Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tuesday on Carnaby Street

Dear friends, I know, a long pause - a London hiatus. Just got an email from my friend Bruce in Vancouver, who is following my journey with his brother Stan and sister-in-law Carolyn. "Where are you?" he writes. "We've been waiting since Friday."

It's Tuesday afternoon, and I'm in an incredibly noisy internet cafe (with earplugs in and still overhearing conversations and loud loud jazz piano) on Carnaby Street, with an endless stream of tourists going by the window. Since arriving in London on Sunday afternoon, it's been chaotic and exhausting, much moving about and making arrangements and figuring out internet and other things. I made the mistake of leaving the converter plug that allowed me to use my computer and other devices here in England, at Penny's in Sheffield, and replacing it took an entire morning of frustration, back and forth to various stores. And then I spent much time trying to get my machine onto the wifi at the friend's apartment where I'm staying till next Saturday, just around the corner from here, just behind Liberty's of London, the most central location imaginable in London. Unable to get wifi, so condemned to noisy expensive cafe for only an hour at a time, which means posting will be difficult.  I will do my best in the next few days.

The most exotic creature just sat down next to me - a man/woman with orange spikey hair, skinny body, tight jeans, huge earrings, workboots and a handbag shaped like a red watering can. Ah, this must be Carnaby Street. 

Anyway, I will tell more anon - the rest of Saturday visiting Penny's sister Liz the master gardener and watching the end of Britain's Got Talent, then Wimbledon, the end of our journey and the start of my time here in London. Today, Regent's Park and the British Library. More details to come. 

In the meantime, I started a post on Sunday in Wimbledon - it's not finished, but here's as far as I got: 

"A situation I'm not used to - I'm in a small white room with sun pouring through the window. If this is Sunday, it must be Wimbledon - the Wimbledon Hotel. In a few hours, Penny and I will part company and this phase of my journey will be over. The thought makes me sad.

Yesterday we did eat a vast breakfast in the lovely farmhouse b and b - if any of you are going to Stratford on Avon, I highly recommend this place. I took a long walk along the country road outside, amongst the sheep grazing and wheat fields, and then we set off for our Shakespeare sightings. His birthplace, on one of the high streets of Stratford, is entered through a museum that shows a film, during which we see bits of his life and artefacts - gloves his father made, the first Folio of his work, compiled by his friends after his death, without which we would probably have lost all those masterpieces. 

We saw an exhibit of various portraits and the proof that they actually are Shakespeare, so we do know now, fairly surely, what he looks like - a good-looking man with a gentle, intelligent face, receding hairline and aquiline nose. The exhibit talked about his relationship with his patron the Earl of Southampton, (I think) which quite possibly was of an intimate nature - young Will wrote several passionate love poems to the man, having left Anne Hathaway back in Stratford with the three children and journeyed to London to become famous. Which I was glad to hear he was, in his time - in the end he was making 200 pounds a year, when 20 was the average, and his sister was already giving people tours of the great playwright's house before his death. 

Then we entered the house itself, which has been furnished in the style of the time. And I marvelled, once again - how did it happen that this one particular child, born of a respectable but ordinary family in a small town in the middle of England, happened to have inside him a world of genius and glory? What a miracle, that everything came together in this one soul - experience, education, innate talent, the circumstances of life at the time - to produce the works which have given the world so much. And how lucky we are that he survived at all - the year of his birth, the plague hit his village and the children of the neighbours on both sides died. 

We learned, incidentally, the origin of the words "Sleep tight." Beds in those days had an underpinning of ropes drawn tight, which had to be retightened each night. So to sleep with tight ropes meant a good night's sleep. 

The gift store of the birthplace is enormous, of course, with Shakespeare stuff of all kinds. I bought Bill Bryson's biography because I want to know more about this man.  After a wander through Stratford, we drove to Mary Arden's house - Shakespeare's grandmother, his mother's mother, a "working farm" just outside of town. Here, they say, he learned the great deal he knew about falcons and other birds, and about plants. We had a good chat with the actors dressed in period costume - when we arrived they were eating lunch, "pottager," a barley stew with vegetables, and salat, as it was called then, made with rose petals, chives, all kinds of garden leaves. They told us that English cooking was marvellous and flavourful at the time, full of spices, but that the wars had knocked all the flavour out.  Their lunch smelled delicious, and after our tour we stopped at the Mary Arden snackbar for a bit of lunch in the sunshine.

To Be Continued. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

As We Like It

My friends, you must be getting sick of my exclamations of ecstasy, but here I am again. Actually, where I am is in a big room in an old farmhouse bed and breakfast about 3 miles outside of Stratford-on-Avon. Penny is across the room with her computer and I'm on my bed with mine - because this big old farmhouse b and b, unbelievably, has wifi. I can hear sheep bleating outside the window and nothing else, the smell of the roses is drifting in, the quarter moon is alight near the Big Dipper in the country sky, and I am writing a message to send out to the universe. How amazing is life.

This morning I couldn't bear to leave Liverpool without a proper souvenir, so we drove back to the shop next to the Hard Day's Night Hotel on our way out of town, to let me do a bit of shopping. I know, it's childish and I'm a sucker, but I bought a t-shirt with a Blue Meanie on it, and a replica Yellow Submarine. It's on wheels. I bought one for my friend Bob's 21st birthday in 1969, and have always regretted I didn't buy one for myself at the same time. Bob died of AIDS in the mid-eighties, and I miss him still. I don't have Bob, but I do now have my own yellow submarine. I put on my new Beatles t-shirt in the car and wore it proudly all day.

And what a day - the sun is there, it's real, it's hot. It was a perfect summer day for our visit, first, to the Roman/medieval walled city of Chester. We had lunch by the river watching the paddle boats, then walked on a portion of the ancient wall, saw the remains of the Roman amphitheatre and the castle, and especially the high street, which is a Disneyland of Elizabethan houses, more than I've ever seen in one place - not all really dating from Elizabethan times, but beautiful all in a row. 

But Penny was anxious about our long drive to Stratford, with good reason, it turned out. A hot Friday afternoon at the end of a holiday week made for heavy going on the highways; it was bumper to bumper for many miles. We listened to BBC 2, which had traffic reports regularly - for the entire country. The traffic lady would report about the road coming out of Newcastle and the ring road around London and the route through Stonehenge, the way the Toronto traffic people report on the 401 and the Gardiner. And the highways are dominated by a favourite English word: queue. There in neon, above the road: QUEUE. Warning you that there's a lot of traffic and you'll be in a line, as if you hadn't noticed already. 

I haven't mentioned that my journey is with Penny but also with another fine lady, a very cultured, patient but focussed British woman called Jane, the name of Penny's GPS. Jane has been extremely helpful, another technological miracle, Penny enters the postal code of our destination and Jane has it all figured out for us in seconds. She kept adjusting the time it would take us to get to Stratford, because we were so slow.

By the time we entered this incredibly picturesque little town, it was too late to get to our b and b on the other side; I changed in the car, Penny in the washroom of a pub nearby, and we went to another pub, the very very old Garrick, for a quick bite and half a pint of Speckled Hen before the theatre. The big Stratford theatre is under construction, so we went to the smaller Courtyard Theatre, with a thrust stage modelled on the Globe's, to see "As You Like It." I must wax rhapsodic once more: it was wonderful. Directed by the Artistic Director of the RSC, Michael Boyd, there were no well-known actors, just a superb company, an imaginative set, and a very simple but powerful concept - no tricks, let those words tell the story. Well, there were a few tricks - great comedy and lots of music, and the costumes beginning in full Elizabethan gear and shifting, bit by bit, to modern dress. But otherwise, the production was just a great play done by a great cast in a simple, inventive setting.  My favourite kind of theatre. It ended with Rosalind alone on stage, barefoot in her wedding dress, singing us the Epilogue. 

We spent the intermission standing by the Avon River, looking at the people who live on the barges opposite sit on their decks and drink wine. And then after the play, in the darkness, Jane guided us out of town, along country roads, to the village of Wimpstone, then through Wimpstone's winding roads to the very end. "You have reached your destination," said Jane, as we turned into a courtyard beside Whitchurch Farm and Bed and Breakfast. Our hostess was waiting in her dressing-gown beside the bower of roses by the front door. We're sharing a huge room, as Penny tap taps over there and I over here, and the lambs bleat outside the window. Breakfast tomorrow between 8 and 9. I will eat a lot. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Omigod omigod!!!! Today I saw like so much Beatles stuff it was crazy! Like incredible. Everywhere. So incredibly cool.

Penny's daughter Rosie and her boyfriend Phil organised what they called the Cheapskates Magical Mystery Tour. The real thing, which we ran into several times today, costs many pounds and involves large busses to various Beatles sites. We drove with a Google map, and hit these bases: Penny Lane, where we watched the inhabitants of a tour bus take pictures of each other by the street sign beneath "the blue suburban skies" - because the sun actually came out; Strawberry Field - because it's not Fields it's Field, a fence and sign covered with loving graffiti; John's school Quarrybank; St. Peter's, the church where John and Paul met at a fair for the first time, and also, apparently, where Eleanor Rigby is buried - we saw many Eleanors and many Rigbys but not together, though I was thrilled also to see the grave of an Alice Leadbeater, which, since many of my mother's relatives came from around here, may very well be a relative of mine, there in the graveyard of the church WHERE PAUL AND JOHN GOT TOGETHER!

Then on to Menlove Avenue where John lived with his Aunt Mimi - a much more respectable house than I'd ever imagined. John didn't want us to know that his was by far the wealthiest of the Beatle upbringings. And then ... Mecca, 20 Forthlin Road, the tiny ordinary rowhouse where Paul McCartney grew up. Both his house and John's, and I suppose the other two's, have been bought by the National Trust, which manages all Britain's historic monuments. Imagine, these ordinary Liverpool houses are historic monuments, even Paul's where people are still living.

We took a bus to the centre of town, to explore Albert Wharf, which has been gentrified for tourists, and to take the "Liverpool Duck," a bright yellow amphibious bus which, it turned out, was originally built in the U.S for the Normandy invasion. It took us around Liverpool showing off various sites, and then into the water for a few more and much riotious laughter provided by the M.C., whose accent was so strong I could barely understand him. I had no idea that Liverpool was once a very wealthy city, with landmarks and mansions to prove it - though unfortunately much of the wealth came from the slave trade, which, with other shipping, dominated finances here. Apparently a few years ago there was a move to rename all the streets in Liverpool named after slave-traders, including Penny Lane, but the initiative was dismissed as impractical.

But Liverpool has many parks, much going on - a very impressive city.

We went to the Bluecoat, the first arts centre in England and still going strong, where Penny's son Tom works - saw art exhibits and videos and had coffee in the sunshine, then set off again for more Beatles - Mercer Street, where the Cavern was and its recreation lives on. I went here in 1965, overjoyed to be in the Cavern where the Beatles began, though, humiliatingly for a 14 year old, I was with my mother. The real Cavern has been destroyed but there's a recreation a few doors down which does not indicate, anywhere, that it's not the real thing. It blasts Beatles music and is full of cabinets of memorabilia and German tourists taking pictures of each other in front of them.

Then the piece of resistance - the Hard Day's Night Hotel. Surely there's no other four star hotel in the world where Beatles music warbles at you the moment you open the door. This is for the true fanatics; a staffer told us that the group Lynnerd Skynnerd (?) were doing a show in Manchester but had come here to stay tonight, had had a tour of the Cavern and were in awe of everything. This same staffer took us from the hotel lobby down into the nether regions, where we saw a reception room full of Beatles photos, the chapel where people get married surrounded by photos of the Beatles "with their favourite wives" - no Cynthia Lennon or Heather, Paul's latest disaster, here. And to the Hard Day's Night room, with many records, magazines and everything else on display. It was overwhelming, all this stuff, and even I had had enough by the time we left. We went to a lovely old pub called Rigby's, not because it's associated with Eleanor but because it's a fine old Liverpool name, and it was a great relief that they were playing generic sixties rock - "Why don't you fill me up, buttercup" - and no Beatles.

Still, that music is guaranteed to bring me joy, so I spent much of the day singing along. And it was thrilling to see these sites, not only for me but for Rosie, who's 27, and her mother, who's a little younger than I. We finished the day, fittingly, at a Turkish restaurant. No Beatles here.


Yesterday, Penny and I managed to get out of Sheffield and drove through the harsh sheep-dotted moors; had a fine English lunch at a very old pub in Snake Pass, and arrived mid-afternoon in Manchester. We went first to the Lowry museum to see the work of this marvellous Liverpool painter, a solitary eccentric who had a lonely life but found his calling in painting the industrial landscape of his city and the inner landscape of his soul.

We drove downtown in time to realise that the Manchester team, United, was playing a world cup final against Barcelona in Rome that very evening. The streets downtown were filled with young men in United shirts, already drinking and singing team songs, and young women mostly there, I think, to hunt the young men. Penny had researched the oldest, quaintest pub for us to have dinner in before the ballet, but it was jammed with United fans. Every pub was jammed, and the buzz of testosterone in the air was frightening. We finally found a Japanese restaurant which was quiet, though the Australian pub across from the opera house where the ballet was playing was teeming with noise and energy. My greatest fear was either that Manchester would win, in which case the celebrations of all these men would tear apart the downtown, or that they would lose, in which case the anger of all these men would tear apart the downtown - despite the large swarm of police hovering nearby. But, in the end, when we came out after the ballet, it was clear that United had lost - there was deflation in the air, not helped by the pouring rain. No riots and violence, just a lot of very disappointed young men.

While they raged and drank, we saw the Northern Ballet Theatre from Leeds in a lovely rendition of "Romeo and Juliet" with music by Prokofiev - heaven, always. It was thrilling to see that the artistic director of this fine troupe, David Nixon, was born in Chatham, Ontario and trained by the National Ballet of Canada. The production was exquisite and had some interesting twists - for example, Mrs. Capulet was having an obvious affair with Tybalt. That one is new to me. But mostly, there's that grand, glorious score.

Rosie and Phil have been marvellously welcoming; Liverpool has been a complete delight. I would try to think of a snappy Beatles song title to finish with, but it's midnight and I'm full of Turkish food and worn out. The long and winding road. We all live in a yellow submarine. All you need is love.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mary Queen of Scots drinks beer

I think it's Thursday. No, it's Wednesday, I'm still in Sheffield but today we are leaving for Manchester where we're seeing the ballet "Romeo and Juliet" tonight with music by Prokofiev, which, in our long correspondence, Penny and I discovered was the favourite ballet music of us both. It has been an extraordinary experience, these last few days, living in the house of a woman I have only just met and yet feel I know deeply. The other night, she showed me slides of her family life long ago; we talked of Barbara, what she has meant to us through the years. We both wept, and then put records on the record player in her dining-room - Benny Goodman, Sixties stuff - and danced. I not only know her, I know the books on her shelves and the music in her collection; we have many of the same ideals, the things we work towards in life are the same. And yet our only bond, at first, was a sister she lost on her eleventh birthday and a penpal I lost just before my sixteenth.

She showed me Barbara's heartbreaking last diary, the one she kept at the Mayo Clinic as they prepared her for the heart operation she would not survive. She was so small, so weak, and yet writes cheerfully about the new American foods she is eating each day and the walks her mother took her on in her wheelchair. Then she writes, we are off to the clinic, and that's the last entry. Penny told me they decided she was so weak, they'd keep her in and get on with the operation. She survived the valve transplant, and when she awoke, was even able to gesture to her relieved mother, who had spent six years doing little but keeping Barbara alive. They announced that they would move her, and then came to tell her mother that she had died. Elsie had to pack and bring her body back, alone. Penny's eleventh birthday, and, she said, "Every birthday ever since."

Yesterday we spent the morning gardening, which was a treat as I'm not getting to plant my own garden this year - a pleasure to sink my hands in someone else's dirt. We did a wash and hung it on the line, in the bright sun and fierce wind, to dry. And then we went to a sixteenth century pub for lunch, a Tudor building with sinking beams lost in the midst of industrial downtown Sheffield; the lunch wasn't brilliant but the place, with its low ceiling, casement windows and heavy wood beams, was. And the beer was too - I asked the toothless lady publican for her recommendation of beers, and she produced a half pint of dark, frothy Highwayman - delicious. A sign on the wall said that Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby for years and may very well have ventured to this pub. I love the idea of Mary Queen of Scots having a half-pint of Highwayman, just like us.

Yesterday's email brought a treat. I gather that my article entitled "The son also rises" has just come out in May's "More" magazine - a piece about the different expectations of each generation for its children, and how perhaps the goal should be to accept our children, to see what they are rather than what they are not. A stranger wrote to tell me how disappointed she has been, as a single mother, in her two daughters, how fearful for their future, and then after reading my article, she remembered how wonderful they are too, generous and kind and brave. What a treat for a writer, to feel that the words have helped even one person on the long, difficult journey.

And now, time for my own journey, not too difficult though I hope very long, to continue.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Sheffield: my English immersion course, and a new friend. Those who've followed the blog know that Penny is the sister of my pen-pal Barbara, who died in 1966. Penny and I met once in 1964 and have recently reconnected, and I am now a guest in her house. I had a serene train journey here from Oxford, in a tiny, perfect little train through the green countryside, and there at the Sheffield train station was Penny - we knew each other from email photographs.

She took me downtown right away, to explore the inner workings of Sheffield, a tough, interesting city famous for its steel and cutlery - we visited a cutlery museum, and I realised how many Sheffield knives I have - and then back to her house in Wincobank where she has kindly given me her bedroom. That evening - the sun was out, my friends, it's a holiday week in England and the weather is wonderful - she took me around the corner and up Wincobank Hill to show me why she moved here. It's a prehistoric site - a high hill from which prehistoric peoples could see in all directions, and a wild green wood with magical twisted oak trees right in the city. Somehow, Penny and I knew from our emails that we would get along, even as two complete strangers spending an entire week together. And when I saw her beloved Wincobank Hill, I knew we were right.

Yesterday we went for a long country walk, a very British thing to do on a holiday Sunday. She had picked our route from a book of good British walks; we found the village, Padford, and the starting point, Grindleford Station, began with a cup of tea at the village caf, and set off. We immediately took a wrong turn but it didn't matter; the day was heaven, the countryside greenly glorious, and we found our way again. We ended up again on top of the prehistoric fort site Carl Wark and then a higher one called Higger Tor - perhaps this is our thing. All kinds of people walking with their walking sticks, their dogs, their backpacks full of picnic, as was ours. We had ham sandwiches with a 360 degree view of Burbage Moor, and then made our way back by another route, which meant hopping through a sodden marsh where we ended up with very wet feet. The real hikers, in their sturdy leather boots, were a bit scornful. But we made it through a wonderful wood, by a meandering stream in which holidaying Britons were splashing, and finally, 5 hours later, back to the caf at Grindleford Station for another cup of tea.

Last night, of course, we watched Britain's Got Talent to see what Susan Boyle would come up with. She was good, especially in comparison with some of the other dreadful stuff, but we thought she was a bit off musically and the dancers who came on first were fabulous. More tonight.

Today we went to the city of York, to see the recreation of a Viking settlement. Penny, with her red hair, is from a Celtic background, but my mother must be Anglo-Saxon stock, which means from the Angles and the Saxons, the invading peoples, like the Vikings. Fascinating, to see how they lived and worked. We walked around this lovely old English city in which many medieval houses have been preserved, and into the cathedral, called the Minster. A service was on when we went in so we attended; Penny was raised Church of England and I enjoyed watching people celebrate their religion in this massive space with its magnificent stained glass windows. In between our sightseeing excursions, we have been jabbering non-stop about our families and our lives, and of course about Barbara, her life and her death. Penny too, it's no surprise, is an archivist and saver of family memorabilia and stories, so we have a lot in common, not to mention a love for British history - Penny has been explaining invasions and kings to me - cups of tea and glasses of red wine.

It's six p.m., raining for the first time. We're due for a glass of wine right now.

Friday, May 22, 2009


On my 50-minute bus ride yesterday morning, I noted the village names and one street name that flashed by: Bletchingdon, Middleton Stoney, Marsh Gibbon, Goddington, Newton Purcell, Tingewick, Gawcott, Skimmingdish Lane. How I love these ancient names. We chugged past thatched cottages galore, turned into the medieval market town of Bicester (rhymes with 'sister') amid green, green fields over which were hanging, of course, dark rain clouds. I got off in Buckingham, where David Marks was waiting for me. And thus began my marvellous day journeying back into my mother's history.

A dozen years ago, Mum's eldest sister Margaret nee Leadbeater went with her daughter Barbara and grandson Stephen on a last visit to England. They drove to Potterspury, and when they knocked on the door of School House, where the Leadbeater family had lived for over 20 years, David and Rosemary Marks answered. They had bought the house in the late seventies and raised their children there. I was able to reconnect with the Marks, and because David is a history buff, he was delighted to share his time and work with me. He helped write and produce a book about Potterspury, had contacted the school where my grandfather was the headmaster through the Twenties and Thirties to let them know I'd be coming, and volunteered to show me around. I could not have had a more energetic, cheerful and knowledgeable guide.

On the way, he drove into Stoney Stratford, a stunning medieval village to which my mother Sylvia Mary used to ride her bicycle, and showed me the origin of the term "cock and bull story" - in the village are two pubs, the Cock and the Bull; anyone with a tall tale would go from one pub to another and the story would get more elaborate. And then we entered Potterspury - so much prettier than I had ever imagined. It's tiny - one main street, High Street, with a few side streets. One pub, one church, one shop - and many very old, thatched houses. 

How extraordinary it was to walk into the house where my mother was born, in an upstairs bedroom, in 1923.  David thinks the core of the house dates from the early 1700's. Its ceilings are low with some of the original beams; the casement windows throughout are original. The Marks have added a sunroom at the back, which I'm sure the Leadbeaters would have greatly enjoyed had such a thing been conceivable back then. Rosemary brought out an extensive lunch and we sat in the kitchen, now renovated but still, the kitchen of the house where my grandmother, Marion Edith Alice Leadbeater, raised her 3 girls. The garden was full of flowers and trees, and on the other side of the fence was the school where Pa taught and was the choirmaster. We looked over the fence, and the Marks's granddaughters waved. Two of them go to the school and were playing in the schoolyard.

We went out the garden gate to the school, as Mum and her sisters Margaret and Dorothy did throughout their childhood. A friend of the Marks's, Jack Clamp, another historian, had brought me a book he wrote about the school, in which there's a page reproduced from the school files - Percy Harold Leadbeater the headmaster had meticulously noted how often and for what reason he had caned students.  "Very untidy - careless work (3 warnings) - 1 stroke." "Stealing lunch - 2 occasions - 2 strokes." Percy was doing his job; that's how students were punished in those days. 

What a different place it is now. I was knocked out by the current headmaster, Mike Langrish, and his second-in-command, David Tebutt - their joyful enthusiasm, their interest in and attention to the children. Mike was running a big school when he decided he wanted to focus again on children and teaching, and applied to run this small village school. The school was suspicious - why would he want to downgrade this way? But they chose him and he's as good a school headmaster as can be, that was instantly visible. 

They were having an assembly to celebrate "Math week." The parents had been invited, and I was asked if, as a special guest, I would distribute the prizes. Talk about Queen for a day - there I was, bending down, handing presents to little children and saying, "Congratulations." I felt underdressed for the occasion. And couldn't resist making a little speech, telling the students that in my grandfather's day, school was not fun, but that now, how lucky they were to have such joyfulness inside their school walls. 

After my queenly duties were done, Dave and I drove to Bletchley Park, "Home of the Codebreakers," as it says now on the sign in - though during the war, the work there was top secret. My mother was one of more than six thousand women working at Bletchley in 1943-44, helping to decode German submarine messages as the brilliant Alan Turing developed the first computer, the Enigma machine, that eventually helped the Allies win the war. They've made a museum there, with replicas of the machine, and pictures and explanations of the work done. Not much is made, naturally, of the appalling end of Alan Turing's life - in the early Fifties, the man who singlehandedly helped defeat the Nazis was arrested for soliciting sex with another male, and rather than endure the humiliation of a trial, he laced an apple with cyanide and ate it.

On the way out of town, Dave pointed out the inevitable Enigma Pub.  

Back in Potterspury, we had a delicious cup of tea and then, as the sun broke through and bathed the village in soft late afternoon light, we tramped across the glistening fields. I marvelled again at the diversity of my parents - my mother a Church of England girl with this most pastoral childhood - the house never had indoor plumbing, and one of my mother's greatest fears was of the spiders who lived in the thatch -  and my father, a Jew who grew up in high-rise Manhattan. 

Then Rosi, Dave and I walked a few houses down High Street to the pub, the Cock, for supper. "Plain pub fare," Dave said, and it was perfect - bubble and squeak, liver and bacon, chips with gravy. The pub was full, warm, noisy - the fishing club was meeting there that night, and there were still mourners from a funeral at the village church earlier in the day. We talked about our children and their grandchildren, four of whom they see on a daily basis. The Marks have an admirable life - this historic village house, a camper van in which they travel, a house in rural Burgundy they bought and renovated with two other families. David never stops - he is building a variation of the Enigma machine, he has created a huge doll's house with electric lights for his granddaughters, he learned to play the banjo late in life and made one. Rosi is beautiful and interesting, a former teacher who cannot stop buying childrens' books. I could not have liked them more. 

Now I have many photographs of and books about the village and Bletchley Park to send to my mother who's 85 and her sister Do, 89, who are waiting anxiously to hear about my visit.

Today was my last day in Oxford. I wandered through Trinity College and a few of the many other colleges - in the Trinity chapel, I leafed through a heavy leather Book of Common Prayer, published in 1816, just sitting on a pew - to the Sheldonian Theatre designed by Christopher Wren and up into its cupola for a view of the fabled spires of Oxford, and later, took a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in the world. Oxford's an odd place, because all these tourists are wandering around gazing at the hallowed walls while inside, young people are writing exams and getting on with their studies. Everyone rides a bicycle. I envied these kids not just their great education, but the setting for it, each college with its own glorious ancient buildings and spectacular quadrangle with flowers and trees. Though I did see how the beauty is created, as at one college, a man in a gas mask was spraying pesticide on the vast, perfect, weedless, bright green lawn.

A lot of Harry Potter was shot here. Talk about fabled. Enough said.

A quiet evening in anticipation of the next phase - off by train to Sheffield tomorrow, to meet Penny. As I sit now in my dorm room at the Yarnton Manor, I can hear a cuckoo singing amid many other birds. The birdsong in England is rich and unforgettable. As has been my journey, so far.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

speaking at Oxford

I began my talk here tonight by saying, "I don't think I will ever again speak in front of such a beautiful backdrop." The Centre is in a noble manor house - there's a photo of it with a coach and four white horses and footmen in long coats waiting out front - and the garden behind is stunning. The grass is rolled within an inch of its life - perfectly smooth and bright green, with flowers tumbling from beds all around, wisteria, old trees - extremely beautiful. I spoke in an oak-panelled room with old paned windows behind, showing the garden at dusk. I felt very lucky to be there. 

Before the talk began, a man came up and told me he'd been a good friend of my father's in the Sixties in Ottawa; Larry sat near the front and beamed at me throughout. It was a small but good crowd, asked lots of good questions - and after the strain of my talk in Paris, it was great to tell stories in my own language. There was a buffet supper beforehand with wine which I couldn't drink, so I asked one of the staff to save me a glass for later. She saved me a whole bottle. 

As he left afterwards, an elderly gentleman who'd been there gave me his card. "Explore Islam on the Internet," it said. "If you want to know anything about Islam, here you will find it," he said. I thought that was marvellous, given that I'd just talked on the Jewish Shakespeare at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Today, what joy - it did not rain, not once, and the sun was actually present in the sky for long periods of time. I went into Oxford to do some errands and begin my sightseeing - got bus and train tickets and visited Christ Church College and Cathedral, where little Alice Liddell lived and played, and where a friend of her father's, Professor Dodson, grew to love her and turned her into Alice in Wonderland. The whole city is so picturesque it's unbearable, one ancient college and building after another. I will visit it again on Friday.

Oh, and while I was chatting away in Oxford, a location scout whom I'd contacted once came to my house in Toronto and wants to use it as a location for the CTV series "Flashpoint." So while a few score of people have heard me talk about my life's work, hundreds of thousands of people will see my kitchen on TV. My kitchen will be famous. 

Maybe, for a change, I'll just check out Islam on the internet.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


From 47, rue Claude Bernard in Paris to Yarnton Manor in the middle of the English countryside, where the most disruptive noise is birdsong. Very noisy birds in these here parts. 

Tonight was a blessed moment, a coming together of my many disparate parts. I have come from London to Oxford to speak about my book at the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies. But this is also a pilgrimage - my parents met in Oxford in 1944, and my mother is from a village not far away. 

In early afternoon, I arrived at the Centre, which is about 15 minutes outside of Oxford in a magnificent 17th century manor house, and got settled in my room in the student housing next door. Incidentally, for those who've been following my journey, I travelled today with a VERY SMALL SUITCASE borrowed from Christina. Barely anything in it. I can do it, yes I can, hardly any shoes, a few pants, a few tops. It's the trade-off - you may not have everything you need with you, but your arms won't be wrenched out of their sockets. So great to be easily mobile, lifting the thing up and down and in and out. No need for knights with big biceps.

Later I went for a long walk in the nearby fields. "Burial grounds," said the sign, so I walked that way, to find the exquisite Yarnton cemetary. At least the new one; the old one is in the churchyard next to the manor, the stones illegible. The day had been, of course, rainy and thunderous, but finally the sun came out, and I wandered up and down the rows bathed in unfamiliar light and heat. Fields all around, wildflowers and old trees, people walking across the fields in their wellington boots with their many dogs. One gravestone was for Alfred, "the parish knife sharpener." There was a separate section of the graveyard for children - one couple had lost their twins; a gravestone in the shape of a teddy bear.

Then I walked down the country lane to the Red Lion Pub, for supper. And it was here that I felt so much come together. On the way, I passed a thatched cottage, such as the one my mother was born in. The pub sound system was playing Mozart, my father's favourite composer. I sat at the table reading my book, the reason I'm here. It felt like all the different bits and pieces knitting into one. And then, as has happened so often on this trip, I ended up engaged in intense and moving discussion with the couple at the table next to mine. We are about the same age, have children about the same age, the same concerns - these people who live in Yarnton, a village so small there isn't even a high street, and I, from downtown Toronto - the same concerns about our kids.

As my bus drove through Oxford this morning I caught a glimpse of its glory, the rows of ancient buildings, young people swishing about in black gowns, tweedy men on bicycles - every other man had a beard - a McDonalds in an Elizabethan manor house with undoubtedly fake wood beams. Tomorrow I will do some exploring, and then give my talk in the evening. I just checked the weather forecast. Guess what? Thursday "heavy rain"; Friday "light rain"; but tomorrow, the cheerful "sunny intervals." 

Well, if life gives you sunny intervals, get out and grab them, that's what England teaches you. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

a tranquil English day

My British friend Dorothy, who was my neighbour in Cabbagetown, used to say, "I'm going to the village to do a bit of shopping." What she meant was Parliament Street, which for those of you who know this bit of inner city, is as unlike a village high street as it's possible to be. But it was Dorothy's village, where she knew the shopkeepers and ran into friends. Today, in Barnes, I am doing as little as possible; I'm fighting a cold, which isn't a surprise with all the chill rain, and am exhausted, I guess from the stress of leaving my sunny Parisian nest and getting here with a mountain of worldly possessions. But I am going to go to the village to do a bit of shopping - and here, it really is a village high street, a row of small shops where everyone knows everyone.

Tomorrow I leave for Oxford, where I'll spend four nights at the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies; they're putting me up in return for my talk about the book, which I give on Wednesday. On Thursday, I'll visit Potterspury, the village where my mother was born in a thatched cottage, whose current owners are going to show me the house, the village and the school where my grandfather was the schoolmaster throughout the Thirties. And on Saturday, I'm off to Sheffield, where my new friend Penny, whom I met briefly once in 1964, is going to take me in. Penny has planned a week-long excursion for us both around the country. If it rains, we will visit pubs.

As I sit here looking out at Christina's beautiful garden, I can see the tiny British robin redbreast who has a nest nearby, very close to the fox family who also live in the garden. Archie the wonderdog is curled up beside me. It poured this morning but is not raining at the moment. Quick - to the village, to buy wine and supper for Christina and me. And a newspaper - I've been reading the Times and the Guardian; the level of writing is superb. Poland won the European Song Contest, in case you wondered, and the scandal here about British M.P.'s padding their allowances has not yet begun to die down. This is a glorious country. It's just too bad about the weath ... no.

I won't say it. That would be churlish. Life is too short for churl. The sun is out now, that's all that matters, and the adventure continues.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Ah, yes, spring in Britain. What I remember about every visit to England in my life is that I was always cold. And let me tell you, since my arrival, I have been very, very cold. Cold cold cold. Today I went out wearing five layers - a t-shirt under a turtleneck sweater under a cardigan under a fleece vest under a raincoat, with scarf and hat. And still I was cold, until the sun came out briefly and it was really hot, until the sun vanished again and it was freezing and pouring with rain. My dear hostess does not have her heat turned on, of course, so it is not much warmer inside, but at least it doesn't rain in here.

But no, I'm not complaining, oh well just a little bit. Twas ever thus in England. I have never understood how one of the most culturally advanced, articulate, brilliant cultures on earth does not know how to keep itself warm. But then, I'm just a spoiled namby-pamby North American who has never suffered through a war. What do I know about suffering? Nothing. And so they're going to give me a little tiny taste, called cold.

I got the bus from Barnes today into London. As I sat by Barnes Pond waiting, an elderly lady waiting next to me began to chat, and by the time we got onto the bus we were firm friends. I told her I was getting the tube into London and she said no no, you must take the scenic route, so she took me with her onto the number 9 bus, a red doubledecker. She got off on Kensington High Street and I continued to Piccadilly Circus, walked up Oxford Street and found my friend Christopher's place. I have known Christopher since he was a newborn - he's my friend Lynn's firstborn and only son, now, incredibly, in his late thirties, an executive at a London bank. He has the most central address - a tiny apartment between Liberty's of London and Carnaby Street. And the thrill is that he and his lovely girlfriend Christina, who's from Madrid, are leaving London in a few weeks for a week in Italy and giving their place to me. I will for a time exchange the pastoral splendour of Barnes for the hurly-burly of central London.

Christopher's sister Myriam arrived with her one-year old Issaak, and we all went for dim sum. Myriam too I've known since babyhood; now she has a Ph.D. in feminist 3rd world economics and is married to a Muslim from Mauritius, where she mostly lives. Interesting people. She went off with the baby, and the three of us set out in the rain for St. Paul's Cathedral, extremely splendid with a bonus - Evensong was taking place so we could hear a choir resound through the vast domed space. I thought Charles and Diana married at Westminster Abbey but it was here, so I could visualise that endless train trailing up the steps at the front. (Before we left on our jaunt, I said, maybe we should wait, it's raining, and Christopher said, if you wait for the rain to stop in London before you do anything, you'll do nothing. So we left.)

Then we walked across the Millenium Bridge, across the wide, busy Thames, to see the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern Art Gallery. The Tate is a huge success, an old factory turned into a vibrant space for modern art. All the museums in London are free, and this one is particularly packed. And then we had a glass of wine at the top of the OXO Tower, with a great view of the city on the other side of the river. We walked back across and I got the bus home, with their key safely in my bag.

A few observations: again, London could not be more different from Paris, a sense of abandon, creative chaos, architectural anarchy - but of course, a great deal was destroyed here during the war, leaving lots of gaps for change. Somehow in comparison with Londoners, Parisians seem conservative, self-possessed, tradition-bound, with the best and worst that entails. Christopher said the Brits are jealous that the French have France and think it's just too good a country for them. At least in France, the sun shines occasionally, often enough that grapes can grow. No wonder this is a nation of gardeners; no wonder they talk about a green and pleasant land. There's an extraordinary amount of green space in London, huge parklands, all gorgeously green because it's WATERED SO "£$%^& often.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Hellewww. (My imitation of Jon Stewart imitating the Queen.) I write to you on a blustery evening from the village of Barnes, on the outskirts of London, having just returned from Ye White Hart, an ancient pub right on the Thames. and that is really its name. Picturesque doesn't begin to describe it. Everything is tiny here! Toyland. Doll size. My very tall son wouldn't be able to get inside the houses here.

But first, my journey from Paris with the 24 kilo Suitcase from Hell. My clever plan was to walk down to the bus which would take me promptly and easily right to the Gare du Nord. I managed, barely, to get to the stop, to find out that this bus didn't actually go to the Gare du Nord. Don't know how I got that wrong. But it did go to the Gare de l'Est, which isn't far from the other station, so I decided to go there and get a cab. Second problem, however - no bus. Huge impatient crowd. The Paris busses have never been slow to come before, but of course that day, they were. And when the bus finally came, it wasn't one of the very long ones with the back doors set so low it's easy to get heavy things on and off. It was an extremely crowded regular bus that I had to shove my bag onto, somehow. Various men helped me. The driver told me I could get off after a certain number of stops because at the same stop would be the bus for the Gare du Nord. So after a crowded and sweltering trip, I got off.

The nightmare - looking at the moving print at the bus shelter to see when my bus would come, and reading "Interruption. Manifestation." A strike, somewhere, which must have been why the first bus was late and now this one would never come. I hate Paris, I thought; these people never stop striking. A bus eventually came for the Gare de l'Est, the one I'd just got off, so I got on, but he said he was in fact a bus for the Gare du Nord only he wasn't going there, he was going to the Gare de l'Est, but an actual bus for the Gare du Nord would be coming. By now I didn't believe a single word any of these drivers said. But some men and I heaved the monster off this bus and heaved it onto the next, which, by some miracle, was actually going where I wanted to go. By now, I was catatonic with stress and heat.

You know how I got 24 kilos from Paris to London? Men. Nice helpful men, everywhere I went, who saw a damsel in distress when actually she's an undeserving idiot with too much stuff, and helped her. Lifted the goddamn thing in and out, on and off; at every single place I needed help, there they were. God bless men and their superior upper body strength and good helpful hearts.

The Eurostar is grand, comfortable, swishes right along through the French countryside and then goes dark for a bit and then you're in England. I thought it would be dramatic but it isn't. It's a train that goes through a tunnel and there you are. I was lucky to sit with a very nice man; we chatted the entire way and I shared my pate sandwiches with him. He heard all about the suitcase from hell and my friend Christina's directions to her home, and he gave me alternate ones which would eliminate slinging the thing onto a bus. Very good advice, for which I will be grateful to him forever, because by now, my arms were almost out of their sockets.

Graham steered me to the tube station, where I bought an Oyster card for London transit and trundled the thing onto the Piccadilly line to Hammersmith. But here I switched easily to another tube to Richmond, where I got an inexpensive cab to Barnes, saving me enormous grief. And here I was at Christina's pretty little, very little house just as night was falling. I knew she was going to be out. The key's in the greenhouse, bottom shelf on the left under a flower pot, she wrote. I found what seemed to be a greenhouse, at least there were flower pots in it, and groped around for 15 minutes, lifting up every conceivable pot. No key, and it was dark, when a voice behind me said, That's not a greenhouse, that's a shed. There's the greenhouse, over there. Christina was home.

I and my 24 kilos had made it. I got out the heavy cheese to show her. At least 1 1/2 kilos of cheese, brought directly from Paris, along with a few other things, including ten pairs of shoes. Well ... sneakers for running, for walking, high heels, very high heels, walking sandals, fancy walking sandals, humble walking sandals, humble white not-quite-sandals, loafers, kind-of-fancy black shoes, and my new gold pseudo-Birkenstocks ... a girl needs a variety of shoes. She also needs a sherpa to carry them.

The next day, between bouts of rain, I walked {in Converse runners} around Barnes, which is a posh, swish village. I've never seen so many Audis, Alfa-Romeos, BMWs, Porsches, in one small place. I saw a house for a midget with a Lamborghini parked outside. Housing prices are astronomical. Who are these people, who can afford to live here? There were pretty tea shops on the high street, with women having tea and scones; two beauty shops full of French products; a betting shop, a classic red phone box. It's tiny and perfect like a toyland - a Disney Englishland.

I had a wave of nostalgia for my grandparents, my mother's parents Percy and Marion, the English side of my family. I lived near them in London for 2 years in my childhood and a year at theatre school at 21. An elderly woman in a picturesque butcher shop - old Elizabethan beams outside, the butchers in striped aprons and straw hats - was reaching into her shopping basket; she had thick white hair and looked just like my grandmother. Tears in my eyes. This is half of my heritage, this green and pleasant land with its tiny, adorable shops.

I walked on the common, a marvellous wild space, just grasses, gorse, broom, gnarled ancient trees - and dogs, everywhere. I thought, if this were France, it would be groomed and meticulous; the wildness was wonderful. Deep in the woods was a cemetary with tombstones from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, but later in the churchyard I found the really old ones, from the 1700s. I bought some wine from the Nicolas store, a welcome reminder of France, and had a chat with the young Frenchman working there. I don't feel safe in London, he said. There's a level of violence I'm not used to, especially after 6 when everyone's drunk. The economy has not helped; people are angry and desperate.
Will you go back to Provence then? I asked.
Oh no, he replied.

Last night Christina took me to a barn dance, a fundraiser for the Barnes Wetlands, where she volunteers - 105 acres in the village. This was a hilarious event - all these English people had made the effort to wear gingham, straw hats, cowboy boots - there was a caller and a band, though it was mostly Scottish country airs, not real c and w stuff. We all made fools of ourselves stumbling through the dances, but in great fun and humour, and I thought, this would never happen in a million years in France. I read in the Times later - there's a column on what the Royal Family is doing today, Princess Alexandra opening a garden show, the Queen a new centre for something or other - and again, in a million years, not in France, or almost any other modern democracy. I also read the extensive list of lectures that are going on locally in Barnes, and was tempted by one coming up: "An Ongoing Journey with Batik." Can't miss that journey.

I love it here, though it's so profoundly different from France. It's glorious to speak my own language, and to feel a kind of looseness and sniff a great deal of fresh air. Today Chrissie and I walked her hilarious little springer spaniel/Jack Russell cross, Archy, in Richmond Park, which is 2500 acres - that's 2500 acres - of grass, ponds and trees created in the 1600's by King Charles 1, with many herd of deer roaming freely, horses, runners, bicyclists, and a million dogs. The quintessential British couple tramping through the grass in matching blue Wellies with their four spaniels. Incredible, something so open, vast and green so close to London. There's a spot in the park where you can see the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.

And now, dinner, and afterwards, a little bit of cheese, direct from Paris. We're here, my stuff and I. Onward.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The big schlep

It's raining in Paris. And it's due to rain today and for the next four days in London. C'est la vie.

I now know that the main reason I go regularly to the Y is so that I am fit enough to transport my stuff from place to place. My bag weighs about 24 kilos. I'd calculate that in pounds for you but my calculator is packed and my brain is fried. At the last moment I couldn't bear to leave the uneaten cheese behind in the fridge here, so I packed that too, and it's pretty heavy. 

This bag is ridiculous, and somehow I have to get it from here to the bus stop, to the Gare du Nord, onto the Eurostar, to King's Cross tube station, along the Piccadilly Line to a bus stop, onto the bus to Barnes, and from there down several streets to my friend's house. This is known as a giant schlep. I am being punished for my poor packing skills. Why do I need five pairs of pants and twelve tops (at least) and innumerable shoes? Because I'm here for 5 months, I keep explaining to myself. Well then, stop complaining and schlep away. 

(I bought the suitcase at Goodwill, by the way. Let's hope it holds up. My stomach lurches - the thought of the bag breaking and 24 kilos of stuff spilling out, say, on the Piccadilly tube. Let's not go there.)

I think of George Carlin's brilliant piece on stuff, and cringe. I promise to change. Really.

The two things that have not interested me in the slightest in France are French pop music and French theatre, and these are two things that interest me a great deal in England. So - on we go.

Please send me your thoughts this afternoon as I tote that barge and haul that bale. Hope to talk to you soon. From Angleterre. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

a last feast

Signs of my new comfort level here: I got on the bus this morning without looking at the map inside or watching each stop as it went by; I knew exactly where I was going and when to get off, headed for a last cultural feast - l'Orangerie. As usual - you are bored with this - the museum was far richer than I'd realised; at some point in this city, you want to cry, "Didn't you guys EVER stop painting?" I went to see Monet's "Nympheas" - water lilies - without realising, first, that they fill two vast rooms, and second, that there's a whole gallery of impressionist art below. And yes, I was, as ever, overwhelmed.

The water lilies - enormous canvases which cover eight entire walls, of the gardens and ponds at Giverny, Monet's country estate.  He has painted them at daybreak, at dusk and in-between - the light changes, the reflections of sky, clouds and leaves in the water, the shape and density of the lilies themselves and the ripples of water - you can't tell what is reflected and what is actual. It's the most profoundly calming series of paintings; there are seats in the middle so you can sit and imagine you're at Giverny, watching the light on the water, the tree branches trailing on the surface. Again, tourists were snapping pictures - how could they hope to capture a hundredth of the expanse? A beautiful young Japanese woman had her picture taken in front of each vast painting; I can only imagine her explaining, at home, "And here I am in front of some blue, and here in front of some green, and some more blue with a bit of pink ..."

Downstairs is the collection of the art dealer Paul Guillaume - there's a maquette of the interior of his home, like Gertrude Stein's place, positively littered with genius - Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir. I discovered two painters I didn't know well - Derain, who was a particular favourite of Guillaume's, and Soutine. Derain's work had a touch of all of the above painters. In a relatively small, contained display like this, you can see how much they all influenced each other.

In the early 20's, Derain had the same experience I did at the Louvre, according to a panel on the wall; he reported that exposure to the Old Masters - his list was Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Watteau, Poussin, Raphael - lessened his appreciation for the Impressionists. "Even a grey Le Nain," he wrote of three 17th century painters, the Le Nain brothers, "demolishes the Monets." 

After today, I'd have to disagree. Those water lilies are with me forever. 

In that blue and green room, so calm, I remembered that on arriving in Paris, I looked on-line for a yoga studio. I seriously thought I was going to take time out of my day here to go to yoga. But in fact, having spent my time in this tranquil room or else taking in the most beautiful art imaginable, I have not missed it.

Walked back to the bus along the edge of the Tuileries, towards the Louvre. The French have a positive genius for grand, welcoming public spaces, for squares and parks and for avenues of trees. 

And on the bus back, I saw someone I knew out of the window - the French translator of Graham Swift's books who spoke at the seminar I went to - standing at a crosswalk with a baguette. If I'd been walking, we would have bumped into each other. Six weeks, and I'm meeting Parisian friends on the street, nearly.

The sun is shining; a city beckons. But there are suitcases on the floor. Madame la Parisienne is packing and saying goodbye.

6 p.m. Well, this is truly bliss - it's thundering now, pouring with rain - I'm watching the storm from my nest, with a glass of wine. Luckily I went out earlier, when the sun was shining though the clouds were dark - could not resist, set out with not the slightest notion of where I was going, just had to walk in the sun in Paris. My, it's a really violent rain storm, the kind that at home I start to worry about the basement and the roof. 

I walked along my favourite haunt, the rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris, and ended up at the church next to the Pantheon, l'Eglise St. Etienne de Mont. Okay, let's take a peek - I'd never heard of this church. And OF COURSE - it's spectacular. An extremely ornate

7 p.m. I shut down the computer at that point - I was afraid the power might go out, so violent was the downpour - and then it turned to a battering of hail. Quite a sight and sound. I picked up a few pieces of hail and ate them - little frozen pills from heaven. Now all is tranquil again; soon the swifts and swallows will begin their night flights across the sky. 

Where was I? Ten minutes from my front door, in the sixteenth century Eglise St. Etienne de Mont, looking at the extremely ornate altar. Again, a nearly empty church - this one contains the tomb of Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, and twice, recently, Popes have said mass here, so this is no ordinary local church. As I walked by, an elderly woman beckoned me into the sacristy to see the stained glass windows - a gorgeous display of windows from the 16th to the 18th century. We chatted, and she gave me a gift - a series of slides of the church. "No one uses slides any more," she said sadly. "I hope you can see these."

From this spectacular church to the Pantheon - you can have a tour up to the huge dome, but it was half an hour away and cost 8 euros and I just was not in the mood for more famous dead people in the cold and damp when the sun was struggling to beam outside. I'll do it next time - along with the other things I didn't do, like climbing the towers of Notre Dame, the Picasso Museum, the Marmottan Museum - and what about outside Paris, Versailles, the Bois du Boulogne, Fontainebleau and most of all, Chartres ...

Outside the Pantheon I could see a manif - another manifestation was being set up. I asked what it was about. It's to honour the homeless who have died in France from November to mid-April - 223 of them, with an average age of 48. The organisers were going to conduct a service in their memory outside the Pantheon where France's great are buried - because, says the brochure, "chaque homme est grand." Every man is great. They distributed a list of their names and ages, and another brochure asking people to make friends or at least have a conversation with the homeless people on their street. A true challenge and very moving. 

Unfortunately, they would just have been getting going when the skies opened. But the Pantheon provides a great deal of shelter.


Monday, May 11, 2009

spouting off again

I feel sorry for those tourists who've just arrived for a quick visit to Paris ... the weather will continue gloomy, grey and wet according to "meteo Paris," the website I consult every morning. It's already been like that for days. To me, a cold, wet day means I can curl up in my little burrow and work. But at some point, rain or no, I will go out to meet my new great love - the city of Paris. Just to say hi, what's new, mmm, love that new kind of tree that's flowering, that ancient building I've never seen, that streetscape, that museum, that shop ... lookin' good, darlin'.

Last night I held my first Parisian dinner party, so spent the morning tidying and shopping at FranPrix, the small supermarket which has the best prices and yet some of the best stuff. When all was set up here, there was time to go in the rain to a tiny cinema on the rue Mouffetard, which charges only 5 euros on Mondays. I saw "Chéri" - a Stephen Frears film based on a novel by Colette, which is set in Paris at the turn of the last century and stars Michelle Pfeiffer as an "aging courtesan," and a gorgeous young Englishman, Rupert Friend, as her lover. What I'd hoped to see was lots of period shots to give a sense of Paris at that time, and there were a few - obviously, it's very expensive to shoot a period film right in Paris. The costumes and interiors were lavish, and Colette's wise but deeply cynical eye was in evidence.

There was a central flaw, though. Michelle Pfeiffer, as I said, plays an aging courtesan. By aging, they mean that occasionally we are allowed to see a line beside her mouth, or around her eyes. Otherwise she is so serene, beautiful and perfect, we never believe she has spent her life as a high-class prostitute. Not for one minute. Or that she has the bitchy side alluded to, or that she is truly brought low as her young lover figures out whether his future includes her. Hollywood thinks actresses deserve Oscars if they can do an English accent or allow us to see a tiny glimpse of something not quite stunning, but as for the true agony of acting, allowing us right down into the depths of a human soul, it doesn't come in general from the California types. 

I think a British actress like Samantha Morton - in fact, almost any British actress - can convey more truth in the flicker of an eyelid than lovely Pfeiffer can in an entire breakdown scene. So there's a hole at the centre of the movie - the star looks gorgeous but isn't the character. There you have my expert opinion, whether you want it or not. We never quite believe the relationship with the young man either, mind you, and that's a problem of script and director, not actors. 

As a former actress, perhaps I am extra-critical of actresses who look like they're doing their job, and I'm sure are doing their very best, but aren't coming up with the real goods. A new profession dawns  - pompous film critic. One thumb up.

Before my guests came, I checked on Facebook, got a Mother's Day message from my daughter and found that she was instant messaging. So we sat 'talking' to each other, back and forth. She told me her brother was in the background teasing the cat, putting a plastic cup on her head - and as we chatted, Anna uploaded pictures from her birthday party so I could see and comment on them. Again, how incredible is this technology, shrinking our world in the best way. When I told her about dinner, she was concerned that I wouldn't want her to cook for me any more at home. "I didn't say I enjoy doing this," I wrote back. "The job is yours when I get home. You're the cook and I'm the mouth."

My new friends Joanna and David Burke and old friend, jazz singer Almeta Speaks, arrived; we ate paté as we sat talking, then melon with prosciutto, roast pork with roast potatoes and thick white asparagus, green salad, cheeses, and brownies.  The easiest big dinner I've ever made, which was a necessity as I don't know the stove here and there's very little equipment. Confession: I bought the potatoes already roasted, and the delicious brownies. The pork was overcooked but no one complained. In the course of a lively discussion - a lot about what France offers its expat new citizens, which is considerable if you can get through the bureaucracy - I learned that perhaps, because my mother is British, I may be able to get EU citizenship, in which case I could work anywhere in Europe. How's that for exciting?

When my guests had gone, I checked Facebook again and was able to report to Anna in instant messaging about the great company and the over-cooked pork.

Now I'm wrapping up life here, hard as it is. My friend Christina in London just emailed instructions on how to get from St. Pancras, where the Eurostar train arrives, to her house - "Take the Piccadilly Line ...  " she said, and I thought, omigod, we're off again. Time to do a bit more battling with French bureaucracy about later travel plans, find some pounds, wander some more, say goodbye, and finish all the left-over pork in the fridge. Wish you were here, to help.

Two hours later: 
I'm glad this struggle has occurred before my departure, to remind me of what drives people crazy about France. I've already reported here about going to the train station to find out about changing a ticket, to have the employee there lie to my face about that possibility. Now I've spent an hour trying to do it. There's a number to call, with two possibilities to press: 1 or 2. But at 2, which is the one I need to change the ticket, a machine says, "There are too many calls; try again later." I've tried a dozen times over the last weeks. So finally today I push 1 where I get a human being, but sorry, no, says the unhelpful guy, I cannot make the change, you have to push 2. 
But 2 never answers.
Try the website. 

I try the website, but it refuses to recognise the code number for the ticket or my name. So I call the number and push 1 again, and get the same guy! This time he actually tries the code himself, and then says, yes, your reservation is there; to change it, you have to push 2 or go through the website. But the website right now, he says, is not working. I think he's lying as the woman in the station did; how could an entire national train website go down?

What should I do then? I ask, barely controlling myself. I need to change the ticket now.
Try again later, he says. 
You know, sir, in Canada, I say, people are there to actually be helpful. Whereas here, all they seem to want to do is get rid of you.
That is your opinion, madame, he said. 

At the moment, I think I'll just throw this ticket out the window.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday night

I am slowing down a bit, dear bloggees - not only in my sightseeing, but in writing about it. As my stay here approaches its end, I want more and more not to go to museums or monuments but just to walk around savouring the day and buying lettuce - and by the way, the lettuce I bought at the Monge market was superb.

On Friday night, I went out to the apartment building in Gentilly, a Paris suburb, where we lived in 1964-65, to have dinner with old friends who still live there - or at least, Henriette does; Dad's friend Jacques died in 1989, a year after Dad.  Their two sons were little kids when I knew them and are now the fathers of grown children. It was particularly interesting to see Francois, who was six then, a cute little boy, and is now a graphic artist just like his dad, 50-years old and dressed in a trendy jean suit. Anyway, old times, old times.

On Saturday morning I went to the Vanves flea market. Interesting and fun - stall after stall of junk and treasure. There was a lot of quite good art for sale, material and lace, pottery, jewellry, furniture, books including very old ones, posters, everything.  The Japanese, for some reason, are preoccupied by vintage buttons. I was looking for women's fashion magazines from 64-65 and didn't find a single one, though I did buy a '65 Paris Match full of cheerful ads for cigarettes and pesticides. I also saw one of my favourite books from childhood, Tiger's Adventures, exactly the same except it was called Les Aventures de Tigre. Didn't buy it. 

I just got home before the rain and settled in to work when I got an email from Diego, the designer of this website, a talented artist who came up with the idea of the handwritten links, and how to display the pencils. He and his fiancée were passing through Paris, would I like to meet them for a drink? We met under the baroque fountain on the Boulevard St. Michel and had a few beer at a café on the Boulevard St. Germain, watching the hoards stream by and talking about France.  I realised that Paris is enjoyable no matter how you approach it - here I am fussing about the way to avoid lines and when best to see things and how to see everything important, whereas Diego and Bernadette went to the Louvre and the Champs-Elysees and Notre Dame and hoped to go up the Eiffel Tower and that was about it. And were loving every minute.

This morning, I went to my local Rue Mouffetard market - and if there were one thing I would like to take you all to, right now, it would be that market on Sunday morning. The narrow cobbled street crowded, a bit touristey, but there are lots of locals buying their Sunday dinner, line-ups at the cheese store, the butcher, the bakery, the flower store, the wine store. There are so many produce stands those have no line-ups. Big news: melons have arrived, and they're delicious. I staggered home with my groceries, salivating, as usual.

Then, back in tourist mode - off to Sacré Coeur, hoping again to get there and back before the promised rain, which today, unlike yesterday, did not in the end arrive. I didn't last long in Montmartre, which was jammed. It was like a Disney attraction called Parisland. Or maybe Artland. When you climb up the very steep hill, you arrive in the square where ten thousand tourists are having their pictures drawn and are sitting cheek by jowl to eat. I squeezed through, took a peek at the Basilica itself and walked back down the hill. Another sight scratched off my list.

Maybe, despite all this raving and ecstasy, I'm a bit homesick. As a peanut butter addict, I brought a pot with me but have hardly touched it. Tonight I had peanut butter toast for the first time in ages. It tasted like home - only the bread was Frencher. 

more May pix

A wealth of peonies

the line-up on free day at the Louvre, seen smugly from inside

a not-untypical edge of building near here

the midwives march

the room at the Museum of the Shoah dedicated to photographs of French children lost in the camps

May pix

A door, just any door, on some street somewhere

trying to capture the light in the Sainte-Chapelle

Madame - in her scarf - at Café le Flore on Blvd. St. Germain

Sacré Coeur barely visible above the crowds of tourists

Friday, May 8, 2009

visiting the jewel-box

Yesterday morning the sun was actually shining - it's been chilly and grey for days here - so my morning's activity was clear: the Sainte-Chapelle, which should be seen in sunshine. I was lucky enough, during a visit to Paris in my twenties, to stumble upon it - no security in those days, I just walked in and gasped, and then had the pleasure of listening to a choir of American schoolgirls, there to sing for us. 

It's one of the most beautiful rooms on earth. Built in the early 1200's to house holy relics including the Crown of Thorns, it's one of two "only visible remains of the oldest palace of the kings of France." Entering it is like walking into a jewel box, as the walls are almost entirely vast stained glass windows. Tourists chatter as they climb the narrow, winding staircase and are instantly stilled when they reach the top. 

It's not only the artistry and colour of the incredible windows - 15 of them with, apparently, 1,113 individual scenes from the Bible - storytelling in stained glass. But the walls are hand-painted to resemble cloth, the pillars and vaulted ceiling are painted, the woodwork is carved and gilt, there are statues, insets, paintings. We tourists looked foolish, I thought, firing our cameras at the sparkling light, trying to capture it and take it home. I among them.

There are chairs along the walls, so we could sit and watch the sun as it moved from window to window. The artistry and sheer work involved in deciding on the 1,113 scenes, drawing them, firing and colouring the glass and cutting the millions of pieces to fit is beyond comprehension.

There's a lovely little chapel downstairs as well, where the servants worshipped while the king was upstairs praying, bathed in colours. It's too bad they've put a postcard and souvenir store in here - talk about spoiling the mood. And unfortunately, the same goes for Notre-Dame, where I went right afterwards for a heady dose of early Catholicism. The magnificent old lady holds coin-operated machines offering Notre-Dame medals for 2 euros, signs about the cost of the candles, on and on. The engineering and architecture are jaw-dropping, the sheer immensity, the towering grandeur. My favourite thing was a maquette with little dolls, showing how construction began in the mid-twelfth century - with donkeys hauling stone, cut by hand by stone masons and hauled up by levers and pulleys. Again, almost beyond comprehension, how they built something so massive with such primitive technology. Tucked away is a lovely statue of Saint Joan - 1412-1431. It's easy to forget she was only nineteen when she died.

But it felt more like visiting a supermarket of history and religion than a sacred place. I felt much more spirituality in the smaller, empty churches a stone's throw away, like St. Germain Auxerrois or St. Germain des Pres. 

Since I was being a typical tourist, the next place on my tourist list was the Café le Flore in St. Germain, for a grand crème - a big café au lait. Quel plaisir, to sit in the sunshine savouring the delicious coffee, which came on a silver tray with a pot of coffee and another of hot milk, enough for 2 cups. I could have sat there all day if I'd wanted, channelling M. Sartre and Mlle. de Beauvoir, but was chased away by the conversation of the couple right behind me, who were discussing, in fluent French and English, the polyps in her intestine. He wanted intervention and she didn't, and finally I could take it no more, either I had to add my opinion or move on. I went inside to look around first - aaah. There were two large bowls full of ice and bottles of Veuve Cliquot Champagne already, at midday, and a workman was unloading crates of smoked salmon. I almost went back and sat down again, but the couple were still arguing, so I moved on.

Swanned about the Latin Quarter again, and finally back through my favourite haunt, the Jardins du Luxembourg, where this time I saw the apiary. Yes, they keep bees and make honey right in the middle of Paris. The bakeries all around the park had long line-ups outside, and I saw why - students were buying a sandwich for lunch in the park, which was jammed on this gorgeous hot day. It made me laugh, though - there are chairs and benches everywhere, but you're forbidden to sit or walk on the actual grass, except for a narrow green strip near the east gate. There it was like a beach in Japan - no space at all. 

Today we're back to cool and grey, which is bad for sightseeing and good for work. I went this morning to the market in the rue Monge, and again thought, I wonder if these French know the quality of what is on offer. It's an outdoor market under little canvas strips, as are most of the street markets in the squares in the city, and the produce, cheese, meat, fruit - succulent, fresh, perfect, as it could only be for the most discerning grocery shoppers on the planet. 

I bought a lettuce.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

change of plans

This afternoon's plan, laboriously arrived at, was this: bus to Pigalle, walk to the Musee de la Vie Romantique which has an exhibition of old photos of Paris, and then up to Sacre-Coeur. Today was officially my Montmartre Day. Set off in the bus, and when we stopped outside the magnificent Hotel de Ville where posters were advertising an exhibit on Sempé, I remembered that Lynn had told me to see it and that it finishes in a few days. So I got off the bus. Pigalle another day.

Well, I will confess that across the street was one of the large Paris department stores, BHV, and big banners outside were advertising a sale. That was however only a very small part of my impulsive decision to change all my plans. Also that the line-up outside Sempé, the wonderful French artist and cartoonist whose drawings are now often on the cover of the New Yorker, was very small. So in five minutes, I was inside, and am so glad I went. 

The exhibition is in honour of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the "Petit Nicholas" series of books; Nicolas is a schoolboy character written by Goschinny, who's famous for Asterix, and drawn by Sempé. What a glorious collaboration. The two met in their early twenties and worked together until Goschinny's death, mining both of their boyhoods for this famous series. The rooms were filled with parents and children, reading the cartoons on the walls and laughing out loud; childhood, no, life itself is portrayed with such wit, subtlety and affection. Sempé is quoted as saying that schools and schoolchildren have changed completely and yet kids everywhere still immediately understand the books. On the walls were 30 editions in other languages, including Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Hebrew.

Goschinny is quoted as saying: The real work is when I'm searching, though I look like I'm doing nothing. Searching for an idea and hoping it'll come, that's, yes, that's work. 

At the end of the exhibit were small tables covered with paper, pens and crayons. "Draw your school" was the suggestion and the results were all over the walls. 

From this edifying scene, I went, I confess, to the sale across the street. You have to be careful, though - somehow it's set up that you think far more is on sale than actually is. They've marked some things with a red spot, but the notice on the wall says, A red spot does not mean a price reduction. Which means they've gone to the trouble of marking things in order to indicate that they're not on sale. Ils sont fous, ces francais. But I did zero in on the sales bins and found two lovely tops at 40% off; one goes perfectly with my new purple pants! Are you as excited as I am?

I decided to wander in the general direction of home, window shopping and mooching along, and happened upon the Memorial of the Shoah, which is what the Holocaust is called here. Took a deep breath and went in. As you can imagine, it's devastating. There's a corner which holds all the French files on Jews - talk about the banality of evil, maybe 10 high wooden file cabinets with many drawers filled with carefully detailed files. There's a case showing the yellow star, that in 1942 French Jews over the age of 6 were ordered to sew onto all exterior clothing, on the left side, and always to wear. My father was given one that someone ripped off after the war; I have it still. There were pictures of people wearing it. Hard to believe. Hard to believe that it could happen - that one people could be singled out so. 

It's heartening that France is now taking full responsibility for so much that happened here; it took the French a long time to admit that most of the persecution was organised and carried out, not by the Nazi invaders, but by the French police, collaborators and citizens. The Museum carries plaques attesting to this; to the deportation of 70,000 French Jews including 11,000 children, and the deaths of at least 4000 others not sent to the camps. Only 2500 came back. But at the same time, it notes that 3/4 of French Jews survived, hidden or somehow helped through, and there's an "alley of the righteous," with thousands of names of those who helped Jews escape death. A complex story. 

You exit through high slabs of marble carved with the names and date of birth of those 70,000. In 1942, 35 Kaplans were deported, including Elisa Kaplan, born in 1931, who would have been 11 years old, and Adele Kaplan who would have been 13. Two elderly women were there, one carefully poring through the names in one section. "Who are you looking for?" asked the other. 

I walked home, once more overwhelmed by my day - the work of two great artists making something so simple and universal; yes, the excitement of my plunder from retail-land; and then a journey through the black heart of the 20th century.


As I ride the busses I take notes about what I see. Here are a few: So many smokers! Far, far more than at home. A group of highschool kids leaving the Jardin des Plantes, all lighting up immediately. A very well-dressed group of men with briefcases and cigarettes. At a café, a group of workers in day-glo orange coveralls and hard hats, gathering for a morning coffee and smoke. The smell everywhere.
Many small parks dot the city, some with imaginative playgrounds and often crowded not only with children but with teenagers, who perhaps have nowhere else to hang out.

One of the things that makes this city so extraordinarily - almost all the habitations are the same height, six to eight stories, and the whole city, buildings, bridges, churches, walls, is the same colour, that sandy, warm beigey yellowey white of the local stone. This evenness makes every vista pleasing. My new friend Annie said yesterday, of a recent visit to Brussels, "It's nice but it has no soul. There's no sense of architectural unity." And that, Paris has.

The compact public toilets on the streets - I wonder what other city has those. Though not everyone uses them - today a man was pissing against a wall in the rue de Rivoli, as scores of people walked past. I think he was drunk. 

A Canadian presence here, occasionally: many Diana Krall posters, I guess she's coming; there's a Quai Bethune, for Norman Bethune, and outside the Petit Palais there are big busts of Cartier and Montcalm, French heroes in Canada before they gave it up to the Brits.

Watching the crowds, I thought again, this is the cardinal French rule for young and old, male and female: never leave home without a scarf.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

new friends

Just over a week left. I will try not to be maudlin as the end of this phase draws nigh, particularly as I'm moving on to new adventures. But this one has been pretty special, partly because it has been a journey backwards for me. Yesterday morning I went to the Lycee Claude Monet, which I attended from January to June 1965; I wanted to see it with my middle-aged eyes, see if it triggered memories. Then it was an all-girl's school with a stultifying number of rigid rules; my schoolmates were a cowed bunch. 

Strangely, the lycee has changed somewhat in 44 years. The very nice secretary told me the building has been considerably renovated, and I could see that the demographics could not be more different - there are boys, first of all, and let me tell you, no one looks cowed. I saw two girls flicking away their cigarette butts on the school steps, the same steps on which I trembled before entering the huge doors. The kids looked like high school kids everywhere - jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, one boy with extreme dreads, a girl wearing a skimpy top and ripped black tights under short shorts. I saw student lounges, TVs and computers, oil paintings on the walls and graffiti too, though in chalk, not paint; pictures of Obama, a notice about the theatre club... unrecognisable from the regimented tedium of before.

The secretary told me they are having more discipline problems each year, though not as bad as the ones in "The Class," the recent marvellous movie about the French education system. "It starts at home - kids who don't have the cultural background or any kind of parental support and who don't know how to behave - we inherit those problems," she said, and then apologised that she couldn't show me the actual Claude Monet painting that's usually in the director's office - it has been lent to the Monet homestead in Giverney.

I left chastened, glad to have seen the school, but there's not much I can use as research for a memoir, it's just too different now. On the way home I passed a western-style shopping centre and took a look to cheer myself up; did a little shopping. Okay, I bought a pair of purple linen pants of great perfection. After lunch I just had to show them off to Paris, so, wearing my new purple linen pants, I went out to get the bus. I felt pretty good - new purple pants, silk scarf, what a stylish Parisienne ... until I discovered on the bus that the tags were still attached, hanging out at the back. Very embarrassing, trying to tuck shopping tags into your underpants on the #21 bus.

Safely tucked, I went to the Samaritaine department store, to do what's recommended in my guidebook and get the elevator to the roof for a free, great view of Paris. The Samaritaine store, however, has been closed for years and won't re-open for many more. Shows how old my second-hand guidebook is. So I walked, in a very purple way, to Les Halles which is nearby. Too bad they knocked down the old grocery depot which used to be there. Luckily, when I visited Paris in 1971 on my way to Lynn's wedding, my friend Daniel said they're going to tear down Les Halles, you have to have some onion soup there now. So we went very early one morning for the classic experience - thick chewy onion soup in a café, surrounded by butchers in bloody aprons also chewing soup. Now there's a nice park, and underneath, apparently, another shopping centre. 

I came upon a beautiful church called St. Germain l'Auxerrois - and here is another marvel of this city: there are thousands of people lined up at Notre Dame, yet all over the city there are churches of similar vintage, not quite as spectacular but with so much to offer, with no one inside. At one point I was the only person in this vast cathedral founded in the seventh century, then three more tourists arrived. It's packed with treasures - stained glass, carvings, 
statues. I stood for a long time looking at a simple folk art style carving of a man fishing for souls; I later learned it's of St. Germain himself and was carved in the fifteenth century. It was just there, no notice, no guards, just these beautiful things and the smell of time.

Close to home I made another, more practical discovery - a Picard store on the Rue Mouffetard. Picard is something completely different, a grocery store that sells only frozen stuff. But what stuff - freezer after freezer of divine packages steaming in the cold. Today I had a tuna gratin for lunch, unthawed in the stove, with spinach in cream sauce which, like the vegetable soup I had yesterday and the ratatouille tonight, comes frozen in big pellets in a plastic bag. You simply pour out however much you want, heat it up and keep the rest in the freezer. How come the French just simply do all these things so so so much better than we do? 

This afternoon, to cheer myself up on a very cold, grey day, and after an unsuccessful battle with French bureaucracy this morning, I decided to check out the discount stores on rue d'Alesia. But as I approached the bus stop, I could hear chanting, and sure enough, here was another "manif" as they call them - manifestation. This time all the midwives of France were marching in pink t-shirts, shouting and passing out leaflets; Sarko is trying to change the hospital system, but they also have specific issues with the length of their training period. And they shut down central Paris for the afternoon. No busses were running on Boul' Mich' or the vicinity. I was standing there looking at my map, wondering if I should walk, when a woman came up and told me it was easy to get to the bus or the metro on the other side of the Jardins, and so we began to walk. She told me she lived near Alesia so we could go together. When we got to the other side, there were the midwives - they'd marched around and shut down this side! So we continued walking - through Montparnasse Cemetary, like a town of tiny, ornate houses. 

Half an hour later I was having tea in this woman's living-room, had met her husband and heard about both their lives. He used to teach in a film school and is trying to start another, she is working with Jean-Paul Sartre's adopted daughter to unearth unpublished Sartre works. They wanted to hear about my book and my journey. People say that Parisians are closed and snobbish, but my experience has been the opposite; twice now, people have simply stepped forward to offer their help. Mind you, speaking French makes a huge difference, and also, with these two, I was reminded of the enormous respect the French in general have for writers - far more than people at home.  

A great new friendship was made today, thanks to the midwives of France. Annie and Paolo and I hope to see each other again. 

I bought nothing on rue d'Alesia, but returned deeply satisfied with my day, except that the bus driver on the way home nearly shut the doors in my face and wouldn't open the back doors to let people out. Passengers were shouting and banging to get his attention, so I got out a few stops early rather than battle him at the door. You win some, you lose some. But mostly, there is a lot of winning in this travelling business.