A Basic Right

I have (too) often railed about the French bureaucratic morass that can make the simplest transaction an interminable nightmare, so it is only fair to report on the most positive development of my time here: I have received my social security number, my entry ticket to the national health insurance program. I am not a French citizen, but I am living in a country which believes that every resident is entitled to health care, and has a government able to pass legislation to make it happen. Amazing.

First order of business was to designate a primary care physician, so I went to see Docteur Mathilde Lemoine, whom I had seen once before. Dr. Lemoine was recommended by my friend, Carrie Sumner, and I went to her several months ago to ask her if she could write prescriptions for the medications I’ve been taking since the stent was implanted a couple of years ago. She did, and I had them filled at the local pharmacy. When I told the pharmacist that I was not yet on the insurance program, he apologized for the cost and said he would give me a facture. I wasn’t sure what it was for but was pleasantly surprised that the cost of the medications was approximately equal to the co-pay under my Kaiser plan. I filed the factures and forgot about them until I received my social security number which came with instructions for reimbursement of any medical expenses incurred while living in France before I entered the plan.

I was stunned by the generosity of this program, but, wait, there’s more. When I proudly gave Dr. Lemoine my new number, she asked if I understood how the French system works. I said I knew that 70% of medical expenses were covered and that I would have to buy a top-up plan that would pay the remainder. She said: Yes, that’s true, but…” Here it comes I thought, there’s always a catch. She explained that because I had a stent, 100% of any expense related to the heart would be covered. I had to ask her to repeat that, thinking my French comprehension had failed me. She said it again, a little more slowly, and I just sat there shaking my head in disbelief and thinking I must learn the words to the Marseillaise.

In other words, and this is directed at almost every U.S. Republican lawmaker out there, in a system that actually benefits people, pre-existing conditions generate more comprehensive and generous coverage. People who are sick need help. This is not a radical concept, it is government by and for the people.

Election Day 2017

Dr. Lemoine then told me that she would file the necessary papers with the insurance office and call me next week to schedule an appointment with a cardiologist. She printed out her facture and I reached for my checkbook but she said: “Non. I only need your signature.”

Compassionate governance is possible.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Searching for Vincent

Finally managed to get my butt out of Maury for a few days, motion triggered by an invitation from my friends Mike and Martha to join them for a few days among the swells of St. Tropez.

First stop, Arles, where I thought I’d catch a few photo exhibitions from the Rencontres and stalk the ghost of Van Gogh. Most of what I wanted to see at the Rencontres had already closed—especially disappointing to miss a show of early work from Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer I’ve long admired—but I did get to a survey of Latin American photography that was interesting but marred by a terrible installation with inadequate lighting.

Bridges Across the Seine at Astières

On to the search for Vincent. The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles had a small exhibit of eight paintings of portraits of ordinary people and field workers from the Bührle collection that nicely traced the development of his modern style of short brushstrokes and saturated colors. Segue to Alice Neel, a “painter of modern life”, left wing New York from about 1940-1970. Mostly portraits, they are more artifice than documentary and led me out into the streets to resume the search for Vincent – with cocktails.

John Perrault, 1971 by Alice Neel
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel

Found both on the terrace of the Hotel Nord-Pinus: Cocteau, Picasso, bullfighters, and fashion designers in historical photos, a lovely Negroni in my glass, and Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night just across the Place du Forum. Tourists like me fill the streets, restaurant terraces cover the Place and overwhelm the statue of Frédéric Mistral, while the café at night offers an €18 Van Gogh salad, still this is a remarkably pleasant place to sit and sip and make notes for a new novel and plans to move to Paris.

Arles: Place du Forum

The streets of Arles are quiet on my way back to my hotel, the tourists have retired for the night and the ghost of Van Gogh is silent.

Arles

A drive north and east to the village of Grimaud, which was the seat of the Grimaldi family before they went off to Monaco and lured a movie star out of Hollywood to become a princess and live in a castle. The villa was almost as nice and the aesthetic shifted from Van Gogh to Hockney.

Villa in Grimaud

A couple of days of luxury with a group of accomplished and interesting people wasn’t hard to take.

©2017 Ron Scherl

You Meet the Nicest People in a Bar

I was chewing on an immense magret from a steroidal duck and washing it down with Coop wine when an old friend from past visits came in and I immediately launched into my insurance saga.

“This is wrong. I can help you.”

He went to another table, talked with one of the men, and returned with a business card.

“Franck can help you. He says it’s not a problem. Just go to his office Tuesday morning.” I bought him a beer, but I had seen enough to withhold optimism until Tuesday.

So I rented a car for the drive to Tours to visit with John and Mary Priest and family for a lovely weekend of good food, great wine, and better friends. Returned Monday and quickly fell asleep only to dream of losing all my money. Totally wiped out. Everything.  No explanations. Just gone. I awoke with the pigeons and checked my bank account which was intact but the news did not significantly lower the level of anxiety.

I went to see Franck. As I was driving the road leaving Maury, a truck coming in the opposite direction flashed his lights at me, the signal that the gendarmes had set up a check station just ahead. Visions of the guillotine danced in my head, but I was allowed to pass. Made it to St. Paul without incident, Franck welcomed me and turned me over to his colleague who would fix me right up, no problem. She echoed his optimism but unfortunately her computer was down and she could not process my request, but no worries, she’ll take copies of my paperwork, and when the computer is fixed this afternoon, she’ll do a quote and call me. Right, I’ve heard that before. I took the long way home. By five o’clock, my fears were confirmed, I turned on yesterday’s Giants’ game and poured a glass of wine.

I called the US Embassy and found out that France has driving reciprocity with only a few states and California isn’t one of them, so they will not exchange my license. I have a year in which to go to driving school and take the test for a new French license. But there was no reason that I couldn’t get insurance in that time. It was up to the companies. There’s no law against it. I called Franck again and his colleague suggested I give her a mailing address so she could send me the quote. She’s eight kilometers away but how long would the post take?

“I’ll come to your office.”

“You will come? OK. I will call the company after lunch—it was almost 10 AM so I guess there wasn’t enough time before lunch—and then you can come. Four o’clock?”

“OK. I’ll be there.” She didn’t ask and I didn’t offer the information that I’d be driving my uninsured car to her office.

The country cousins have come to visit my pigeons but they don’t seem to have much to say. Their voices, limited to a single long whooooo, argue ineffectively with the locals.

Woo, wooooh, wuh. Whooooo

Woo, wooooh, wuh.

Whooooo.

I talked to Michel who said maybe I could sell him the car and when the new registration was complete, he could put me on his insurance as a second driver. The French just live for this stuff. There’s a workaround for every bureaucratic obstacle, but I could only see reams of paperwork and months without a car. I told him I would go see Franck.

They were both smiling when I arrived a few minutes before four, but I didn’t expect that to last and, indeed, when she turned to her computer, a shadow passed across her face. She asked me what level of coverage I wanted, then swiveled the monitor to show me the options and rates. This was progress but the numbers were not a reason to smile. I decided to go for the all-risk coverage, the highest number on the board, and while we’re at it let’s throw in the 24-hour roadside assistance. That brought a smile to her face: “It is best.”

Then the smile faded as another potential obstacle loomed. “You have a French bank?”

But I had this one covered. Not only do I have a French bank account, I knew how much was in it and I had the numbers with me.

She put the green official coverage form in her printer but then turned back to her monitor and shook her head. This, I was sure, was the disaster I was still expecting. But she simply removed the green form, printed out two copies of the contract, handed them to me for signatures, printed the form, and smiled. “You can drive.”

Poof. Anxiety gone. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to kiss Franck. I settled for handshakes and the most profuse expressions of gratitude I could muster in French.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Re-Entry

I returned in a rush, feeling as if every chore needed to be dispatched with a life-saving urgency. Part of the reason I left San Francisco was the feeling that my $2000 per month junior one bedroom never felt like home. I needed that feeling. It wasn’t about ownership. Having grown up in rented apartments, I never had a great need to own a home and my one attempt to do that in SF was an emotional disaster and a financial wash. I am, perhaps, the only person in the last hundred years to manage to lose money in San Francisco real estate, so my ownership share in the Maury house was not the emotional balm I was seeking, it was simply the feeling that I could make this place my home. I needed that and I was in a hurry to make it happen.

I collected eleven boxes of books and clothes I could not live without from a postmistress happy to regain the space in her small office and amused that I would move here from San Francisco. “Trump?” She asked and I agreed that was part of it but said I was concerned about the imminent French elections as well. She shook her head, gave me a classic French shrug and “Beh. Everywhere. Who knows?” Then she smiled and said “Bienvenue à Maury”. I thanked her, said goodbye and turned to find a warm welcome from Marie-Laure and her grandson from Mas de Lavail. Noticing the boxes, she asked if I was returning to stay, smiled when I said yes and said she was happy to see me again. This scene would be repeated a number of times whenever I ran into someone I knew. It is genuinely welcoming, there is nothing false about it, but it goes only as far as the front door. An invitation to lunch or dinner is rare. It’s not personal, the French, at least the Maurynates, do not often invite people to their homes. They do not socialize over a meal the way we do. Sunday lunch is a family tradition, usually only for the family. A very acute sense of privacy allows for extended conversations in the markets and bakeries before going home to close the door and shutters.

Geneviève came by as I was unloading boxes and told me Pappi had died in February after a fall. He was 95 years old but I loved seeing him work his garden and hoped he’d go on for a while longer.

Pappi Serge ©2012 Ron Scherl

I tried to call Mary Ann and Larry to tell them the sad news but the phone wasn’t working. I don’t use the landline much but its unlimited free calls to the US are essential for Mary Ann who has to continue to run a business while visiting here. I rebooted the internet box but that had no effect on the phone and killed the WiFi. Got the WiFi back but still no phone and now no internet access, got that back long enough to find the SFR service page but the online reboot didn’t work before the connection was lost. Off to the SFR boutique in Perpignan where I managed to explain the problem to two twenty-something sales reps. They looked at the box as if it just been recovered from a pyramidal tomb and told me they would exchange it for a new, more powerful model. That is, I should exchange it, I should probably bury it, but they couldn’t do it there. I had to go to the depot in Rivesaltes where I could leave the box and in three days I could return to pick up the new one. Three days without internet, in baseball season – impossible. I begged, I pleaded, I told them I was old and internet was my lifeline. It worked. They conferred, went into a backroom and returned with a new box that I could borrow while waiting for the exchange. Why they had the new box, could loan it to me, but couldn’t make the exchange is one of those perfect French mysteries. Now that I had the loaner I didn’t have to take in the old box immediately, instead I should wait (three days) until they called, then pick up the new box at the depot and return the loaner to the boutique. Don’t be concerned if you can’t follow the logic in all this but do keep in mind this is the kind of bureaucratic nonsense the French live with and accept every day. I was so grateful I bought cellular service from them, extended many, many merci beaucoups with my au revoirs, and went to lunch.

The new box worked like a charm and I returned to unpacking, which soon revealed an immediate need for more furniture. A large armoire with drawers for socks and underwear would be ideal and Michel had one he wanted to sell.  I agreed to buy it, but we could not find a way to dismantle it enough to get it out of the warren of small rooms that was his mother’s house. The house will now be advertised for sale as partially furnished and I will return to Le Bon Coin, a kind of French Craig’s List. I filled both of the existing armoires with clothes although I’ll have to empty one to accommodate Walkers and guests, hung my tuxedo in the garage, ordered bookcases from Ikea for the five cartons still unpacked, and called Michel to tell him the upstairs toilet didn’t work. He came by, remembered he had shut off that water line because the terrace shower was leaking and promised to take care of it, later. We went to look for a shower to replace the ungainly Jacuzzi-like tub that was becoming a hazard.

The Bath

After seeing a couple of possibilities, we returned to the house to look at the plumbing under the tub and immediately fell into the rabbit hole of a Peter Mayle opus as Michel morphed into a crusty and taciturn old craftsman muttering untranslatable expressions that could only mean things were more complicated than they appeared. He decided it was necessary to bring in another plumber he knew, just to be sure it could be done. He thought it was possible, but wanted another opinion. He’d go home now to his dinner and to call the man. He’d let me know when they could come back.

Then the lights went out.

I was only trying to make dinner, turned on the oven, everything went black, but I didn’t immediately make the connection. I looked outside, it was dusk, the streetlights weren’t on yet and everything looked dark. I thought it was a widespread outage. Went in, lit some candles, looked outside and the streetlights were on. I called Michel who said yes, he had electricity and suggested I check with my neighbors but I saw no one and no lights in the houses. If people were home, they were watching their TVs behind tightly closed shutters, and I was reluctant to knock on doors that had never been open to me. Of course, many houses were empty—one friend told me there were more than one hundred houses for sale in Maury—and a funeral every week.

It finally occurred to me to check the circuit breakers—I’m a little slow on this home ownership thing—and sure enough the main breaker was tripped. I reset it went up to turn on the oven and was plunged back into darkness. Re-reset the breaker, made a sandwich, opened a bottle of wine, and watched the Giants new closer blow the opener.

It’s a long season.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Paris, 31 March

I can’t walk two blocks in this city without stumbling into someone’s photo- op.

Place des Vosges

Paris hasn’t changed very much. Armed soldiers on guard at major monuments but no one seems to be paying much attention to them. Parisians go about their daily business and populate the cafes after work as they always have. The crowds seem younger but that’s probably just my aging perspective.

Déjeuner au Seine

I’ve been looking at the ads in the windows of realty offices and while it’s hard to tell much about what’s really available, it appears that rents are just a little more than half as much as San Francisco apartments. I saw what looked like a lovely large studio on the Rue Jacob in the 6th for €1250 per month. If such places truly exist, I’ll seriously look at moving here. Always loved it, always felt at home here. Carried that a little too far yesterday when I gave some tourists very iffy directions to the Pompidou Center in my best French accent. They may have found it by now.

A few noticeable changes: there seems to be an alarming proliferation of bagel shops, and it appears Prius taxis now outnumber Mercedes. I haven’t found a connection yet, my investigation hindered by a preference for baguettes and the Metro, but I will continue independent observation and check in with David Lebovitz on the matter.

I take this picture every time I come to Paris. From the same spot on the Pont des Arts, different hours of the day, different times of the year. It always pleases me but always seems to lack a special quality of light that define the best images of Paris. Henri Cartier-Bresson has a version that’s really special. I’ll keep trying.

Ile de la Cité
Ile de la Cité

Paris, 29 March

A busy day at the Palais Royal, one of my favorite places in this lovely and still livable city.
Originally the home of Cardinal Richelieu, it housed royalty until the revolution, and many notables since, including Colette and Cocteau (not in the same apartment).
There are two distinct sections enclosed by offices, the Comedie Francaise, and apartments. The beautiful gardens, bursting with spring, bring out office workers, students, and box lunches. An art installation called Les Confidents by Michel Goulet with Francois Massut consists of linked chairs with fragments of poetry carved into their backs, adding art to lunch.


In the Cour d’Honneur is a site-specific artwork by Daniel Buren called Les Deux Plateaux which is a favorite location for tourists, fashion photo students, and me.

And of course, a place for pétanque:

©2017 Ron Scherl

Leaving…

 

I am moving back to France. Not an easy decision, but in the end, the need for change won out. It was time, as my friends at 826 Valencia put it, for a new adventure. There are other reasons, of course. The high cost of living in San Francisco becomes a greater burden as I age and my ability to make money diminishes. The result of a lifetime of decisions made for reasons that did not enhance my bank account may just be that I cannot continue to live in this city I still love. So it goes. I can live with that.

The ascendance of the abominable Trump had something to do with it, but not very much, and, after all, I may very well be faced with President Le Pen, another malignant nightmare.

I was able to overcome election despair because volunteering at 826 gave me hope. The people who run this program are doing something terribly important by helping the children learn to think independently and inspiring them to express their thoughts. Teaching a child that what he thinks and feels really matters is an important step in countering the growing racism and misogyny that threatens us all, and the cynicism that allows it to happen. If I had even the smallest hand in helping a child find her voice, I will have done something worthwhile.

The booklet in the photo is indeed a treasure chest for me but the treasure is not in the memories, it is in the future of these bright and beautiful children who can create a world better than the one they will inherit. When Barack Obama was elected I thought we had achieved a significant milestone in our achingly slow climb out of the slough of genocide and slavery in which this country was born. Certainly the last election was a major setback but it doesn’t have to be fatal. I look at these children and realize their gift to me was a belief in the cyclical nature of progress. They can take back the future and we can help.

So I leave here with very mixed emotions. I do believe it is the best thing for me but I’m saddened to leave my very good friends and the extraordinary effort of hope that is 826 Valencia. I will, I must, find another way to contribute.

Resist. Persist. Act.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Getting To Know You – Quickly

It’s quite a challenge: an 826 Valencia podcasting field trip with high school students who have written letters to the president-elect. The object is to take these letters and turn them into two minute essays the students will record and 826 will podcast. The challenge is to get to know this student in a hurry so that I can advise and encourage in a way that means something to her, and so that the words that result are hers. It can’t be about what I might want to say to the man.

So I sit down with an African-American teenage girl and try to find a few areas of experience that will support her opinions without losing her anger. I start by reading her original letter, a rambling rant against demonstrated intolerance characterized as “crazy”. This doesn’t have much to do with mental illness, it’s used as a synonym for hateful bigotry. She tells him he doesn’t know what her life is like and he’s too stupid to try to learn. He doesn’t like Latinos and because of that he shouldn’t be president. She’s not interested in being diplomatic or showing respecting the man who will soon be president. He has forfeited the right to respect by rejecting her and her friends. The challenge is how to shape this prose into a coherent statement without sanitizing it into meaninglessness, how to support the anger with examples, how to teach her a bit about writing without losing her distinctive voice. I’m not dealing with grammar and punctuation here, rather with enhancing an argument by incorporating examples and comparisons to support her position.

She talks about her Latino friends and their families with compassion, but without ever losing the hard edge that defines her relationship to the world around her. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in her narrative. We talk for a few minutes, I suggest a few additions, then she surprises me by beginning her rewrite with a moving mini-story about a family trying to cross the border and the hardship and violence they face. She writes of the pregnant mother using the last of her money to hire a coyote and the death of the coyote in a violent confrontation with border patrol. She goes on to write about a Latino family as if they were her own and I encourage her to dig a little deeper with details of where they live and what they served her for dinner, but she’s not interested, loses focus, and turns her attention to her phone. When she’s through, her anger returns and she finishes the essay with a statement of hopeless impotence. I ask her if she might want to end with a bit of hope for the future, a hope I do not feel but wanted to inspire. She did not. I tried to be positive, telling her that when things don’t go our way we have to take action, express our dissatisfaction and try to make things better. Action can give us hope for a better future. She didn’t buy it.

It is America’s shame that we are having this conversation in 2017, more than fifty years after the long-delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is our failure that our children fear for their freedom because a man with dictatorial inclinations was elected to the highest office in our country by attacking the press and promising to exclude those he doesn’t like. This is not an ordinary election, this is the most serious threat to our democracy we have seen.

It is now 10:00 AM on January 20, 2017, the president of the electoral college is now the President of the United States.

 

 

The Letter

The good folks at 826 Valencia decided to continue a tradition of asking students to write letters to a newly elected president and publishing them in book form. It was one of the writing options this week and one of my kids chose it.

J: Will he read it?

R: I don’t know.

J: Will he answer?

R: Probably not

J: Then why should we do it?

R: When you have ideas, opinions, concerns, it’s important to express them. Writing this letter is a way to make your feelings known.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Let’s give it a try.

We began by brainstorming using an outline prepared by the staff. The first item was “Tell the President-elect something about yourself”.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Why not?

He just shook his head.

R: Why not just tell him your name and where you live?

J: I don’t want to. He’ll come and get me.

R: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I was trying like hell to be positive.

J: Yeah, but you don’t know.

R: I’m pretty sure.

He turned away.

R: Let’s move on to the next part. What do you want to tell the new president?

J: Don’t build a wall.

R: Good. Let’s tell him why you think that.

J: Because I’m Mexican and Mexicans should be free and I have cousins in Mexico.

R: That’s good. You can write that.

But he doesn’t write.

R: What’s wrong?

J: He doesn’t like Mexicans. He says bad things.

R: Do you think all people should be treated the same?

He looks at me and nods his head. My question too dumb to merit a verbal response.

R: Then you should write that. It’s important for him to hear.

But he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, then sinks to the table.

I so want to reach this kid.

R: J, it can really help to say what you feel and by writing it down, you let other people know and you’ll find they feel that way too. A lot of people with the same ideas getting together can change things, so being able to speak and write about how you feel is powerful. That’s why you come here to practice writing and this is important to write about.

His head stays down. I don’t know if he’s tired, not feeling well, really upset, or just lazy. I keep trying to reach him but I’m not getting through and we’re running out of time.

Is there anything else you want to tell him?

Yeah, he shouldn’t be president.

Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to help kids like this. Donate, volunteer at 826 Valencia.

©2016 Ron Scherl

The Worst Week – Ever

I’m trying, trying to escape the pit of despair. I’m not doing very well.

Went to a march in Golden Gate Park organized by the folks who run the Richmond District Blog. Lovely day. Nice people. All on the same side, happy to be together aligned against the dark side.

img_1224Didn’t help. There is no denying what this election says about America. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that racism, xenophobia, hate, misogyny, and ignorance have seeped to the surface because he made it acceptable.

I don’t want to hear about how he’ll moderate his views now that he’s faced with the reality of governing. I don’t want to hear about how he said all those things just to get elected. I don’t believe it and it doesn’t matter because by saying them he revealed what America really wants and believes. He gave the haters permission and they responded.

Take all that hatred, now socially acceptable, combine it with all the guns in this country and the growing right to wear them in public, and you have a prescription for a tsunami of violence. Hate crimes rose dramatically in Britain after the Brexit vote but their firepower pales in comparison to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

img_1232So much damage already done. So much worse to come. I’m looking, but I can’t see the light.

And then the death of Leonard Cohen. So long Leonard, no longer playing in the places where he used to ache. At least we still have the music.

©2016 Ron Scherl