Paris is not Burning

Macron and the Gilets Jaunes

BFM TV

I don’t live in the Elysée Palace, nor do I shop on the Champs-Elysées, which left me relatively unaffected by the manifestations of the last few weeks. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was on a once-in-a-lifetime tour and Saturday was my day for the Louvre and the Lido, but I live here now and I’m learning to shrug like a Parisian.
Last Saturday evening, a Métro ride that should have been 30 minutes took 90, but the restaurant held my table and my friends were still on their first bottle of wine when I finally arrived. This week I shopped around the corner and went home to roast a chicken and dine with Netflix.
The election of Emmanuel Macron wiped out France’s traditional ruling parties—the Republicans on the right and the Socialists on the left—leaving voters with a choice between Macron’s new baby, République En Marche and Marine LePen’s Front Nationale, which has been rechristened the Rassemblement National. So, of course, the left put all their hopes and votes on Macron and the first thing he does is lower taxes on the wealthy.
To be fair, he did say he would do this as part of a plan to reform the French economy and bring it into the 21st century. He also pledged to modernize labor laws and reduce carbon emissions. What many didn’t realize was that all these reforms would hit hardest on the working class, increase the income gap, despair, and anger of people who were already struggling with 10% unemployment and high taxes. Then came the fuel tax hike.
Macron sold it as an environmental issue—and certainly it is—France has to end its dependence on fossil fuels, but this is a tax that punishes the wrong people.
The gilets jaunes began as a grassroots, leaderless effort in rural France where people are dependent on cars to get to work, take their kids to school, and shop for groceries. Public transportation outside the big cities is inadequate or non-existent. The people who can least afford it were asked to shoulder the cost of cleaner air and that was the trigger to get them in the streets, because when the fear of going hungry is real, cleaning the air is an abstract concept that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with day-to-day survival.
Now I have to tell you that I don’t know how real and widespread the fears of the working class are. Taxes here seem high to an American but they are far from the highest in Europe and they do fund a remarkably comprehensive social safety net including a very effective health care program.
Many thought the protests would die out when Macron agreed to delay the gas tax rise, but it has spread in two ways: it’s become a general protest against Macron personally, the president of the rich; and it has been joined by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum who saw an opportunity to exercise their right to vandalism. Protests were smaller throughout the country this week, but this movement is not dead despite the lack of leaders. No one has yet taken credit, but the adoption of yellow vests as a symbol was a brilliant political move. They are ubiquitous because all French drivers are required to carry them in their cars in case of breakdown on the road, and I’m certain news photographers and videographers are extremely grateful for the high visibility.
These are perilous times throughout the world. Authoritarian figures are popping up everywhere to take advantage of widespread discontent and the inequality spawned by dishonest and immoral politicians. In France, Marine Le Pen lurks in the wings.

A Few Days in the Perigord

And a few days away from the problems of my fictional photographers.

Danny and Hago by the Vézère River

Hago and Danny arrived for a brief visit and we took off for the Dordogne, which we all knew only from Martin Walker’s Bruno series of detective novels. Bruno’s almost superhuman wisdom, compassion, and perspective are a bit unbelievable, but the sense of place Walker evokes is tremendously inviting, so off we went: TGV to Bordeaux, rental car to our base in Sarlat.

Bruno lives in the fictional village of Saint-Denis, which exists only in Walker’s imagination, but he creates the place with bits and pieces of regional towns including Sarlat, Les Eyzies, Beynac, and Saint Cyprien.

The Village of Sarlat

Sarlat Store Display

The Village of Beynac

We arrived too late for the Saturday market and left before the Wednesday edition, but there’s no problem finding good food in Sarlat—if you like duck. Magret, dried magret, gizzards, confit, any way you want it.  But there’s also goose, beef, pork, and, thank heavens, fish. They grow a lot of corn around here but most of it goes to feed the ducks and geese; other vegetables make rare appearances, except of course potatoes, which Bruno—who can be found in the kitchen when he’s not chasing bad guys or coaching rugby—fries in duck fat. Just writing this is hardening my arteries and generating a craving for lettuce.

Fois Gras and a Glass of Monbazillac

We did occasionally push away from the table and do our touring duty by exploring a cave and boating on the Dordogne River. Cave access is limited. We didn’t arrive early enough to get into our first choice—did I mention the lovely Bergerac wines?—and second place was a letdown. The visible etchings were underwhelming, although my vision may have been less than keen after the third time I hit my head. This is not a great adventure for people over six feet tall with aging knees. The boat ride was more relaxing; I might better describe it as nap-inducing. Not at all a bad thing.

Dordogne River

For me, the best parts that didn’t involve eating and drinking were just walking through the villages. There’s a distinctive architectural style of light stone or masonry walls, peaked roofs clad in brown stone tiles and turrets capped with witches’ hats. It’s charmingly traditional and pretty consistent until you get to the main street of Saint-Cyprien.

The Village of Saint-Cyprien

The War Memorial of St. Cyprien

I cannot explain this. I asked a street sweeper if there was a fête going on and he told me no, that’s on the first of July. So I asked if the town was always decorated like this and he decided to have a little fun with the tourist rube, telling me it was the work of fantômes. I thanked him and looked for the tourist office but it was closed for lunch.

Saint Cyprien Art

Summer Reading

I have, at last, finished the first complete draft of a new novel. It’s been almost a year, feels longer, but then, in that time I moved twice, first to Maury, then Paris.

And it feels different because my process has changed as I’ve learned how to actually write a novel. First time around, I thought I was working hard. I would read a chapter, polish a bit, read it aloud, and think, that’s pretty good. I had done a lot of research and wanted to be sure everyone was aware of that, so the facts spilled onto the page and overwhelmed the story. I asked a few friends to read a draft and they were kind, much too kind, and my fantasy-prone mind started screaming OVERNIGHT SUCCESS!So I started submitting to agents and got clobbered like a rookie pitcher who can’t get his curveball over the plate. Hitters feast on fastballs. Agents pass on pretty good.

I look at that effort now and see everything that was wrong and that I could not see at that time. I started again and it was better, and I had the good fortune of finding a writing group: Salut! Paris Creative Writers. At my first meeting, I received my first real criticism: gentle, but pointed. Their suggestions were so obvious to me that I could only conclude I still wasn’t working hard enough. I knew to do what they said, but I hadn’t done it. So I revise, and again, and again, and I’m always amazed at the clunky prose I find the fourth time through. But it’s getting better. Fewer clunkers, sharper story, history transformed into a personal journey, a complete first draft and extensive notes for the next.

It will need to sit for a while before revision, so I’ll catch up on some of Barbara’s recommended reading, watch the Giants and France in the World Cup, work on another project, explore Paris, and resume the blog before returning to the book. Expectations have changed. The goal now is to learn how to write a good novel. And I get all that stuff about the process being the reward, but I have not evolved to a state where I no longer need recognition. I’m very much aware of how unlikely it is to be published, but I will submit it to agents, because what’s the point of writing if no one reads it?

A Sunny Sunday

Square Saint Lambert

6 May 2018

I sat next to a woman just as she sighed with satisfaction and closed her book: Avant que les Ombres s’Effacent. Louis-Philippe Dalembert. Before the Shadows Fade turns out to be the story of a Polish Jew who flees Nazism to Haiti, of all places. Turns out Haiti had passed a law in 1939 guaranteeing asylum for the persecuted, and citizenship to all who asked. I keep getting drawn back into this story, first with the surprise of discovering the similar policies of Mexico, and now Haiti, two countries who saved many thousands of Jews turned away by the United States.

My parents adored Franklin Roosevelt—so much so that as a kid I thought he must be Jewish—but FDR bowed to the isolationists and anti-Semites in clamping down on European immigration. US visa offices were closed and all applications had to be approved by the State Department in Washington. People like Hiram Bingham and Varian Fry did their best, but their efforts were severely hampered by their own government.

I don’t know how much the American public knew at the time. I can only assume my parents were misinformed.

Square Saint Lambert

But, hey. It’s a beautiful day in Paris and this piece was supposed to be just an impressionistic summer observation of an ex-pat with a camera.

Reading woman left and was replaced on the bench by a young boy wearing glasses and reading Harry Potter et la Coupe de Feu. That’s more like it.

There’s a man juggling on the green—not very well—and the green is crowded. Balls are landing all over but the sun worshipers are happy and cheer him along. There are lots of kids on wheels and lots more kids with balls and when the two intersect, a few tears flow, but dads are there to brush them off and get them back on the bikes. Seems like a lot of dads watching kids, which would make me wonder about the divorce rate if I weren’t so intent on a sunny day.

Beach towels, football jerseys, books, and selfies. Young women in bikinis, sunglasses, and straw hats, winter pallor slick with oil. The young are all on the green, the rest of us seek benches in the shade.

Let’s close this with an unusual war memorial. I just can’t help it. If anyone can tell me who the three gentlemen on the left are, and what the inscriptions “T.O.E.” and “A.F.N.” stand for, I’d appreciate it.

War Memorial at the Mairie of the 15th.

Merci beaucoup.

©2018 Ron Scherl

The Louvre

Family in town so we’re doing the right things. Today was the big museum with the pyramid and the lady from the DaVinci Code novel. She is there. I know because I’m tall and my camera is bigger than most.

She is there

This is some really athletic art appreciation, something like a rugby scrum. I know nothing about rugby but I imagine it takes strength, determination and some sharp elbows to work your way through the scrummy thing, which is exactly what’s needed to get to see the lady in question. But all I really need is to get close enough to get a picture, so I’ll always have the memory.

Somewhere

I used to think people took pictures of pictures to have the memory and avoid the gift shop, but here’s the thing: It’s not the art, it’s the experience. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Paris ☑Louvre ☑What’s her name ☑

Big Museum. Big Paintings

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all snobby about this, wonder why people do it, and then blame Facebook. Not me. I live in the real world and I’d rather blame Facebook for much bigger crimes.

I see nothing wrong with people taking pictures of art. I’m glad they do it. Glad they support the museums with their tickets and glad the museums have wised up and allow it. I’m not sure what people take from the experience, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Shoot Pictures. Not People.

©2018 Ron Scherl

Democrats

Winter returned for its curtain call this weekend. Temperatures fell, a little snow flurried around and quickly departed, and I stayed home except for a visit to the American Church for a meeting of Democrats Abroad. This kind of event doesn’t hold much interest for me but I am committed to exploring as much of Paris as I can, and I thought a few hours of conversation in English would be a mental vacation.

This was the Annual General Meeting which meant most of the time was given to parliamentary procedures like reading the minutes of the last meeting and proposing changes to the by-laws. Yawn. I had hopes for the political summary but it was just a recap of the number of seats at stake and how much money had been raised for the next election. There was little discussion, few questions, zero conflict. I’d bet a directive had come from the DNC that mandated unity: There shall be no disagreements. We are united in opposition to the odious buffoon in the White House. This is not only boring, it’s anti-democratic and totally contrary to the spirit of the Democratic Party, which has never been unanimous in support of anything. Thank you, Barbara Lee. But when you want to stifle disagreement, overstuff the agenda with procedural minutiae and promise there will be time for questions later. There won’t be.

Owen Franken addresses the meeting

The only spark of controversy came from the appearance of Owen Franken, brother of former Senator Al. Owen was having none of this peace and love thing. He was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. What set him off was an announcement of a new party policy on sexual harassment. The terms of the policy haven’t been released yet, but the announcement gave Owen a platform to defend his brother and denounce Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who took the lead in taking him down.

Al Franken was shafted by his party and unnecessarily thrown to the wolves. This meeting was an appropriate place to discuss it, but the leaders were having none of it, and he was shut down by the chairwoman for violating parliamentary procedures. I called Owen to ask him what he was trying to get across and he told me that he just wanted to open a discussion of sexual harassment in the hope of creating a policy that might prevent someone else from being thrown under the bus over unproven allegations. He left when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.

Wine and cookies were served.

Wine and Cookies

©2018 Ron Scherl

Spring in Montparnasse

A beautiful weekend. Temperature climbing, no rain, even the sun made an extended appearance. Saturday I discovered a lovely little museum dedicated to the work of Antoine Bourdelle, a sculptor of monuments. Really big images of horses and generals, but also friezes to decorate theatres and museums. The man never thought small, but the most evocative room in the museum was his studio. Perfect.

Studio of Antoine Bourdelle

Entrance to the exhibits is free, but since I always manage to find a way to spend money—and you cannot leave without passing through the bookstore—I picked up a guide to the legendary locations of Montparnasse: cafés, ateliers, hotels, all the good stuff. And since I’m immersed in Paris culture of the twenties and thirties, Sunday became a walking tour.

La Rotonde

La Rotonde, Le Select, La Coupole, and Le Dôme are all within one block on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, so bar-hopping could be managed with a minimum of exertion, an important consideration in a time when drinking, smoking, and sex were the primary forms of exercise. The guide has historical as well as contemporary photographs and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. Of course, prices have gone up along with skyscrapers but in the 1930’s these places weren’t really restaurants, as they are now. Back then, there were more people than cars, so the sidewalks were wider, the roadway narrower, and the cafés spilled out into the street. There are night photos by Brassaï—the man only slept when the sun came up—that show crowded café tables stretching to the curb.

La Coupole

Of course it all changes and maybe it’s surprising how much is still recognizable. Rue Delambre still houses the three hotels where Man Ray, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Breton once lived.

Hotel des Bains

The rue de la Gaïté is still a street of theaters and the crowds were there for Sunday matinees. The Hotel Istria is still on the rue Campagne-Première although Duchamp, Satie, Rilke, and Kiki de Montparnasse no longer roam the halls, and down the street, behind a shop where Atget sold his photographs, there is a long low building known as Ateliers d’Artistes, a haven for those who abandoned Montmartre (too many tourists?), to settle down around the corner from Bal Bullier and La Closerie des Lilas. The rent wasn’t much, the neighbors were sometimes rowdy but always interesting. A few doors down, a plaque marks the former home of the writers, Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Probably a quieter place.

Entrance to Ateliers d’Artistes

©2018 Ron Scherl

Weather

All those years in San Francisco, I forgot about the weather. In winter it rains, except when it doesn’t and, twice a year—spring and fall—there’s a heat wave. Good lord, it’s 900, who can live like this? But the fog returns after a few days in hiding and we’re back to normal 60 and freezing tourists buying sweatshirts at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Then I moved to France and suddenly Weather became the most used app on my phone. In Maury it was 1000 before summer even started and I was miserable for the next six months. I’d check the forecast and raise a glass to days when it wouldn’t rise above 90. I’d look longingly at long pants, sweaters, and people huddled under blankets at Giants’ games. So I moved to Paris and the rains came in Biblical volume, flooding the Seine, and showing no sign of retreat—until it got cold and, of course, the snow arrived. Funny how that works.

I grew up in New York and went to college in Maine, so I’m no stranger to winter, but all those California years stripped away the insulation and left me with a thin skin and chilly bones. Or maybe that was just the years and California had nothing to do with it. “Buck up,” you say. “Get a grip, buy a hot water bottle, wear your socks to bed, and, please, stop your whinging.”

Good advice. Thanks. After all, I came to France for the challenge of something new, and Paris is beautiful in the snow. Enjoy.

Place du Général Beuret

Jardin du Luxembourg

Statue of Marguerite d’Angouleme, Reine de Navarre Luxembourg Gardens

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg  

©2018 Ron Scherl