Saturday, March 31, 2012


One other thing, while I have this moment of tranquillity, sitting on the balcony above Lyons in the chill wind: there's no doubt that travel is good for the soul; that it helps my work to view other lives and to see my own at a distance, not to mention being inspired by beauty, antiquity, art, and, yes, croissants (also art, in their way.) But there's a stress in travel that I don't write about here, those heart-stopping moments when I think something has gone wrong, the address is lost, the key won't work, it's the wrong train, how does this work? Where am I? And why?

And then there's my current status as a glorified couch surfer - I've been thinking that perhaps the time is coming when I need to find a way to pay for hotels or at least b and b's. My friends and their friends are wonderfully accomodating, but still, I'm in the way, planted in the middle of their lives - which means also that my own life is on hold, without autonomy or a place to be by myself, with my self. I couldn't afford to travel the hotel way and am grateful for every couch. But there's another kind of cost.

Plus missing my daughter, son, mother, house. Even found myself longing for my crabby cat yesterday, when I saw a CD in a store window: "Purring therapy, cats who heal us: 30 minutes of purring." Though my cat has never purred for longer than a minute and a half, I missed her deeply.

Just wanted you to know that under the rapturous chorale, there's a 61-year old woman who's
sometimes lonely or uncomfortable or even, occasionally, frightened. Only sometimes, mind you.

And now - out into Lyons, to discover something new.

PS A demonstration just passed by, way below, a bunch of kids with signs chanting in outrage about something, I couldn't make out what, with a police car at the head of the line and another at the end, accompanying them. If it's March, this must be France.


If it's Saturday, this must be Lyons ... a 9th floor apartment with a view over all of Lyons, to be exact. It's a small one-bedroom apartment, very chic and modern, with an enormous balcony that stretches all the way round and has an incredible view not just of the city, but of life in the crow's nests in the trees below. I'm here thanks to the generosity of my Toronto neighbour's roommate Alexandra, who's studying to be a cardiologist in Toronto while her engineer partner is here; she gave me her key and Vincent, temporarily.

Yesterday morning I said farewell to the hot sun of Montpellier and my beloved friends Lynn and Denis, and got the train. The French train system is incredible - almost always to the minute on time, smooth, comfortable, efficient. Arrived in Lyons one minute late, made my way to the apartment, marvelled at the view and set off to walk the city. Alexandra had steered me to the oldest part of the city, le quartier St. Jean, which is full of narrow medieval streets and marvellous low, wide wooden medieval doors. There are lots of covered passageways called "traboules" - you push through a door and go under buildings from one street to the next, kind of like the underground passages in Canadian cities, only above ground. I wondered why they existed here in a much milder climate; my friend Sarah told me last night they were for the silk trade, which was huge in Lyons - so bolts of silk could move safely, without fear of damage by rain.

Inside the Cathedral St. Jean, a sign: Here was celebrated the marriage of Henry IV and Marie de Medicis, 17 xii 1600.

I saw a stairway that looked promising, climbed, and climbed and climbed, later learning that there's a "peripherique" that takes you up to the top of the city. At the top of le Colline de Fourviere, I visited the fantastic Gallo-Roman theatre from the first century B.C., a UNESCO heritage site. It's clear why Lyons - Lugdunum in those days - became a centre of Roman life - in the middle of the country, this mountain allowing vistas in all directions, and probably the food was as good then as now.

On the way home, I wanted to find some take out; in the evening, I was going to visit Lynn's daughter Sarah who has just given birth to twin boys, and had insisted on bringing dinner with me, though I wasn't sure a take out place would exist here. Of course, it does - take out gourmet soups and quenelles. I bought two kinds of exotic soup, a bunch of quenelles and some sauce - not cheap by any means, but as we found out later at Sarah's, when heated up, unbelievably good.

She is as well as anyone can be with a 3-year old and two-week old twins who are always hungry; she has imported a wonderful foam device called "My breast friend" from the U.S., a wrap-around pillow made for nursing twins simultaneously. We listened to her husband Jean-Marie's music on a C.D. while eating, and I got to hold Samuel, which brought me back to a time 27 years ago when I held my very own Samuel. He was never quite that small, though - hard to believe since he's six foot eight now - he wasn't much bigger. Creatures from another planet, trying to focus their eyes, waving their magic fingers at the light.

This morning, another sunny, windy day. Vincent ran out to get us fresh croissants and bread for breakfast - the best croissants yet, thick with butter, dense chewy pastry, groan. Instead of rushing off to explore the city, I am enjoying my solitude in this eyrie, and will stay here for a bit, regrouping, sitting in the sun and listening to the crows who are also feeling at home.

more Lyons

Two major rivers flow through
Lyons - the Rhone and the Saone

Last night's visit -
Jean-Marie with his daughter
Maude and two-week old sons
Neil and Samuel

My host Vincent on his
spectacular 9th floor wrap-around balcony, above the crow's nests

from Montpellier to Lyons

The fanfare for Francois Hollande,
Socialist candidate for President of

M. Hollande, a tiny point of light in
the distance

The Gallo-Roman theatre,
15 B.C. : the audience

The stage

A typical hideous street in
old Lyons - le quartier St. Jean

Thursday, March 29, 2012

the socialists gather

Last day in Montpellier - the excitement, going to see a rally for Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate in the upcoming French Presidential elections, who's at the moment the top candidate in the polls. Sarkozy, a most unpopular man, is way down. Hollande is an unprepossessing little man with glasses and (in photographs) acne, looking like an insurance agent; he has a hoarse, raspy voice for a politician, but his speech provoked lots of cheers in the crowd. He spoke at length about the maintenance of "la laicité" - the secular state, the separation of church and state, which is so vital to France. If only the Americans could wrap their heads around that! He said many good Socialist things about Justice, Equality, Solidarity, Reform and la Republique - promises about jobs, housing, health, and youth.

Speaking of whom - I watched the kids streaming away during the talk, and many sauntering past, chatting, completely unaware it was happening. In front of me, a twenty something with dreads, wearing a Superman t-shirt and holding a can of Pringles; many teens in American-style t-shirts imprinted in English, the coolest t-shirts. I hope they are engaged in the process, but obviously, many, comme chez nous, are not.

Hollande is shouting about "change." We want change! "Nous pourrons changer le destin de la France." But Obama he's not. And as Lynn pointed out, Sarkozy ran on a platform of change five years ago, and won by a landslide.

After the talk, Madame and I went to her favourite creperie, where we had a lunch crepe and then a dessert crepe. I didn't even want to get the latter, full from the former, but ordered one with lemon, which is the way my mother used to make crepes. Omigod. I must come back soon. To die for.

A little shopping with my friend - "Bright lipstick for an older face!" - and some grocery shopping - we're having duck and endives for dinner. Now I'm packing. Tomorrow I get the train to Lyons, where Lynn's oldest daughter Sarah and her husband Jean-Marie, from Burundi, have just had twin boys, to keep their 4-year old Maude company. So I'm visiting them, and Lyons. I'm staying at the friend of a friend's, not sure about the internet. And then on Sunday morning, I fly to Bristol, England.

Hope to be in touch soon. The only sure thing is that the next time I write, I will have eaten and drunk extremely well. Again.

PS It's six p.m., and I just went out to buy us our baguettes for dinner and tomorrow, then stood in the sun at the Place de la Comedie. The beautifully decorated trams sailed continuously and smoothly past, and the outdoor cafés were packed with people taking l'aperitif in the sun, thousands of others strolling or walking quickly home across the vast open space with groceries. No cars, just bicycles and pedestrians, and me, ripping off hunks of fresh baguette, admiring the scene. Divine. Especially the bread.

from retreat to soufflé

The magnificent tree overhanging the terrace beside
the river,
where writers work

The former barn, now the Writer's
Retreat - with Juliet balcony

In Montpellier - Monsieur
Blin makes a soufflé, a confection
of two kinds of cheese, eggs, bechamel sauce
and cream.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

J. K. Rowling is my hero

This woman is simply the best. Someone just sent me this - her talk at Harvard in 2008.
"Rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I built my life." Inspiring and beautiful.

winning the Tony Award

Well, yesterday was pretty amazing, my friends. I got up at 7 and spent the day working like mad - preparing a piece to send to a competion, starting another, and then having a long talk with Isabel about the memoir. She had a very good idea which I will share at some point.

She was preparing the aperitif and I was in my writer's flat checking my email, when I received yet another gift from the universe - an endorsement from the playwright Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize winner and general all-round amazing guy, who quotes my book in one of his. This is what he says about "Finding the Jewish Shakespeare":

"Finding the Jewish Shakespeare brings back to literary life Jacob
Gordin, a protean, prophetic, wickedly funny and absolutely serious
theater artist. Along with him, his great granddaughter Beth
Kaplan resurrects the richness, magnificence and complexity of the
world of Yiddish theater. This is a witty, shrewd and elegant book
which tells a story of vital importance: how an impoverished,
beleaguered immigrant culture begins to speak to itself, begins to
find its agency by understanding itself through art, by finding its
voice. In the process, Kaplan performs a smaller but invaluable
service, namely detailing the life of a marvelous playwright, whose
career makes a great story about making theater."

I nearly wept with joy - took my computer over to Isabel's to share the news, and as I walked onto the terrace, she popped a champagne cork. Pure serendipity, but what a fine moment. I sent this on to a friend who told me I'd won the Tony Award. That's for sure. A reduced version will go on the cover of the paperback. "Witty, shrewd and elegant" - I like that very, very much.

Today, I sent the piece in to the competion and could hardly be pried away from the bench under the magnificent tree on the terrace, reading, working, thinking. I will be sad to leave here tomorrow. It has been extraordinarily fine.

Many thanks to Isabel, for opening her beautiful home and heart.

just look at those bottles

Cliff and Beth, happy Canadians tasting wine, poured by the vintner.

Chez Isabel

The mill just below Isabel's house, from which the frogs serenade us and the brook babbles

My landlady, with her sublime
mushroom omelette

Her house - le Mas Blanc

Le marché aux puces
at Anduze

Aperitif on the terrace - vineyards behind

The writer at work

It's a tough life, but someone's
got to live it.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Someone sent me this. God knows why.

In church I heard a lady in the pew next to me saying a prayer. It was so sweet and sincere I just had to share it with you.

Dear Lord,
This has been a tough two or three years. You have taken my favourite actor Patrick Swayze. My favourite musician Michael Jackson. My favourite salesman Billy Mays. My favourite actress Elizabeth Taylor. And now my favourite singer Whitney Houston. I just wanted you to know that my favourite politician is Stephen Harper.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

le Mas Blanc writer's retreat and wine bar

Another paradise. I'm on the edge of the Cevennes in south-central France, in a bed-sitting room in what was formerly a centuries-old barn, a stone's throw from Isabel's farmhouse. This attic space has been set up specifically for writers - besides bed, fridge, microwave and all the food one could need for breakfast, there's a comfortable reading chair, a big desk with printer, internet, pencils and pens, and shelves full of reference books and reading material. Best of all, there's a Juliet balcony with a huge window through which the morning sun shines, lots of other windows, and a terrace below with chairs and tables, under a magnificent tree and beside - yes - a babbling brook. Is all this real? Mais oui. And it's now available for writers to rent.

On Saturday afternoon, Isabel and a friend, Cliff, came to pick me up at Lynn's. Here's the backstory: in 1976, when I was an actress in Vancouver, I was hired to read one of Isabel Huggan's wonderful "Elizabeth Stories" on CBC radio. We met later at some writerly event, she said she liked my reading, and we became friends, but she moved out of the country. When I'd moved to Toronto and Lynn and Denis came from France to stay with us, Lynn invited over her dear friend Ken, who became one of my dearest friends too. And Ken, it turned out, is Isabel's first cousin. So after many years, Isabel and I reconnected through Ken, and also her daughter Abby who works at my local farmer's market. Are you following this convoluted trail? This is how I ended up here, and how much fun it was that Lynn and Isabel, who'd been hearing about each other for decades from me and Ken, finally met on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Montpellier.

We did a quick grocery shop - how hard it is to move quickly through a French supermarket, a world of delectable wonders - and drove away, stopping at a vineyard a few kilometres from Isabel's for a wine-tasting. Gosh, she had to twist my arm to agree to that. We pulled into the yard of an ancient farm with giant shiny tanks all around; the family, it transpired, has been making wine for five generations. Five generations. The son has studied wine-making in Chile and other places and has brought new ideas back to his father; both men were on tap, so to speak, to introduce us to their wines. Isabel has been buying from them for years. Domaine du Grand Chemin - check them out at Watch for this vintner, my friends - their products are superb.

We started with whites, tasting the difference between sauvignon blanc, chardonnay (the most popular white grape in the world) and viognier - one taste more expansive, one tighter, one sharper. And then - be still my beating heart - the rosés and the reds, the vintner spitting out what he drank, but the rest of us ... not. He poured us a rosé called Incroyable, which was. His delicious reds are a mix of grapes - pinot noir, shiraz, grenache. We had a cabernet sauvignon which was not aged in oak, others that had that smokey oakey taste. He told us wine consumption is going down, which was a surprise to me. Thirty years ago, the French used to consume 110 litres per year per person, he said; now it's 50 litres. Canadians - less than 10 litres! All that beer. I was ashamed. I'm doing my best to up that number by myself, I said. He told us about trying to get the attention of the LCBO, without much success. I do hope he succeeds one day.

He explained that a glass of good wine has three noses. You pour and swirl once, then sniff, then swirl again and sniff, and then again, swirl and sniff. If - I hope I get this right - the wine's smell explodes after the third swirl, that means it should be stored. If it smells the same, it's ready to drink. The swirling aerates the wine and ... well, he explained it well, but I was too busy drinking to take notes. His father was pouring for some French twenty-somethings, who were saying all the correct things about what they were tasting. The Canadians were saying, "Wow." "That's really good." "Really really good."

Which is nice too.

Staggering only slightly from the effect of all those little sips, not to mention our clinking purchases, we drove on to the Mas Blanc, Isabel's farm nestled in the countryside, amidst - what else? - mile upon mile of vineyards. Her house is stunning, with low beams, a big fireplace, modern kitchen, scattered piles of books and magazines. And then she showed me my home for the next few days, this little aerie. I fell in love.

So far, however, I have to report that getting any work done has been a struggle. I have been forced to have aperitif and then dinner with Isabel and her friend. Had to sit on her patio overlooking the river, drinking, eating cheese and talking - much of the time, about writing - listening to the frogs croak, and then sit inside to dine and talk some more. Harsh. This morning, awakened by birdsong and sunshine, I did not settle down for a hard day at the computer - we went off to one of my favourite events, a marché aux puces, a flea market, in nearby Anduze. I actually did get bitten by a flea. Cliff bought some old tools - very old tools - of which there were many. Much much junk. And then we went into the village to sit at one of the cafés under the knobby plane trees on the village square, and to meet up with some of Isabel's neighbours and friends. As we walked there along the narrow road, I heard a man say, "Ca y'est, c'est l'ete!" And indeed, today was suddenly summer, really hot, blazing sun.

Back to the Mas Blanc, ready to fall asleep, but did sit on the terrace and do some work, and went for a long walk along the country roads through the vineyards. Back to Skype with Chris in Vancouver - surreal, really, his head, from the other side of the world, chatting on my desk in the Cevennes. And then another meal, more fascinating talk, drinking the Cuvee JMF 2008 that I'd bought for us at the vineyard. One of the best wines I've ever drunk, cost 9 euros 40 - about $12. Expensive. The rosé I'll take back to Lynn and Denis cost $6.

I know, I can hear you weeping out there. As I will be, when I have to go back to the LCBO. Ah, this inimitable country and its delicious magic.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I may be over here but he's still there

Check out this Globe and Mail article "An open letter to those who elected Rob Ford" at

old friends

Since September 1967, across 2
continents and 7 children ... yet she's a whole year older.

As she said when she saw this photo, "And one of us has cleavage."
It's an old joke between us.

Yes. And one of us has a very bright

more Montpellier

I'm about to depart for the next stage - Isabel Huggan's writing retreat, which she is in the process of setting up, and I'm to help her with, as guinea pig and blogging and landlady consultant. Her farm is in the country about 45 k. north of here, I gather, with a separate space for her writer guests. Sounds like heaven.

Speaking of heaven - it was supposed to rain all day yesterday and again today, and instead, beautiful clear sun, with a spring breeze. I walked and walked again, and then met a friend of a friend for a drink - Peter is a painter, lived for years in Cabbagetown, now lives in a village near here and goes back and forth. So, lots to talk about. Last night Lynn and I met her friend and mine, Julie, Lynn's fellow linguist, for supper at L'Entrecote, which does the best steak/frites in the most affordable way - mmm. I may not eat another French fry for months.

And then we went on for a drink at a wine bar in the centre of town, us and the thousands of twentysomethings on the prowl on a Friday night. Montpellier is a very youthful town, and its youths were all downtown last night. Fun to watch; more fun not to be that age any more, and just watch.

Today, Madame and I went to an exhibit of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, an American who worked for Life magazine and who eventually set as his life's task to shoot a complete portrait of life in Pittsburg from 1955 to 1958. He took some 17,000 shots and was eventually swallowed by the work, which never appeared during his lifetime. And now, nearly sixty years later, here we were in the south of France, admiring these mid-century American masterpieces. He had an extraordinary gift, capturing faces, light, buildings, abstracts, movement, emotion, and social underpinnings, setting very clearly the Fifties world of black and white. Stunning. How sad that his labour of love was never recognized as a masterpiece during his lifetime.

We wandered, came home for a simple lunch, and now Madame and I have to stop talking, briefly, so I can go off and work and not talk for a few days. I don't know what the internet situation is at Isabel's, so I may write to all of you soon, or I may not. But it's sure I will be talking to my old friend in my head, if not in actuality, while I'm away. I'm back here next Wednesday for a day, and then, off again.

The journey continues.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

on being in France

I won't always be this prolific with posts, mes amis - there's speedy internet chez my friends, and the weather is so bad, I'm not doing much but getting my wind back. Lots of walks around town, as you can see, and settling into France. Today, Denis came home for lunch. A quick sandwich, perhaps? Are you joking? He sautéed some dorade - white fish - in butter and lemon and steamed some carrots, eaten with, of course, bread, then we had salad, then - yes yes yes - 3 kinds of delicious cheese, then fruit. With a little glass of red. Lunch! It did not take long to make, but we sat eating a meal, talking, drinking.

I so appreciate these things - the effortless style, the appreciation of beauty and taste. Oh, the taste. Bought a baguette on the way home from today's walk, could not resist ripping into it then and there. Bought my first pain au chocolat too, for gouter - tea - today. She is a happy camper.

We have of course been following the on-going and heartbreaking story of the murders in Toulouse. Nothing but grief has poured from the newspapers here, horror and an attempt to understand who this man is and how he could want to murder children. There's an election coming up, and the vile Marine Le Pen of the racist ultra-right could be having a field day with this, but instead electioneering has stopped for the time-being, which is the decent thing to do.

la belle France

So typical - a pot of
anemones, looking perfect

So typical - a protest march
downtown, today - about social security,
I think.

under dark skies in Montpellier

Be still, my beating heart

In a shop selling antique books,
Colette's actual signature!

A bicycle coming out of a wall, and a
very nice wall too.

Candy shop selling Easter treats

Another miscellaneous

Madame buys tea

Mon amie Lynn, born in Chateauguay, Quebec, a university actress when we met in 1967, who went to l'Arche in France in 1970 to work for a year with the handicapped, met a Frenchman called Denis, and is now a professor of linguistics and translation, mother of five, grandmother of five - and wearing, incidentally, a Gerard Darel jacket from that exclusive boutique, Goodwill of Bloor Street.
She is shopping at Le Palais des Thés,
which has in stock 250 different kinds
of tea from around the world. They give free samples.

Montpellier in the gloom

In spring, it's possible to see the
wonderful shapes of the plane trees along the avenues and in the squares

A most French sight - people lining up at 6 for their baguettes, on the way home from work

Place de la Comedie - one of the best public spaces anywhere

Le marché ce matin in
a tiny moment of sun -
more plane trees

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I meant to post this before leaving, but it got lost in the shuffle. So - here it is:


The paperback edition of "Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: the Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin" will be launched at the Stella Adler Studio in New York City on Monday, June 11th, 2012, at 7 p.m.

June 11th is the 103rd anniversary of Jacob Gordin's extraordinary funeral on the Lower East Side, in which hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets to watch his coffin go by.

There will be a reading from "The Jewish King Lear," Jacob Gordin's first hugely successful play in America and the most famous vehicle for Jacob Adler, the great actor who was Gordin's collaborator and ally, the father of Stella Adler and the grandfather of Tom Oppenheim, Artistic Director of the Studio founded by and named for her.

And then the author of the book - moi - will speak about Gordin's life and my search for him.

It's thrilling that Tom Oppenheim and I are continuing the friendship and collaboration between my great-grandfather and his grandfather that started in 1891.

Paris pix

Here she is ...

Lovers by the Seine

Mon souper - soupe avec fromage et croutons, a glass of Cotes de Rhone, water, bread, atmosphere

My garrett

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Bliss bliss bliss. She must be in France, folks. And over jet-lag. This time, it was the worst ever - like getting kicked in the head. After a lot of walking and fresh air, I took a sleeping pill at about 9 p.m., woke at 5 a.m. and managed to drift in and out of sleep till 8. Nearly 12 hours sleep, and voila, I'm on French time and as bouncy as can be. Un miracle.

Went out for breakfast, along the freshly washed streets, watching the children being whizzed to school on bicycles and mobylettes, to the Place Medard at the start of the rue Mouffetard for a grand creme and a croissant - they'd just run out of croissants so the waitress ran over to the bakery and came back with a big bag. Ooooh, a big cup of hot strong frothy coffee and a fresh croissant, pulled apart slowly, please God, make this moment last. I watched the women at the next table, both fashionistas, one in fishnet stockings and stilettos, eating their croissants too. Incomprehensible, as you can say in both French and English.

One of the most wonderful things about Paris is ... benches. There are benches everywhere, with people sitting on them, taking in the sun or the view or both. I try to imagine benches in, say, New York, and can't. Why would you sit in the middle of the frantic chaos that is NYC?Whereas here, there's so much to see, so much of beauty and interest, there's enjoyment in stopping to look.

Another interesting thing - very stylish men who are not necessarily gay. And well-dressed elders, and elderly men driving motorcycles. A male cyclist this morning in yellow pants and a velvet jacket and - of course - scarf, peddled past with a baguette in the child's seat at the back. There seem to be more beggars than ever - gypsy women, people sitting everywhere on the sidewalks with their empty cups.

After the heavenly breakfast, I went up the street to my favourite bakery - it's not even in a building, it's sheltered but outside, just sublime, and bought a half-baguette, then to the deli to buy a big slice of ham. Voila - lunch for the train. I packed, got the bus to the station, and got the train to Montpellier, no problem, even with my 60 pound suitcase. Ate my sandwich jambon watching France flash by, sand-coloured villages tucked into the landscape with, always, the church and steeple at the highest point, amid green fields dotted with cream-coloured cows. Even the cows - picturesque and colour-coordinated. All they needed to look truly French was scarves.

Arrived in Montpellier, sunny though not hot with its palm trees and Mediterranean air - trundled through the narrow streets to Lynn's and there was the key under the mat. Home! For now. She came home early from work and I was able to unload her gifts, including a cherry red Gerard Darel jacket - he's very expensive and exclusive in France though not known in Canada - that fitted her perfectly, from Goodwill, $20. What are the chances that I'd find her favourite brand in her not easy to find size and a perfect colour? And yet there it was. And a pot of her favourite peanut butter, a Tide stick and other North American wonders. Her daughter Sarah, whom I'll visit in Lyons, asked for strawberry Twizzlers. Missing in France.

Madame and I walked around Montpellier, such a marvellous city, the whole central part une zone pietonne, with only delivery trucks and ambulances allowed; we shopped at the market - I listened to a woman instructing her husband on the kind of carrots to buy - "pas trop grandes!" she ordered, as he picked them out - and stopped at her favourite outdoor cafe, on one of the biggest squares, for an aperitif. My treat - I ordered us une coupe - a glass of Moet et Chandon champagne, to celebrate our latest reunion. Madame and I have been best friends from the moment we met, in Modern French Literature class at Carleton University in September 1967. I was 17 and she was 18. I never let her forget that she is a whole year older. Much, much older. And, as she likes to emphasize, she is a very hot Ph.D.

Who has just opened a bottle of wine and is making supper. As I said, bliss bliss and yet more bliss.

Monday, March 19, 2012

apres la soupe

Even in a stupor, I feel this city to my core and am fed. This afternoon, I just walked around with my foggy head - sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg, packed of course, walked down the Boulevard St. Michel, ditto, and because my daughter had asked me to say hello to Notre Dame for her, I went in and did so. This time, though the facade was as overwhelmingly beautiful as ever, I was also moved to tears inside. It's so crowded, people flashing pictures everywhere and you can buy coins and medals and God knows what - in fact, according to them, God DOES know what.

But today, even that couldn't diminish the grandeur of the place. I saw that they were dedicating today's vespers to honour the Jews massacred this morning in Toulouse and other victims of racist attacks, and decided to come back for the service. I popped out for more wandering, went over to Shakespeare and Company which is a fabulous bookstore if you can ever see the books through the gawkers, and went back for the service.

The head priest - he had more gold on his costume than the others - mentioned the death of innocents, and then vespers proceeded, with lots of repetitious chanting, swinging of incense, musical interludes for the organist, more chanting - about the glory of God and the love of Jesus. This did not seem to mesh with today's message. I left after an hour. Even in Notre Dame Cathedral, I confess that the rituals of the Catholic church do not inspire any kind of devotional feeling in me. Liked the incense, though. Loved the building and the windows.

More walking, the bus home, and dinner at a local bistro, just a glass of Cotes de Rhone (I asked for a glass of wine and the menu he showed me for that was two pages long) and a creamy soup, served with slivers of cheese and grilled bread. Oh mon dieu, so simple, so delicous. I watched Paris going home for the evening, their baguettes tucked under their arms, and wondered, as we all do, how a gastronomy based upon quantities of bread and cheese has continued to produce these stylish, slender people. One of the great mysteries of life.

Soon - it's 7.30, so LATE - I can go to bed! What joy.

je suis ici

What's important with jet lag, they say, is to get your face in the sun, and to try not to sleep until the nighttime of wherever you are. So that's what I'm doing right now - sitting in front of the window in my little hotel room with my face in the sun, and trying not to fall over face first onto the keyboard.

Talk about a painless flight - a 767 (I think), or in any case, a very big plane, and the funny thing was that first class was packed and the rest of us rabble at the back in economy had room to spare. Of course they have their snazzy pod thingies and free champagne, but this time, I got to stretch out across 3 middle seats. It was heaven. Unfortunately, I was hit with major motion sickness or else just stress and fatigue and had a rough few hours at the end, turning white and shaky. I mean, whiter and shakier than usual.

But now I can navigate the vast airport and get onto the metro and off at my stop and to the hotel with no problem whatsoever. I asked for a street view room in this, one of the cheapest and nicest hotels in all of Paris - the bathroom is in the hall, but now, you don't have to steal wifi from the McDonald's across the street, it's IN THE ROOM, and the window opens south to a noisy Paris vista. It was bitter cold and grey when we landed, but now, 2.30 p.m., the sun is fierce. After unloading, I went out to have lunch, looking longingly at the rue Mouffetard outdoor cafes, empty because of the cold. I ate inside, and when I got out, the sun had just started to shine, and the sidewalk cafe was full.

Of note: I'm amazed, again, at how many people still smoke. Passed a woman huddled outside with a coffee and a cig, beside her a baby in a pram. She'd be lynched in Toronto.

So this is me writing with absolutely no brain at all. Tonight, a good night's sleep and all will be well.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

en route encore

Limboland - Toronto International Airport, Gate 71, a scattering of mostly silent people in this vast echoey canyon, reading, sitting at their laptops, preparing for this exciting journey. I've made it this far. Finally finished the endless lists at home - I think - said goodbye to the Belgians and Mewmew, and took everything in my fridge to Anna's, to have some dinner, kiss her belly more times, and depart. Ah, I hear Parisian French going by. Quelle vie.

Had a last talk with Barbara, my editor, this afternoon - and as much as I could take in, she wasn't saying rewrite from the beginning, she was saying, take what's there and make it bigger and better. Oui madame, I said. Pas de probleme. Just get me out of here so I can regain my brain.

The nice lady in the ticketing line at the airport pointed out that my bag weighs 60 pounds. Yes. And most of it, I hasten to assure you, is gifts, or things I am carrying for others - the woman who's lending me her apartment for 2 nights in Lyon gave me at least 10 pounds of books to carry for her. I will unload a great deal in Montpellier, too, stuff for my friends there. I just have to get the 60 pound bag, plus my backpack with computer and 9 "New Yorkers" and a "Creative Non-Fiction" magazine - a very heavy magazine, I now note - from Charles de Gaulle onto the metro into Paris, down the Boulevard Port Royal to the little hotel for the night, then to the Gare de Lyon and onto the train and from the train in Montpellier through the streets to Lynn's house, and then up her stairs.

Pas de probleme, Madame. This is what I go to the Y for. Still, pray for my biceps. The nice lady didn't charge me for the 10 extra pounds. Then we discussed my impending grandmother-dom. We bonded.

It was such a beautiful day here, achingly beautiful - my lilac is in bud already, everyone was out clearing away winter debris, and I was rushing about cleaning out fridges. I do think at these times that travelling is madness. But perhaps when I survey Paris tomorrow morning, I will not feel the same way. Though the weather there tomorrow is 3 degrees in the morning and 11 in the afternoon, whereas Toronto is soon going up to 24, apparently. Bizarre.

I look forward to taking you with me on this journey. Sharing it with you is like travelling with a huge group of friends. And yet I don't have to worry about your food allergies or getting you to the station on time. Stay tuned, my friends. We're off.

P.S. It does say on my boarding pass, boarding at 8.15, and it's 8.20 and there isn't even anyone at the desk. However. THERE'S NO FOG.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

could have been worse

Staggering with fatigue but just had to drop a quick note - today, after rushing about trying to finish everything I was trying to finish for Mum, I got to the airport in Ottawa at 4 for a 4.45 Porter flight. There had been such thick fog in Ottawa that morning that Mum's windows were completely white blind, something I've never seen before. The fog burned off here and - guess what? It moved to Toronto. The plane was delayed, we waited hours in the airport, then in the plane, then finally took off and landed, not on the island, but at Pearson, still very foggy but safe enough, where we waited again for a gate, then got none so had to wait for a bus, endless endless. I got home five hours late.

But - people were wonderful - full of humour. Not a single meltdown, even among the extraordinarily patient children on board, and some of the travellers had been travelling already much of the day. The Porter pilot was a woman, a friendly blonde called Marilyn, who came out to chat with us, to tell us she had been a pilot in the Arctic, so this was nothing compared for forty below. All the way through, I was aware of how lucky we were, our bedraggled little band, not homeless refugees, just privileged travellers waiting for the fog to clear.

I was sitting next to a young man; we began to chat, and by the time I found out he works part time for the Conservative party, we were friends, so we just had to talk about that too. I didn't get it - Greg studied English and Philosophy at university, was going home to read Saul Bellow, is young and open and interested in good writing - and supports Stephen Harper and reads the "National Post," finds the "Globe" a bit too lefty. The "Globe"!

And, you know, we had a good talk; not a knuckle-dragging Republican, he was interesting and thoughtful. I did see, though, that he has had a charmed life so far, so perhaps is not able to put himself into the shoes of those who have not. He wants simple answers to complex questions, like the rest of his tribe. But then, I'm sure looking at me, all he saw was my big bleeding heart, not much use in the practical world. So - we talked.

The others were offered a shuttle bus back to the island airport; the thought of more waiting made me want to scream, so I asked my seatmate if he wanted to share a cab. Not only was he keen, but he paid for it with his expense account. Sometimes capitalists come in handy.

At last, I'm back in the basement, minus an evening, with a ton to do. I cannot believe that tomorrow evening I'm getting on another airplane, for an overnight flight. And my daughter texted to tell me that tomorrow - it's supposed to thunderstorm.

Friday, March 16, 2012

nostalgic in Ottawa

On the road - in Ottawa, visiting my mother and aunt. Toronto was hot and sunny; Ottawa is cold and grey, a different climate altogether. But it's good to be able to check up on the ladies. Last night Auntie Do, who will be 92 in April, brought over a bundle buggy filled with our dinner - a beef stew and hot fresh bread she'd just made, and a fruit salad. All delicious. After supper, we watched, first, some of the family videos I'd brought, including one of the three Leadbeater sisters, Margaret, Dorothy and Sylvia, together in my home during a family reunion in 1996. I'm filming them and asking questions, and at the end, they sing in three part harmony a song they learned in their father's choir. So beautiful.

And then we watched the British series "Larkrise to Candleford," about rural England in times gone by - an idealized picture of their own background. In the video interview, I asked them what their favourite memory of their childhood was, and for both Mum and her sister Mar, it was picking bluebells, violets and primroses in the fields in spring, and blackberries in summer. I wonder what my dad, who grew up in Manhattan, would have answered.

Earlier, I'd played one of the old tapes I'd just had transferred to CD, of my mother and me in 1950-51, starting in New York when I was 2 months old and later in Halifax at 10 months. And there, listening, were the two of us still, more than 60 years later. And now my own daughter is pregnant. I'd say something about the circle of life, but Elton John has already said it and it's a cliche anyway. But still, this bond is very moving. Exhausting, though - I'm trying to organize Mum, and though she says she wants to be organized, she really doesn't.

Important article in the "Globe" today, headline "Chilling with nostalgia."

"Previous research has shown that a trip down memory land can boost self-esteem and decrease feelings of loneliness - but a new study found it may even help you withstand physical discomfort, too," Prevention magazine reports. "Researchers exposed volunteers to uncomfortably cold temperatures, then asked them to engage in a little nostalgia - by listening to love songs, say, or reminiscing about past events. When they did, they were better able to withstand cold climes. In other words, conjuring up a past event in your mind might make it easier to handle other uncomfortable situations."

So - the fact that I spend my time immersed in nostalgia in Ottawa is how I can bear the absolutely dreadful climate here. Good to know.

Home tomorrow, depart for Europe Sunday. Time flies, and so do I.

Monday, March 12, 2012

apple for the teacher

Here's the kind of thing that makes teaching worthwhile: a note from a student after class today, as the term ended - a student who suffered a great tragedy and is learning to write about it, and other things. Please forgive me if I share it with you, though it praises me - but it's so beautifully written. (And praises me.)

I want to thank you for being a wonderful teacher and encouraging me to be brave and honest and to go deeper. You have ushered me into the magical world of writing where stories heal and our lives and voices have value. I will never forget this class and your humour and compassion. Thank you for lighting the way at a dark time.

Here's a quote from my favourite writer, Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book:
"Nothing is stranger than life. Except for writing. Except for writing. Yes, except for writing. The only consolation."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Twelfth Night"

Big treats today - it was cold but sunny, so I walked to the Varsity Cinema to have a snack with beloved friend W*yson, getting caught up - he is registering for art classes, intending to turn into Leonardo, that's the plan.

And then we saw "Twelfth Night," the Des McAnuff production from Stratford last year, just released on film. What enormous fun. Mr. McAnuff, director of the gorgeous "Jersey Boys" and Christopher Plummer's moving "Tempest," among many other hits, is an extraordinary talent - the best director ever at getting people magically on and off stage, and in this production, he even co-wrote the music. Yes, Shakespeare as a rock musical, with all those beautiful Shakespearean songs played on stage, in part by the actors. "If music be the food of love, play on," indeed.

Some of the songs were funny, some toe-tapping rockers and some melancholy - the ending particularly so, "When that I was and a little tiny boy," sang Feste... "For the rain, it raineth every day." In the hilarity, there is sadness. Haunting. A fantastic production. Thanks once more, Des.

On to the next treat - dinner with my children. I've been sorting old family videos, and just watched one recently where my son, aged two, is in my father's arms, naming everyone in the room, including "Gampa." And then Anna appears, five, with her mysterious dark eyes. And now there they were across the table - my 30-year old daughter's belly high and hard, my son, 27, towering over everyone in the room and making us laugh. In the middle of the meal, he called his dad in Washington, D.C., and for a few moments, we were all four together again, in a way.

Home to my basement lair; only a few very busy days until I go to visit Mum in Ottawa and then return for one night before my trans-Atlantic flight next weekend. How can I be leaving now, with so much going on? This may be my last long trip for awhile. The cat knows something's amiss - right now, she's plastered to my side.

Just noticed as I was packing that my jeans from last year's trip don't fit now as they did then; there's a muffin top. Hmmm. I've been getting too much of that food of love.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Barbie forever

Since her debut on March 9, 1959 (officially considered her birthday), Barbie has become a cultural icon, teaching girls (boys too) that they can be anything they want to be. Barbie’s been a US Air Force pilot, a dentist, a NASCAR driver, an astronaut, a nurse, a firefighter, a model, a news anchor, a candy store cashier, a chef, an ambassador for world peace, a ballerina, a veterinarian, a Sea World trainer, a business executive, a bus driver, a cheerleader, a palaeontologist, a cowgirl, an architect and a police officer. She’s taught sign language, Spanish, dance, swimming, art, aerobics and special education.

What's next, Barbie?

Yay Barbie as an Anglican minister and Hillary Clinton, above! In about 1992, my 8 year old son and his friend Kim made a sculpture - they took my daughter's Barbies and masking taped them to a large piece of plywood. It was quite fantastical and a friend of mine offered to buy it as a piece of art. But Anna was upset to find her Barbies plastered all over a board. Another artistic career cut short.

My complain about Barbie has always been her absurdly small feet. We big footed women suffer enough from footism - begone, Cinderella and her ugly sisters with their giant feet! - without having this role model with her itsy bitsy footies preset for high heels. Feh.

AND ... here's the most stunning array of photographs, the Smithsonian photo contest finalists.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monday in the sun

My last day above ground for awhile - and a gloriously sunny day, if cold. Listening to a Bach mass and looking forward to two classes today. I'm more or less packed for 5 weeks in France and England, for times ranging from country walks in England to a formal dinner in Paris - the solution, of course, a sea of black, black jeans and skirt, black tops and sweaters. Easy peasey. Lots of colourful scarves and a bright pink jacket and one indulgence, a pair of comfortable high-heeled shoes, because if it works out, my friend Jaime is coming to Paris to take me to lunch and dinner, my guess in establishments I do not usually frequent. So one pair of elegant shoes is allowed, no?

Otherwise, what I've packed, I'm proud to say, is so multipurpose and practical, it bears no resemblance to the hundred pounds I hauled 3 years ago. Yes, that was for 5 months not 5 weeks, but still, I had no idea how to pack light. Now I do. Not as lightly as my friend Lynn, who can take two outfits in a backpack for six months in Siberia - but much better than before.

Excuse me, Johann, I hate to write about such petty things while you send those voices soaring to heaven. Talk about reminding us of what really matters - every note resounding with beauty, love, commitment, faith. Faith in something or other, not necessarily what Bach had faith in.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

breaking news, pig style

A great little film about our brave new world of social media:


Bliss! My dear Belgian tenants are away until Monday night, up north skiing in a high wind, and I am in my kitchen as I like to be on Saturday nights, dancing to Randy Bachman. He's paying tribute to dead musicians, and I've just had a little weep listening to John Lennon, "If I fell" and "Day in the Life," then a great dance to a bunch of Elvis, and now it's Marvin Gaye and "Let's Get it On." What a sublime classic. Imagine - shot by his own father.

And all of this above ground.

A crazy day, with winds 100 mph plus, trees downed and transit interrupted. But all calm over here. It was "Megathon" fundraising day at the Y, so I paid $50 to take a zumba class with my favourite teacher, Edgar. Edgar, who's Mexican, is the most joyful dance instructor. As the world beat music plays, he flings his body around with a huge grin, and a roomful of clumsy Torontonians - well, many not as clumsy as THIS Torontonian, that's for sure - try to follow. Great fun. After an hour, I was ready to collapse, especially as I'd had a tough half hour class with multiple lunges and squats the day before. God, I love that place. On the way out, I swung into the Health Room they'd set up for the day, where they gave me a big zucchini muffin, and I put on all the calories I'd just lost.

And then, when I got home, I got to put my own key into my own front door and walk in. As if I owned the place. Which I sort of do, I and the Royal Bank of Canada. And then found out that the furnace isn't working properly. Luckily I have a space heater, which is right beside me as I write. Hopefully the repair guy will reply to my message. Luckily this happened now, while the tenants are away.

El gato crabbo is curled up nearby. She is following me around this house, up and down. It does make me feel needed and loved, even if this bad-tempered creature knows nothing about love. Maybe she does, a tiny bit. That's enough.

Whitney. "I wanna dance with somebody." RIP. And now Sam Cooke. "You send me." Thank you so much, Randy Bachman. I really feel like I'm home.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Mr. Lazhar"

Just checking my Facebook page, which gives me, among many other things, updates from the Daily Show. Noticed this on the latest update:

TV show
3,311,048 like this.

A lot of friends, Jon has.

Saw "Mr. Lazhar" with my friend Eleanor last night. The story of an Algerian refugee who becomes a teacher in Montreal, it's not a big film, slow and deliberate, but it's profoundly moving all the same - tender, true, haunting. The children are extraordinary, particularly one small girl with a magical face, and so is the lead actor, Felag; the final moment between them is breathtaking. Highly recommended - the sort of film that stays in your heart.

Before the film, my Thursday home class came down the stairs, five people, me and the crabby cat gathered below ground. It was wonderful. Chris suggested that when my book is a best-seller, I can turn this space into a writing studio. Good plan. Let's work on the first part, and then the second.

And ... on our visit to New York in July 1964, my grandfather took us to see the season's big hit, "Oliver!" starring a young singer called Davy Jones. Big crush. I wrote in my diary, "He'd be fine as a date on the nights that Paul McCartney is busy." Lost track after that, never a Monkees fan, though "I'm a Believer" is a great song. Hope you had a good life, and thanks for the music, Davy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Me too

"I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about. I have no definite convictions - not about anything, really. I know only that I was born and exist, and it seems to me that I have been carried along. I exist on the foundation of something I do not know."
— C.G. Jung, near the end of his life, from his book published with associate Aniela Jaffé: "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," (New York: Random House), 1965
A friend just emailed this thought-provoking quote. I agree with Jung, except, well, I'm not depressed, and I'm quite, quite sure of my love for my children, and I do have some definite convictions - about our Prime Minister being a sleazebag and our Mayor an idiot, for example. But now I'm remembering that line from Yeats's "The Second Coming":
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are filled with passionate intensity."
Hmmm. Just Googled the poem and learned that it paraphrases these wise lines from Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," which Yeats loved:
"The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill."

The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom. And all the best things are thus confused to ill. Only 8.30 a.m., and already an English lesson, a life lesson. How I love the Internet, by B. Kaplan.