A Sunny Sunday

Square Saint Lambert

6 May 2018

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

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

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

Square Saint Lambert

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

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

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

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

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

War Memorial at the Mairie of the 15th.

Merci beaucoup.

©2018 Ron Scherl

The Louvre

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

She is there

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

Somewhere

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

Paris ☑Louvre ☑What’s her name ☑

Big Museum. Big Paintings

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

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

Shoot Pictures. Not People.

©2018 Ron Scherl

Democrats

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

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

Owen Franken addresses the meeting

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

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

Wine and cookies were served.

Wine and Cookies

©2018 Ron Scherl

Weather

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

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

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

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

Place du Général Beuret
Jardin du Luxembourg
Statue of Marguerite d’Angouleme, Reine de Navarre Luxembourg Gardens
Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin du Luxembourg  

©2018 Ron Scherl

 

Gypsy Jazz

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.

Ninine Garcia

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.

The Kid Sits In
Marcel Campion, the Proprietor of La Chope

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.

Annie Dancing

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?”

“Oui”

“Et l’origine juif?”

“Oui.”  That brought a big smile and a hearty hug.

The Scene at La Chope des Puces

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 Hat Has Been Passed

©2018 Ron Scherl

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

Mimi, Rodolfo, the Spacemen and the Mime

Formerly known as La Bohème.

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.

La Bohème, San Francisco Opera, 1978

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