Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paris After Dark

I got home last night around 10pm. I know that sounds early, but it's the first time I've been out on the streets coming home "at night."  I'm usually home by around 7:30pm at the latest. So, it was something new for me to try my hand in the "after dark" world of this city.

The Metro was a bit of circus. I'm not sure if it was luck of the draw, but there were several men on the train competing for the attention of the crowd. One of them was trying to entertain us with a kazoo, the other seemed to have a political agenda. Eventually they both moved on, to the relief of everyone. Earlier in the day I encountered a number of men trying to collect money from commuters, getting on the train and demanding the attention of everyone in the car, announcing that they were unemployed, had children and needed help. (I understood that much.) I'm not sure why this sudden influx of activity on the Metro, but I've been reading about the political climate of France, and according to the author I'm reading, the French are easily aroused to passionate political displays and street violence—historically, that's certainly true.

It was a very long day too, because I left my house about 10am. Twelve hours on the go is a lot for me to tackle. My feet. I have not yet figured out how to keep my feet happy. In any event, it was a rather ordinary day in most ways. I went to "school" across town and spent much of the day there studying Art History. After my last class, which ends at 6:30pm I met up with a small group of people who were doing a walking tour of the Marais which started at 7:30pm.

The Marais is in the 4th arrondissement. It's a part of Paris that is very popular these days because its streets are mostly medieval and many of its houses are too. It's an area that Baron Haussmann didn't transform into the wide boulevards and straight streets of 19th century Paris. It's full of winding alleyways and twisting narrow lanes. It's very charming.

We stopped at a fountain and I filled my little water bottle. These fountains are all over Paris, apparently. They were built in the 1870s by a man who had to pay for a glass of water in a restaurant and decided that was wrong. I had noticed one before, but didn't realize what it was. This is just plain "tap" water, but Paris tap water is clean—some of the cleanest city water on the planet according to our guide. It does taste good.

We walked past many of the old "hotels" in the area, the mansions of the 17th century aristocrats, the members of the "court" basically, who lived in the area in their Rococo town houses and entertained. This was the world of Dangerous Liaisons, and the origin of the Salon Culture. Women especially, played hostess to a select crowd of the wealthy, sprinkled with artists and intellectuals for the purpose of entertainment. In the early days all of this was in the hands of the nobility, the very rich landowners. Eventually that changed and the salon took on different dimensions, as the industrial revolution made it possible for people without extreme wealth to pursue more than survival. Even in the early 19th century, most people who pursued the arts already had money, but in the 18th century especially, that world was part of the establishment.

King Louis XIV, who I've mentioned, moved the court to Versailles in the latter part of the 17th century. (I'm going to Versailles on Friday.) When he did, the nobles moved with him. In fact, he forced them too. As I understand, it was a political move. He wanted the court close at hand, not fomenting rebellion. At that point the character of the Marais began to change. The very rich abandoned the area and when the Revolution gained ground, the hotel mansions were confiscated and mostly turned into public buildings or given over to the people in one way or another.

I'm not sure why Haussmann didn't make it into this area. I know that he was eventually removed from his position and in the end, Louis-Napoleon was overthrown (this was in the latter part of the 19th century). Perhaps it was just unfinished business. There are medieval buildings and an extensive warren of narrow streets and alleys. It gave me a much better, more direct, I guess you'd say, sense of the Paris of my day... which is the main reason I went on a walking tour in the early evening when I was already tired to begin with.

It's good that I did. It was fascinating to see just how much the street and the shops are one whole. In some areas there were hardly any cars because the streets are so narrow. We walked through restaurants that spilled out into the street and/or found ourselves in conversation with shop owners trying to get us to stop and purchase food or whatever. The lines were blurry, especially in parts of the old Jewish quarter which is filled with alleyways and lanes. I learned a lot.

Victor Hugo lived in the area in the 1840s and a big hunk of action in my novel takes place here—during the 1848 rebellion, so it was important to get a feel for the area. We're coming back here next week for one of my Art History classes. I think we'll be talking about the architecture of the area in more detail. I'm also planning to visit Hugo's museum, which is in La Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris, and the first "shopping mall," with its arcade filled with shops. (The French, I'm told, invented the idea of the shopping mall.)

All over Paris, shop owners lived above their shops in little, low-roofed, attic-like spaces that were below the regular apartment residences in the buildings—a floor between the ground floor (the shop) and first real floor of apartments. That's one of the reasons that even today, when you go into a small shop, it's like entering someone's home. They basically lived in their shops and slept above them. This is why one says "bonjour" upon entering and why it's so important to treat the shop owner with respect. You're visiting their home, essentially. This is a very different concept of "public" space—not public in the way Americans think of stores as public space. I like that concept a lot. It's one of the really interesting things I've learned since arriving.

In any event, I survived my late night homecoming. This Saturday is Nuit Blanche when Paris stays awake all night celebrating art. Last night was a bit of rehearsal for all that, I guess. Hopefully me and my feet will survive.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Village Voice

So, I didn't take the bobo canal tour today. Thanks to a comment on my blog, I went off in search of a book on historical Paris instead. Walks Through Lost Paris—which take you into areas that weren't disturbed by Baron Haussmann's 19th century redesign of Paris—by Bay Area author, Leonard Pitt. I was so intrigued with the possibilities his book seemed likely to provide, that getting it became the center of my world today.

The Village Voice is an English bookshop in the sixth arrondissement. That's on the Left Bank not far from where I walked in the Latin Quarter last week. It's also near the Delacroix museum that I want to visit. If I'd had more time, I would have gone there today.

The shop has two stories with a staircase and books everywhere. It fit my expectations, looking very much the way a Paris bookstore should look. I liked it immediately. And interestingly, I know about the author whose going to be featured there Thursday evening.

His name is Eric Karpeles and he's from the Bay Area. His book, Pictures in Proust, received a Special Award at the Northern California Book of the Year Awards that I attended last April when Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein was nominated for Northern California Book of the Year in Fiction. Karpeles' book tracks all the paintings that Proust referenced in his fiction. Karpeles tracked them all down. He's speaking Thursday right after my Art History class. Seems like I should attend. Who knows, maybe I'll meet some ex-patriot book lovers. One never knows.

After my turn around the bookstore, I went to my French class. Figuring out where the bookstore was, getting there, and buying a book, seemed all I could accomplish before my class, which shouldn't be a big surprise. It still takes me a long time to accomplish things. For example, because I was coming from the bookstore, I ended up taking the Metro, not the RER to the stop near the school.  When I got out, I could not figure out where I was. Same stop. I just came out in a slightly different place because it was the Metro. I had to walk around for about five minutes before I finally got my bearings. It was one of the moments when a compass would have helped. That's the hardest thing, really—figuring out which way is which. It's very easy for me to get turned around. I think I must be geographically challenged.

But I did make my French class, and I also had a French culture class that focused on the history of black people in France. I asked about the Delacroix painting—the one up at the top of this blog. I've always assumed the man on the far left is a black man. Apparently, I'm the only one who has assumed that, although after I brought it up, our speaker said she would look into it.

I'm not sure, now, but it's good that I asked, because my assumption is currently in the book and if I've just made it up... well, it would be good to get it out of the text sooner than later. I'm talking about the man on the far left, next to the man in the top hat (which is said to be a self-portrait of Delacroix).

Am I crazy? I don't know. Just know most of my assumptions are wrong these days, and as I think about it, it does seem unlikely, given what I know of  the history of France. One thing I learned today was that slavery was abolished by the French Revolution and reinstated by Napoleon. Napoleon. He certainly was a mixed bag, and his nephew, Louis-Napoleon followed suit. I hadn't quite understood that Louise-Napoleon declared himself an Emperor too. He's the one who hired Haussmann and gave him all the power he needed to transform Paris. What Haussmann did is still controversial, after all these years. Tomorrow night I'm taking a walking tour through the Marais, which is another of the areas that was left untouched by Haussmann. It's medieval in character. Victor Hugo lived in the area and his house is now a museum there, one of the places on my list to go visit.

UPDATE: I heard back from the woman who gave the lecture on Black History in Paris (Monique Wells is her name, an African American woman who has lived in Paris for 17 years.)  She said that the man's features, though dark, are not "negroid." She added that in the US, such an image might indeed reflect a person of color but that she doubted Delacroix had that degree of subtlety in his portrayal, given the scarcity of experience the French actually had with Africans at that time. That does make sense to me although I know that Delacroix traveled to the Mideast and across Northern Africa and painted scenes from both. So it's still a little unclear to me what his intentions were. I don't really know how to research it any farther, except to continue to read about the painting and see if there's anyone out there who has raised a similar question about the image. For me, it seems a bit irrelevant in the long run. It's a sidelight to the main thrust of the story, though an interesting one. In the text as I wrote it, it led to some discussion about slavery—the image reflects the 1830s.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Living the Bo Bo Life Here

Today is the first day in two weeks that it feels like I have little to show for myself. In fact, my efforts to adapt are taking root. I did leave my apartment this morning and negotiate the wild and woolly world of Paris. I rode the Metro and transferred to RER without incident, arriving on the other side of Paris in time for my Art History class, and then, on my way home, I did stop in at a little café for a café crème. But these accomplishments went forward without fanfare and no longer qualify as adventure. They've become… well, ordinary, meaning they didn't call out of me anything particularly foolish or foreign. I read on the Metro and I wrote while drinking my coffee.

Actually, my coffee came from the little café on Avenue Trudaine, the Moroccan place right next door. In the afternoon, when meals aren't being served, people stop for coffee and wine. I joined them today and gloried for awhile in how much I like my bo bo neighborhood.  Yes, "bo bo"—it's Parisian slang for bohemian bourgeois—or maybe it's European slang, or no, looks like it's US slang that's migrated here. I guess it was coined by journalist David Brooks. He says "bobos define our age. They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe… Their status codes now govern social life." So. Okay. I live in a bobo neighborhood and feel at home.

I'm thinking that tomorrow I might take a bobo canal tour. It's one of the things suggested to me, and I noticed that the season more or less ends with September. We'll see if I can make it on top of everything else I need to do for school tomorrow. I'm also still trying to get to the American Library, which is somewhere over by the Eiffel Tower. So, things to do, places to go. Life normalizes.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Le Conservatoire de Musique

I took a long walk today, across my arrondissement all the way to Porte Saint Denis. I passed the building where Liszt once lived, I passed the Conservatoire de Musique. I walked along several narrow passageways and through a covered passageway that is not gentrified for the tourists, but in a rather rough part of town. In fact, the whole area around Porte Saint-Denis is pretty rough and I had a brush, if not with danger, than at least with fear.

I'll get to that in a moment. This passageway, according to the sign was built in the 18th century. It's been repaved. It stretches around that corner across a long block. It felt just a little dangerous to me, claustrophobic because the walls are high, four stories or so, and the path is narrow. Common fare before Paris was redesigned in the late 19th century.  A little too empty for my taste. I felt vulnerable.

I have a similar path in my book, though, so I was really happy to find and walk it and experience my response. It spit me out very near to the street where Franz Liszt lived. I found the street number of his house, unmarked. The street number of Géricault's house is unmarked too, and the building looked to be from the 18th century, so I think it was the genuine article. I don't mean to imply I'm some kind of expert on the buildings, but I have, from class now, more or less learned to distinguish the basics that give me a sense of whether the building was there before Baron Haussmann's redesign of Paris which took place from the mid 1850s until the early 1870s, after the events of my book.

I learned something else,
which I suppose should have been obvious, but wasn't. Behind double doors, like the ones that are everywhere, like the ones that mark my building, sometimes there's an open courtyard, a drive that carriages passed along. The doors don't open to the inside of a building. That's why I couldn't find the Square d'Orleans. It's a door, something like this one, that opens into a courtyard. I went inside and photographed the staircase that went up to the door. It could be approached from either side, looked very grand.

I also found the church that Tori visits, just adjacent to the Conservatoire de Musique. After taking a number of pictures, I noticed the door was open and went in. The priests were saying mass. The sanctuary was filled with worshipers. I took a seat in the back. It was a high mass, sung, and all in Latin.  The church was absolutely sumptuous, gorgeous. The interior was mostly wood, not stone, the rich warm brown of polished wood accented with rose windows, stained glass in colors of blue and aqua. I've seen a lot of churches traveling in Europe, this had to be one of the most beautiful. 

I left feeling nourished by the best of what Catholicism has to offer. The choir sounded angelic, reverberating, the priest sang the mass, his voice echoing, the smell of incense. It was quite intoxicating.  Outside again, I explored the facade of the Conservatoire, which is still a teaching facility. Now it houses dramatic arts. It had an historical plaque that spoke of the works Berlioz debuted here. It's a huge building that seems to take up most of the block, very narrow streets on three sides, the square that fronts the church on the forth.

From there I headed off toward Porte Saint-Denis. I'm now convinced I saw it the day I got lost. The street that comes down from the north, which is one of the streets I was on that day, is quite strait, you can see a long ways. I found a café that was literally at its base and had lunch. That was fun. It was my first meal in a café. The waiter, and older man, was quite charming and kind to me. He more or less helped me along whenever my French failed me.

Another single, older woman who seemed a native sat at a table near me and I watched him wait on her as well. It don't quite know what it was, but I think it was Paris—the red checkered tablecloth, the bottle on my table that was water, but looked like wine. The wine glass from which I drank it. I had a salad that had chicken in it and green beans and corn, with a very tasty dressing made with balsamic vinegar. I totally enjoyed myself. Like the mass, it just seemed the perfect expression of itself. And it was not in a touristy part of town. In fact, it's on the edge of what felt like a rather dangerous part of town.

Once I got up from the café and started to walk around the area. I did notice that it was, like the area around Gare du Nord, impoverished and that the people on the streets looked pretty rough and tumble. I walked through a covered passageway that I'd read about. I expected it to be gritty and it was. Apparently one of the only such passageways left that hasn't been gentrified and turned into an expensive shopping mall. It was run down, many of the shop fronts closed down, a lot of men smoking and watching me. As I came back to the main street a man almost ran me over while simultaneously giving me a loud "bonjour."

He caught me off guard. I wasn't afraid of him—he seemed completely harmless, just after my attention. I ignored him. I haven't decided what to do about men on the street hailing me. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's happened enough so that I realize it's part of being here. I crossed the street, he did too. I don't think he was following me. I think he was headed that way. As I passed by the Metro, I noticed a number of women lingering. It crossed my mind that they might be prostitutes, not so much because of their dress, rather something in the way they were lounging.

I stopped to take pictures of the arch and then of the buildings. The same man reappeared and teased me, I think, about the fact that I was taking pictures of nothing—or so it seemed.  I should have got the message by then that I was standing out in the crowd, that I'd announced myself, but I was dense. I hadn't put all the pieces together.

I turned the camera towards the buildings down the street, looking for the place that housed the printing press back in 1830 that I mention in my book. I was trying to make up my mind if any of the buildings were that old. I snapped a picture and a woman across the street started yelling loudly at ... me? I think so. She was very angry. She yelled "Non!" several times and a lot more I didn't understand.

I stopped and looked at her and said, "d'accord," which means "okay—agreed" and put the camera away, not sure if she was calling out to me or the man just down the street, but I was feeling conspicuous finally. After that, I started on, continuing down the street. I hadn't gone more than about twenty feet when the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my body just went cold.

Nothing happened. I just had a physical response to my environment. It dawned on me that the women I had seen and the woman who had yelled were of one world. I'm pretty sure they were prostitutes and that they did not like me taking pictures. I turned around, and headed back for the Metro station. It felt like everyone on the street, at that point, was watching me. I felt like they were sizing me up, trying to figure out if I was really just a dumbassed tourist or someone posing as a dumbassed tourist. Another man called out to me pretty insistently. I was very happy to descend the staircase into the Metro station and even happier to board the train.

I didn't calm down really, for quite some time. I took the Metro to Isle of the Cité where I had planned to go next, to the bird market that's there every Sunday and walked around, feeling unnerved even though I was in the shadow of Notre Dame surrounded by tourists and birds.

I found a place to sit by the Seine. It was a gorgeous day and I watched the river and the river boats and wrote for awhile, contemplating what had happened. I realized then how stupid I'd acted, how much I'd stood out in that environment, how self-absorbed I'd been.

Later, I went to the Church of Saint Eustache near Les Halles, where we'd been for class earlier in the week. I went there to hear a free organ concert, Bach's Toccata and Fugue. A friend from the Santa Rosa group met me there, which was nice. The church was full of people who'd come for the concert and the organist was superb.  I closed my eyes and felt transported. He played to a standing ovation.  It was an interesting day.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Montmartre's Rue des Martyrs

I climbed to the top of Rue des Martyrs today. It ends in a staircase in Montmartre. I stopped in a café and watched the people going by. I wrote and thought about my book. I just heard from Andrew Todhunter that his writing class in Paris is going to happen. I'm very excited about that. I'll be working with him for five days in mid-October. I studied with him at a workshop in Mendocino a couple of years ago and was very impressed.  We've been asked to send about twenty pages of our manuscripts to the group, which has got me thinking hard because I'd like to rework the beginning. The story is changing. There are more ghost in Pére Lachaise than I realized.

I walked to the top of Rue des Martyrs for several reasons, the most powerful being that there's something here pursuing me.


Let me see if I can explain. It starts with my earlier blog entries, actually, because it's been pursuing me since I got here. But it's only now, after doing some research that I've begun to see some of what's going on. It has to do with Saint Denis.

My first introduction to Paris was a tour that ended at Notre Dame. That was the first time Saint Denis, the patron saint of France, came up. Our French guide told the story of his martyrdom, how he was forced to climb the butte of Montmartre in something like 250AD and was beheaded by the Gauls. They say he picked up his head and walked to the very top of the hill before dropping to his death. I wrote about the fact that the woman who told us the story believed it, and that she told it in such a way that I believe it now too.

I got lost that afternoon and wandered far enough afield to see Porte Saint-Denis in the distance. Porte Saint-Denis was one of the gates into Paris, a ceremonial gate used by the Royalty. It was taken by the rebels in 1830 and barricaded, a scene of political violence that is important to my book. I talked about how the symbolism of St. Denis gained new significance from my experience of seeing its arch in the distance.

The next step on this path was my visit to Père Lachaise cemetery where, quite by accident, I found the tomb of Theodore Géricault, a French painter who is considered the first of the Romantics. He was not someone I had intended to include in my book, but seeing his grave surrounded by French school children on an outing made me curious. I began to read about him, and it's what I learned that drove me up Rue des Martyrs today.

Theodore Géricault's studio, where he painted the Raft of the Medusa, is on Rue des Martyrs. The street is old. Many of the buildings are old. Géricault's studio is closer to my apartment than any other site that's related to my writing. And Géricault had an affair with a married woman, his aunt by marriage. She used to walk down from Montmartre, down Rue des Martyrs to Géricault's studio. She was modeling for Géricault. That's how the affair began. So I followed her path.

But there's more: Rue des Martyrs is named for the martyrs, beginning with St. Denis. So is Montmartre, the mountain of the martyrs. Saint Denis walked up the hill to his death. This is the route. This is the street, and this is where I am living in Paris. The woman Géricault loved walked down Rue des Martyrs to her doom.

Gericault spent two years working on the Raft of the Medusa, during that time, his lover got pregnant and had his son. The child was given up for adoption. The scandal was catastrophic for the young lovers. It destroyed their lives.

The building is still extant. The garden courtyard is still extant. The address is 23, Rue des Martyrs. Twenty-three, just a little cosmic humor: 23 is a number that has long been in my life, identified as the "cosmic trigger" number.  (It's a long story, suffice to say the number 23 crops up in the most unexpected and significant places—triggering and triggered by synchronicity.)

I read about the courtyard. The apartment is for rent to foreign visitors. Very expensive and it trades on the fact that Géricault lived and worked here. I'm going to try to get in to see the courtyard, if I can. In any event, though it would take too long to explain all the personal significance going on here, these events are quite obviously calling out to me, insisting I pay attention.

Géricault's story moves me, as does the fate of his lover, Alexandrine. She was virtually incarcerated by her husband (who was 27 years her senior) and spent the rest of her life living mostly in seclusion, mostly separated from society, confined "to a nunlike existence" in her home in Le Chesnay, near Versailles.

And still there is more: I have long had an image in my mind of this story. I recognize it. The image I have is of the moment she realizes her affair has been discovered. She looks up from where she sits in the garden, holding a cup and saucer in her hand. She sees her husband walking toward her with his brother, the father of her lover. Something in their stride, their energy, triggers her understanding: she knows they know. Her hand begins to tremble, the cup chattering against the saucer. I've known that moment, and that her husband banished her from his society. I've had those pieces for over ten years, just not the full context of it. Now I do.

Rue des Martyrs has a story to tell me, and it has already begun. I walked the street today, looking for more. I found the fountain that I posted above. I found emotion.  I've no idea how to integrate all this yet, although, I believe that one of the places that Alexandrine might have been able to go would have been to near-by Chartres, especially in 1844, which would have been more than twenty years after the fact. My suspicion is she will show up on the page in Chartres and introduce herself and her story to Georges Sand.

One more piece: As I said, Ary Scheffer, the Dutch painter who held salons at his home (the musée de la vie romantique, which I visited last weekend) painted Géricault's death. It's hanging in the Louvre along with a piece that I've described in the book, a portrait of Francesco and Paolo, the adulterous couple in Dante's Inferno. They are lost in hell because of their transgression. Scheffer, Géricault, and Delacroix all studied composition under the French painter, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. That's likely how and where they met. Clearly they knew Alexandrine too. It's especially logical that Delacroix knew her, in that they were both coming around Géricault's studio at the same time, during the painting of the Raft of the Medusa. The connections here are blatant and obvious. What isn't so clear is how it ties into Tori's story. That's what remains to be seen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Le Marché

I stayed close to home today, spent much of the morning in a café writing and watching people go by. I'm really in a moment of rethinking everything about my book, probably the first of many. I sat at a corner café that looks up toward Montmartre. Busy. Lots of traffic on the main street at the top of Rue des Martyrs.

I was thinking about how to include Madame Lenormand. I like the quirkiness of who she is. She dressed in a turban and wore lots of gold rings and was trained to read fortunes by the gypsies.

They told her she would become rich and "famous" essentially, which she did. I'm not sure where or how she will cross paths with my characters, but that's what I was exploring this morning, mostly making notes and looking for connections that seem plausible and substantial enough to carry the story forward.

The key to getting the book "right" lies in getting the opening "right," and the book opens in the cemetery of Père Lachaise—in a dreamlike state. Tori is wandering among the graves, out of her body, on the verge of her own death. She encounters ghosts and guides. There's no reason why Madame Lenormand could not be one of them. She is (coincidentally) buried there.

Madame Lenormand was very much alive in 1830, which is when the in-time action of the story begins. Tori is four years old and Victor Hugo is staging Hernani at Theatre Francais. Madame Lenormand could easily be in attendance and encounter Louise Farrenc, Tori's mother, and involuntarily see Tori's early demise. In fact, Madame Lenormand could remember the scene at Père Lechaise the reader has just been told. She was famous for her ability to see death coming. She accurately predicted Robespierre's death, which got her in a heap of trouble.

If Madame Lenormand becomes a voice in the story, than the tendrils reaching back to the Revolution become suddenly stronger. I've made a small nod in that direction in the character of an old revolutionary who encourages nineteen-year-old Liszt to stop moping, and as a possible explanation for some of the correctness that defines Tori's papa, as if to suggest that both he and Louise are somewhat spooked by the scars of the Revolution. Aristide was old enough to have witnessed the "Terror," as the political upheaval of all those guillotinings is known. (I learned yesterday our contemporary use of the word "terrorism" comes from The Terror of the French Revolution.)

So, anyway, I spent the day thinking—first at a café and then, later I wandered over to the park at Place Anvers. It was filled with school children, young people, business people, toddlers and their nannies, old people and little dogs. People had come to eat lunch. It felt very local. I don't know if there were other foreigners there, but I didn't see evidence of tourists. It really felt like the neighborhood doing what it does.

The birds were busy too, little ones, chickadees perhaps, or something that looks like them with little brown bodies and chocolate brown heads. They were begging for bread crumbs, coming right up to me. I didn't have bread, but I watched them get fed by plenty of soft-hearted folks. Very cute.

I stayed through the lunch hour and watched the market set-up. That was my big adventure for the day, shopping at the open-air market. It didn't actually open until 3pm, stays open until 8:30pm, which makes sense. That's kind of the way the day goes. It runs late for everyone, it seems. Parisians frame their time differently than has been my pattern.

The market. Once it got going, I screwed up my courage and gave it a shot. I bought one of the roasted chickens I'd been thinking about since last week, plus a gorgeous artichoke, about the size of a small cantaloupe, and a huge cauliflower, also some asparagus and two chipotle sausages. I considered a lot of other things, but, to be honest, each time I bought something, I had to calm down afterward before I could do it again.

I did just fine. I didn't forget how to count and I seemed to ask for things with enough of an appropriate sound that I was understood. I stumbled over the asparagus—asperge—get a little thrown by "g" which is usually nasal. But I pointed too. It worked. People were nice. I remembered to say bonjour monsieur and au revoir monsieur. I'm just very shy, that's all.

I contemplated some amazing looking shrimp, but decided to wait until next week, and I would have bought green beans, but I felt a little confused about how many to buy. A half kilo seems like too much and I wasn't sure what the next size smaller would be. I forgot to look over my French notes before I left this morning, which would have been smart.

The one thing I haven't had in my first two weeks of being in Paris is bread. I know that sounds crazy, but those who know me, know I've been eating a radically low carb, no gluten diet since January. I'm still contemplating the whole bread thing, and what to do about it, how much to bend, how much to tow the line.

Bread. Hard to believe anyone in Paris would not eat the bread. It looks so glorious, especially in the market. Well, it probably looks glorious in the boulangeries as well, I just haven't been in them yet.

The market has one beautiful bread display that drifts into a pâtisserie. I found myself checking it out very attentively. I learned yesterday that there's a limit on what a baguette can cost, that in France even the poor must be able to afford bread (and health care. Oops, didn't mean to go all political, but honestly, from here the US looks like a third-world country with a bunch of rich people throwing a let-them-eat-cake hissy fit.)

Today was a simple day, satisfying, relaxing, fun. (In the spirit of full disclosure: the batteries in my camera went dead; most of these aren't my photographs. The first and last ones are.) This is Rue des Martyrs with Sacre Coeur in the background. That's how it looks walking up the street from South to North, nearing my house. Quite lovely.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Le Quartier Latin

We walked in the Latin Quarter today, visiting sights important to the French Revolution. One of the places we stopped sent my mind whirling: the apartment of a famous French fortune teller, Madame Marie Anne Lenormand (1772 –1843). She gave readings to Marat, Robespierre, and the Empress Josephine, among others. She met Josephine in jail and predicted her marriage to Napoleon long before Josephine met Napoleon or before he had any power. She was imprisoned more than once, though never for very long, and in 1814 began to write. She published a number of books.

Fortune telling with cards was apparently popular in 18th century Paris. It made me wish I’d done better research around all this when I was writing Requiem. Here is the fortune teller I was looking for. She would have been there when Shelley and Mary passed through Paris. In fact, she was still alive during the time of The Appassionata. She used the Petit Eteila tarot (which I have) and her own deck which was published after her death—not traditional tarot. Now, I want to find a store that sells her deck here in Paris and purchase it.

Her salon occulte was near the Odeon Theatre, another place we stopped. The Odeon is where Hector Berlioz saw the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson play Ophelia. He fell helplessly in love with her— something he tells Liszt about in my book. The proximity invites Berlioz to visit Madame Lenormand's salon, n'est ce pas?

We also saw the first restaurant to open in Paris (in 1686), and heard how important coffee was to the Revolution. It brought people together, like the Internet today, it provided a gathering place where ideas could be exchanged and messages passed along. We saw the café from both the front door and the back. The back was a way to escape creditors or slip away when there was danger. Victor Hugo spent time here.

The Latin Quarter was charming with all its medieval streets. We walked through several covered passageways and down lots of cobbled alleys. We saw "the narrowest street in Paris." There's a similar passageway near where Liszt took Tori and Louise when he rescued them from the violence around Porte Saint Denis.

Our guide told me to seek out covered passageways, that they were common in the 1830s. There are several not too far away from my neighborhood. There seem to be two main reasons for the 19th century make-over of Paris streets and architecture. One was hygiene, the other revolution. Narrow streets made for easy barricades, and the success of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were due, in part, to the barricades. The guide told me that I'm writing about an extremely interesting time in French history. Yes. I'm understanding that more and more as I go forward.

It's a fascinating part of Paris, very busy, very touristed. I discovered a little church behind Notre Dame that's presenting a series of piano concerts. Saturday's concert features Liszt and Chopin. So now I have two concerts in as many days. I'm going to try to make them both.

As much as I liked the area, which I did, it made me appreciate my neighborhood yet again. I live in a neighborhood that is inhabited primarily by the people who live there. It doesn't feel invaded by tourists, either in the kind of shops or in the number of people on the street.

On another note, I cut my finger today—for the second time. I was trying to open a bottle of salad dressing, which is exactly how I cut myself the first time too. I was trying to be careful, aware obviously that it could happen. I cannot figure out the French version of capping salad dressings. It's beyond my conceptual ability apparently. And I don't have band aides either.

Probably more information than anyone wants, but it's the background noise of my life at the moment: all these simple things I suddenly can't do easily. And it's always something absurd, like opening a bottle of salad dressing. Really. How hard can it be?

Earlier today, I was trying to get my trash into building's garbage and I couldn't quite remember where it was. If I'd been just a bit bolder, I would have found it on my own. Instead, I asked. Problem was I didn't know the word for "trash" or for "take out," "put out" or "dispose of." I couldn't think of anything and so, of course, I panicked. So ridiculous.

Eventually we communicated, but it was such a production. It annoys me when I get all in a tizzy over talking to someone. I feel so foolish.

These last two pictures are taken out my window looking across the courtyard and the tree—toward my neighbors on the other side. Their building  fronts onto Rue des Martyrs, I believe.

That top set of windows —in the roof—are where all the maids for all the apartments lived. I'm on the floor just below on my side of the building, but if you were looking at my apartment from over there, it would look just about identical.

This last picture is looking down. Like I said, Tori's view as her mother and father leave, although I don't think she would have been quite so high. I think the building would have been more like four stories instead of six.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Toccata et Fugue

There's a scene in my novel where an organist plays Bach's Toccata et Fugue. It's one of the scenes that's been mulled over by my writing group with questions about whether I really managed to communicate the way the piece opens as it reverberates through a church sanctuary.

When I wrote that section I was reaching way back to a memory of stepping into Westminster Abbey just as a Bach concert started. It was a doubly remarkable moment because I didn't know where I was or that music was about to begin. The timing was such that it almost seemed my step signaled the opening of the concert, an explosive pleasure I never forgot.

Today I was at the church of Saint Eustache, which is situated near what was for centuries the main market in Paris, Les Halles. Now it's tourist country. The church is important to our Art History class because of the way it mixes Late Gothic and early Renaissance Architecture—of interest to me because Liszt played a concert there. But it also turns out that this coming Sunday there's going to be a free organ concert. And the music? Bach's Toccata et Fugue. Nice touch—what my classmates call sweet.

From Saint Eustache, we walked to the Louvre, right through the part of town Liszt and Berlioz negotiate during the uprising of 1830. We walked around a good bit of the exterior of the Louvre, learning about the architecture of the building.

During the July Revolution of 1830, a lot of fighting took place around the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace, which stood behind the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. The palace was destroyed by fire in the political violence of 1871. Napoleon had lived there, and in 1830, a violent battle between republican rebels and the King's guard raged in the area. Liszt and Berlioz come through these streets and into the Louvre's courtyard late at night after the fighting has died down.

I definitely walked some of their route today and concluded that, as per usual, my description of the terrain has been woefully inadequate. I looked up at the architecture, aware I hadn't described it when, in fact, standing there is like standing in front of the Raft of the Medusa—it's huge and overwhelming, and totally defines the environment. So. It was a good walk for my book. I learned a lot, even though much of the area is different then it was during the time of the book thanks to 19th century architecture of Baron Haussmann.

Inside the Louvre we started with Botticelli, whom I love, and spent time exploring the Renaissance. We ended with Leonardo and the new presentation of the Mona Lisa, which is very nice, actually, much more dramatic than I remember from seeing it in 1984. After class I went back to the room where I spent time Monday, where Gericault, Delacroix and Ary Scheffer all have huge pieces of work hanging. This time I noticed all of Gericault's horses. I sat in front of the Raft of the Medusa again for perhaps ten minutes and listened to a woman describe it in French to her friends. I didn't understand very much of what she said, but I teared up listening and looking. I tried to guess which figure might have been Delacroix. There's one that looks almost like a father comforting a son. For some reason I wondered if that was Delacroix. It might have been. I don't know.

I also sat in front of Delacroix's, Liberty Leading the People again, and became very aware of how everyone wants their picture taken in front of it, but most of picture takers and posers don't bother to actually look at the painting.

I walked home from the Pigalle Metro stop and found the market that my landlady was undoubtedly referencing when she said there was a grocery store nearby. It's about twice as big as any of the stores I've been in. I figured out the deal with grapefruit, which is what drew me in, they're sold, not by weight, but by the grapefruit. I was looking for them in the little fruit and vegetable markets along my way home, practicing saying Pamplemousse—their name in French. I've been craving grapefruit. In fact, I ate one when I got home tonight, my dinner. I think I might have found fresh cream for my coffee, too.

Here's my first thought for Tori's house—from today's walk. The top floor is where Bette, the maid would have had her room. The next set of windows down would have been Tori's, though without the balcony. This is a corner building and not so tall as Baron Haussmann's architecture, which is what I live in. Most of it was built after the events of my story.

I actually sketched out a couple of buildings this afternoon as they sat side by side, four-story buildings counting the ground floor and the maids quarters. I'm kind of getting into this sketching thing. There's an art store on Rue des Martyrs. I think I'll indulge in a sketching pencil. Right now I'm using my pen, which isn't that good.

I came home through the early evening darkness tonight, down Rue des Martyrs. It was very beautiful, a warm day morphing into a lovely evening. Everyone out in the cafes. It was my nicest walk home yet. Even though my feet hurt and I came home exhausted again, I like walking on Rue des Martyrs. Its the romantic side of Paris, and the commute wasn't so bad tonight. I waited a bit, left the Louvre, which stays open on Wednesday evenings, around 7:30pm. Je suis content, and looking forward to my organ concert Sunday.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I did much better in the Intermediate French class today. I mostly understood everything that was going on. In fact, most of it was review of things I know. I'm in a quandary about taking more French. They're offering another class, four days a week for an hour and a half. The big problem is it starts at 9:15 every morning, four days a week. That means commuting during rush hour, which I did coming home today. It was a very difficult commute. The trains are stifling and I even found it hard to breathe. Fortunately, I had a place by the wall, but many of the commuters stand without having anything to hold on to. I don't know how they do it, except familiarity.

What a privileged life I take for granted. The commute made my head spin. I started thinking I can't do it. Then I got depressed. It's a new wave of overwhelm, I guess. Now that the first blush of not understanding things is wearing off and I'm beginning to feel like I know what I'm doing—more or less—I'm feeling just how much work it is going to take to accomplish some of the things I've got on my plate, like the commute. Some of the "romance" is being replaced with "reality."

I don't know what to tell myself to resolve it. I sat in the park after I exited the Metro at Anvers and thought about life in Mendocino. It's so privileged, that's all I could think. I'm here on a lark, so to speak. I don't mean to denigrate the work I've come to do, but if I had to look forward to my commute daily, as my "normal" life, I'm not sure what I would do. It's enough to wonder how I'm going to deal with it three evenings a week for three months, and to weigh braving it in the morning against learning more French. And I'm so spoiled on some level, that all I can do is get depressed.

I suppose I'm not seeing the whole. I am here alone in a foreign culture, trying to figure things out almost constantly. I'm always relieved, for example, when "pardon," comes out of my mouth instead of "sorry." If I'm not paying attention, I speak English automatically. It is my nature to speak English. I have to remind myself to speak French. It's instinct. Furthermore, I only understand a little bit of what's going on around me, the nuances of interaction. What's "appropriate" and what isn't and who gets away with what. I've seen some pretty audacious behavior, people crowding each other out of the "good" standing places, people jumping the barriers to ride the RER without paying, all that kind of thing.

I suppose when I'm on the Metro during rush hour, I've got things going on in my head that the daily Parisian commuter doesn't worry about. Still, bottom line, it's not much fun to be crammed in a very small moving space underground with a bunch of strangers in a stifling, stuffy, hot environment. I found myself thinking about the Jews on their way to concentration camps. I don't mean to trivialize the horror of that experience. I was just struck (in my claustrophobia) by how horrific it must have been.

So. Not much else this evening. Lots on my mind about how to survive the demands that are connected with my little adventure. I hope the walking gets me in better shape quickly because right now it's feeling exhausting.

We did have a very interesting lecture on the history of Paris this afternoon. I learned a lot about the architecture and the way that Louise and Tori Farrenc might have lived in the early 19th century.  The most interesting piece was about the fact that Bette, the maid, probably would have lived on the sixth floor of the building with other servants for other households in the building, that they probably didn't live in a "house." They weren't that wealthy. I'm still trying to find more information about their home. That's one of the things I came here to learn. All I know at the moment is my current description is more British than French.

Someone just emailed me this (I hope it's not a reference to all the stairs around here, but it probably is):

"Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost, but climb."  —Edna St. Vincent Millay

Géricault's Horses

In the opening chapter of The Appassionata, four-year old Tori looks out her bedroom window, watching her parents in the street below as they board a carriage that will take them to the opening of Hugo's play, Hernani. She's balanced on her rocking horse and quite enchanted with a white horses that is in the team below.

Théodore Géricault, I've come to realize, was totally into horses. Not only did he ride (and suffer several bad falls that ultimately killed him), he painted horses over and over again—including this image of a carousel horse. That Delacroix (who posed as a model for Géricault and was deeply influenced by him) has in his possession a study, a sketch or even a completed work of one of Géricault's horses, a sentimental memento that he's studied carefully, makes sense to me.

It also makes sense that he would use Géricault's image to talk to Liszt about visual art and the horse in his own work, Death of Sardannopolis. This huge painting is covering the wall in Delacroix's studio. Liszt finds it stunning.

Right now, Tori is caught up in the mythology of Pegasus. I worry that Pegasus has been over-exposed so I'm looking for another mythic equine to hang all this on, but perhaps it's enough to simply change the name to its French spelling, Pégase. Yes?

The reason all this is important, is that Tori witnesses the death of that same white carriage horse, the one she spots from her window, some six months later when she and her mother are caught up in the street violence of 1830. The horse's death traumatizes her and comes to represent in her psyche the whole of the violence she witnessed that day. One thing that seems missing is her interaction with the horse when she boards the carriage. I need to find a way to bring a small exchange between girl and horse into the story. Let her feed the animal an apple or something.

The horse is a symbolic character moving through the story. It has a role in Jacques Jölliet's relationship to Tori too. Jacques is a young officer who wants to marry Tori. A white horse should appear in the periphery whenever Tori is about to experience a death of some kind or a disappointment. For example, what if, when Tori and Liszt are on the footbridge in Chartres talking and seeming close and promising, Tori notices a rider coming down the street on a white horse. At this point she and Liszt have not discussed the death of carriage horse that they both witnessed and remember.

The horse and rider just go by, Tori notices, has some response, but not enough to speak of it. Then, that evening she learns Liszt is leaving Paris—without her, their relationship is over. The next time we would see the white horse it would set up a tension for what's to come next, and this is in the section I'm now beginning to write, the section of the book that follows the relationship between Jacques and Tori, set in the street violence and political upheaval of 1848.

My justification for bringing Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) into the novel, at least in name, is he's considered the first and most important painter of the Romantic era. Delacroix is better known, is the bigger modern celebrity, but Delacroix could be considered a student of Géricault, certainly an admirer. It feels important to find some way to make Géricault's influence known, and to get some of his biography on the page.

I know very little about him as of yet, except that he loved to ride, suffered from depression, lived in Montmartre and was considered a dandy. And here's a juicy something: Géricault fathered a child to Alexandrine-Modeste de Saint-Martin, born 1785. The daughter of a military officer, she married Géricault's uncle and they had two sons. She became Géricault’s lover in 1814 (she would have been 29, Gericourt 23) and got pregnant. Géricault left for Rome, perhaps to avoid the complications of the affair. After his death she lived mostly in seclusion. Gotta say, this sparks all sorts of thoughts in my writer's mind.

He died at age thirty-three believing he had wasted his time, not painted anything of value. He seemed to have had difficulty caring for himself. His death came on, in part, because he ignored his injuries. I read that one fall led to some kind of ulceration on his spine, which was ultimately responsible for his death. I'm still trying to find the information. Apparently he suffered from tuberculosis as well, who didn't? It was a terrible plague in its day.

I've located an English library in Paris where books in English are available, at least on site. I'm going to make a trip there soon in hopes that I'll be able to find information on all of the more obscure characters I'm writing about, including Louise and Aristide Farrenc, Victorine, of course, and the poet, Elisa Mercoeur.  Géricault is a big name in France, certainly I'll find more about him there.

This last image by Géricault reminds me a bit of Delacroix's tiger painting.