Paris

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn't it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.  

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers' market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit 'Confirm Purchase' on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, "Oh, I thought you were French!" As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there's travel time—the sense that you've been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I'd lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I'm saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it's been with me since childhood. Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I'll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I'd packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don't do elevators. I don't book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I'm serious. I don't do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI've worked through this shaky period and I'm making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind's evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn't get on the plane. I hadn't flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn't get my finger to click "Confirm Purchase" on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I'm out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I've written is set in a place where I've travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can't cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I've coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I'd downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I'm still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I'm assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We're headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It's that 3-star curse: "I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma'am." My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that's all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history's clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints ("He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby's parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.") and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob's your uncle and I'm your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I've been gobsmacked by Alan Furst's novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in "historical thriller" sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

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Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène's journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family's country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper "Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time."

Hélène's journal from April - November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens - her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

'So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality. There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène's true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris's Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer - she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget View all my reviews

Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven't been to Paris, you just won't get A Moveable Feast... If you aren't already a fan of Hemingway, don't bother reading A Moveable Feast

Look, I'm struggling to get a start on this review and those were the first two statements that popped into my head. I don't know if they are true. I don't know if they are fair. What I do know it that this work - fiction, memoir, sketches, a polished diary - whichever of these it may be - wouldn't exist without Paris. Obviously, right? No, that's not what I mean. I mean Paris is to writers as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. It's all about terroir - that sense of place, climate, geography, culture that shape the flavor and texture of a thing. You can make great wine out of pinot grown in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile - but it will never, ever approximate the glory of Burgundy. Writers can write with greatness anywhere in the world, but a writer in Paris - and goodness, a writer in the vintage years of the early-mid 1920's - is a singularly-blessed creature who may pour forth with words that change the world.

Hyperbole? Ah, well, I guess you've never been to Paris.

I bought a cheap, paperback copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Company last winter. I'd spent the day retracing the steps of the Lost Generation through the 5eme and 6eme Arrondissements: the Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rue Mouffetard, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, La Place Contrescarpe, Rue Descartes, Quai des Grands-Augustins -- the haunts of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford as they drank and smoked and wrote their way between the wars. Other than the now-phony tourist traps of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore and the relocated Shakespeare and Company bookshop (opened in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951 after the original shop closed in 1941 during the Occupation of Paris), much is as I imagined it was in 1924. The light shines golden and bittersweet in the narrow streets, landlocked Parisians flock to chaises longues in the Luxembourg Gardens to soak up an unseasonably warm February sun, students at the Sorbonne crowd the coffee shops in between classes, smoking, flirting and speaking in a rapid-fire Parisian slang that I was hopeless to comprehend.

My paperback copy of A Moveable Feast is now dreadfully dog-eared. I have marked passage upon passage in which Hemingway talks about writing - he was so disciplined and therefore so productive - that weakened my knees: "I would stand and look out over the rooftops of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence, and go on from there."

or about Paris: "You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen."

or about wine "In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary... "

This is a collection of sketches of a writer as he remembers his happiest, purest days spent healing from the injuries and horrors of World War I, in love with a devoted wife and a round, sweet baby, being discovered by artists of influence and nurturing others through their own addictions and afflictions. Of course we know that Hemingway's own story does not end well. As he pens what will become the final paragraphs of A Moveable Feast many years later, he recognizes how fragile and temporary were those years: "But we were not invulnerable and that was the end of the first part of Paris, and Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.... this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

Perhaps the one true condition of enjoying this memoir is that one must be an incurable romantic. An affliction I bear with pride.

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Me and Mon Ombre

It's been a while since I've travelled alone. In another lifetime, domestic and international travel was integral to my job. It was a groove of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rental upgrades; a suitcase that was always half-packed with the essentials, just waiting for the next journey. Being home was the exception, the interlude between dashes to the airport. I've never regretted giving up the hassles of travel, particularly the post-9/11 frantic harassment of airport security and the dismal state of airline service. Happily my travels these days are mostly for holiday, on flights bound for Europe, hand-in-hand with the only person I can suffer to see me through turbulence and jet lag. Brendan and I are viaggiatori simpatici. We dream of the same destinations, push ahead with equal energy levels, become tired and hungry in tandem and bicker over maps and directions without really caring who's right. We always find our way.

But I cannot deny the certain bliss of traveling alone. Undertaking a solo journey abroad is like dumping 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on dining room table. It begins as a mission of intoxicating near-impossibility, but as you organize patterns and fit those first pieces together, you covet your independence and encircle your puzzle with protective arms, not wanting anyone to interfere with your reverie.

For a reverie it is. Traveling alone means slipping into a dream state, where anything is possible. With each encounter, snafu and discovery, the surroundings reflect you in a mirror that only you can see. This solitary state makes you vulnerable to the world and somehow floating above it. At any given moment, no one really knows where you are, what you are doing, tasting, hearing, seeing. The delightful and the disconcerting occur. During the private journey you rejoice and suffer alone.

Being a solo traveler is sitting in silence at a café on the Île Saint-Louis, sipping a chocolat chaud and watching the sun set Notre Dame aglow.

It is falling to my knees in the crypt of the Shoah Memorial before the tomb of the unknown Jewish martyr and crying alone in that vast, dark space.

It's being asked for directions to the Censier-Daubenton métro stop by a panicked looking Parisian elementary school teacher who has a gaggle of five-year-olds attached to him by a long strap; then being stopped a few minutes later on Rue Mouffetard by a grandmother, looking for the church where a funeral is about to begin.

It's lugging my suitcase up six flights of a stairs that curl like the inside of a sea snail shell, because I can't fathom squeezing myself into the tiny lift.

It's ordering a second glass of Minervois at a restaurant deep in the Marais, wondering if I'll remember the route back to the hotel in the dark.

It's running at dawn on the beach at Cannes with no one to keep watch over my shoes and socks while I wade in the Mediterranean.

It's meeting a vignernon and thinking how my husband would love this kind, gentle man who makes the most wonderful Armagnac I've ever tasted. And thinking, we'll meet again, and Brendan will be with me...

I fell into a deep sleep on the high-speed train carrying me from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Cannes on the Côte d'Azur. There was one change of trains, long into the journey. I awoke with a jolt when my iPod slipped from my lap and fell to the floor, jerking away the earpiece. I caught the tail end of the conductor's announcement of our arrival. In my jet lagged haze, I grabbed my bag and stumbled down the steps of my two-tiered car, knowing I had but a few minutes to make my connection. I climbed a set of stairs and crossed to the main terminal, looking for the departure quay. Then it dawned on me. This compact, bright, calm hall was not the hurly-burly Saint-Charles station in Marseilles. I had disembarked in the idyll of Aix-en-Provence. And my train - the one on which I should have remained - had just left the station.

Likely this wouldn't have happened had I not been alone. Then again, I wouldn't have the memory of those moments with the stationmaster, chatting about hunting wild boar in the vineyards of the Rhône, before being deposited on the next TGV that whisked me away to Cannes.

Hello Panic, My Old Friend. You've Come To Fly With Me Again.

It starts with a red-hot ball at the bottom of my rib cage and shoots on a wire up my chest, to the back of my throat, and flares in a starburst of electricity that flushes my cheeks. My lungs clench and the red-hot ball drops into my bowels, where it run molten through the twists of my intestines. My legs tremble, my feet tingle, my fingers turn to ice. In my brain the screaming begins. I can't. I can't. I can't. The plane rolls forward and I know it's my last chance. If I scream aloud, they'll stop the plane. They'll let me out, into the open air. I won't spend the next ten hours trapped inside a titanium tube, hurtling across an ocean, unable to step outside, unable to breathe. It's my last chance before an ascent into madness. I pull the wire-bound collection of The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles from the seat pocket in front of my knees. I direct my remaining bright spots of rational thought to the first clue of puzzle #24: Fly with a long proboscis. My hand shakes as I write "Tsetse" into the squares. My body presses back into the seat at the plane tilts toward the sky. It is too late. My next breath of fresh air is ten hours away.

Julie, you can't recall a time when you weren't claustrophobic, can you? Remember that Hootenanny in a barn on a dairy farm on the Olympic Peninsula? Hot apple cider, fiddlers, and a maze made of hay bales. You crawled in the dark, through the musty bales, bumping nose to tail with giggling grade-schoolers, searching for the exit. You got about twenty feet in and began screaming in terror, scratching and crawling your way out, to emerge choking on wails and hay dust. You would have been about five or six.

Or that show of silly bravado when you were twenty-one and descended into the gurgling bowels of Paris to gawk at piles of bones in the creepy half-light that reflected off weeping stones. You came to your senses just as they began to take leave of you. Fortunately, your companion was a Paris beat cop who had a crush on you. Bruno whisked out his flashlight, his badge, and you held onto the back of his leather jacket as he pushed back through the line and up the spiral staircase, shouting "Step Aside! Emergency" You emerged in a December downpour that ran with the tears you couldn't help as your heart unclenched and you gulped the air.

Elevators? Oh yeah. All about elevators. Was it San Diego State? UCLA? Some shiny-hot campus where you had to deliver a presentation to a class of International Business students. The classroom was on the twentieth floor and you walked it, didn't you? Damn straight. You're the one walking through four levels of the parking garage to reach street level without taking the elevator, the one whose husband curbed her enthusiasm about registering for the Big Climb Seattle - a charity run up the stairs of the Columbia Tower - by reminding her she'd have to take the elevator down.

And there are elevators that simply cannot be avoided (Hello, Swedish Women's Clinic on the 14th floor of the Nordstrom Building). So you'll wait at the bank of elevators, letting cars load up until everyone disappears so you can take one alone. Should even that be unavoidable, you will hover next to the control panel, helpfully punching in everyone's floors, just to be certain no one fucks around with the buttons and somehow stalls the car. Because then it would be over.

But flying was never a problem.  After my first transoceanic flight in 1990, I flew around the world- to Asia, to Africa, back and forth to Europe. Then, one warm spring day in 1999, I sat on the tarmac of Willard Airport, outside Urbana, IL, in an idling American Eagle turboprop. I was headed for a connecting flight in Indianapolis, then onto Denver for a conference. We sat on that tarmac with the doors closed, as the central Illinois heat turned our little plane into a stalled rotisserie. That's when my first on-board panic attack took flight. Just as my mind began to pull free from its hinges the plane rolled forward and the air conditioning whooshed icy relief into our cramped compartment. Somehow I got to Denver and back again.

Since that day, I haven't flown without spending at least a few shaky moments in the grip of claustrophobic anxiety. But I've kept flying. I have no qualms about crashing into the ocean in a fiery ball of wreckage. Not a bad way to go considering the many alternatives. I just don't like being trapped. What deep, dark corners of my childhood hide my need for control, for space, for cool, fresh air? Exorcising those ghosts on the tarmac of Atlanta Hartsfield really isn't opportune. So, I turn fight the lack of control with deeper, darker forces of anger and determination. I can't not travel. Being forever trapped on one continent is worse than a few hours in the air.

Crazy, lovely irony has kept my wings aloft. I spent many years as a study abroad coordinator - travel is in the job description. To Australia and Spain, to Japan and Belgium, off I went my with my heart in my toes and my stomach roiling. One job kept me traveling nine months a year, several times a month, through a territory that spanned Seattle to San Diego, Phoenix to Portland, with staff meetings in London and Atlanta every six months.  I built up frequent flyer miles galore, and what else is there to do with frequent flyer miles but to fly someplace? My husband and I even moved to New Zealand, which is nearly as far as you can fly non-stop. Fourteen hours. In a 757.

So this is where I tell you that yes, I did seek help. I'd gone to a behavioral therapist years before, as a high school student. There I learned a trick or two, something to do with cognitive dissonance, about telling myself to panic just as I began to panic - my brain wouldn't be able to manage the conflict between forced panic and the avoidance thereof. That sounds pretty good in a textbook, but I reckon the therapist who led me through the mental image exercises understood as much about my phobia as I did about Geometry. Which would be for shit, since I failed Geometry. My own therapy is New York Times crossword puzzles. Cognitive dissonance via wordsmithing. It's hard to panic when you are trying to remember who won the 1962 World Series (Seven letters: Yankees).

But I'm no martyr to my cause. A few weeks before a major trip I present myself to my understanding physician and renew my prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. It takes off the raw edge of panic - a chill-pill for an over-active brain - but I can tackle a crossword without chewing my lips bloody. Several years ago, I forgot to take my pills out of the bag that I checked through on the non-stop flight from Paris to Seattle. I didn't realize the little orange vial was beyond my reach until I was on the jetway, fumbling through my carry-on. I was alone and my meltdown was invisible from the outside. I flirted with walking away from the flight, but realized my bags would travel without me. I could stay in Paris forever. Or I could take the QE II across the Atlantic and hitch a ride from New York Harbor. Or I could stop being ridiculous and muscle through the panic. I thought of the poor sods on my flight who might suffer from a fear of crashing and realized that they might need my steady hand if we started to go down. I'd be calm for them, just in case. We all survived that flight, I'm happy to report.

So here I am, packing my bags for another flight across the Atlantic. I am doing something ridiculously cool: attending two wine-tasting conferences in the South of France, followed by a few days on my own wandering in Paris. Hours and hours on a plane where I can read to my heart's content, fall asleep watching whatever pointless Katherine Heigl movie is showing on the "romantic-comedy" movie stream, and relax, which isn't something I do very often. We forget that in traveling, it's not just the destination that matters. It's the journey that offers us the opportunity to challenge who we think we are.

I just hope the hotels have stairs.

Book Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth BardMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be easy to begrudge Elizabeth Bard her lovely life. As New Yorker living in London in the early 2000's, she met a nice French man at a conference in Paris. They had lunch and fell in love. Ten years on, she is married to that French man and they split their time between a Parisian pied-a-terre and a home in the south of France. In between, Bard became fluent in the French language and French cookery, penned a best-selling memoir/cookbook, her husband launched a successful digital film company, and they have a beautiful young son. Her blog is rainbow of food porn, lit by Provençal sunshine and Parisian lights. Scroll past vivid photos of heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs, haricots verts, cheeses weeping from their casements and naked beasts ready for roasting and you will be seduced by a life that seems the stuff of dreams. Envy as green as those fresh beans would be perfectly understandable.

But instead you just want to curl up on a sofa with Elizabeth to share a pot of tea, nibble her chocolate chip cookies, and giggle like schoolgirls over the photos of Daniel Craig in Le Figaro: Madame. She writes with unselfconscious charm and honesty that makes Lunch in Paris pure pleasure. It is like reading a series of letters from a dear friend.

This is not always a light-hearted memoir, though Bard's breezy style often belies the very serious nature of her acculturation to France, the challenge of a cross-cultural marriage, and the loneliness of living in a city without friends or gainful employment. I have a sense that she made a deliberate decision to put the most positive "atta girl" spin on her period of solitude as she learned her way around the French language and culture and said goodbye to the career of her dreams for the man of her heart. She allows sparks of frustration and anger to glow brightly when she writes of the diagnoses and treatment of her father-in-law's cancer and of her determination to see her husband succeed in his business venture.

There are a few jangly notes, mostly around the issue of money. Although Bard takes pains to show that the advantages she enjoyed in childhood were the result of a resourceful mother, she has the means to attend graduate school in London, then to travel every weekend from London to Paris in the year before she moves to Paris for good. Her mother and stepfather visit frequently from New York and she to see them. At one point, she withdraws around $20k from an ATM (Her stash? Her parents?) to make a down payment on an apartment in the 10eme arrondissement. It's a bit of perspective that sets her apart from your average late 20s/early 30s-something single gal.

Bard centers her memoir around the theme of food and cooking as a means of discovering and falling in love with a place -  hardly new ground, particularly when the country in question is France. But Bard's bright writing keeps this well free of cliché territory. Bard does a lovely job of addressing her attitudes toward eating and body image, in a land where women maintain slim physiques on petite frames well into middle age. She uses gentle but candid humor and relates some painful stories of fitting her curves into French expectations. I have since read an essay Bard wrote for Harper's magazine about her struggles with her weight and emotional eating, a struggle that seemed to dissipate in a culture that regards food and mealtimes with reverence.

The recipes at the end of each chapter will make this book a permanent part of my cookbook library. She offers up an array of French home cooking, culled from her imagination, from meals at favorite restaurants and from French friends and in-laws who readily shared their culinary traditions.

I am now addicted to Elizabeth Bard's blog. Seeing her happy life unfold in living color makes my own dreams seem full of possibility.

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Book Review: Enough About Love, Hervé Le Tellier

Enough About LoveEnough About Love by Hervé Le TellierMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

To appreciate this novel is to recognize that it is written with Gallic sense and sensibility. That is to say, it is not a linear story with a predictable arc that reaches a climax and culminates in a resolution. In substance and style it is a novel of process, of conversation, of debate. It is, like the culture which it represents, maddening, thoughtful, intriguing, and seductive.

To enjoy this novel is to not expect a romance or a comedy- for it is not- but to delight in the romantic or comedic moments when they occur.

To read this novel is to be reminded that none of us truly knows another's marriage, even that of a close friend, a sibling, or a colleague with whom you spend more time than your own spouse.

Enough About Love is a perfect title. It sound like a command, as in "Enough, already!" or "Let's not talk about it anymore!" It could be the plea of psychoanalyst Thomas Le Gall, who pays off a small villa in Italy by listening to the angst-ridden memories and confessions of his patients. It could be the irritated and guilty brush off by stunning Anna Stein, a just-forty psychiatrist and mother of two, of her husband, the devoted Stanislaus. It could be the impatient demand of lithe Louise Blum, hot-shot attorney, as she instructs her husband, biologist Romain Vidal, on the fine art of speech delivery. It could be the jaded sigh of esoteric writer Yves Janvier, disagreeing with the suggestion that his next novel should have "love" in the title, to attract more readers.

These characters' lives intersect; whether in a therapist's office, in a café, on a sidewalk, or in a bed, the smallest ripples of chance force waves of change. By meeting, they are each compelled to examine their belief in love and where it diverges from passion or converges on friendship.

Le Tellier manages to make you care about characters whose lives are vastly removed from most. These are exceptionally attractive, successful, well-read, well-bred Parisians- conditions determined by birth into France's upper-middle class, largely unavailable even to the hardest-working. The women live up to the impossible French notion of the ideal woman: she who brings home the bacon, fries it up in pan, and never lets Monsieur forget he's a man. The men are allowed more diversity: a paunch in the belly, a thinning pate, weaker of character and of heart. For this I fault the male and the French in Le Tellier and the American in me. Perhaps his French readers expect no less; I weary of female characters whose physical perfection turns them into caricatures.

Le Tellier, through his intellectual-elite characters, also brings out the question of Jewish identity and French remorse and guilt about the treatment of Jews in France during the Second World War. At times it is poignant, at times shocking how contemporary France embraces and rejects its Jewish past and present.

Considering the style of Enough About Love: there is enough conventional novel structure to seduce you into a story of love and infidelity. But anticipate being walked through a maze of literary flourishes: a chapter that is one long inventory of Anna's clothing purchases; a speech and an internal dialogue that run simultaneously for several pages, mirroring a game of Abkhazian Dominos -  a game that takes on a life of its own within the story; a love sonnet composed of forty distinct memories. An anonymous and omniscient narrator is so close to the characters' innermost identities his or her revelations border on the more intimate second person narrative.

This is a quick read, but it is not light. There is a beautiful economy of words that is so quintessentially French - I commend the translator Adriana Hunter for the conveying the precision and clarity of the French language in the rich and muddled mess of English.

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Book Review: The Chateau, William Maxwell

The ChateauThe Chateau by William Maxwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rare gem of a book. It is so perfect in its depiction of traveling and falling in love with another country that, not only would I not change a word, I found section after section I wanted to absorb into my skin. Although written sixty years ago and set just after World War II, the interactions and reactions of a young American couple with the French and in France remain relevant, painful, hilarious, and true.

Its peaceful pace belies the profound transformation of its principal characters, Harold and Barbara, and of the painful recent history from which the French were so eager to shake loose in the fragile years of the late 1940’s. It is counter to French nature to turn away from history and move on with assertive hope; Barbara and Harold arrive at the border just as France accepts that breaking the habit of reflection and debate and marching in concert with their European neighbors- including Germany- is the only way out of the post-war depression.

Whether or not it was the writer's intention, Maxwell’s characters personify specific national characteristics or conditions that were present in France during this tender and uncertain time.

Mme Viénot is the face of dignity. She endeavors to preserve the gentility of the rapidly disappearing class of landed gentry. Hers is the eponymous château, which suffers the indignities of no hot water, no heat, and a larder limited by ration coupons. She is wily, a survivor, one foot trailing in the France’s past, the rest of her thrust forward, ready to grasp what she can to keep her home and legacy intact.

Eugène Boisgaillard encapsulates a nation emasculated by war, and its co-conspirators helplessness, guilt, and frustration. He runs hot and cold- a character you don’t trust and but somehow you come to understand. He is surely suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition not spoken of in a nation that had lost so many of its young men to war. He resents the vitality and hope of the American naïfs as he comes to terms with the loss of his gracious pre-war lifestyle.

Mme Straus-Muguet is a reminder that all is not as good as it seems in the land of your dreams. Pulling back the curtain of Emerald City to see an insignificant blunderbuss at the controls is a keen disappointment. But once you accept the flaws and the ordinariness of it all, you also begin to feel more at home.

Her awkward social status is also a painful but unspoken reminder that, although united during the war by hunger, fear, resistance, or mere survival, the different social classes would sort themselves out in peacetime. Peace means never having to say “I’m sorry,” to someone beneath your standing.

Sabine and Alix are the face of the new France: young, strong, independent women. Sabine is blazing her career path without the help of her connected family or a paramour; Alix is a busy mother in a passionate but difficult marriage with the mercurial Eugène. These women realize there is no time to stop and reflect on all that was lost in two generations of war; their lives are rich and full, the demands on their intelligence and heart too great to tarry.

It often feels that Harold and Barbara are more conduits than characters, particularly the winsome and vague Barbara. Harold works so hard to understand and to be understood, to fit in, get along, adapt; he wants desperately to be French, but understands that he is the quintessential American. The passages showing Harold falling helplessly in love with France, encountering the inexplicable and the maddening, and finally, saying goodbye to Paris are heart-wrenching to any one who has known and loved that beautiful, proud, contrary, gracious country.

The Château is a love letter to France, and an homage to the baffling, intoxicating experience of traveling abroad. It is also an astute portrayal of post World War II Europe, of a country that was on the losing side of the victorious.

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The sweeping up the heart/And putting love away

Again this year, for the third bewildering time, I have said goodbye to a friend. I have mourned a life that graced the world with compassion and integrity. I have felt anger over a light extinguished far too soon. These friends - Tom, Peter, and Will - celebrated all the wondrous things the world offered, embraced circles of friends with boundless affection, explored this earth from the peaks of the Himalayas to the deserts of Namibia, choose careers that touched the lives of countless individuals, and displayed mercy by providing loving homes to abandoned dogs and cats. They each reserved a special place in their hearts for the least among us and showed the best of what we can all be. Tom. Chance and coincidence put us back in touch after the many intervening years between 1988-when we were students at Central, and 2008- when Brendan and I made our home near your Fremont neighborhood.  I remember the day at PCC when you shared with me your broken heart at the loss of your beloved Lucy. A few months later we too lost our little Lucy-girl and you understood, without having to say more than "I'm so sorry," how profound is the pain of losing a canine companion.

The world came to right when you found a home in the heart of a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman and her sweet blue heeler, Josie. It was a joy to watch that romance blossom and a comfort to know two worthy souls had found one another. The neighborhood was devastated by the sudden and senseless accident that stilled your vibrant life. I still catch sight of you in Fremont, strolling along Leary Way with your easy, open gait; I hear your voice in the store, that warm bass bidding hello to the many friends you encounter. Know that you are missed, that there is a beautiful girl who will carry you forever in her heart, and that we, your many friends, regret the beers at Brouwer's and the runs at Alpental that we will never get to share with you.

Peter. Oh my heart. How lovingly Brendan spoke of you and Randy and how he marveled at the bond that formed the moment he met the two of you at the language center in Amboise in 1988. By the time I finally met you and Randy in Paris in 1996, you were a part of the story of my marriage because your friendship with my husband shaped so much of his character.  You both loved and celebrated him unconditionally. Your commitment to each other showed us what a loving relationship should be; how two very different souls with different ambitions and goals could unite and support one another; how conflict and challenge could make a relationship stronger if the heart is allowed to lead.

The two weeks we spent together hiking in the hills of western Ireland were magical. You and I, ever the Type A's who tolerated no dawdling, would charge ahead on the path. Randy and Brendan, with their patient and reflective characters, would pause to enjoy the views and catch up when it was time for a pause chocolat. We chattered about books, about food, about politics and travel, our words tumbling together as we delighted in our kindred spirits. You talked about taking an early retirement after many successful years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Brendan and I hoped to lure you and Randy to the Land of the Long White Cloud and we talked about creating a peaceful life together in the New Zealand countryside. You and I planned out the menus of our bistro- an intimate venue that would feature regional and seasonal delights with a Provençal twist. Our men would do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, I would manage the front-of-house, you would be chef de cuisine. We believed in butter and flowers, in the right stemware and linen. We would have played with recipes, trolling markets, changing menus, flirting with the same delivery drivers and fishmongers. I idolized and adored you.

For two years you struggled as your health deteriorated. Not even the world's most skilled physicians at the Oregon Health Sciences Institute and the Mayo Clinic could determine exactly what was tearing down your organs. Finally, after endless tests and changing regimens of drugs, countless hopes raised and dashed, they found the rare sarcoma against which you were powerless to fight. But to the very end you chose your own path. You let go when you were ready, not when the disease determined it was time. You were only 54. You and Randy should have grown old together, we should have grown old with you. There was so much more world to explore, so many plans to make.  The sun dimmed when you left this world.

Will. My sweet, irreverent Southern man who was at once bon vivant with a Ph.D and a just-folks boy from the hollers. You would be the last to admit your own extraordinary courage. As a young man growing up in South Carolina in the 50s and 60s it was unimaginable that you reveal your true self. How painful it must have been to live a secret, though there is no doubt you loved your wife and cherished your little girl. You served in Vietnam, an experience you rarely discussed. You would never allow anyone to label you as a hero. But you were. The courage in revealing your sexuality was rewarded when you met the love of your life, your darling Michael, who was your companion for over twenty years.

Will, you saw something in me when we met in Athens, Ohio in 1995 at the very start of my career in study abroad. You reached out to me in complete trust and never-ending affection; you became my professional champion, very quickly my friend, and for a great, crazy, whirlwind four years, my boss. I don't know of any other man outside of my husband and my father who rewarded me with unconditional love the way you did. How many people ever end a business phone call with their boss by exchanging "I love you's"? How many bosses would play hooky from work to take their charge to London's Camden Town flea market or a gay pride parade in Paris? My God, I was so blessed. The little gifts you showered on me are among the few things I've carted with me around this world: the antique French shoe-shine box;  the Degas knockoff I couldn't stop coming back to at Covent Garden that you bought for me on the sly; the lavender sachet with its embroidered "W"; the silver fish fork with the bone handle; the wooden coat hanger from a French farmhouse. We shared a love for South Asian writers, Roxy Music, Paris, and you always, always made me laugh. I am so glad I was able to say "I love you" one last time, when we both knew it would be the last time. You are my angel.

So much loss.  I have felt the sadness of my mortality; the terror at the thought of losing my life partner; the sorrow in not being able to relieve a loved one's pain; the regret in acknowledging the body's fragility; the paranoia of watching out for that split second when one decision instantly ends a life.

So much life. I cannot give physical life to these cherished men, but I can give life to their memories with my tears and my words. I can feel again and forever the love with which they graced this mortal world and try to measure up to their integrity, courage and generous hearts.

Emily Dickinson, "The bustle in the house"
THE BUSTLE in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—
 
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.