Monday, April 30, 2012

the good life

Blessings, blessings. I'll call my mother today to tell her that scores of people she doesn't know will be rooting for her tomorrow. Brucie wrote from Ravenna: At times like this I sometimes wish I wasn't an atheist so I could pray for your mom. But I will still be thinking of her.

Isabelle, from Montpellier: i'll check your blog for word of your mom this week. bon courage!

And Pam, one of my most faithful blog followers though we've never met, wrote from rural Quebec: I wanted to send along my thoughts to you, and to say I will thinking of your Mum on tuesday, and I wish her all the best. She is surrounded by all the best of care, and you and Mike especially. You may not be in Paris anymore, but we grow where we are planted, and everything is working out as it should. I look forward to your posts to tell us of her recovery. Thinking of you today, your fan and blog family member, Pam.

So, in this strange new world of ours, with our busy, crowded lives and jazzy technology, people are more connected than ever in the most fundamental and important way.

Another blessing: spring. I've managed to follow dreadful weather for months now - it was freezing cold, grey and wet in England and France while it was a startling 25 degrees here, and then, the minute I came back, winter also returned. But though it's still chilly, the sun is out, and the trees are that sweet, transcendent spring shade of green; tulips, forsythia, magnolia, redbud, lilac, pansies, cherry blossom - scent and colour everywhere. My own garden, bursting into life. Usually, when I return to Canada from Europe, it hurts for a bit that there is so old and beautiful, and here is so ugly and new. But not this year. Because my mother is alive, and it is spring.

Tomorrow she is having a procedure called a TAVI, which is non-invasive valve surgery specifically for the elderly; they operate through a catheter inserted in a vein in her groin, how's that for miraculous? Her aortic valve was damaged by rheumatoid arthritis in childhood, and she's had open-heart surgery twice to replace the valve; we are all great admirers of pigs, because it is a pig's aortic valve that has kept her alive all these years. But now the valve is badly damaged and restricted, so Dr. Labinaz, the TAVI surgeon who's been given five stars out of five in patient reports, will repair it. After a week or so in recovery, she will be moved to the Geriatric Assessment Unit, which sounds like paradise - teams of caregivers to help her regain strength and to figure out what's next. Blessings blessings blessings.

And the last, for today - routine. Three hours of gardening with friend and gardening guru Scott on Saturday morning, and then to Ingrid, my hairdresser whom I've known for so long, she's like family; on Sunday to the Y, where friends said, "Welcome back! How was your trip?" and I managed to gasp my way around the gym with the others. On Sunday afternoon, house-cleaning while listening to CBC, Eleanor Wachtel and then Cross Country Checkup, which was about eldercare, though I missed a lot as it was sunny and I had to go outside and get the decrepit wicker garden furniture from the shed. Today, the pleasure of same old, same old: yoga at the Y, taking my daughter for a pedicure, going to the library, getting newspaper delivery back, buying groceries at No Frills.

And getting ready for my first class of the spring term, tomorrow afternoon, which I'll teach while thinking about my mother's beautiful beating heart.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Madame et moi in my flat, just as I was leaving Paris

My sick mother with mind like steel trap, in blue vest she knitted herself, doing the word jumble in the newspaper

Saturday, April 28, 2012

taking a breath

I feel as if I've spent the last days in the high winds of a hurricane, now dying down to a spring storm. From Paris to the Ottawa Heart Institute via my basement apartment will go down as one of my epic life journeys. It's not over, this time of upheaval; I still have 17, count them, 17 more days till I get my house back; my daughter is counting the days till her son decides to vacate the premises and make himself known; Mum is having a major operation next Tuesday, at exactly the time my spring teaching term begins; the event in New York looms in June, though the producers are too busy right now to deal with it; and my brother's life is in major upheaval also. The usual things - reading the newspapers, some sort of fitness regime, healthy eating - have gone out the window. I've no idea what's going on in the world, hope never to have to eat at a hospital Tim Horton's again, and my legs feel as if they'll soon drop off.

But this morning, friend Scott is coming over to help me bring the garden to life, and later today, I'm getting this shapeless fuzzy bush of hair cut. Normalcy returns. Tomorrow I may even make it to the Y, and that would really be a joyful hello. Maybe even my favourite second-hand store, Doubletake. Last night, I made it to neighbour Monique's Friday night Francophone soiree, though I was too dazed to last for long. They were arguing about quota systems in the professions and the point of universities - what are they for? - when I left.

Just happened on a few Paris blogs - there are a lot - including one with the happy title "" which I wish I'd thought of myself. She quotes the Irish food writer Trish Deseine, who has lived in Paris for 25 years, in an interview:

What you’d miss most if you had to leave?
In anywhere other than Italy, I'd miss how pleasure is taken for granted. In France it is an entitlement, something noble and natural, to strive for and include in one's everyday life, in a million little ways. French people don't feel the need to reflect on this, it is a part of them. 

Nice to know that pleasure is still there, waiting, when the time is right, for my return. And yours.

Friday, April 27, 2012

What a difference a day makes. First, to those of you who've sent me kind, heartening messages, I thank you so; what a help. But the fact is that everything shifted today. Yesterday, I thought, why are we putting her through this? So today, I went in to ask her that very question, to say, "Do you really want this operation? You don't have to do this if you don't want to. It's your body and your choice." I am, it won't surprise you to know, pro-choice. And so is she.

Well - today, the nurse washed her hair, the physio had her walking metres around the floor, and when I asked her the question, after a talk, we both saw - she will go through this and we'll hope for the best. She wants to meet her great-grandchild. What a meeting that will be.

The team at the Ottawa Heart Institute is phenomenal, all of them angels and heroes. Dr. Duschene with his marvellous sense of humour and warm dumpling face; today's nurse, Kathy, cheerful but not annoyingly so, just sensible, brisk, loving. All of them - I marvel, how can they keep it up? But they do. It makes me wince to see my mother treated like a small child, to hear them praising her for standing up, getting to the bathroom, making sense. But - compared to a few days ago, and to last week apparently, the way she is now is a miracle.

So - as my dear Wayson says - Onward.

I'm in the Ottawa airport, and they've just called my flight. This zombie is on her way home.

the nightmare

My mother is trapped in a nightmare, in exactly the kind of situation you do not want for your aged loved ones. She is terrified and furious. She does not want to be in hospital, and she probably does not want this upcoming heart operation, with its weeks of recovery and rehab. But, as the doctor said when I enquired about the wisdom of the procedure on one already so weak, without it, she will die soon. With it, she may have a few years more life.

But what kind of life? It's sure, though I hate even to write it down, that she will not be able to live in this lovely bright 3 bedroom apartment ever again. We will find her a good place with nursing care - we'd already looked at several, because we knew a time of need would come - and there she will be safe. She won't have to fear falling in the night and lying on the ground for half an hour with the walker lying on top of her. But she will have a tiny impersonal space and a million daily invasions. Her old life is over, and she is furious and terrified. I would be too. It's very hard to see; to watch my independent mother tremble because she's too afraid to stand up.

She can hardly move because she has no muscles. Except that very large brain, which yesterday was banging through a crossword puzzle and word jumble, as she used to every day at home. Sharp as can be, until she faded and fell asleep.

And here am I, jet-lagged and awake at 5.30 a.m. in her apartment, surrounded by the life she can't have any more, wondering how to help. Her operation is scheduled for May 1, which is the day my teaching term starts in Toronto, and in the meantime, Anna awaits her baby in the next weeks. Talk about torn.

The joy of being a writer, though - as I sort and tidy, I come across stacks of letters and cards, so many of them that I've written and mailed through the years. We have not lived in the same town since I was 20, but I've kept her company through the mail, not to mention the endless phone calls. Seeing her now makes me ache with grief and compassion. But I do not feel guilty about my mother. And that is a very great gift.

And yes, there is undoubtedly fear, at the back of the reptilian brain, about what my own end will be like.

Sorry, my dear readers. As I said the other day, we are not in Paris any more.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Beautiful downtown Ottawa

Dizzyingly surreal - from Paris, via one day in my basement, to here - my mother's apartment without my mother in it. I spend my days driving a rented Ford Fiesta from this place, along the hideous stripmall wasteland that is Carling Avenue to the Ottawa Heart Institute. Up to the 5th floor, to the very small room where my mother now lives, and will live until her heart operation May 1.

And what I say, every time I enter, is, "Thank you, Tommy Douglas." The place is far from fancy, the food is pretty dreadful, but she is surrounded with loving care, devoted experts making sure she gets better. Which, I'm happy to say, she is slowly doing.

She had a fall at 3 a.m., pressed the buzzer on the emergency wristband she always wears, and the super opened her door for the ambulance guys who took her to Emerg. Nothing was broken, but she disintegrated, to the point where she could not walk and could barely eat and couldn't remember anything. She went into paranoid ramblings and made no sense; my brother thought she was on her way out.

Today, we managed THREE times to get her out of bed and walking - well, tottering - down the hall, clutching her walker with a small white nurse on one side and on the other, a man called Janvier, because he was born in January in Burundi. Janvier is built, as my mother says delicately, "like a brick shithouse." He is the gentlest imaginable caregiver. I think of Wayson's book "Not Yet," about his near death experiences, and how he describes hospital workers as angels. Janvier, with his eight foot wide shoulders and his infinite patience, is an angel.

But yes, Toto - we are not in Paris any more.

I didn't have a chance to tell you about my last night there - old friends Michele and Daniel came to the flat for l'aperitif and then set out to find a restaurant Daniel had liked when he was a student in the quartier, about 45 years before.  And sure enough, not only was it there, nearby, but it was a place I had passed several times and vowed to visit. There I was in a beautiful French restaurant with two French friends and one of my oldest Canadian friends who is now French herself. Periodically I made a mistake in my French and they all laughed - nicely - so I was always aware that these people were really French and I was not. But that night, I felt pretty damn close.

Two nights later, my beloved neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard fed me while catching me up on Canadian political gossip and the doings of the royals. And today, I had lunch with my brother and his 4-year old son Jake, talking about the Hulk and how he got his superpowers. "He used to be human," said Jake, "and then he got really strong." Jake's mother is Quebecoise; he speaks French to his mother, English to his father and goes to school in French. Unlike most of us, he will be effortlessly bi-cultural.

I am grateful beyond words that Mum is recovering; that I am able to sit with her. Today, before going to the hospital, I was clearing junk in the flat and found a box of letters - first, my father's to her and hers to "Kap," as she calls him, an American soldier in Paris. The one I read was written in 1945, right after the war. "I've just seen a banana for the first time in 4 years," she writes from London. Then a giant pile of letters from her lover, 11 years later. And another pile - my letters to her and Dad. There are scores, a very large stack, because I was a fervent letter writer. My whole adult life, in a plastic bag.

My mother, the hoarder.

Thank you, Tommy Douglas.

P.S. For those of you unfortunate enough not to be Canadian, Tommy Douglas was the Socialist preacher and politician who, against vicious opposition from the medical profession and conservatives, pushed through Canada's free health care system. Which is why my mother will be spending a month in hospital and receiving a life-saving operation, at a cost - to her - of nearly nothing. So my thanks not only to Tommy, without whose persistence and determination our socialized medicine would never have happened, but also to the taxpayers of Canada.

Monday, April 23, 2012

yesterday's excitement

As I stood early yesterday morning in the long Air Canada line at CDG airport, inching toward the machines that issue boarding passes and bag tags, I kept hearing a garbled announcement in French and fractured English, asking someone to please “pick up the white suitcase left at …” And I thought, please, whoever you are, pick it up.

At last, I was one person away from the machines when chaos erupted; police had decided the white bag was dangerous, and this entire section of the airport was to be cleared instantly. Pandemonium – police in camouflage holding machine guns shouting at us to move out, move to Exit 6; bewildered travellers, reluctant to give up a hard-won place in line, shuffling off. Giant crowds jamming the hall, bags everywhere. No, this can’t be happening! I thought. A soldier was shoving us along when I broke away and dashed to one of the deserted machines; trembling, I entered my info – had checked in last night on-line, luckily, though unable to print a boarding pass – and while the soldier clutching his gun muttered impatiently behind me, I got my boarding pass and bag tag and, greatly relieved, joined the multitudes outside.

Next issue – I assumed the delay would be endless and had to warn my brother that I’d be landing much later. He'd sent a brief email that morning  – Mum’s still pretty bad, call when you get in. I decided to ask Lynn, still at the apartment in Paris, to phone Canada for me, and, glad that the cell phone I’ve carried with me all over Europe and hardly used finally had such an important job, I I entered her number. A notice came up: you have no money left in your account.

In the milling chaos of the bomb scare, I tried to figure out how to put more money into my French cell phone account – only, eventually, to be told, “Now enter the 16 digit number associated with your account.” Said number at the bottom of my suitcase. Finally, I asked a Frenchwoman I’d been chatting with if I could use her phone briefly, and was able to leave a message for my friend. 

25 minutes later, we were let back in. It’ll be hours before they sort out this lot, I thought, making my way easily through customs and security, and began to wander around near the gate. I was flipping through magazines when an announcement came over the P.A.: “Would passenger Elizabeth Kaplan please come to Gate 351.” Yowza! They had put everyone through in extraordinarily speedy fashion, and the full bus was waiting for me. Luckily, there was a guy whose passport they thought was fake; he was ten minutes later than I.

We were delayed taking off, all the planes stacked up because of the security scare, but once airborne, an hour and a half late, it was a smooth trip. I watched “My week with Marilyn,” “A Dangerous Method,” and “Being Elmo,” a documentary about the puppeteer who created Elmo for “Sesame Street,” a lovely film, very moving. The Marilyn film was really good, and the Freud/Jung split explored in "Method" interesting to someone who's been through psychoanalysis, as have I, though the movie was a bit gothic in bits. Watching films - such a great way to pass a very long plane ride. Keeps a big airbus like that very quiet. And then of course there's the delicious food. 

That morning, my friend Chris had emailed me an article: "Major snowstorms expected in eastern Canada." Unbelievable, especially as throughout my trip, the weather was great in Toronto and awful in Europe. But Toronto was blessedly sunny yesterday, no sign of snow yet, the trees green, my garden overgrown and full of life. It's wonderful to be home, though of course I'm not home, I'm in the basement suite until my tenants upstairs depart mid-May. I immediately called Ottawa - my mother miraculously much better, chatting, lucid, though still very weak. A great relief. So it was decided, given the dire weather report for Monday, that I would take the day to sort out my life. 

Which I did - making my digs liveable - much cleaning and finding stuff, I'll spend the next 3 weeks running up and down stairs; I had lunch with my daughter with my son as our waiter. Oh my absurdly different children - pregnant Anna is all extremely soft roundness, and extremely tall Sam all sharp angularity. Hand on her belly, I felt the baby kick. "You can come out now," she said to him. "Much more room to stretch out here. You'll like it."

Went home to deal with: bills, income tax, a leaky roof, the furnace, laundry, a new tenant, cleaning the suite, upcoming courses, many calls, and getting a plane ticket for first thing tomorrow and a rental car in Ottawa.

And, now, unbelievably, I have to pack again.

But I did have my rue Mouffetard croissant for breakfast this morning, with friend Patsy's blackberry jam made from Gabriola Island berries. A classic meeting of two great cultures. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Last day

Bewitched, battered and bewildered, am I ... Saying goodbye to Paris, closing down this flat, trying to keep tabs on Ottawa, checking in with Toronto where I do not actually have a home at the moment, as my tenants are still in residence ... It's an odd time, not without stress. I'm trying to do some yoga breathing - tried it in a rare moment of solitude and sun, and ended up a minute later with a notebook, making lists. Things To Do Upon Return. There are quite a few.

Lynn and I went this morning to the Pinacoteque, to see an exhibit we'd luckily procured tickets for months ago - Modigliani and Soutine, the collection of Jonas Netter, a reclusive art collector who kept various Montparnasse artists alive with his purchases and support. A beautiful collection - not that many of the famous names, but many artists I'd never heard of and should have. And then Madame and I went to visit the permanent collection of the museum, where for a surreal 15 minutes, we were the only people in a room full of masterpieces - Botticelli, Frans Hals, Picasso, Corot, Max Ernst, African sculpture, Tintoretto - all mixed in, very interesting, some extraordinary stuff.

And then back on the #21 bus, home to eat a large lunch - trying to finish some of the quantities of food in the fridge - and talk and talk and read emails and talk. Now friends are coming for a last night supper. And more talk. I will miss this stunning city fiercely. I will be glad to be home, where I'm needed. Whenever you are somewhere, she said, revealing the depth of her wisdom, you are not somewhere else. How I would like one of me to be over there, taking care of my mother, and another here, looking at Botticelli.

Just rushed to the bakery, to get croissants for my kids. Okay, and one for me, for breakfast Monday at home. A last taste of butter and pastry, before Canada resumes its hold.

Friday, April 20, 2012

winding down

No idea how to put captions with the photos in the new Blogger, and no patience to figure it out right now. It has been a raw day, bursting into tears several times, much laughing with my dear friend, walking around all day saying goodbye to this stunning city, which produced some sun today, as well as a rainstorm - though when it rained, we were sitting safely on the Place des Vosges, having a rest and a drink. I had a long talk with my mother in hospital, which is good, she's talking, but often not making much sense. I can tell you, I'm not looking forward to leaving the moveable feast that is Paris, to sit in a geriatric hospital room for many hours a day. But I'm very glad I'm going. It's my job, my duty, it's what I must do.

The pix below: a still life in Paris flat with croissant, maps and ranunculus; weird things at the fishmongers in the market; a Paris sky, blue for once; and the flowers named above that I have come to adore. You know, if you click on the pix, they get bigger.

People have written me the kindest notes today. What a blessing. I thank you all.

last shots

Thursday, April 19, 2012

moving on has done something bizarre to the format, it's completely different as I write, and I have no idea where I am. Well, we'll see if this actually goes on-line. Why do they do that, just yank you into something new when the old was perfectly fine? Am I sounding like a fogey here? Fogeys, unite!

It says on-line that the Air Canada office at CDG opens at 7.30 a.m. but when you call at 7.30, it says they open at 9. Now you know. I am calling to see if I can change my ticket home, from next Wednesday to sooner. Mum is still in hospital, and my poor brother is dealing with a lot. And my daughter just wrote - her midwife says the baby is starting to descend. The drama of all this is overwhelming.

Last night, dinner with new French friends. People say the French are stand-offish, but it ain't so - Annie and I met at a bus stop in 2009, both waiting for the bus when someone came along to say that the midwives of France were marching nearby, and all transit had been stopped. I must have looked dismayed, because Annie asked where I'd been going and offered to steer me there, since it was close to her stop. We ended up walking for a long time, deep in conversation with lots in common, and when we got to her place, she invited me up to meet her husband. And so we became friends, and I visit them each time I'm in Paris. She is working with Jean-Paul Sartre's daughter on re-editing his work for new editions - she gave me the latest - and he is an Italian film studies professor, with a large family in Rome. Their sons are in film and theatre. But besides art and politics, we spent a lot of time talking about the needs of aging parents and grandchildren.

I went to a market Thursday morning, relished looking at every delicious thing, came home empty-handed. Though I have fallen deeply in love again - this time with a flower, the ranunculus, a spring flower with layer on layer of petals so fine, they're nearly translucent. There was a bit of welcome sun yesterday, in between rainstorms, but today, again, cold and grey. Friend Lynn is coming to stay with me. But our time together will be shorter than we'd thought.

Later. Flying home Sunday morning; made the arrangements with a nice Air Canada employee who told me it was nearly 4 a.m. her time, in New Brunswick. It was good to talk to a kind Canadian voice.

I need to see my mama.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

French politics

I will be here for the first round of the French elections, which take place on Sunday. It looks as if Francois Hollande will prevail, turf out Sarko and set a new course for this continent. Very exciting. Here's a recent editorial in The Guardian:

Hollande's campaign has been safe by design. If he achieves the ultimate goal, he will have done this by being the most underestimated man of French politics. For much of his career, the wise-cracking and genial Hollande not only did not mind all those derisory epithets he attracted from bigger egos within his own party – marshmallow, flanby (a wobbly caramel pudding), wild (and thus small) strawberry – he seemed to invite them. What better way to disguise the scale of his ambition? If few took him seriously then, they do now. And it's not just because he lost 12kg in a crash diet.

Sunday will not just be about one duel, but two. As important is the bitter fight that has been waged between Marine Le Pen, who has widened the appeal of her party without altering its core far-right message, and the real star of this election Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Front de Gauche. A former socialist senator who broke with his party over the referendum for the European constitution, he is difficult to typify. A firebrand, certainly, but also your favourite school teacher. He has attracted the biggest rallies in this campaign by saying the things no other candidate dares to say. Mélenchon has already performed a service for the left. By taking blue-collar voters away from the far-right, he has re-energised and re-united a fractious left. His eyes are already on the next prize, the legislative elections in June. He may not succeed in his aim of coming third in Sunday's election, but if he does it will be the first time in the fifth republic that two candidates of the left have got into the top three places.

This fight is still far from over. Sarkozy is now pinning his hopes on a television debate with Hollande days before the second round. But for the time in a generation France will be on the cusp of real political change.

Let me forget about today, until tomorrow...

This is what it is to feel old - today, at a Bob Dylan exhibition, I saw record albums I bought in the Sixties and still listen to - Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan - all displayed under glass, where they were being reverently ogled by French youngsters. Sheesh. The exhibition had all kinds of groovy stuff - a tie-dyed jacket worn by John Sebastian, a Pete Seeger banjo with, handwritten around the edge, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Always hopeful, was Pete.

It was thrilling to hear Dylan's voice twanging those superb songs overhead and look at photos going back to his early life, but especially his early days in NYC. How thin and pale, androgynous and mysterious he has always been, hidden behind dark glasses, giving nothing away. How miraculous that a young man from Hibbing, Minnesota with a nasal voice, who wrote songs that were way too long and convoluted, should change the world of music. There were film clips, interviews with other musicians, transcriptions of his songs translated into French. What a talent.

So far in Paris, I've seen spiders, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bob Dylan. Not a single Impressionist.

Last night, I had dinner with an old friend of my father's, on the rue Vavin is in the heart of Montparnasse, a stone's throw from the famous cafés ... (from the net -)The Montparnasse cafés were the rallying sites for the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ and for the Surrealists and the Existentialists of Paris. These cafés, La Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde and Le Sélect, attracted the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Matisse, and Toklas. Toklas, Hemingway and Fitzgerald seemed to favor La Closerie des Lilas. Jean-Paul Sartre, Josephine Baker, Roman Polanski attracted their ‘family’ at La Couple.

Nearby live this elderly couple - he 90, she a bit younger, both vigorous and full of life - in an apartment designed, built and in the family since 1911, with a vast airy living room and huge balcony overlooking the street; we sat having l'aperitif as dusk fell and eventually ate thick white asparagus, fish and lentils at 9.30 p.m. My father and Claude met in 1945 when they were both 23, Claude a student, and Dad still in the American army. Dad used to invite Claude to dine at the Army self-serve restaurant near the Champs-Elysees, where there was lots of food, a rarity in Paris then. "Un esprit fort joyeux," he said about my father - a very joyful spirit. Oui.

Claude has already written 500 pages of a memoir, so he was interested to hear about my work, and I invited him to come take my course in Toronto. We discussed the "Jewish Shakespeare" book, which I'd brought as a gift, and they put on a DVD for me - a French filmmaker put out an ad asking to meet elderly Yiddish-speaking people for a film he was making. The DVD showed the audition process. It was most moving to see the tremendous pleasure his guests took in speaking their native tongue.

Of course, elderly European Jews all have survival stories; one talked about being sent to a "five star establishment - Auschwitz." And then Annie, Claude's wife, began to talk. In July 1942, she said, she and her Parisian family were warned that the police were coming to arrest them. "My father didn't believe it," she said. "We were French citizens. He joked about it. Sure enough, at exactly the time we'd been told, there was a knock at the door, and we were all taken away to the Vel' d'Hiv." Annie, who was 11, escaped and was hidden in the country through the war. Her parents were put on a train for Auschwitz and never seen again. She was raised to adulthood in a school for Jewish orphans. It was a good place, she said. We were happy.

I wanted to put my arms around her. But you do not embrace a dignified French woman you hardly know, even if she has just brought tears to your eyes.

Later, I read about what she'd experienced: The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup (French: Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver, commonly called the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv: "Vel' d'Hiv Police Roundup / Raid", from the nickname for the Vélodrome d'Hiver ("Winter Velodrome" bicycling racetrack and stadium), was a Nazi decreed raid and mass arrest in Paris by the French police on 16 and 17 July 1942, code named Opération Vent printanier ("Operation Spring Breeze"). The roundup was one of several aimed at reducing the Jewish population in occupied France. According to records of the Préfecture de Police, 13,152 victims were arrested[1] and held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver and the Drancy internment camp nearby, then shipped by railway transports toAuschwitz for extermination. French President Jacques Chirac apologized in 1995 for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid.

The past haunts, over here, in a way it does not at home.

The weather is appalling - dreadfully cold, dark skies, lashing rain and winds. Luckily, my bakery cheers me up; I just bought a large slice of pizza and tarte tatin for dessert tonight, and then some frozen soup from Picard next door - pumpkin, leeks and cream. If all that doesn't cheer me up, nothing will.

even famous musicians were geeks, once

After I took this, the guard stopped me - no pictures allowed. This illicit shot, from 1952 in Hibbing, Minnesota, shows the young man on the right with his drum in the school rhythm band.

Kudos if you can guess who it is. This may be one of the only times he ever smiled on camera.

Paree, continued

The exhibition I didn't go to at Pompidou, because of the line-up. Soon.

The building for the "Union of French Groceries." Above the door, it says, All for One, on one side, and One for All on the other. I don't think Canadian groceries are so fervent. Or have such beautiful headquarters.

A typical "papeterie" - so much gorgeous stuff for writers and people who love paper and pens and ...
I could go mad.

Hard to believe the Jardins du Luxembourg are in the heart of this crowded city. This is a statue to the poet Baudelaire.

And here's another great poet - this is the publicity shot for the Dylan exhibition here. Were we ever so young?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

a few notes on a cold morning

Everyone, in some small sacred sanctuary of the self, is nuts.
-Leo Rosten, author (1908-1997)

Couldn't agree more. Words to live by.

In this flat, the fridge door and a shelf in the kitchen hold useful things left by previous tenants - olive oil, balsalmic vinegar, Dijon mustard, fig jam, spices, honey, tea. Some very kind person has left a small jar of Skippy peanut butter. Those of you who follow this blog know what that means to me. I may be in the land of great cheese, but peanut butter still rules my heart, especially on such good bread. I wouldn't buy it here myself, but to find it, like manna ... a great blessing.

The weather report for all this week and next - cold and rain. Paris is freezing! This trip, I have certainly not been lucky with the weather. But that's okay, I've been lucky with everything else. Though there are still worries about my mother, still in hospital, and now I'm counting the days till I go home (eight). I will not be making any more long journeys away from Canada in the near future.

A few other scattered notes: On display at the Leonardo exhibit yesterday were a tiny notebook where he made meticulous drawings and notations, and a big one in which his drawings and notes were on a bigger scale. How I loved seeing that - the artist, like the writer, always talking to himself on paper, noting, noting, noting.

As I've written before, one of the great pleasures of this society is stylish, vibrant people who happen to be old - an 80-ish woman on the bus yesterday in long swede skirt with, below, gold high-top sneakers, and another in a bright purple beret, striped multi-coloured socks and sweater. No one in Paris is going gently into any good night.

The other day, walking around north Paris before the Peter Brook show, I happened upon the end moments of a street market, packing up at 3 p.m. There was tons of food left on the ground - oranges, beans, a crate of zucchini - and many people were avidly picking it up and stuffing it into backpacks, including a thin young man who looked like a priest. There are a lot of beggars here, as everywhere, gypsies, kids and street people, and I don't know what the city does for them - but here was a moveable feast, for free.

I was sorry to learn that Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal is going to be here while I am, but it's completely sold out. Perhaps I should do what I did in London and hang around waiting for an audience member to have a fight with his girlfriend and give her ticket to me. Chances of that happening twice, anyone?

The election is roiling around - people are handing out leaflets all over the city, and last night I watched the TV news about the huge candidate rallies over the weekend. It's hard for an outsider to distinguish between the many leftist parties - the Communists on the far left, the Socialists of Francois Hollande, the Greens, the more moderate lefties, then Sarko on the centre-right and Marine Le Pen, the ultra right-wing. Last week's "Elle" magazine had many pages about a meeting, organized by "Elle" itself, demanding that the candidates address issues specifically about women. Try to imagine "Vogue" doing such a thing. Most of the candidates came, though Sarko sent a female delegate. Le Pen, who makes much of having been a single mother, surprised me by saying she's not against abortion. Even the ultra right, here, is to the far left of the left-wing of the American right. (Got that?)

Tonight I am going for dinner at the home of a man who contacted me through the internet. Fear not - he's 90, a friend of my dad's in 1946, when both were at the Sorbonne after the war. Apparently we visited him and his family in 1964, when we lived here, though I don't remember. In his first email to me, he scanned a marvellous letter Dad sent him that year, announcing that he was back in the sacred country. I can't wait to meet him, across the Luxembourg Gardens on the rue Vavin. My favourite kind of gathering - celebrating the past.

P.S. Monday's - yesterday's - Jon Stewart show was particularly good - a clever exposé of Fox News "war on women" hypocrisy and a beautiful interview with Jane Goodall about her new film on chimpanzees. Highly recommended.

It's bitterly cold and wet here - sleet. I went out for a baguette, fresh and hot, and ate most of it at lunch. What rain?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Loving Leo

I bet you thought I was serious about staying in to work and not going anywhere in Paris yesterday. I thought so too. But I got restless - it was a grey, chilly day, ideal for going somewhere. So I bundled up and hopped on the #27 bus across the street to see where it would take me - and it took me straight to the Louvre. It was 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and the place closes at 6, so there was no line-up to get in and it wasn't too crowded. That is, there were only one million, not two million people inside.

I headed straight for the special exhibit on Leonardo's divine canvas, "La Sainte Anne," a scene of the Virgin sitting on her mother Anne's knee, reaching out for her son, who's playing with the Lamb of God, actually pulling its ears as a child would. The exposition shows how Leonardo developed his ideas over nearly 20 years - how at first the trio were facing the other way, the lamb was John the Baptist, the backdrop was different - how he worked out meticulously, inch by inch, each facet. There are little sketches and then more detailed paintings, not only of faces and angles of perspective, but tiny details of light, of trees and drapery, of legs and arms and hands - the baby's foot, the Virgin's toes and her mother Anne's. Just looking at Leonardo's perfect sketch of a baby's foot made me fall in love with humanity. We have all seen and loved that fat little foot.

How Mary is reaching out to her son is important - the fact that he's holding the Lamb of God means he has accepted his fate, and in early "cartoons", she's trying to prevent him from holding the lamb, to save him. But by this final canvas, she has accepted her son's future and simply reaches lovingly.

Talk about lovingly - have you ever seen such love, such grace and sweetness, in a painting? It was just restored over many months by a team of 16 Leonardo and restoration experts. The exposition shows how painstakingly they worked - and also, as was shown in London, shows the influence of this painter, and of this painting in particular, on the world of its time - how this work propelled younger artists like Michaelangelo and Raphael to the next heights of the Renaissance. In the last room were modern artists who similarly have copied and imitated, in their way, and a dissertation by Freud, who was fascinated that Mary and her mother seem almost the same age. My friend Lynn pointed out to me later that historically, Mary would have been about 13, so her mother might have been as young as 26. Leonardo's two stunning, confident women do seem about the same age, and also ageless.

I bought a large reproduction - which is in the photo you see below - for my daughter. Soon she too will be playing with her baby boy, and her incredibly young-looking mother, just a tiny bit older than 26, will be beaming in the background. Not sure if we'll have a lamb around, though.

I was in the Sully wing of this spectacular museum, so I went to find another special exhibition of the "Very Rich Hours of the Duc de Berry," a series of exquisite paintings and lettering on paper, and then decided to explore the rest of the wing until closing time - the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, which I'd never visited before. Well, what to say - everything, beautiful. By the end, I was nearly alone, until we were shepherded out at just before six. By the exit, I got a sense of just how many people had been inside, even at closing time on a Sunday afternoon - many thousands.

I read some statistics - that Paris, with a population of 2.2 million, had 28.9 million visitors in 2011. There are 13,000 bars and restaurants, 970 art galleries, and 143 museums, and I just managed to make it to one. Well no, today I tried to make it two - I went to the Pompidou. But even getting there less than an hour after opening, I found the line-up endless, turned around, and walked home in the sun. It's open later in the week till 11 p.m.; I'll go back one evening. The best time to go, I found out yesterday, is late afternoon, when the tourists are getting tired and hungry.

So - walking and working and alone all day again today. Heaven. And also reading. Believe it or not, I left home with eight "New Yorker"s and have still got three or four to go. I just read two breathtaking stories - "Labyrinth," by Roberto Bolano, and "Someone," by Alice McDermott. Both highly recommended.

Time for a glass of wine. A bientot.

Leonardo in the Louvre

Leonardo - beyond beauty to truth

Nearly three thousand years old and still queen

Sunday, April 15, 2012

two beautiful people signing to a very nice song

This singer has talent - check him out.

Paul McCartney's 'My Valentine' Featuring Johnny Depp

Paul McCartney's 'My Valentine' Featuring Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp

Sunday morning drool

The line-up for bread Sunday morning at the best
bakery on the rue Mouffetard.
I was standing in this queue, slavering over the displays, when the local church bells all began to peal at once - it was 11 a.m. A moment of sheer bliss.

How not to be grateful to this country? I came home with a hot croissant, which I pulled apart slowly and ate with my eyes closed. There's a little tarte au citron in the kitchen, a lemon tart, for after lunch.

Friday's walk

In northern Paris, where many East Indian and African immigrants live, kids ignore the backdrop and play soccer in the street.

Like the velibs, the bike
rental stands, only this
is for cars - you enter the
little bubble house and
rent this car
on the spot.

make gardens everywhere - this is the
ground floor, the little tree is
in the street.

One view of Marine LePen, the candidate of the ultra-right, and below - this is how electioneering works in a country of monuments - long lines of metal stands, with posters stuck on them.


Beautiful renovated suite on the lower level (okay, basement) of a fine Cabbagetown home. Ryerson student who'd rented it for the year has instead accepted his parents' offer to buy him his own place - O lucky man. The suite is fully furnished with wifi and cable TV and has its own entrance through a heavenly garden. And a nice landlady.

Please let anyone who might be interested know. Many thanks.

And for your amusement, a marvellous cat, though the narration is in excruciating French:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sunday, Paris

I'm sorry to have neglected you; my work time in this little flat is infinitely precious, and I've not wanted to interrupt it, even for Paris, let alone writing here. It's Sunday morning, not yet nine, and this would be a perfect time to make a dash for the Louvre, to see the Leonardo exhibit which is a must. But I do not want to leave the flat. I started work an hour ago and am getting somewhere.

My time here is even more precarious now, because I just had an email from my brother - my mother had a fall last night and is in hospital. She's fine, he says, nothing is broken, but still, it's frightening, she's 88 and thin and due for a heart operation at the end of May. I will of course fly back if needed. So now, weighing Leonardo da Vinci and the chance to focus on my own feeble prose, which do I chose?

I haven't been a complete recluse; there have been a few adventures. The other day I gave myself a fearsome challenge - to see the exhibit on spiders at the Museum of Natural History. I've been an arachnophobe since childhood - much more under control now than then, but still, that irrational fear annoys me, and I'd like to get rid of it. So I set out to get there early, before the lines of school children, when my whimpers would be audible to fewer people. Because I did whimper, encountering big pictures of the dreaded creature with 8 legs and 8 eyes.

But the exhibit was well done, perhaps with an eye to people like me - very few actual spiders though lots of information. In the centre was a place where you could apparently stroke a tarantula. I did not go there. In fact, I went through in a speedy half hour and felt happy to have survived. Didn't get rid of my phobia, but worked on it. Spiders are good mothers, said the exhibit. I'll try to remember that. I'll try not to remember the video at the end, of a woman cooking and eating fried spiders. People all over the world eat insects, she said, it's only in the western world that we don't.

Hooray for us.

As a reward, I went shopping. I'm happy to report that France has changed with regard to sales. In the past, there were only government-mandated sales TWICE A YEAR. Now, each shop has the right to organize a few yearly sales whenever they want. When I was in Montpellier, there was a big sale at Galeries Lafayette, be still my beating heart. Here, if you see a Sale sign, it's worth taking a look. I went to my favourite shoe stores, Arcus and Mephisto, to see what was new for the big-footed woman for spring, and to the nearest Marionnaud, the cosmetics and creams chain, to see Annick, the woman who advised me on my dry skin last year. We have become friends, she's my age and has lovely skin and tells me what to do. We had a long discussion about gommage and Elizabeth Arden 8 hour cream. She advised me to tame my eyebrows with it. This is what I come to Paris for.

And then to my absolutely favourite place - well, one among many - Picard, another chain in France; this one sells the most spectacular frozen foods. An unprepossessing store with rows of freezers, but inside those freezers, incredible stuff - not just prepared foods, though there are many amazing dishes ready to go, but, for example, big bags of cut up leeks and fennel, ready for your next recipe. For lunch, I had a gratin of eggplant, and for supper, marinated duck breast with spinach in cream and a vegetable melange of grilled potatoes, mushrooms and green beans. A gourmet meal, ready in ten minutes.

This is what I come to Paris for.

Yesterday I went to a grand old wreck of a theatre, Les Bouffes du Nord, to see a play directed by the resident artistic director, Peter Brook. I was lucky enough to see his famous and spectacular "Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1972 in London, and "La conference des oiseaux" in Avignon in the seventies, both, particularly the former, stunning pieces of theatrical invention. Yesterday made me sad, though. "The suit," from a story by a black South-African writer, was produced 20 years ago to tepid reviews and has been revived, and apparently updated, to take to the Young Vic in a few months. If it had been a production by an unknown African troupe, I would have thought it slight but charming; but as a piece by famous Peter Brook, it was plodding and pedestrian, even sloppy. It got five curtain calls; some people stood up. Such is the price of fame.

That's it for excursions. In my notebook is a list of exhibitions at various museums that I must see and friends to call, but instead I'm in here, working. This little flat is full of light, with giant windows; it's simple, comfortable and very quiet, and God knows, the food available nearby is good. I have at last cracked the mystery of the recalcitrant memoir - I was, as ever, trying to do too much. I've divided the last draft into several different kinds of work, and suddenly it all makes sense.

This, strangely, is what I come to Paris for.

Friday, April 13, 2012

elle approche

Walking along the river, under bridges, getting closer and closer to Our Lady in all her splendour - people live in these marvellous barges, with dining tables on deck, and nearer, there are barge restaurants where you can sit in her shadow and admire her while you eat. How beautiful she is, Notre Dame. A wonder.

Thursday's spring walk

I visit this tree in the Jardin des Plantes every year ...

... every year, just as gorgeous.

The sculpture garden beside the Seine.

kind words, soothing to the ear

As you know, I am not one to hide my little light under a barrel. (Am I mixing metaphors here?) When something nice happens, I like to share it with you. Yesterday I was feeling very cut off from my roots, happy but unmoored, when I received this email from a former U of T student. As you can imagine, it made my day.
I tried a new writing course, and I am sure it was well-organized for what it was, but your instruction was in another league entirely. You are so well-informed, confident, passionate, wise, clever, and mature in how you present yourself and in what you draw from your students. Your comments on our work are masterful and spot on. You treat us as mature adults and writers from the get-go and you focus on the writing. You get us down to it, and you work us, giving us lots of opportunity to read and learn from critique, allowing us no apologies or excuses.

So, because of you, I have to withdraw from this course (which shall remain nameless). It does not compare on any level, except that the instructor was well-prepared and seemed knowledgeable, and I am sure, quite competent.

Competent doesn't cut it for me any more.

So thanks a lot!! Harrumph!!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

yesterday's shots

This is what I brought with me for a five week trip, which includes fancy meals, hot weather and cold. Not excessive, no? With 2 more sweaters, 2 jeans, yoga pants, lined raincoat, accessories - scarves, jewellry, too many shoes. What's so @#$ heavy in my suitcase, then? I weighed it yesterday - the suitcase itself weighs 6 kilos. Then add books and papers, and we're in trouble.

An amazing nearby toy store I've never noticed before - l'Epee de Bois,
the wooden sword - packed with marvellous toys. Oh oh - this grandma-to-be is in trouble. What fun.

A pretty visitor yesterday, miaowing on my window sill. No admission.

The first after dinner cheese plate: chevre, tomme de brébis, conté.
A still life.


Interrupting my solitude for this bulletin, a new place to share stories, to send your own and read others. Check it out:

Jonathan Harris had a vision for a new kind of social media — a place where life lessons and story telling could be shared.

So the San Francisco-based artist developed Cowbird — a website which can be described as part Oprah, part Wikipedia where people can share their stories online.

“We’re trying to create a repository for the world’s wisdom, knowledge and experience,” said Harris . It’s a “library for human experiences” where people can write about anything that moves them.

The format is simple. What’s required is a photo and text. There is also room for audio, but that’s optional.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

taking a break

Last night, my Toronto friends Jessica and Geoffrey came over; they're in Paris on their way home after a stay in the south of France. I did some research on-line to find the right place nearby for dinner, because though I've stayed here 3 times, I've almost never eaten out. Here at the flat, we popped open a bottle of cremeux - the French version of prosecco - to toast our journeys and many years of friendship - for Jessica and me, 45 - and also Geoffrey's recent big arts award. They showed pictures of their sons whom I've known since babyhood, now men with beards, all dressed up for the event in Ottawa. We talked about my grandbaby. Definitely, a new phase for us all.

Dinner at Au Petit Marguery was extremely good, a bit more expensive than we expected, but it was worth it for a true French meal - "Not a single tourist, except us," said Geoffrey in satisfaction, looking around the warm, crowded room that smelled like a gastronome's version of heaven. "And we're not really tourists." I had scallops in a leek and wine sauce, and if I had to ask for a last meal, this would be one possibility. Finally they went off into the night, and I walked - home.

Today, my friends, I am going to take stock. It's sunny but cold; ah, it's Wednesday, the market on the rue Monge is today, off I go for fruit and veg. I need to take a few days for myself, without you. I love to write here, love sharing with my invisible companions the adventures of the day. As I walk and look and experience, I'm chronicling it all, in my mind and in scribbled notes, for you. But today and tomorrow, it's time to experience just for myself. To withdraw.

Back soon, with pictures and tales of Paris. Thank you for coming along.

P.S. Maybe - impossible as it is to imagine - you need a break from me, too.

PPS. Usually, according to Google Analytics, about 450 people read my blog, logging in about three times a month. But right now, there are over 600 of you. Don't go away!