La Chope des Puces translates as a “Jar of Fleas”, the jar usually referring to a mug for serving beer, but on this Saturday afternoon the drinks of choice were Champagne and Scotch and Coke. La Chope is a bar, restaurant, lutherie (factory of string instruments), and a school of jazz manouche, but most of all it is a temple to Django Reinhardt, the great French Gypsy guitarist who lived nearby.
Located on the rue des Rosiers in Saint Ouen, adjacent to the Porte de Clignancourt Marché aux Puces, la Chope comes alive every weekend with the music of jazz manouche led by Ninine Garcia, head of Paris’ first family of gypsy jazz. Seated beneath a portrait of his late father, Mondine, and a glass case of honored guitars, Ninine and his son, Roky host a family party every week, playing guitar all afternoon along with friends and family.
Everyone seems to know everyone and many are, in fact, related but I can say with the confidence of experience that strangers are more than welcome. When one of the guests, a man named Samuel, raised his glass to me and said: “L’Chaim”, I thought I was at a Bar Mitzvah, and when the Garcias played Hava Nagila I was sure of it. Although there wasn’t enough room for a hora, and no one was carried aloft in her chair, the vibe was exactly the same. I had landed in a French Gypsy affair.
A little while later, fresh glass in hand, I returned the compliment, toasting Samuel with L’Chaim. He sipped and said: “Vous êtes Americain, non?”
“Et l’origine juif?”
“Oui.” That brought a big smile and a hearty hug.
So it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re always the sum of where you’ve been. The past is never lost, it just takes a different shape today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unusual, provocative, a new approach, absolutely, but how it relates to the music and libretto I cannot tell you. It seemed like the management had double-booked the theatre. There were two unrelated productions on the stage simultaneously. On stage-right you have Mimi and Rodolfo declaring their love, falling out, and reuniting before the inevitable tragic end, while on stage-left mute spacemen wander around a white moonscape of an unnamed planet. Except when they’re inside the doomed spaceship and the spacemen are floating outside the window. They never seem to merge until the end when instead of a quiet death, Mimi walks through an annoying, shimmering silver curtain and wanders off the planet.
I get it. I think. In a world without hope, only love and art make sense. Or something like that. But all this spaceship nonsense was totally unnecessary and impossible to reconcile with the action. So the production team led by Claus Guth stopped trying and just let the spacemen hang around while the lovers played out their fate.
I can imagine the early meetings when Mr. Guth presented his concept:
“To make this romantic trifle relevant to today, we must move ahead in time to make the demise of our civilization real. Exaggerate, exaggerate, it’s the only way. Their love can only be meaningful to us if it takes place in a world where love is impossible. Their art can only touch us if it exists beyond the end of the world.”
“Brilliant, Claus. Make it happen. Make this music speak to us again.”
Then they get into production and the questions begin: “Excuse me Claus, but if we open on a spaceship, how do we bring in Mimi?”
“No problem. Stop thinking literally. We do not need to hold the hand of the audience. We’ll just bring her in as if she was in another room. It’s a big ship.”
“They were on the same ship but had never met?
“As I said, it’s a big ship.”
“Excuse me, sir, but is it big enough to hold the Café Momus?”
“Hmm. Yes. I see what you mean. Think, people! Outside the box.”
“I’ve got it, sir. It’s a dream. Rodolfo takes a little nap and dreams the left bank of Paris, which, of course, doesn’t exist anymore. That world is dead.”
“Brilliant. That’s what I mean, people, outside the box. Now, let me tell you something else I hate about opera. The house is huge, the singers are small, the world is dying. The audience has to see the emotions to feel them but they’re so far away and they’re checking their phones or reading those damn titles. How do we grab them?”
“I’ve got it sir: video. We bring a camera on stage- it will look like all the other tech spacey garbage already on stage – and we project a huge close-up of the singer on the wall behind him.”
“Good, I like it. But remember, exaggerate! We’re talking really close. I want to see his tonsils.”
“I’m not sure the Rodolfo still has tonsils, sir.”
“Nobody likes a smart-ass, junior. OK, video, I like it but it’s not enough and we can’t do it for everyone. How about a mime?”
“Everybody hates mimes, sir. Those guys on the Pont des Arts can’t even make a living anymore.”
“Good. They’ll work cheap.”
“But no one likes them, sir.”
“Exactly why I want them. This audience needs a good slap in the face.”
“The critics will hate it. The audience will boo when you take your bow, maybe even during the performance.”
“Perfect. Better to give them something to hate than something they’ll forget. What time is my train to Berlin?”
A final word: not even this kind of nonsense can kill this music:
Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel with Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, it really was possible to close your eyes and listen to Puccini.
This is a photograph from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of La Boheme in San Francisco in 1978. At the time, it was considered to be provocative, the work of a willful director imposing an inappropriate vision on a classic. But it was beautiful, affecting, illuminating and it has stayed with me all these years.
It’s getting dangerously close to real life around here. I found a new doctor, joined a gym, shopped for groceries, and went to the movies in my neighborhood.
But this is Paris and I came here to make sure my life was more than shopping, cooking, eating, and sleeping. So I stopped by a favorite wine bar last week, did I mention drinking? I ordered a glass of Brouilly and the bartender replied: “Non, non, monsieur, aujourd’hui c’est le Beaujolais Nouveau.” Of course it was. All over Paris were signs proclaiming the arrival of this year’s vintage and I was lunching at ground zero. Tasted pretty good, too. More a testament to the context than the wine, but still.
I jumped into the cultural life of the city when Tia and John, the lovely propriétaires of my building invited me to Paris Photo last week. This is a gigantic marketplace: galleries from around the world displaying and selling contemporary and historical photography create a comprehensive survey of the history of the medium. Two hours was as much as my brain could absorb, but just being there made me feel part of the city.
Then I got carried away and booked tickets for a futuristic La Boheme at Bastille. I’m not sure what to expect—the only image I’ve seen looks like a spaceship has crashed in a snowy forest— but Dudamel is conducting and I can always close my eyes, listen to the music, get off the spaceship and return to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This all followed a propitious return to the city. I rented a van to haul my stuff and what Jess had stored in our house and as I approached the city, a rainbow appeared. No kidding. A rainbow. I’m not making this up and it gets better. We unloaded at her house, drove across Paris to my apartment where I found a parking place in front of my house just as the clutch gave out. Couldn’t drive another meter. When I finally reached the rental company they told me not to worry, those Renault vans are famous for faulty clutches, and they’ll send a tow truck.
So I’m getting there. The bureaucratic details are being ticked off my list, I have a comfortable work space in my little house, central heating, a good baguette only a block away, and all of Paris within minutes on the Métro. I’m home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
On to the search for Vincent. The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arleshad 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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of days of luxury with a group of accomplished and interesting people wasn’t hard to take.
I walked down to the kiosque for the annual Vide Grenier which translates as “empty attic.” It’s a village-wide garage sale that all the communes around here host from time to time. There were about forty venders who had taken the time to clean out their garages or attics and haul the stuff down to a central location only to discover their neighbors had exactly the same unwanted junk. They’ve all lived in this little town all their lives, they all have the same stuff. So a few items are sold, some trades are made because a neighbor’s trash always looks better than your own, then you hope the tourists show up because the last thing you want is to have to lug the stuff back home, which would mean you still won’t be able to get the car in the garage.
I wandered, finding nothing I couldn’t live without, and was about to head off when drums sounded and a demonstration came down the street.
Maury is hosting Camp Climat, a gathering of environmental activists to share information and plan activities to combat climate change and promote renewable energy and sustainable food production. There are about 500 participants camping on the outskirts of town near the swimming pool that is closed for lack of sufficient water, and holding meetings and exhibitions in the Centre de Loisirs.
Today’s demonstration turned out to be a bit of street theater with activists facing off against other activists posing as police. This was the kindest, gentlest confrontation imaginable, ending in smiles and hugs all around and, frankly, I’m not sure what the point was. One of the participants told me they wanted to show they can more effectively get their point across with non-violence, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that is a message that needs repeating today.
Around here, the start of harvest is like opening day of the baseball season, full of anticipation and uncertainty.
Is all the fruit truly ripe? Are the rookies ready?
Will the old vines continue to produce? Do the veterans have another year in them?
Will this year’s pickers work hard and well? Will the free agents produce?
Yesterday, I went out with Marcel and Carrie and the crew from Domaine des Enfants who were picking the first whites of the season: Muscat, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeu. Not all the fruit is ripe, but sample testing had shown some vines that were pruned early were ready to go.
Marcel and Carrie feed me often and keep me in wine; in exchange, I wanted to update their photo library. My pix from five years ago were ready for retirement. I also needed to see if I still had the legs to scramble up and down a steep hillside vineyard, kind of like tracking down a liner in the gap. Not bad. I may have lost a step but I was able to keep up with the kids. My average wasn’t great but it’s early and I did manage a few hits.
Back at the cave, a little cathartic foot stomping before refrigeration and pressing, followed by a sausage grillade lunch, which I followed with a nap.
The frenetic pace of rural life is killing me. I need a break in some escargot-paced haven like, oh, I don’t know, New York. Yesterday was of course Bastille Day, otherwise known as “Let’s tear down the prison and behead the king” day, but here in Maury it is an occasion to honor France’s soldiers and for that we need to put aside politics, ignore the immorality of colonialism and simply say: “Merci”, because the only surviving ancien combattants in town served in Algeria. So while Macron was beguiling Trump with war toys in Paris, Charlie, the mayor, was pinning another medal on an old soldier.
The day began with citizens, elected officials and the fire brigade marching from City Hall, looping around town to the cemetery where flowers were laid at the war memorial and after a few moments of respectful silence, Charlie said a few words about sacrifice and the responsibility of all of us to remember the terrible cost of war. I talked with the Mayor as we walked and asked him why Macron was hosting, and thereby honoring Trump. He said he thought Macron honestly believed he could make some progress and perhaps persuade the American to reconsider his position on climate change, but also the young French President wants to be the leader of Europe and saw an opportunity when it became obvious that Trump and Merkel will not be buddies.
The procession made its way back through town to City Hall where the old soldiers were acknowledged, pictures were taken, and most everyone adjourned to the Maison du Terroir for an apero. I had to skip the drinks because a Brit from my French class had invited me to a village meal in Palairac, a tiny commune about 40 minutes away in the Corbières mountains. Lovely melon with a bit of smoked ham, squid stuffed with pork, rice, ice cream, and lots of very nice local wine. There was music, dancing, and a lively mix of French and English. I was introduced as an American but endorsed as anti-Trump.
Back home, I met Bardot in the garden who blessed me with a sack of the summer’s first tomatoes. There was time for a brief nap until Michel came by to fix a leaky faucet and then off to St. Paul for dinner with Marcel, Carrie, and Marcel’s parents. As quiet and darkness settled in on us, and Carrie put Jordi to bed, I went back to Maury to end the day with fireworks and a glass of Maury, along with the largest crowd I’d ever seen in town. I’d guess there were around 300 people there, including an unusually large number of children, an optimistic note to close a full day of gentle wholesomeness, the best of village life.