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?

Bits and Pieces of Paris

The river is high, about five meters now, expected to rise another meter by Saturday. The embankment is underwater, Métro stations are soggy, nearby RER stations are flooding. None of this is particularly surprising because every day seems to bring some rain. Damp winters are expected but the persistent precipitation this year is extraordinary. But with convenient public transportation and numerous indoor activities, Paris keeps me busy.

Night Readers

I took in a reading by Nathan Englander at Shakespeare and Company. The book was a new novel: Dinner at the Center of the Earth, a tour de force of literary talent with multiple points of view, time frames, and locations, all skillfully woven together into a spy story and a meditation on peace in the Middle East. Or its absence. Englander’s prose is crystalline, his speech, a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that can accommodate four ideas in one sentence. If he wrote as fast he talked, there’d be a new novel every week.

Christopher Dickey addresses Democrats Abroad

Went to a meeting of Democrats Abroad the other night. It was, as expected, an hour of recounting the horrors of the past year, followed by an optimistic preview of Democratic prospects for the mid-term elections. The most striking, and perhaps discouraging aspect of the evening was the amount of gray hair in the audience. I might be wrong, but I think it possible that I was not the oldest person in the room. I doubt that’s a reflection of the Democratic Party in general, most likely just a function of how many old liberals have been able to retire to Paris.

Paris Creative Writers

Now for something I never thought I’d do: I’ve joined a writing group. I’ve avoided them in the past, thinking they were another form of group therapy, something I’ve also managed to avoid, but the need for feedback on a new book that’s been a struggle so far, and the desire to make new friends finally overcame my prejudice. This is a good thing. I like the members, there are about seven or eight regulars: from Australia, England, the US, all unpublished but skillful writers. Their criticisms are never cruel and sometimes helpful, it’s interesting to read pieces of other work in progress, and it pushes me to work harder to bring something new each week. This is causing some changes in my process. On previous books, I blazed through a first draft to the end of the story, then went through multiple revisions. Looking back, I think I never went far enough, needed more multiples of those revisions. The writing group is forcing me to revise and polish as I go along because first drafts are simply too rough for anyone to read. Now I’m revising each chapter down to the sentence level multiple times before presenting to the group. There are still flaws—must give my colleagues something to criticize—but I think working this way allows me to be more self-critical and helps me get closer to the precise prose I’m seeking. And I just read an article in which Zadie Smith talks about a similar approach so I’m thinking fame and major awards can’t be far behind.

©2108 Ron Scherl

Moving On

I never planned to spend the rest of my life in Maury but when I came back in March, I thought I’d live here for a few years, save lots of money, then move to Paris. I knew what I was facing, the town would not have changed much from five years ago, but that intrigued me because I had begun work on a rewrite of my novel about that time and planned to write now from the perspective of today as well as of that time: to report on what really happened and comment with five years of hindsight. Being here could only help, but I’m now far enough along that future revisions won’t require geographic proximity.

Autumn Vineyards: Maury

As temperatures began to drop, and posters for the next Bingo night began to appear, I started to look north. At first, finding a place to rent in Paris appeared to be a task of insurmountable complexity. I contacted everyone I know with any connection to the city but failed to turn up a lead. I worked my way through hundreds of ads throughout the city and learned that the good ones go fast. I would have to be there to jump on something quickly, a five-hour train ride might cost me the place of my dreams. Well, probably not, my dreams are bigger than Paris apartments—that’s why the cafes are crowded—and kitchens are almost an afterthought—that’s why there are two bistros and a brasserie on almost every street. But I wasn’t going there to sit at home, but to be part of this city that I’ve always loved, despite the fact that more often than not, I’ve been there in unhappy times. San Francisco and Paris were the only two places I could see myself living and the remarkable news is that rents in Paris are about half of what they are in San Francisco. I could make this work.

I spent a lot of time looking at ads and learning my way around the numerous agencies and aggregators online. I booked a trip and when I tried to start making appointments I got a wake-up call. Before I would even be allowed to make an appointment I would have to submit a complete dossier which consists of references, letters of employment, and pay stubs showing income of three times the monthly rent. Or, I could provide a guarantor who is French and has the same credentials. Or, as a last resort, some owners would accept a year’s rent paid in advance. Maybe I couldn’t make this work.

Paris: Le Marais

Then, for some reason, Craig’s List popped into my head and there it was: a small house in a courtyard of the 15th arrondissement. I responded immediately and the owner was positive but said she had four appointments booked and how soon could I get there. I was still five days away from my scheduled trip so I called a Paris friend and asked her to go see it. She attested to my sterling character, her boys poked around and asked questions as if they were going to be living there, the owner was charmed and now I was real to her. She checked out my blog and said she would wait to meet me before making a decision. I got to Paris about 4 PM on a Sunday, we had a deal by 5, and I moved in Tuesday for ten days before returning to Maury for a couple of weeks to pack, sell my car and close the house.

I’ll be back from time to time to see the few friends I have here, to visit with the Walkers when they come and, I hope, to work on another book with them. But I don’t belong here. I’m a city guy and the thought of living in Paris after so many years of dreaming about it is perfectly right.

Paris: Statue of Henri IV

©2017 Ron Scherl

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