends to a pub around the corner for a drink. "There was a marvellous informality to life here then," she said. "Not any more. It's an international city now."

And now, a glass of wine and a little informal snack before I go to the theatre, ticket firmly in hand, to see "Don Giovanni" in the theatre where it opened, conducted by Wolfgang himself. I quiver in anticipation.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

give and take

The lord giveth, and he taketh away. Today, what was givethed was a forecast of rain and a reality of sun. The on-line forecast showed constant rain for the next 3 days, leaving me to believe that I would never see this stunning city in sunlight. But then, out the window was a hesitant yellow light, growing stronger. Quick, I thought, get out and grab some of that.

So I hopped onto the very old #22 tram, which goes over the river and to the top of the mountain opposite, to the Prague Castle. Which is not a castle at all, it's a series of spectacular buildings, a cathedral, houses, towers, palaces, basilicas, churches and convents. Plus gardens. Plus the Golden Lane, a series of tiny houses that once housed the court soldiers, extremely picturesque except that they've all been turned into souvenir shops. The one Franz Kafka lived in with his sister for awhile, also #22, fittingly is a bookstore.

So in the welcome rays of the sun, I wandered about, in and out of a palace or two. Saw the defenestration window - some dissidents were thrown out of the window down a steep cliff, but landed on a manure pile and lived, thereby starting a religious war. It's easy to imagine yourself in the Middle Ages when standing in a vast banquet hall with a vaulted ceiling and a gold throne. Except that you are surrounded by Russian, Italian, French and Japanese tourists. At a viewpoint overlooking the whole city, I stood next to a man who wondered aloud what the beautiful tree below was. "A magnolia," I told him. He was from Arizona, where they don't have magnolias.

After a final, blissful wander in the Palace Gardens, where among many exotic trees there's one sugar maple donated by the Canadian government in 1958 - HOME! - I took the #22 back, looking in trepidation at the dark clouds in the sky. But they cleared. It did not rain.

Back here, however, was today's takething away. You will find this hard to believe, because I find it hard to believe and I'm here right in the middle of it - but at the flat, I opened my bag to get out the tickets that I bought yesterday for two operas - and discovered that they've vanished. I'm sure I put them in a special safe pocket of my big bag, a deep one inside at the back where I only keep my keys, and they're simply not there. I have looked everywhere, garbage pails, pockets, everywhere. When I was taking out my keys, could I have accidentally slid them out and dropped them? It doesn't seem possible. A giant mystery.

Well, folks, once again I give myself a D minus in travel. I am an idiot, or else Prague has some pretty nimble, music-loving thieves. Or else, as Chris says, back in Toronto I'll open something and there they'll be. But at the same time, it didn't get to me that much. Because once you've left your handbag with everything in it on a train in the south of France, losing a few theatre tickets is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I decided that it was karma, as my friend Wayson would say, and meant that I was supposed to stay home those nights and work.

On my way to meet Johanna this evening, however, I went to the place where I'd bought them, showed the man the Visa slip and explained. I thought he'd shrug and tell me to get lost. Instead, he said to come to the box office tomorrow at the State Theatre - he'll be working and might be able to help me. So I might get in anyway. If I don't, I'll rent "Amadeus" and pretend I was there.

(On my tourist map, by the way, it shows all the movies made recently in Prague, like "The Omen," "Mission Impossible," "The Bourne Identity," "Hannibal Rising" and many more. The whole city is one giant movie set.)

And then, the lord gaveth again. My young Cabbagetown friend and I had dinner together and then went to a concert she'd got us tickets for, a German ensemble called Weser-Renaissance performing the "Missa Paschalis" of Heinrich Isaac, written more than 500 years ago. It was sublime - Gregorian chant, many kinds of harmonies, five musicians with period instruments and five men with the most extraordinarily perfect pitch, sweetness, clarity, weaving their voices together in the echoing church. The counter-tenor had the richest male soprano voice I've ever heard, like a bell, sounding out above the others. At the end of each - movement, do these things have movements? Anyway, when one piece ended, the voices would shimmer and fall away in the echoey silence. Oh it was gorgeous.

Then we emerged into Prague at night, the ice cream houses glowing with lights, the turrets on the old town square looking like the silhouette of Disney's magic castle. I walked home. And now - now, it's raining.

P.S. I wrote here a few days ago that I'd made a mistake in my travel plans - should have done London - Prague - Berlin - Paris rather than the reverse, since the train from Prague to Paris goes through Berlin anyway. However, if I HAD done it that way, the very day I would have tried to fly into Prague is the day Obama and Medvedev arrived in Prague to sign the nuclear non-proliferation pact. The airport was closed down for two days and so was practically the entire city. So, by the sheerest chance, I did it the right way after all.

And maybe those tickets are just ... hiding mischievously somewhere. Come out, come out wherever you are!

Monday, April 12, 2010

wandering in beautiful downtown Prague

Prague is jammed with tourists from everywhere, even in rainy April, and no wonder – it really is a historical wonderland, a city of incredible beauty, mile after mile of graceful buildings painted ice cream colours – lots of pale pink, cream and yellow - and loaded with pretty details. So much gold paint and gold leaf, so many nooks and crannies, turrets, porticos, carvings, wonderful doors, Juliette balconies; there’s Art Nouveau everywhere except when you’re looking at the Middle Ages or the Baroque 17th Century, not to mention parks and gardens and the wide fast-moving river. Every street is still cobbled. Apparently, Prague, so well located at the centre of the continent, was once bigger than Paris or London – and it’s now a UNESCO protected heritage site.

Before setting out today, I finalized my travel arrangements, which were worrying me so. This may be mad, but instead of entrusting myself to the stress of an unreliable cheap flight, I am taking the overnight student bus from Prague to Paris, which leaves here at midnight and arrives at 2 p.m. the next day. Unfortunately there was no bus leaving Saturday night to get me in on Sunday, which is when I move into my Paris place, so I am leaving at midnight Friday, will arrive Saturday afternoon and spend one night in a miniscule room at the hotel I was in a few weeks ago, bus and hotel the same price as a flight. Believe me, a great deal of agonising went into this decision, and I think, for various reasons, it’s the right one. Ask me again after a 14-hour bus ride.

So, out into the day; it was cold, and the sky, like yesterday, was heavy and dark. I’m starting to know my way around. The good citizens of Prague, especially the store-keepers in the heart of the tourist district, are obviously heartily sick of being asked directions, but it is a very confusing place, with a tangled maze of old streets and signs only in Czech. But I’m getting my bearings. Went first to the box office for local music – every church in Prague is offering concerts, but I wanted to see the old theatres, so for a very reasonable price, I am seeing Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the State Theatre – which is where it premiered in 1787, directed by Mozart himself! The theatre is featured in “Amadeus,” as is this whole town – I want to watch the film again at home, to see how it showcases the city. And at the National Theater, which apparently is truly splendiferous, I’m seeing “Aida.” Wow.

I followed an itinerary Helen had given me, which included seeing the spectacular Art Nouveau Municipal Hall where her parents met, and stopping at her recommended Italian place for a pizza and salad lunch, with a view over an old square. A huge amount of food for $20, with a Pilsner Urquell, of course. Continued meandering in wonder, finally found the famous Charles Bridge, crawling with tourists and touts, wandered over and around the Mala Strana, the Little Quarter, which is one of the oldest parts of this very old place. Stunningly beautiful, little medieval squares with the loveliest houses, bridges over streams, water wheels, the magnolia trees all about to burst into bloom, in colours to match the walls behind.

The grand Wallenstein Palace is only open on the weekend, for some reason, but I was able to walk in the extensive gardens and admire the pure white peacock. Explored the vast Baroque church of St. Nicholas – hard to imagine more marble statues and gold leaf anywhere. I noticed that the statuary and art in this church was mostly of men, huge saints murdering evil with their staffs, as opposed to the gentle suffering Marys we encounter in France.

Exhausted by now, time for the slow uphill walk home. Only had to ask directions once. I have next to explore Kafka’s feared castle, always visible high above the city, and the old Jewish quarter. But now, I have my feet up and am looking out Helen’s windows at the pouring rain, which very kindly waited to start, today, until I got home.

I note that Prague in all its great beauty has a few small flaws: cigarette smoking is allowed inside everywhere, which is strange to see and smell now that I’m so used to it being outlawed. And dogs, even huge dogs, are also allowed in restaurants and everywhere, though in public the big ones seem to have to be muzzled. But picking up after your dog, though the city has put hopeful signs and bags around, has not filtered into local consciousness yet. So that, besides the very rough cobbles on sidewalks and streets, means being very careful as you walk. Particularly as you tend to walk looking up at the high facades of the magnificent buildings.

a few photos of the trip

Prague: the famous John Lennon wall around which young revolutionaries gathered once, with an old monastery behind

The Wallenstein Palace gardens with Kafka's castle looming above

Prague Old Town Square

Berlin: selling bits of the wall, panels of which are behind, covered with graffiti

Berlin: the Holocaust Memorial

London: The ice lolly truck - fond memories of childhood (it was bigger then.)

Your trusty adventurer in St. James Park in the rain with Buck Palace behind. There has been rain everywhere. Praise be for GoreTex.