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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I decided to skip the major concerts of this annual music festival. Four years ago, I shot for two days and got a cool t-shirt in return but the t-shirt still fits and now everyone’s a photographer. I don’t think they needed me and I didn’t need another black t-shirt.
But I did want to take in the free festival events and brought a camera along. Les Femmes à Barbe do not wear beards at all, but they did manage a few costume changes during their performance in the sweltering Place de la Mairie. A high energy trio featuring lively harmonies and a variety of musical styles that began with some French Pop, segued quickly through a brief Marilyn Monroe interlude into an Almodóvar film. Bedsheet saris accompanied Polynesian rhythms and on to Africa by way of James Brown.
The heat drove most of the crowd away from the stage into the shade, but didn’t slow down the unbearded singers at all.
The lovely old Chapel of St. Roch was the venue for a duo known as NUT, a singer and guitarist performing vaguely folky tunes in French and English; a mélange of pop, reggae, soft blues and ballads. Pleasant enough to listen to, not compelling enough to keep me in the airless church with sweat in my eyes, while thinking of a cool shower and a glass of rosé.
The photo above was made on September 30, 2011 and christened The Olive Tree Salon. The small park is actually the Place du Bicentenaire (1789-1989), but to me it will always be the set for the Olive Tree Salon. The women gathered on warm summer evenings with their knitting, or not, and spent an hour or two talking over their day, exchanging gossip and recipes, and, no doubt, complaining about the ailments of age. Groups of two or three men sat at the trompe l’oeil café or down by the bus stop and I expect their conversations were not very different. Geneviève (left) was the natural leader, as she was throughout town. Formerly the secretary at the Mairie and, as such, a reliable source of information about everything in the village, she is now the head of the Club des Ainés, organizing activities and support for the village’s growing population of senior citizens. But seniors’ groups have built-in population controls and at least two of the members of the Olive Tree Salon have died: Pierette on the right and Lucienne, seated next to her. I’m not sure about Colette but I haven’t seen her since I’ve returned and it’s a small town.
So the Olive Tree Salon is no more but the park is still a gathering place. Houses heat up in the late afternoons and the cool shade of the olive tree welcomes a new generation. The kids are young and energetic—a girl teaches her younger brother some dance moves—the clicking of knitting needles has been replaced by music struggling to be heard from smartphone speakers. Not my music, but a welcome addition to my soundtrack. Like many rural villages, the population of Maury is aging because a lack of local employment opportunities forces young people with ambition to look elsewhere. But there are still kids here. Their lively chatter and hip-hop music adds to my day, brings a smile to my face and a bit of comfort to my night.
Sometimes coping with The French Bureaucracy is a straightforward commercial transaction. I drove up to Montpellier yesterday for a medical exam and interview with the OFII, the national office of immigration and integration, a name that implies some effort will be made to help newcomers adapt to French society. I wouldn’t count on it.
After finding the nearly anonymous Centre de Radiologie Victor Hugo, which in the letter was said to be located at 10 rue Victor Ugo, but the Waze app correctly found at 10 Boulevard Victor Hugo (I suspected as much), I was quickly ushered in, told to remove my shirt and cozy up to the x-ray machine. Zap! Back to waiting room for ten minutes, handed an envelope with my films and shown the door with an assurance that the next address wasn’t very far away.
Waiting room, a little longer this time, until a woman in a white lab coat calls my name and shows me to an office where I’m asked my height and weight, requested to read an eye chart, and told to return to the waiting room. Twenty minutes later a woman in colorful civilian clothes calls my name, shows me to an office, asks for the receipt that shows I paid 250 euros online for this experience, returns my x-rays, and puts a shiny new stamp in my passport authorizing me to be in this country for the next year. Pay to play. Simple if you have it.
By the way, many people, experts even, have said mine were among the most beautiful chest x-rays they’ve ever seen. They may be the best x-rays any president has ever… oh wait.