Monday, August 31, 2009

home again jiggety jig

Those of you who've followed my journey will know what this moment means: it's a warm, sunny afternoon, last day of August 2009, and I am sitting on my deck looking at the overgrown garden. There's much weeding to be done; the buddleia are falling over, the rose of Sharon has taken over the mid part, the end is a disaster and the wasp infestation has never been worse. It's glorious, and it's all mine.

Well, mine and the Royal Bank of Canada's.

I had a wonderful visit with my mother over the weekend, many stories, much laughter, time not only with her, just before her 86th birthday, but with her sister Do who'll be 90 next year, and my brother, his wife and their energetic two-year old Jake, who was almost too big already for the size 36 month clothes I brought him from France. Family - the people who, when you have to go to there, they have to take you in, as some poet famously said. Even though my mum drives me crazy at some points, and I her, we adore each other. The best was going over, again, the pictures from Potterspury, where she and Do were born, and revisiting my day there. "Look, that's where Carry Cousins lived!" they cried, looking at shots of a village they haven't seen for more than 50 decades.

Home yesterday, woozy with emotional exhaustion and jet lag (still waking at 5.30 a.m.), to stay at my daughter's once again; she made a steak dinner and then we went out for a beer at her local dive. I had to laugh - the least French place imaginable, baseball and football playing on the giant screen and hockey memorabilia on the walls, giant plates of nachos going by and huge pitches of cold beer. It was casual and friendly, but my French friends would have been bewildered.

This morning, my friend Lynn took me to Fiesta Farms, our favourite grocery store, to stock up before my move back. How I appreciated that my first food shop was at this place, which has the best fresh local produce, bread and cheese. And then, in the early afternoon, back to the house, just vacated by the family who'd rented it. My key in my own front door - and inside. My house. My home. Where my children grew up.

The family had left it spotless, with a bottle of white and another of sparkling wine, some cheese and milk in the fridge. They'd left a small suitcase behind and I've since discovered more things around, so a family member of theirs will come by and pick up what they've left. But my house is in great shape. How lucky that we found each other - they loved their time in the house and were perfect tenants.

My French next-door-neighbour has just come by for a quick hello hug.

So now - to begin. I've already chased a raccoon from the second-floor deck where they like to sleep. Now to launch the work on the basement, unpack the stuff from the trip, and then begin the arduous process of unearthing all the stuff I crammed into corners and cupboards before leaving, and to try to get rid of a great deal of it. The list of things-to-do grows. Though the weekend was wet and really cold, the sun is hot today. There's a bottle of rosé in the fridge for tonight and I'm determined to throw together a real meal, not just something easy. Because, for the next while at least, France and French ways still command my soul.

I am home. I'll unpack that loathesome giant heavy suitcase and throw it away. (Actually, it'll probably be useful to store summer clothes.) There's limitless internet access and I can come and go as I please. I understand the language and am surrounded by familiar people who know me. Everything is familiar.

I am different.

Friday, August 28, 2009

she's cute but oh, so dumb

I'm staying with my mama who's taking care of me - and up at 6, as I have been since landing. So, time to tell you the story of my last night in Paris. You bloggees may remember my dilemma - how to get to Charles de Gaulle airport as cheaply as possible early in the morning with two heavy suitcases, computer etc. A sensible person would have simply given in and called a cab, which would have cost about 60 euros. But not your faithful correspondent. Not the simple way for her.

No, she accepted an offer from Denis, a young acquaintance who said, "I'll take you." Wonderful, I thought - a drive! He told me it'd cost 20 euros for gas. No problem. Then he said, it'd be better if you came to my place the night before, it'd make it easier in the morning. I knew he still lived with his family, though he's 27. Do you have room? I asked. Yes, they're away, he wrote back. Okay, I thought. It'll be good to just get out of here and have a night in a picturesque French home.

Denis is a computer geek who worked wonders with the internet in the Paris apartment, a family friend of my landlady, an odd duck and someone I hardly know. I happily packed up and left with him on Monday night, noticing that we were driving away from the airport - it's north east of the city, we were driving south west. It turned out that he lives past Versailles, in a suburb way, way on the complete opposite side of Paris.

In the French version of a gated subdivision - cute, ye olde row houses on streets named for artists - rue Renoir, rue Corot, rows of identical houses. Oh well, I thought. I'd offered to take him for a simple meal somewhere for my last night, a little local bistro, so the plan was a nice meal and a quiet night in the empty house.

Inside the house was the worst jumble of mess - bottles, a hookah, mattresses on the floor, old food, DVD's and dirty dishes - I've ever seen, in the middle of which were 3 young men. His 19-year old brother and his 2 best friends had been living there for a month in the absence of parents. I stood in the living room, knee deep in chaos, calling myself names. And then Denis suggested that instead of going out, we order pizza. Okay, I said, thinking, well, that'll be cheap, a nice artisanal pizza.

My final dinner in France was the Pizza Hut special - a pepperoni pizza and chicken wings, shared with 3 hungry 19-year olds. Denis had his own. It cost me 30 euros.

Then Denis told me that in order to get to work on time, he'd have to get me to the airport by 7.30, which meant getting up around 6 because, of course, we were so far away. I didn't have to be at the airport till 8.30. And, he said, the cost for gas would be 40 euros.

My clever ruse had me at the airport three hours before the flight after not much sleep, 70 euros lighter. Just to complete my idiocy marathon, I went to the duty free store and found Chanel Cristalle Eau Verte at 18 euros less than I'd paid for it in Paris.

What to say but - ah well. I will never forget that last night. In fact, the three boys were fun, and once they'd cleared some of the mouldy food and empty bottles from the table, we had a good time as we ate our tasteless appalling Pizza Hut special. Whereas a tranquil last night in my beautiful Latin Quarter apartment, a special, delicious meal, a cab on time and relatively cheap, would not have made a good story.

I do these stupid things just for you.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Last month the Ryerson website was attacked, and havoc ensued. People had a lot of trouble registering on-line, and so phoned and the phones were jammed. Apparently all is well now. However, they have also set up an alternative website at Or else call 416-979-5035.

I hope you get through, so we can meet in a few weeks.


Before takeoff, I was pushing the wrong way down the crowded aisle in the airplane, and the young woman trying to get past me to her seat said, "Excuse me. I'm sorry," though I was at fault. There's a Canadian, I thought. I'M GOING HOME!

We flew over the whole of England, countless tiny crowded plots of land, villages and towns, and then the ocean, and then, at last, many hours later, the first glimpse of Canada - a thousand miles of nothing but trees. Labrador. Nothing except trees and an occasional road or lake - after five months in Europe, an incomprehensible expanse of uninhabited land and wilderness.

I was concerned going through customs that they'd smell the Camembert and chèvre I smuggled in, but they let me though, and there waiting at the gate was my son, my very tall, handsome, kind, funny son. A long, joyful hug, my face pressed to his breastbone, the moment we've both been waiting so long for.

Yet, thrilled as I was to see him, I couldn't help but notice the new, very noticeable, long tattoo all down his arm, joining the five or six others; the new circle thingie in his ear. Even as I melted with love for my child, it hurt to see what he is doing to his body. He is coming through the worst year of his life, during which, among other things, a good friend died of an accidental overdose. He's still traumatised. The new tattoo was a favourite expression of his friend's, scrolled down his arm in the dead boy's handwriting.

An hour after landing, I was overwhelmed by the essence of parenthood - the greatest love imaginable, mixed with pain and fear. Regret and guilt. Empathy and acceptance. Pain. Fear. Love. And then he told me about trying to defend a friend of his who'd been jumped, and now he has a fractured rib and three staples in his head.

Let it go, Beth. Let it go. He's alive, he's wonderful, he'll get through.

He brought me to the house, which is rented out till Sept. 1 but where I have access to the basement suite that flooded last month, to leave my suitcases in the subterranean disaster area - the once cosy suite dirty, furniture piled up, the floor peeling, a small lake in the drainage area outside the door. The garden is an overgrown jungle. Rooting through my bags, I couldn't seem to find anything, including the most important notebook of the trip, that contains all the names and addresses - did I leave it on the plane? Where was everything? Waiting, a giant pile of mail, including angry notices about bills that inadvertently have not been paid. Ryerson has had a computer melt-down and registration for the courses has been difficult and delayed.


The family renting upstairs, an extremely nice couple with a small daughter, were welcoming and helpful, allowing me to borrow the phone - call my daughter, my bank manager, a few close friends. But for a bit there, something of a slump. I think I'll go back to Paris. Life is simpler there.

It's the oddest thing, being home but not home. I get my house back Monday night or Tuesday and in the meantime, spent my first night at my daughter's, where we too had a joyful reunion and a dinner of Thai takeout. I have to remember that I often won't understand my children's choices; that they are their own people. I've just published an article in More magazine saying exactly that. And yet I want the best for them, and what "the best" means is what I think is the best; the right way to live life is my way. Not their way. A hard lesson to learn over and over again.

Spent last night at my friend and neighbour Jane's where I am now. She made spare ribs for supper - mmm, one thing you don't get in France. In a few minutes, back to the basement, to sort through the bills, try to put some order in the chaos and begin to chop down the garden. Later today I'll go to Ottawa to visit my mother, aunt and brother, partly because I am anxious to see them and partly to be fed and have somewhere, for the next few nights, to sleep.

If this sounds like self-pitying complaint, it's not. It's good, very very good, to be home. Outside Jane's window right now, someone is talking in English. Canadian English. What a beautiful sound.

Riding in the streetcar, I look out at Toronto. Extremely casual in comparison with Paris. The streetscape often a mind-bogglingly ugly jumble - stores allowed to put up whatever they want, no matter how hideous it is. I think about my friend in Paris talking about the city's "architectural unity." The idea is meaningless here, unfortunately. And why is everyone carrying paper cups of coffee in their hands as they walk? When you want to drink coffee, you should sit down at a cafe with your friends, not stroll about.

There'll be a lot of comparisons like this, the next while.

But I went back to the Y, to receive a whole bunch of hugs: "Welcome back!" The most marvellous reunion, after the one with my kids, was at one of my favourite haunts - Doubletake, the second-hand store around the corner. When I walked in, Jasmine and the other East-Indian women who work there came over to greet me. "We have been wondering when you'd be back. We've missed you." I was floored.

Imagine - I was deeply missed at the second-hand store. Maybe I should think about what that means, but not right now.

Monday, August 24, 2009

derniers mots de France

This au revoir will be like the Rolling Stones farewell tour - never-ending. The day is, as the weatherman said, lourd - heavy, breathless, raining sporadically - a perfect farewell day. A last stroll down the Boul Mich, a last jaunt to the Jardin des Plantes, which is dessicated now, these last days of summer.

I saw lots of the plants I hope to see tomorrow in my own jardin des plantes - buddleia, rudbekia, cosmos, leggy petunias. Importantly for me, there was an exhibition of very large close-up photographs of the faces and backs of insects - grasshoppers, moths, dragonflies, beetles - by the photographer Philippe Blanchot. I forced myself to look closely and admire these extraordinary creatures with their carapaces, their amazing eyes, their camouflage, their long proboscises. They look like monsters from outer space, truly, but they're miraculously well-adapted creatures. I hope to come to appreciate them more, having left a trail of massacred beetles and grasshoppers in Gordes.

And couldn't resist - one last trip to the same bakery that nearly made me faint with anticipation, my first days here, to buy a little lemon tart and a tarte tatin - eating them now with a cup of tea.

Since I leave tomorrow morning, I guess I can safely say now that not one of the disasters I feared most about this trip occurred. I did not get sick, my mother or children did not get sick, I did not lose the keys to a place I was staying in (which was my great terror because the keys are often so old, oddly sized and impossible to replace.) MacZine my beloved computer did not break. During the weeks I had left open and unplanned, I did not end up wandering the face of the earth, homeless and alone.

I did not worry beforehand about leaving my handbag on a train, or about the death of dear friends. So there you go - as I always say to my kids, it's the things you don't worry about that happen. No use worrying, then, is there?

Easy for you to say.

I have learned that another old friend, a woman exactly my age whom I've known all my life though she has always lived on the other side of the country, has cancer. I wrote her a letter this morning and mailed it from here, because I think it'll get there faster across the ocean, thanks to the efficient French postal service, than from home. How unpatriotic is that?

A final farewell, then, to this sublime city, that has sheltered and inspired artists for centuries and sheltered me for seven glorious weeks. Merci mille fois.

A bientot.

winding down

This is it - ma dernière journée. In honour of the occasion I'm bothering, for once, with the accents.

I think one of the reasons for my fug of the last days - besides mourning that now, the world is without both Sarah and Muriel, two of its most admirable inhabitants - is that I've been feeling a disbelieving, "I did it!"

I did it! Somehow I managed almost five months alone in Europe and am emerging much the richer. Not literally, as my line of credit will attest, though this trip, thanks to the generosity of my friends, was done just about as cheaply as possible, except for an occasional splurge dinner and mad bottle of cologne. There's debt, even so. Don't care. This morning, it was 13 degrees in Paris, though going up to 30 later. Summer is ending, fall is coming, and I'll be able, as the cold settles in, to take my memories out, hold them to the light, and relive some of the beauty and history I've absorbed.

There's a series of lists beside me: Things to do upon arrival, which includes beginning the basement hooha, getting in touch with U of T and Ryerson, buying a good cleaning solution for MacZine and scrubbing her faithful keyboard, and going to see my friendly neighbourhood bank manager. Earth to Beth: welcome home.

Then, What I loved most about France; what I would recommend to others about to travel there; what I appreciate about Canada and being home. My favourite memories. My favourite discoveries in Paris. God, I won't have time for work or fixing things, I'll be too busy filling in lists.

Yesterday was a big nul, and most welcome for that. I went to the market on the Boulevard St. Germain to buy gift trinkets, cleverly bargaining one vendor down from 5 euros each to 4 for some cute Eiffel Tower key chains, only to find them later at a souvenir store for 2. Sat having a grand crème at a café when who should appear but a former student, spending two weeks here with her family. I knew she was in Paris and wondered if we'd run into each other but dismissed it as just too remote a possibility. And there she was. By another amazing coincidence, we're flying back on the same Air Canada flight early Tuesday. She's taking my Advanced course at Ryerson in September; I hope the others won't mind if we spend much of it jabbering about Paris. "Did you like Pompidou?" "Mais oui, bien sur!"

Don't know how to do les circonflexes, in case you noticed the one missing over the 'u'. I'm sure Bruce will write to tell me how they're done.

I ate my sandwich, as usual, in the Jardin, finished "What I talk about when I talk about running" - an interesting book, some of it valuable, but you do come away thinking that he's a lunatic to put his body through such torture. He insists that he's not competitive; in that case, he's the most competitive non-competitive person alive. And somewhere, there's a faithful wife who goes to all the finish lines and puts up with his countless hours of training and his injuries. Barely a mention of her, and no thank you at the end either. She might not mind, but I did.

Mind your own beeswax, my father would say.

Came home in the heat - it was over 32 yesterday - and spent the rest of the day at the computer, going over the manuscript. Well, I hate to call it a manuscript; it's 62,000 words of something. Wayson has offered to read a bit when he gets back from Australia, but that's the most terrifying test; it's not ready for that yet. I'm looking forward to actually printing the thing, seeing if any of it works. If I have to throw it all out - well, that's too bad, but the trip was fun anyway.

No, seriously, I hope I'm coming back not only as a bigger person but a better writer too, and part of that has been this blog. Just reporting to you almost daily has been a valuable discipline and exercise. Let's hope that fluidity can translate into a book. A new book that doesn't take 25 years to appear.

This morning, I threw open the shutters to a chilly blue sky. Now, it has warmed up to a last beautiful day in Paris. Wednesday morning I'll wake under the Toronto sky. No, THE PLAN IS that Wednesday I will wake under the Toronto sky. You never know.

Thank you for accompanying me on my journey. Please, let's not lose touch.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Muriel Duckworth, 1908-2009

More bad, sad news from home - Muriel Duckworth, one of the world's great souls, has died.

My parents were involved in the Ban the Bomb movement in Halifax in the Fifties and Sixties and knew Muriel and her husband Jack well. Mum and Muriel were members of the Voice of Women. In the many years since, Muriel has never stopped working for peace. She was one of the most genuine, open, generous, compassionate human beings imaginable.

I was lucky enough to be invited to one of her hundredth birthday parties last summer. There were three - one in Magog, where she had gone every summer for decades; one outside of Ottawa, near much of her family, and the last one in Halifax on the actual day. Though she was fairly frail and sat much of the day in a walker, she was absolutely articulate, 100% mentally alert, full of life.

The shot above is with a grandson, and below, with her daughter Eleanor, not surprisingly another extremely smart, independent and active woman who teaches at Harvard and decided, in her early seventies, to take up modern dance.

It is fitting that Muriel died in Magog, where she was so happy and spent so much time.

The world needs hundreds, thousands, millions of Muriels. It's our tragedy that there was only one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

she sure smells good

I've just emerged from a long, hot bath and am a human dishrag. Truly, I can't remember ever being this tired. Mustn't give up, I keep thinking, there's so much of Paris still to discover and explore! And yet I can hardly put one foot in front of the other.

Maybe I'm dealing at some subliminal level, or not even so subliminally, with the end of this adventure. Tomorrow is my last full day in Paris, and Monday, my last night on the road. I am desperately homesick, and yet also mourning, already, the freedom and adventure of these last almost 5 months. So this has translated, perhaps, into leaden feet.

Or perhaps I just have walked too goddamn much and I'm tired! It's hot, the city is crowded, the streets are very long. My legs hurt.

This morning, I walked across the Jardins du Luxembourg to explore the other side. A friend wrote to say I must find the rue du Cherche Midi - what a wonderful name, "the street of search for midday." There's a story there. I was seriously underdressed for this very chic, elegant, stylish street. Fun to window shop. Ah, then something I could afford: there was the the famous bakery of Max Poilane, glowing gold across the street. I had to buy some of HIS bread, also the best bread in Paris apparently, and an apple tart, and a croissant light as air to eat on the spot. Yesterday's bread was wonderful - very chewy with lots of stretchy holes. We'll see how this one compares.

Then I did a crazy thing. I'm embarrassed even to write it but I'm going to confess. Nearby was the extremely expensive and ultra-chic store Au Bon Marché, unlike Galeries Lafayette a restrained palace that hits you, the minute you walk in, with the calm, muffled hush of money. I wandered, looking at absurdly priced and lovely things. And there - there was the Chanel counter, and there was the Cristalle Eau Verte cologne.

Reader, I bought it. I bought a bottle of Chanel perfume at Au Bon Marché, I who am currently living on my line of credit with a flooded basement to fix. Suddenly I wanted something elegant, to pretend, just for a minute, that I belonged in this store, that I'm rich too. Even as my Visa was sliding into the machine, a voice was shouting, "Stop! Are you insane?" Even once I'd bought it I wanted to return it. But I walked out of that emporium of wealth with flushed cheeks, holding a little Chanel shopping bag.

And immediately outside, ran into a homeless man selling newspapers and stuffed the ostentatious bag into my purse. I raged at myself for some time. But what the hell - in the list of loony things I've done in my life, this one is far down the list. The latest Elle is full of handbags that cost 2500 euros, so my perfume cost nothing in comparison; the bill will just add a little to my hefty debt. And at least now, as I'm mopping up the basement, I'll smell good.

Ate my picnic sandwich in the Jardins - chicken this time, on yesterday's best bread in Paris, and then my Poilane apple tart, divine - in front of a statue of the poet Verlaine, and then didn't have the energy for anything else. I and my expensive smell went home. A complete systems failure.

But it was such a glorious day, I couldn't just stay in. The Globe on-line had a review of a show of art by women at the Pompidou, so after a few hours rest, I went. Couldn't miss that. Before I went out, I sprayed myself with Cristalle Eau Vert and joined a beautiful Paris dusk, the Beaubourg area jam-packed with activity, all kinds of street shows going on outside the museum with hundreds watching - and a huge exhibit of art by women.

Unfortunately, friends, I was just too exhausted to appreciate the art of women - or of men either, for that matter. There were a lot, really a lot, of vaginas, in paintings, video art, sculpture. There was a video of a naked female torso hula hooping with a hoop of barbed wire. Much was dark, satiric, self-regarding; much, I thought, was extremely ugly. One of Canadian artist Jana Sterbak's well-known meat dresses was there, and a lovely Agnes Martin, a cream coloured canvas with meticulous straight lines, like a notebook - beautiful. I wondered what Agnes would think of all the vaginas, she who spent her life as an artist painting straight lines. But then I mostly do not understand modern art; she probably would.

It was good to see one Louise Nevelson's fantastic shelf arrangements. And to go upstairs to the permanent collection, also displaying a lot of great women artists from bygone eras. Ironically - but then I really don't understand modern art - I thought there was more love and respect for the essence of women in one of Matisse's simple nudes than on the whole floor below.

But even as I tried to look at Derain, Matisse, Miro, more of my favourites, it was as if I were being served a giant banquet but wasn't hungry. I'm stuffed. I just can't see them any more.

As I've said a few times recently, time to go home.

The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to

learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and

when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be

wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like

hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be

alive. You will be dead soon enough”

William Saroyan (American Writer, 1908-1981)

PS. Inside my Chanel bag were three free samples of other perfumes which will make a nice present for my daughter - and the bag itself, too. So, really, a totally justifiable purchase. Yes?

Friday, August 21, 2009

vendredi - only 3 days left

Today my legs almost gave out. Haruki Murakami, whose memoir I'm reading, runs many miles every day, and I, the softie, had to limp home after a lot of walking. But really, it was a LOT of walking.

Today's plan was to get the bus to Pigalle and walk to the Musée de la Vie Romantique, from there to Galeries Lafayette and other shops, from there to the Canal St. Martin near the Place de la Republique for a picnic, and home. I almost did it all. The walking home defeated me.

The stunning little museum is dedicated to the writer Georges Sand. Walking down a long dark pathway, you emerge into the courtyard of a lovely little house covered with roses and bathed in sunlight. (See picture, below.) The museum itself must be for avid fans of Sand, with memorabilia, her rings, paintings she did of her children etc. She was an admirable woman, incredibly liberated for her time - she supported herself and her family with her writing in the mid-nineteenth century, taking the name of a man to make this possible, and had an impressive roster of lovers, principally the writer Alfred de Musset and Chopin, to whom she dedicated 8 years of her life. Imagine trying to keep the kids quiet - she had two - because M. Chopin needed to practice.

I bet HER books are in Shakespeare and Company.

From there, one last trip to the Galeries Lafayette, which is not a store but a glittering palace. I came in through a back entrance which turned out to be the Japanese greeting area - there was a Japanese hostess and about 100 Japanese tourists, getting ready to shop. I saw them throughout the shop with their Louis Vuitton bags. I guess the Japanese economy hasn't been hit as hard as the rest of the world's? At least for these folks. Because I sure can't afford much in the store. I'm in heaven looking at fashion now, though, because it's all purple, purple all the way. I spent much of the Sixties in purple, and now its time - woo hoo! - has come again.

I tested smells in the perfume department and am happy to report that I've finally found my scent. Every Frenchwoman has at least one perfume, if not several, with which she sprays herself subtly; she is naked without it. I'm not one for squirting sweet stuff all over myself, but when I can afford a bottle of Cristalle Eau Vert cologne, by Chanel, maybe I will. It's new, it's fresh and green, it's lovely. Maybe they'll have a small bottle at the airport duty free store.

From the emporium of sparkles, a long walk down Boulevard Haussman, headed first for what's been called on various blogs the best bakery in Paris, and then for a picnic beside the Canal St. Martin, which I've never seen. Got lost several times but found the bakery Du Pain et des Idées (Bread and Ideas), stood in the long line-up. A young baker took over a beautiful old boulangerie and has become one of the master bakers of France. There was a notice on the door, though, saying that he decided not to shut the bakery in August when he went on vacation, leaving it in the hands of his apprentices. Some of the bread, it's true, was a bit blacker than it should have been. I bought a "p'tit Canadien," of course, a scrumptious brioche made with maple syrup and cranberries. Imagine! And an ordinary loaf, and for lunch, a roll like a pain au chocolat but with chevre and spinach.

Found the canal and sat munching and reading the latest Elle. God knows where this canal comes from or leads to, but there it is, a long body of water with locks and ornate bridges, very peaceful, lots of people sitting along its banks. Lunch was delicious. Elle, I'm sorry to report, is boring this week, a back to school issue full of obscenely expensive, miniature adult-style children's clothes.

I would have loved to meander back to the left bank, but as I said, my legs disagreed, so I took the bus. Just went out one last time, to get supper on the rue Mouffetard - roast chicken and a cooked artichoke, ready to go. No matter how good a take-out place is in Toronto, the chances of it having a take-out artichoke are remote.

Now for a quiet evening with my aching legs up, drinking rosé and reading about running.

PS Just looked on-line about Cristalle. One blog said it had notes of "bergamot, Sicilian lemon, a magnolia accord, neroli, jasmine absolute, white musk and Florentine iris."

Sicilian lemon? Jasmine absolute? I just thought it smelled nice.

Montpellier and Paris pix

Some new pix - start at the bottom and follow the journey up to here...

A couple drinking champagne in Galeries Lafayette

Musee de la Vie Romantique

the non-exercise area of Paris Plages

the exercise area of Paris Plages

playing the piano on the second floor of Shakespeare and Company

the heavenly bookstore

One of a thousand glorious Montpellier doors

A typical bustling Montpellier street

A large sign demonstrating to French people how to pick up after their dogs' "dejection." They were all over Montpellier, with free bags. But no one paid the slightest attention.

A little corner in Montpellier

Thursday, August 20, 2009

celebrating indigenous art

Every day, it's important to have a PLAN. "Okay, what's the plan?" I ask myself over my first coffee, factoring in weather, timing, mood. Today's was to walk to Shakespeare and Company, to ask again about a book they said they had (The Sixties by Jenny Diski) but couldn't find, then to get the metro to the Musee Marmottan and afterwards, picnic in the Bois de Boulogne nearby.

For once, the ubiquitous sandwich in my bag wasn't ham, it was roast pork, a vast difference. On the way to the bookstore I discovered the glorious little church St. Julien-le-pauvre, now a Greek Catholic church, just the right cosy size with a Greek mass being played over a sound system and many (fake) candles. Around the corner, I found Diski and enquired of the young woman who runs the bookstore if she had Wayson Choy's Not Yet, "his brilliant new memoir," I said. I'm sorry to say, and I was even sorrier to have to write to him, that it wasn't even in her database, which means that neither her American nor her English distributor have any record of it yet. How is that possible? It's infuriating. One of Canada's best writers!

At the metro, I learned that the line I needed had been shut down temporarily, so a free shuttle bus was running from St. Michel to Les Invalides where the metro was working. Ah, the word free, works magic. Since I would be getting a free ride halfway across Paris, why not just stay where it dropped me? On my trusty map I saw that near Les Invalides - the vast building where Napoleon is buried, not on my list - was the Musee du Quai Branly, which definitely was. By now I was hungry so ate my sandwich, not in the Bois de Boulogne, but sitting on a rock in the forest of grasses and reeds outside the museum, listening to jungle sounds piped in through a speaker disguised as a rock.

Well, what a surprise - the museum is a feast, a banquet, a delight. I was very glad to be seeing something so completely different from my usual fare - a celebration of indigenous culture around the world, the art and culture of native peoples on every continent. After nearly 5 months of looking at Western art, here were stunning masks, musical instruments, cloth, jewels, paintings, sculpture, sacred objects from Africa, the Americas, Oceania and Asia.

The museum is kind, taking into account how fatiguing it is to look at display after display of masterpieces, so continually provides areas to sit down and watch little screens showing the objects in use: tribal dances, storytellers, musicians. One turned out to be about scarification rituals in Africa, I had to leave that one. Why does the initiation into becoming a man have to involve excruciating pain? I probably know the answer, just don't want to think about it.

By about half-way through, all I could think was: we are one. Didn't Michael Jackson write that? We all, all of us, value the same things in our different ways - beauty, belief, family. We honour our dead, make love and war, decorate our homes, cooking implements and bodies, especially our leaders and our women; we all love music and dancing, colour and sparkle and representations of ourselves. All societies have timeless rituals and sacred objects.

Each culture on display used of course only local materials - shells, stones, bark, feathers, ivory, grasses, gold - whereas in a Branly museum of today, everything would be made in China. There was a very small section - too small, my only complaint - of the work of the native peoples of the U.S. and Canada. For me, the most beautiful objects in the whole place were a Haida painted box, a Nisga'a totem pole, Huron and Iroquois quilled pouches - the art of my countrymen.

Exhausted after more than two hours of continuous walking and gawking, I nevertheless decided to walk all the way back to Les Invalides to get the free shuttle back to St. Michel and then walk home from there. I saved myself two metro tickets today, a grand saving of about 5 euros! So to celebrate I had a facial which cost a bit more than that. My face feels really clean, though, after nearly 5 months of city smog and sweaty heat.

What is my most sacred object? Right now, this computer. It wouldn't look great in a display case beside the exquisite ikat cloth of Indonesia, the dream paintings of Australia, the rugs of Iran, the Senegalese wedding shawl, the silver spurs of Argentina. But it is most beautiful to me, because it links me to the entire world and to you. When I'm home, very soon, I'll be able to look around and pick out another kind of sacred object. But here, what I value most is a screen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Paris versus Ottawa

When my family and I lived in Ottawa and Lynn and Denis and their children were visiting, we all went to the National Gallery to see a special exhibit on Degas. I thought they'd be thrilled to see featured one of their genius countrymen, and most of them were. But at the end, Christopher, the oldest at about 15, pronounced his verdict.
"Degas, c'est nul," he said witheringly. Degas is nothing.

That's a long anecdote to introduce my theme: today, my day was nul.

It was apparently the hottest day of the year in France, maybe 35 or 36, not a good day to leap about. So I didn't; I spent the morning traumatised instead. HOW was I going to get to Charles de Gaulle airport by 8 a.m. next Tuesday with my two big suitcases? The obvious answer is by taxi, but they're prohibitively expensive; I just couldn't bear or afford to pay that much (maybe 60 Euros.) If I had only one bag I'd get the metro or a shuttle, but how to get down the metro stairs or to the shuttle stop with two bulky bags? I wracked my brains, called various numbers, then Paris information - busses only start running at 7 - and Air Canada itself.

Rule: Never, never travel with more luggage than you can handle yourself, unless you are assured of sherpas.

Finally I wrote in despair to my young friend Denis Z., a friend of my landlady's who lives in the Paris suburbs. Did he have any ideas? I asked. I'd gladly pay someone to take me or help me in some way. Oh, the relief when he wrote back: I'll take you.

Many emails later, it's confirmed - he will come after work on Monday to pick me up and drive me to his suburban home where I'll spend the night, and then early Tuesday, he'll drive me and my hefty bags to Charles de Gaulle and continue on to work. At the other end, my son and his best buddy Dustin are coming to meet me. My nightmare is over.

At least, as I said the other day, that's the PLAN. You never know.

Once that was all arranged, and I'd trekked to the market on rue Monge which was almost empty (almost no stalls because everyone's on vacation) and bought this week's Pariscope to see what's on, the heat had hit and it was hard to think of going anywhere. But the perfect solution for after lunch: ten minutes away is the great national monument the Pantheon. I'd attempted a visit in April but didn't want to enter a big cold place when the sun had just started, at last, to shine outside.

Today, where better than a big, cold, national monument?

The Pantheon was built as a cathedral tribute to Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Who knew that Attila the Hun had advanced as far as the city walls, and that Genevieve had rallied the spirits of the Parisians and kept him out? This vast church was built to honour her, and then was turned after the Revolution into a place for burying and remembering the heroes of the nation. I spent a lot of time in the wonderfully cool crypt, where many great men, and one very great woman, are buried and honoured; the lone representative of 50% of the planet is Marie Curie. But the men are a stunning bunch: Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, Braille - the inventor of braille, duh. Others I knew only from streets named after them, including Bertholet, "the inventor of modern chemistry," who's the street just below here, and Monge himself, a mathematician.

On billboards nearby, all kinds of inspiring stories about these great human beings, like Zola and his J'Accuse! which led to 19 years of exile, or about men who'd fought slavery and other injustices, or, like Jean-Jaures, promoted socialism and social justice.

On the other side, more modern tombs, like those of Andre Malraux, intellectual, writer and politician and Jean Moulin, hero of the resistance whose wall plaque I'd just seen in Montpellier. A wall honouring "Les Justes de la France," those who risked their lives to shelter or defend Jews during the deportations. Malraux became the Culture Minister of France and wrote that his job was to defend "the right of each child in France to paintings, theatre, cinema, just like the right to the alphabet."

Those were the days.

Upstairs, in the hugely impressive domed room, marble, massive sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, tapestries. I joined the group being led up the 206 stairs to the top of the dome, where we huddled in the shade to take in a grand view of all Paris. And then, skulking close to the shady walls all the way, home.

Why don't we have a place in Canada like the Pantheon or Westminster Abbey, where our great dead are gathered and honoured? Where schoolchildren are brought to learn the vital history of their country through the lives of its greatest citizens? First, I guess, because unlike England or France, our capital is not our greatest city. It makes sense to place monuments in London or Paris because everyone visits these great cities, the heart of their countries. Why build a monument in Ottawa? Would Newfoundland or Alberta send the bones of their heroes to Ottawa? I don't think so.

But more importantly, perhaps we just don't have the will. It's not Canadian to make a big deal about heroes. In England and France, idealists, politicians, philosophers, philanthropists, heroes and artists are remembered in a hugely public way. In Canada, petty infighting recently defeated the building of a national portrait gallery, which would have been a start.

Now, that's what I call nul.


P.S. When I got in this afternoon, I turned on the radio to "Classique," which is what CBC used to be and plays glorious classical music all day. It was the last few bars of a Bach something, lasting maybe 20 seconds, but I knew instantly from the hammer precision in the fingers that the pianist was our own Glenn Gould.

He's a prime example of a great Canadian we should honour, somewhere, and not just a statue outside the CBC.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Paris rhapsody, redux

Greetings from a very lucky woman. As I may have mentioned at some point, I'm in Paris. And yes, as I said on the phone to my son tonight in our first long talk in many weeks, I'm homesick and dying to go home. But I've also got a last week in Paris, and you have to try pretty hard to have a bad time here.

I resolved not to rhapsodise in my usual overwrought fashion, but sorry, there's no helping it. I started the day by finding Sylvia Beach's famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co.; if only I'd gone there immediately on my arrival here months ago. There was a free reading last night, for example, of a good Hungarian poet, and I missed it. The store is glorious, a rabbit warren, a jumble of books, with its phenomenal history on display - typed cards with notable mentions of the place, including Anais Nin's. Upstairs, where the books are not for sale but for sitting and reading, there's a little writing area with a manual typewriter, piles and piles and piles of books, the room where readings take place, and everywhere, benches and beds covered with red velvet, where visiting writers used to crash. Anyone could go up there now and steal the place blind - no one is surveying, you're just there with a mountain of old books.

A young man was playing the piano in one room, so I sat, leafing through the books, listening to him, and of course, as you'd know if you know me at all, weeping. The honour given to writing here, and also to music ... it made me proud to be part of this confederacy. When the guy finished playing, I thanked him, we chatted - a Frenchman living in Poland - and he returned a few minutes later with his card - if I email him, he said, he'll send me downloads of the music he was playing and his C.D.

Downstairs, with the same ceiling of low, worm-holy old beams, new books are actually for sale. I bought the New Yorker, which I miss, and Murakami's What I talk about when I talk about running. They couldn't find Jenny Diski's book about the Sixties, thought it had been misplaced somewhere, so I said I'd come back. I can't wait to go back. Perhaps they'll let me sleep on the red velvet sometime. No, perhaps some day I'll do a reading in that room upstairs, with its view of Notre Dame Cathedral. That's a new goal in my life - to do a reading there. I did look wistfully for Finding the Jewish Shakespeare in the biography section, eyeing the spot in the K's where it should have been but wasn't. But the next one will be there, she said determinedly.

On the way out, by the way, I passed the Paris books section, and there was Writers in Paris by the friend I met in April, David Burke. He and his wife Joanne, like every other self-respecting Parisian, are out of town in August.

Then walked along the Right Bank of the Seine to see the Paris Plages. The city has created a beach environment, people lying on long wooden chairs with beach umbrellas, changing rooms, snack bars, magazine stands, an exercise section, apparently further along ping-pong tables, a place for fencing (!) and some sort of swimming area, though there was no swimming where I walked, just sunbathing in bikinis in the heart of one of the biggest cities on earth.

I was headed for the Jeu de Paume museum to see an exhibit by Martin Parr, a British photographer with a quirky sensibility and a sublime sense of humour. The exhibit first displays some of his photography collection, documentary photographs from the 40's on, detailing among other things the depressing poverty and plainness of British post-war life, and yet some of them made me laugh out loud.

A bit of Parr's photography book collection is there too. I liked the one by Charles M. Taylor Jr. called Why my photographs are bad. On display was "Chapter 12: Too Much Sky." A shot of a distant town, and above, yes, a great deal of sky.

And then we enjoy some of Parr's collections - "I have a very strong collecting gene," he says. A hilarious wall of Obama stuff, including Obama briefs, breakfast cereal - Obama O's - and soap, on the wrapper "The audacity of soap." Parr has a huge collection of trays, Margaret Thatcher artefacts, Saddam Hussein watches, sputnik pen sets .... you get the idea, the ephemera of history. And then his own photographs, mostly, in this exhibit, of rich people being obnoxiously rich. How they allowed themselves to be photographed is a mystery. The whole thing is edgy, cynical, satirical and yet funny, honest and truthful. Loved it.

The Department of Missed Opportunities: As I stood chuckling and looking, a man was doing the same thing nearby - a good-looking, rather shy youngish black man in a red check shirt and khaki pants. A connection was made - he was nearby as I looked and passed in front of me several times, he smiled at me, I smiled at him. I thought, this could go somewhere. My daughter and my gay friends will be furious when I say that I decided not to see where it could go. This has happened several times on this trip, and I've ignored the possibilities. Some of my loved ones were hoping I'd have a fabulous French affair here. Well, I have - with France itself, cheese, with friends, reading, writing, with you. But I decided not to go through the dance with the man at Martin Parr. I was happy to walk out into the Place de la Concorde, across the bridge to the Boulevard St. Germain and go on my way.

Anyway, I was looking for SHOES and this is something a woman should only do with other women or alone. A French shoemaker called Arcus makes light, extremely comfortable shoes much more cheaply than the well-known Mephisto. I meandered along the Rue de Rennes and found Arcus, had the poor salesman bring out nearly every shoe in the store in my size until I found a pair. And then walked across the Jardin du Luxembourg, which has changed the colour scheme of its flowers - now all purple and yellow, gorgeous - sat for a bit near the tennis courts and read some Murakami. Around me people who'd come for the afternoon, one woman with a thermos of tea, sitting watching the tennis like a movie. On the way home I stopped at the Mouffetard market for fruit, and in Monoprix to see what's new for fall. And home, to find an email from my son. So I called him, to hear the voice that means more to me, minus one other, than any in the world.

It's dusk. I've eaten supper followed by cheese and fresh bread and dark chocolate, drunk wine, done a load of laundry which is hanging in the open window. I love this city. I love this city.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Home at last! Well, sort of. Paris feels like home after so much wandering. It's extraordinary to be right back where I started, four and a half months ago. The same old me and yet, not.

The trip was absolutely painless, for once - the TGV train left on time, and though I didn't have an assigned seat, I just sat down somewhere and was able to stay put for the whole trip. We sailed through the entire length of France and arrived exactly on time. I walked with the giant suitcase (AND yes, both backpack and handbag) to the bus stop, the bus arrived, and I was at the apartment in no time.

The thing with travel is never to say, we'll be there at 6. Instead, say: the plan is that we'll be there at 6. The plan is ... In those words is the assumption that though you've come up with a schedule and a plan, the gods may decide differently. And the unforeseen things, the disasters, the delays, the mistakes - those are the stories you'll be telling for the rest of your life.

I went out to get groceries and saw that practically every store on the rue Claude Bernard is closed down for the whole month of August. These people take vacations seriously. However, the museums are open, and the streets are always there for walking and looking. But this time, after my arrival, I wasn't stumbling around with my mouth open, gawking at everything. I went out to get groceries and came right back, because I'm tired. I can really relax here, at last - spread out, sit around, make myself comfortable. This really does feel like home.

One more week, until my real home. I'm very glad of this last week to decompress and deprogram. Back in a city, back with a climate I recognise ... and no bugs here either. Bliss.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

last night in Montpellier

Final treats in Montpellier: went to a movie called Love, Sex and Mobylettes, from Burkino Faso, a docu-drama about love. It's a loose exploration of various kinds of love in a small town in Africa, with debates, people talking to each other and to an interviewer about Valentine's Day. Heartening to see that even very small children know about condoms. There was a scene at a free public film in the village square, in which an educator taught the crowd how to put on condoms, using a live subject who was, shall we say, raring to go. Anyway, it was a lovely film, lively and moving.

Then I took myself out to dinner - L'Entrecote, next door to the cinema, where Lynn and I ate lo these many months. It serves one menu: salad and bread, then extremely tender steak in a fantastic sauce and a mountain of delectable fries, which is replenished at least once. When this vast platter arrived, I thought, I'll never finish that, but by God, I did. All for 16 Euros, plus the cost of a glass or two of wine. At home, steakhouses are expensive and pretentious. This is the exact opposite - a perfect piece of meat, perfect fries, friendly service, for a very reasonable price.

And then I walked along the Place de l'Opera to the very end, where you can climb the outside staircase of a building there and see the sky. A magnificent panorama of one side of the city and the sunset, dark clouds gathering, streaks of black, grey, red across the dome of our earth.

Farewell to Montpellier. I'll be back.

Only eight more days in France. I have timed this well, in that I am tired of France and want to go home. I know once I'm back in Toronto, I'll miss so many things. But I'm ready to go back. Beam me up, to T dot.


One last word on the Palestine/Israel issue and film: I've just read another interview with Suleiman, who says, "Israel is in permanent denial. I don't compare the situation of the Palestinians with the Holocaust, of course, there's no comparison, but is there a difference between a denial of the Holocaust and a denial of the Palestinians?"

St. Roch

It's 9.45 a.m. and I've just come back from a more than hour-long morning walk in the breeze, which is still here. At night, central Montpellier is extremely noisy, not only because of the ubiquitous bars and restaurants and the talk of people returning home resounding in the echo chambers of the narrow streets, but because we are all dwelling cheek by jowl with the neighbours beside and opposite us. I can smell their cooking, hear how they are raising their children and certainly celebrate with them every nuance of their taste in music. (Someone close by loves the mindless banging of techno; I would like to have a little chat with him sometime.)

But in the morning, especially, I can now say, Sunday morning, it's a different world out there - tranquil and still, except for the church bells and an occasional mass emanating from a church. As I walked around at 8, there were only a few stray tourists eating breakfast in a sunny square and a few stray cats stalking the streets. Later, I went into a church - the massive space inside lit up joyfully, sun pouring through the stained glass windows, the priest amplified as he chanted the prayer, and in the pews which could hold hundreds, there were nine people huddled at the front.

In the "lest we forget" department, I stopped as always to read the signs on the wall - in one house lived both a 15th century pope and Paul Valéry, a 20th century poet raised in Montpellier. The signs often commemorate heroes of the wars. There was one about Jean Moulin, hero of the Resistance, who was tortured and executed in 1943; several noting that the inhabitant of this house was deported and died at Auschwitz. Many kinds of past are kept alive in the streets here.

It's the Festival of St. Roch this weekend. St. Roch was a young priest from fourteenth century Montpellier who studied medicine, then gave away his worldly goods to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. On the way he stopped again and again to take care of those afflicted with the Black Death, which killed 25 million people in Europe at around this time. He eventually caught the disease himself and went to a wood to die. It's said that he was kept alive by a dog which every day brought him bread, and he recovered. There are masses and events in his honour all day; a table has been set up on the main shopping street, to give out free water from St. Roch's well. I hope it's good luck; I drank two glasses, and others were getting big bottles filled. We were shown where the actual well is situated - at the back of a shoe store.

The trains station here, scene of my recent devastation, is called Montpellier-St. Roch, and now I know why.

Every time I go out on a sortie, I am grateful for my wallet, and every time I come home, I am grateful for my key. Just recently, I'd said to myself that I had to get over my extreme nervousness when travelling - the day of a departure, my stomach heaves, I'm speedy and anxious. I wonder, now that the worst has happened, at least in the travelling department, if I will be calm. I wonder, if I am ever left penniless again, if a dog will bring me bread.


1 p.m. I just picked a book out of Julie's bookcase: Hold Everything Dear, by the much-admired John Berger, the extraordinary British intellectual and artist who's lived in rural France for decades. By the second chapter, he's writing about Palestine and Israel from a 100% pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli point-of-view. I Googled him, to find that he's part of a coalition that wrote a petition to the Beatles (I guess Paul McCartney) urging him not to play in Israel because of Israeli human-rights violations and various horrific abuses.

Perhaps I should not have walked out of the film last night.

The issue for me is this: if we admit that Israeli Jews, immediately after WW2 as their state was being created, began a campaign of intolerance and annihilation, we are admitting a most heartbreaking fact about human nature, that we are incapable of understanding, tolerance or empathy; that human nature relishes power and domination far more than any common humanity. That's why I and so many others are struggling. And also because yes, unrealistically, I call Jews to a higher humanity than others, because of what they have endured, because of who they are. Who we are.

The Globe columnist Margaret Wente, whose conservatism either drives me into a frothing rage or else sounds remarkably sensible, wrote recently of the world's propensity to blame Israel, to focus disproportionately on Israeli misdeeds when the planet is overrun with countries and leaders committing terrible acts. She's right. And yet, there's another side to the story, one which I didn't see last night because I walked out of the cinema.

I'm talking so often to you because I have no one to talk to. Many thanks for listening.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

a good wind, a bad time

A breeze! I awoke to a breeze and thinking it might vanish, rushed out to walk around town with the soft wind on my face. Oh, the narrow interweaving streets of the zone pietonne of central Montpellier, that take you back hundreds of years in an instant. Around each corner, a new medieval vista, signs on the wall: this house in 1644, this building in 1582 ... And with the blessing of a breeze, the walk is sheer pleasure. Yesterday and the day before, walking was hard under the blistering sky, no matter how hard you tried to shrink into the shade.

On the Place de l'Opera at 9.30 a.m., where last night thousands were dancing, eating and drinking, there was nothing. Not a scrap of garbage, everything tidied away miraculously in the night.

A day of walking and working, sitting at the desk at Julie's with that playful breeze on my face - for the blessed little wind went on all day and is still there now, at 9.30 p.m. Today I walked around the city in the morning, then at midday to do some shopping - buying some good bottles of wine for Julie, as thanks - and again tonight. As ever, the Place is hosting some very good street performers and the streets are jammed with diners. Does anyone here eat at home? It doesn't seem so on a hot Montpellier night.

I walked tonight because I had to get my thoughts straight. The film Le Temps Qu'il Reste - the time that remains - has been very well reviewed here and was a Cannes selection. One review said it's a "chef d'oeuvre," perfect, "precious and essential." It's a Palestinian film, made by Elia Suleiman, and is apparently the story of his life. Not a single French review that I've read mentioned the fact that the Israelis in the film are, one and all, vicious annihilating brutes; that the hero of the film spends his life gun-running against them and raises his son, Elia Suleiman, in the same spirit.

It's unbelievably painful for me, even as a half-Jew with so little connection to my Jewish side, to acknowledge that the state of Israel is now a giant bully in the world. But this film is saying that it has always been so, that Israelis are without a single redeeming feature. It was intercut with weird bits of slapstick Buster Keaton-type attempts at humour, violent jumps in time, and interminable, very French moments where nothing happens at all. The audience sat there lapping it up. I writhed.

I thought, the man is bitter about what happened to his homeland. He has a right to express his views in his art. But I don't have to watch it, especially because it's not a very good film.

So I walked out, banging the door behind me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

international date night

Three posts today! This is becoming obsessive. As I do things, I am taking mental notes, or even jotting things in my notebook like a detective, so I can report back to you.

Tonight - it's 11.30 p.m. and downtown Montpellier is jammin'. There are thousands of people only a few blocks away on the Place, drinking their 4 euro glasses of wine and listening to Sticky Fingers, an old time rock and roll band playing exclusively old American rock - Blue Suede Shoes, Johnny B. Goode - though no one in the group speaks English. The female singer was like Janis Joplin poured into a pair of size zero jeans. They were fun, but it took the crowd a long time to warm up and boogie. At the end there was a big group line-dancing. I flashed back to when I first line-danced, in my mother-in-law's car port in Vernon, B.C. in the mid-eighties. Connie was the leader of a line-dancing troupe of women who wore cowboy hats and boots and did lots of different dances. And here was one of them, in Montpellier on a steamy Friday night, more than 20 years later.

The food vendors were still piling out the plates, including oysters, tandoori chicken, crepes - many people were just arriving as I tired and started to leave. But it was hard to go, because there were also street performers everywhere, including a fabulous jazz combo of seven people, with piano and bass, set up on the edge of the square, with about a hundred people gathered around tapping their feet.

Now, that's a downtown Friday night. Let's go, Toronto. I'm ready for more.

Friday night in Montpellier

An open letter to my friends who find themselves in the fundraising business: a report on tonight. It's easy in a Mediterranean culture that lives outside, it's true, which Canada is not. There is no forecast of rain to worry about. But still, I wonder if something alone these lines might not work in Canada ...

I've just come from the first part of the regular Friday night festival on the Place de l'Opera here. There are always market vendors lined up, but tonight, there are many more, including old books. The main event - for 4 Euros, I bought a wine glass and a ticket for 3 glasses of wine. The vintners are lined up further down the plane-treed boulevard, along with many different kinds of food vendors. So I got to choose, one after the other, 3 different glasses of wine and then go and buy myself some food, while listening to music - canned at first, though they're getting ready for a live band. There are tables so groups and singles can sit down. I ate some Greek delicacies and a giant cheese platter and yes, 3 glasses of wine, all of which cost about 10 Euros. I went shopping while I munched and bought a few trinkets as presents. And most importantly, as a single woman wandering about, I was absolutely comfortable and unbothered.

There were also the usual street performance groups - black kids doing amazing dances and fire breathers and jugglers - and about a million people sitting at sidewalk cafés. The air smells of the sea and also, as it does so often here, of urine and worse. But it's all rich and delicious, and tonight, almost everything is free.

As I sat drinking my third glass of wine and eating hummus, a couple walked by hand in hand who looked so like Ben and Sarah that I burst into tears. Luckily I was wearing sunglasses and could weep unembarrassed, missing and mourning my beloved friend, here in the most unlikely of spots.

At one end, there was a marvellous exhibit of huge photographs taken from a helicopter by Jann Arthus-Bertrand, in the interests of ecological enlightenment and preservation. As I walked around looking at the panels, I became aware of the problems of : irrigation in Lebanon; coal mines in South Africa; cotton production in Syria; fishing in Senegal; civil war in Sudan; flooding in Bangladesh; cattle production in the U.S., and the melting snows of Kilimanjaro. And on the plus side, the miraculous dromedaries in Mauritania, the miraculous flamingos of Kenya, the solar panels of Seville, Spain and the metal swirls of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, designed by the "Californian architect Frank Gehry." There was one Canadian shot, the melting ice of Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

At the end, it informed us that 20% of the world has no source of clean drinking water, 25% has no electricity and 40% no sanitary installations. 820 million people are underfed and half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day. On the plus side, since 1980, 80 countries have undertaken a democraticisation process, 47 have reached that goal and 33 are in transition. And on the other side of these panels, vendors from Africa and other third world countries were trying to sell their wares.

Ah well. I've had 3 glasses of wine and will not carry the world's burdens tonight. I'm going to go back out and listen to the band "Sticky Fingers." The air smells of the sea, and I'm ripe for the music.

at home in Montpellier

Montpellier is really starting to feel like home - too bad I only have another few days. This morning I rushed off early to try the Olympic swimming pool, because I was getting my hair coloured and cut at 10 a.m. and knew I wouldn't swim again after that and wreck it. (In a place like this, where it's breathless and steamy from dawn to dusk, it's impossible to exercise and I can feel the kilos of cheese settling in.) The pool is about 15 minutes walk from here in a strange section of town called Antigone - they've torn down whatever was there and replaced it with a pretentious, multi-block replica of ancient Greece, towering Acropolis-type buildings with pillars and fountains with naked discus-throwers included. Very odd, especially as it's hard to access unless you go through the shopping centre called Polygone, which doesn't open for business till 10.

Made it to the lovely big pool to find out that I'd forgotten a towel and in any case was due shortly at the hairdresser. So I swam briefly and patted myself with my clothes which dried instantly in the broiling sun as I walked to the Polygone. And there ... the wonderful Justin, who cut my hair a very long time ago, in ... June, was it? I think I told you about him then, a Brit who sold two successful businesses in London to move to a village in the south of France, because he wanted his 4 children raised in a safe place. Though he doesn't need the money, he keeps working "to stay on the radar in France," and is absolutely superb at his job. I emerged a new, well-sheared woman, my Farrah Fawcett curls gone, feeling, if not looking, ten years younger. If you want a good haircut in the south of France, he's the man for you.

On the way home I stopped in at the Gare again, and there he was in the Acceuil office, the young man who'd helped me through my trauma. At one point that night, he said that while I was waiting for the train to Marseilles, I could just sit in the office if I wanted, "si vous etes trop angoissée." If you're too anguished to leave, he said, just sit here. What a sweetheart!

He recognised me immediately. I told him I'd come to return his pen and to thank him. As young men are, he was self-deprecating and embarrassed, though his colleague, who was not the man working with him that night, teased and said, "Madame, why don't you take him back chez vous? He's very nice and does the dishes." Tempting, indeed. I told him what his kindness had meant to me and shook his hand. From the way they all reacted, I do not think this kind of scene happens often in the Acceuil office in the Montpellier train station.

And then, work. I went to Lynn's, where it's a bit cooler, to spend the afternoon working on the memoir. Fiddled and tore apart and found a new beginning that I hope works better. There is something, who knows what. Emerged at 6 to a wall of heat.

Tonight there's an event on the Place de l'Opera, a wine and food-tasting, you buy a ticket and get 3 dishes from a big choice and a glass of wine, and there'll be music. Two things are sure: it'll be hot, and it'll be good. Will you join me?

Thursday, August 13, 2009


36 degrees in Montpellier today - the sun like a dangerous weapon, scorching, punishing, to be avoided at all costs. Today I went to enquire about the Olympic-size swimming pool not far from here. Julie's apartment is wonderfully spacious with big bright windows which unfortunately face south, so the shutters have to be kept tightly shut for most of the day. Luckily, Lynn's place has a small air conditioner, so I spent part of the day there. Quiet nights here, cool afternoons there.

I'm not going to do much, these last days. Once I'd thought of taking the train to Nimes or going back to see more photography in Arles, but now, no excursions by train, that's for sure. Just walking by the station, which I do regularly, makes my heart rise in my throat. I've gone back several times to try to thank the men who were so kind to me, but so far, only others have been there.

No, no more out-of-town travel until my last trip to Paris on Monday. Reading and writing, that's the agenda. Walking around, eating cheese, drinking rosé, emailing, reading North American newspapers on-line, working, blogging to you. Too hot to move, in any case.

I've read my 3 books, the P.D. James Innocent Blood which I thoroughly enjoyed though found her stern and sour about human nature, the Kate Atkinson Case Histories the same, strangely. The one I adored was Nick Hornby's Long Way Down. Can't recommend it more highly. His work is so easy to read and funny that you think it's a light summer read, but it's not, he gets right to the core over and over, twists your guts, hits you over the head with a piece of wisdom.

"There was a break-up coming, you could smell it," one of his characters says, "and no one was saying anything. We’d taken things as far as we could, and there was nowhere for us to go. That’s why everyone breaks up, I guess, bands, friends, marriages, whatever. Parties, weddings, anything."

And another muses, "Do people get sad on holiday sometimes? I can imagine they do, having all that time to think."

THAT certainly hit home.

Speaking of having time to think, here is a transcription from my little Clairefontaine notebook, written on the way from Montpellier to Bayonne last week:
Why am I here? What am I doing on a slow train meandering through the south-west of France, past clusters of red clay roofs dominated by one tall spire, past fields of dying brown sunflowers and innumerable vineyards? Why did I need to step outside of my life for five months?
1. to begin a memoir about our year in France - my parents - the Beatles - love - 1964-65.
2. to get away from the house, see what it feels like without my shell
3. to get away from my kids and vice versa
4. to see my life at a distance - what works and what doesn't
5. to come home.

Ah, that's the key - to come home. In less than two weeks.

A few memories of the past week that I didn't have time in that expensive internet place to tell you about:
On Saturday, Michele and I went to the Cap Breton market. A small bar inside was packed with men talking and drinking a little glass of red while the women shopped; a sign advertised 6 oysters and a glass of wine for 5 Euros. As a treat, I bought us a slab of local foie gras, lecturing the vendor about the cruelty to ducks and geese and how I didn't approve and was only going to try it this one time. I meant it, too, but did feel that I should try the stuff. We ate it that evening with our aperitif. Hard to say anything but, "Mmmm." Like velvet, like cream, like ... nothing else. Sublime, but at too great a cost to my fellow creatures. I won't eat it again.


The large Spanish town we went to whose name I forgot was San Sebastian. An expansive sea-front, a lovely old town. We actually did not eat anything there, which was a first.

Michele went off one morning to buy honey, returning with a box filled with all different kinds, different colours from pale yellow to darkest umber: summer heather, acacia, "of the forest," "all flowers," heather later in the season. The honey competed with the apricot jam she made in a big copper pot while I was there. Should I spread my bread with thick chunks of luscious apricots or some "all flowers" honey? These are the dilemmas of a French sejour. I was especially grateful for this one, because it was really all French. In Gordes, we spoke a lot of English. Michele lived for awhile in Canada but has lost most of her English, so my whole time there was in French, with a real Frenchwoman cooking and teaching me how things are done. Inspiring.

Her very French grandsons Clement and Damien, at 6 and 4, amazed me as they ate dinner with the grown-ups, our last night a complicated Indian chicken dish with coconut milk and vegetables, mixed with a ratatouille-like dish, all eggplant and onions. My own children would have made vomit noises and sat eating bread; these kids just ate and ate. And then asked for cheese. "Je veux un peu de Reblochon," said Clement, scooping a bit of the extremely stinky mould-rinded cheese we adults were savouring. "Moi aussi, je veux du Reblochon," chimed 4-year old Damien, and they both spread it on their tartines and ate with gusto. People say France is changing, but maybe not that much.

On my last morning before taking the train, Michele took me around Bayonne and then insisted we had to have hot chocolate at Chez Cazanov, a tradition for her all her life. Hot chocolate, on a day that was 33 degrees at least? But we went, a lovely old-fashioned café with many mirrors, and out came a frothy mousse atop a cup of dark hot chocolate. The Spaniards value chocolate, Michele told me, and this is made in the Spanish way.

Oh. My. God. I wanted to sit there forever. Dark, grainy yet sweet, rich, thick ...

With that taste in my mouth, I got on the train for Montpellier, got off and left my handbag behind. I blame the chocolate.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

a few more pix

La Vielle Major, cathedral of Marseilles, a souvenir of my misadventure

The fishing village of Pasaia, Spain, where we ate grilled fish

Believe it or not, my friend Michele, who uses no hair dye or makeup, is 72 years old. Shown here after a raid on the wine cellar she inherited from her father.

morning in Marseilles

It's 10.30 a.m. in Marseilles, and as could be expected, a hot, bright day. I have been to the Brasserie next door for a grand creme and a pain au chocolat, which was the only pastry they had left for breakfast this late. While I ate, the Beatles came on singing Penny Lane, and I remembered standing there a few months ago with my Liverpool hosts. The Beatles, like Wayson Choy, keep me company wherever I am.

I was so speedy, I took a sleeping pill last night, and woke late in this beautiful little room with its hot pink walls and shutters that could have been aged by Hollywood, so picturesque are they with their chipped, flaking paint. And there, sitting on the little desk, is my bag.

The hotel has a storage facility, so I'm going to leave my suitcase here for a bit and wander around Marseilles. Later this afternoon, I'll try once more to get to Julie's place in Montpellier. All of you have kept me company, too, during this adventure. How strange and marvellous that I've been able to blog my way through it. Onward, my friends. The trip is nearly over.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the "it could have been so much worse" day

There are those times when time stands still, and your heart stops. I had one of those moments today. I got off the train from Bayonne to Montpellier at 7.15 p.m., walked out of the station headed for Julie's apartment, towing my suitcase with my backpack on my back, and suddenly, in a blinding moment of nausea and panic, realised that I did not have my handbag. I did not have my handbag. I had left it on the train.

How much can flash into the brain in an instant. In my handbag: my wallet with money, credit cards and passport. The keys to Julie's place where I'm staying in Montpellier. My phone and address book.

I cried out loud, "No!" and started to run. I ran back into the station to try to find the train which was going on to Marseilles; maybe it'd still be in the station. I realised I didn't know which platform we'd come in on and couldn't run with my suitcase, so ran into the magazine store, left the suitcase by the counter shouting, "Je retourne!" and ran out again with the woman shouting after me that I couldn't leave my bag there. I tore down the stairs and up the platform stairs.

No train. No train. No handbag. No money or identification. My mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow; I could hardly breathe and wanted to be sick. I went back, retrieved my suitcase with the woman still shouting at me, went to the Acceuil, the office that handles traveller's problems, and blurted out my problem: no money, no cards, no phone, no nothing. No friends in Montpellier, no one to call.
"The train is non-stop to Marseilles," he said. "Nothing we can do." He wrote some big numbers on a piece of paper, as if for a child. "This is the Lost and Found in Marseilles," he said. "Call when the train gets in and hope someone has turned it in."

I just stood there. I have no phone and no money, how can I call? What should I do, monsieur, I said again and again, what should I do, here I am alone and penniless. They flailed around, saying they would contact the controller on the train, but fifteen, twenty minutes later nothing had happened. Then a big honcho arrived, heard the story and put things into motion. They called the train again. Luckily I could remember the car and the seat number. Car number 15, seat number 54. I could remember the clothes the woman opposite me was wearing, and the child on her lap. Would she have noticed the bag? Would she steal the bag? Would someone else steal the bag?

Or maybe I didn't do this stupid thing, I thought suddenly, maybe I'd dropped it coming out of the station ... no, I remembered putting my handbag on the seat while I put on the backpack and got down the suitcase. I was thinking about the woman with the restless child, how sorry for her they had another two hours of travel. And I'd walked off the train.

Then the news came, at last: the controller had found my bag. Incredible, incredible relief. I didn't know if my wallet was still in it, mind you, but he'd found the bag.

They told me I had to get the last train to Marseilles to get it. I have no money, I said. So they printed me a ticket. I asked them to fill my water bottle, and they gave me a bottle of cold water and lent me a pen, as I had no pen. I understood from them that the train got into Marseilles at quarter to midnight, and the Lost and Found closed at midnight.
What if the train is late and the office closes? I asked. I'll be in Marseilles at midnight with nothing.
N'inquietez pas, madame, said the man.
Easy for him to say.

Now had to wait for the train. No money for food or drink. I wanted to go to the bathroom, found the one in the station, couldn't use it because it cost 50 cents. Walked up and down outside and saw that the McDonald's across the street had free wifi. So I went in, got my computer out of my backpack - thank the lord I had that with me - and emailed my friend Chris and my children. If I was found homeless and babbling, wandering the streets of Marseilles, they'd know how it happened.

The train pulled in and I got on. They had given me a first class ticket. Such kindness - I could not have appreciated more the quiet of first class, the nice big seats. And later, when I looked at the ticket, I realised that it got in at 10.45, not 11.45. I'd have lots of time to get to the Lost and Found. My only concern was whether my wallet would still be in the bag.

As we pulled out of Montpellier, there was the most glorious sunset, a wash of streaky pinks and blues, mesmerising. And I thought of the other times when my heart stopped, the worst when my dad called to tell me, "They've found something and it's not good." When I was in labour with Anna and the doctor thought something might have gone wrong. "Let's get this child born now!" she cried and I pushed with all the strength on the planet. When bad things happened to my kids, times around my divorce. Those are the times that matter, I knew. This was only stuff. This was not health, not love, not life and death, only carelessness and stuff.

Still, my friends, I was one happy woman when the Lost and Found office at the Marseilles train station was open and the man brought me my handbag. Everything inside - wallet, passport, cards, phone. "Vous avez de la chance," he said. Yes, yes, yes I do. Thank you. Merci.

Now, get this: I went to the Acceuil in the station to enquire about trains back to Montpellier the next day, because the schedules are so complicated, and after getting the information, I left to walk to the nearest hotel, clutching my handbag. And outside the station, I realised that I'd left my suitcase in the Acceuil. I was concentrating so hard on my handbag I'd forgotten my suitcase.

It's definitely time for me to go home.

The hotel outside the station was full. She directed me to another. This adventure is going to continue, I thought, but it didn't, the second hotel had one last room. I am there now. The room is hot and stuffy but clean and it has wifi. Chris had already written back with expressions of concern, and I've written to tell him where I am. It's twenty after midnight, I have eaten for supper the emergency almonds I always carry in my bag, I'm about to have a shower. My throat hurts, I think from screaming when I realised what had happened.

Vous avez de la chance, he said. You can say that again.