Sunday, January 30, 2005

30 Classical Guitarists

The sign on Jean-Pierre and Babette’s green grocery store door said 30 classical guitarists, Sunday 18:00 Notre Dame, Free.

Since it was my last day in Argelès before going to Geneva for several months, I had spent the day in my nest writing. I'd nailed a chapter on my new novel and felt good about it.

Almost every day I have taken a long walk, but this was the seventh straight day of the Tramantane. The wind was blowing so hard I suspected that if I lifted my arms in my duvet coat, I would become airborne.

Fortunately my nest is well heated. My girl friend made curtains, quilted on one side, that keeps the heat in or out depending on the season.

At the last minute I grabbed my coat and arrived just as the music started.

The guitarists sat on the altar and ranged from 7 to 17. One little boy and girl looked as cherubic as the angels flying over their head. They wore black shirts and pants, with yellow or red vests. The Catalan flag is red and yellow. Legend has it that a prince of the Middle Ages to revenge his father’s death killed the assassin. He dipped his fingers into the dead man’s blood and drew them across his yellow shield.

The conductor, Michel Rubio, looked like a French music prof should. He was balding on top with the remaining wavy hair touching his collar. He was dressed in a maroon turtle neck shirt.

The church was filled with at least 300 people. Notre Dame was built in the 1300s. Until it was renovated two years ago, the dirt of ages had made it depressing. Entering made me feel as if someone was stealing the air. Now the walls are a light peach, the chandeliers sparkle with light, and the air is out of danger from thieves.

I saw many of my neighors, those I know and those I identify as the man with the Dali mustache, or the woman that looks like a member of the Swiss Government.

Having attended enough beginning concerts while my daughter was learning violin, I questioned the wisdom of coming out on this cold night, but after a few bars, I realised that these young musicians were talented. I shut my eyes and went with the music.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Buying a TV

I did it. I broke down after 18 years and ordered a TV for Argelès. I have always had one In Switzerland and revelled in being able to watch French, Swiss, German, American and British channels, especially the news.

All my French appliances come from Groschens, an appliance store owned by two brothers. Although their products might be a little more expensive than the chains, when I have a problem they come. Not only that they didn’t laugh when they explained that the spin cycle on my washer wasn’t broken – all I had to do was to push the spin button. When they installed my air conditioner/heater I had pulled a muscle in my back, and they added getting me things I needed to their service list.

This time their technician took a great deal of time to explain the ins and outs of French TV, which stations were free, which had to be paid for. He needed to check my roof, and wasn’t sure if I really meant yes, he could stand on my table to look through the skylight. Even then he couldn’t reach, so we placed a chair on top of the table. He found this hysterical, but said he would bring a ladder when he did the installation.

Originally, I had been planning to buy a little portable, no more than 12 inches. I don't want a TV to dominate my living space much less my tiny studio. (All my appliances are mini and are more than enough.) He suggested a flat screen. When I went into the store, the first one I looked at was much too big, but we went through the catalogue and found a tiny, inconspicuous small screen. I selected my stations.

Now when I am in Argelès, I will once again have the BBC. I will be able to watch Tim Sebastian ask really hard questions of his guests on Hardtalk.

I’ll never miss another appearance of Garou.

I won’t have to rely on the transcript of Meet the Press even though I wish Tim Russert was much more like Tim Sebastian.

The technician said he could install it next week. I said wait until I return from Geneva in April. After 18 years a couple of months more isn’t important. I didn’t have the full 30% deposit on me, and said, I would come back. “Don’t worry about it, we know you. Pay us at delivery,” the owner’s wife said. Now that wouldn’t happen in a chain.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Winter Wars and Warmth

My daughter in Boston wins the winter wars with snow up to her shoulders. Still it is O°C here in the South of France, and the Tramantane blows incessently. I don’t even want to think of the wind chill factor. The sun is bright, the sky is blue. I knew it was cold when I saw frozen dog pee. Now that could be usual in Boston, but here it is not.

Warmth is inside writing next to my fireplace.

Monday I go up to Geneva, where my friends report the weather is not much better. I am looking forward to getting back to my place there, to walks along the lake, to sharing coffee with my writing friends, and I have been promised a fondue and a special ice cream by my best political buddy.

Warmth is given by friends.

I miss my daughter after having her live with me for a year in Geneva. I would like to share a continent with her and preferably even a country city. Ideally that would mean that we would be on the same side of the war of who has it colder, hotter, wetter, dryer. However, since that is about the only area where we disagree, I am a lucky woman.

Warmth is given by family.

War is not needed either by outdoing each other with who has the colder temperature or who has the biggest weapons.

R.I.P. George and Gracie

George and Gracie are dead. I only met them Christmas Eve. They were a pair of hermit crabs that a friend gave to her son. They were indirect victims of the Boston cold, even though Kirk had moved their tank to a warmer place.

As a dog lover and a cat liker, I never thought of hermit crabs as having personalities. No one takes a hermit crab for a walk (advantage on a rainy night, disadvantage on a beautiful day) nor do they jump in your lap and purr. How surprised I was to discover hermit crabs exhibit character. George when you tapped on the aquarium ran to the tapping. Gracie was more timid. Sure, it was sexual stereotyping to call the braver one George and the more timid Gracie.

I learned of their demise through Kirk’s blog He said they deserved better than they got.

Pet hermit crabs do not have a great number of choices in life aside from shell selection. Like all pets they are totally dependent on the kindness of their owners. In fact they only get shell selection if given shells. But as humans we too are dependent on forces out of our control.

As much as we plan to stay at a certain job, a layoff changes those plans. An unexpected pregnancy has consequences, a fire can destroy our homes, a car accident may leave us injured. Few of us get up in the morning and think, “How wonderful, I want a disaster, today, which one will I choose.” All we can do is react. Hopefully we will go from reacting to acting to rebuild our lives with dignity.

We had a terrible change of plans on 9/11. When we attacked Afghanistan we could have captured Bin Laden. We could have helped the Afghanis far more than we did. Yes we secured Kabul, yes we did have an election. Instead of spending billions destroying Iraq, we could have spent a lot less building hospitals, schools and an infrastructure in Afghanistan. As an ordinary citizen, I cannot control what my government does, although I can write letters, call congressmen, attend demonstration, sign petitions.

The election is coming in Iraq. We’ve been told it will bring democracy in Iraq. I just hope it doesn’t end like George and Gracie for we have about as much control over the events there as those two hermit crabs.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Save the homeless -- call this number

Two homeless people froze to death in France. The radio is asking citizens if they see people in trouble during this cold spell to call a certain number for them to get help.

When I was in Boston over the holidays there was an article about all the homeless children who were given Christmas presents. Boston is buried in snow with more on the way and I wonder if they have found shelter.

I wonder if Americans who see a homeless person has a number to call for that person to be rescued.

Role Reversal

When my daughter was young and disagreed on what she should be allowed to do, we often did a role reversal. She would become the slightly overprotective mother while I would be the recalcitrant teenager. If we didn't dissolve into giggles at our acting antics, we usually came out with a workable compromise and went on to share some gooey dessert. Many temper tantrums and angry moments were sidetracked and our lives ran more smoothly.
I wish Americans could pretend they were in the Iraqis' place, only not in Fallujah, but in our own homes. Imagine that the Moslem world, convinced of western godlessness, decided to take over the US to make it an Islamic heaven. Successfully they bomb us into submission, destroying our major cities, leaving millions without water or electricity. Our military is disbanded and our weapons of mass destruction, which were quickly found, were destroyed.
I will call the people who took over America "liberators" because they think they have "liberated" us from our evil ways. Any American who resists the liberators will be called an "insurgent".
To stop our "uncontrolled materialism" the liberators of the US closed all our shopping malls and sent much of the goods back to their own countries. Corporation heads were replaced with religious leaders. Our Army and all our law enforcement agencies were disbanded, although some American joined the new Moslem Army and new Moslem police forces. Unemployment was running at 67%. Any reconstruction projects done were by citizens of the liberating countries so any chance for work was further reduced.
The new Ayatollah, in charge of the American government, was an American Moslem appointed by the liberators, although we were told we could appoint our own religious leaders in the future, but then they would set up a government based on Koran. Over and over the Americans were told to put aside their "new" culture of only a couple of hundred years and accept the much older culture created by the Koran. Because of its longevity, Americans were told that it had to be superior to the upstart idea of secular democracy, free trade and capitalism.
Certain cities, of course, rebelled, and New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, and Miami were bombed into rubble to route out the insurgents.
Several churches were turned into prisons, when although abundant in number local prisons overflowed with people who fought against the liberators. Reports came out of American insurgents being tortured. People were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night and tortured. Many were shot outright if they tried to protect their families. Almost no household was left without losing a relative to the liberators.
Now, as an American, would you embrace the new leaders, thanking them for saving us from our decadent lifestyle and repressive leaders? Would you immediately embrace the new values that you had been denied because of our previous evil leadership? Or would you join the insurgency? If you did join the insurgency would you think of yourself as insurgent or as an American patriot fighting to resist invaders?
Let's stop pretending now. Hopefully we have been able to put ourselves in the Iraqis' place and see why they may not be co-operating, and why the insurgency is growing. Anyone familiar with the Arab world knows that Iraqis have been the strongest fighters of the Middle East throughout history. They have been invaded before, but no invasion had ever been successful and this one will fail at a terrible cost to both Americans and Iraqis.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Coming back to Argeles

The Tramantane was blowing, but I could hear the palm trees crackle over the wind as I stepped off the train in Argelès. I was back in my Catalan village. Smoke smell from the chimneys hung in the air masking any sea smells from the Mediterranean.

“My nest” is in the grenier or attic of a 500-year old building. No traces of the grain once stored there remain although there are old beams, the original stone wall and a wooden cathedral ceiling, over which I have imposed all the comforts I want or need: mini washer, mini fridge, mini stove and of course a laptop and my printer. I write well in Argelès, probably because it fulfils a lifetime fantasy.

A quick unpack from my two months in the States and I was ready for dinner and headed for Les Flowers. What a battle to decide between salmon with basilica sauce or the magret de canard. The duck won along with a bowl of bubbling cider. The alcohol is less than 2%, but it tasted good.

Saturday is the marché, and I happily chose my spinach, Spanish clementines, mushrooms from the mountain woods on my way to the boulangerie for pave henri, a bread that is neither white or dark, crusty and yeasty. My loaf was still warm from the wood-fed ovens.

Before locking myself into my laptop, I allowed time to revel in village life and catch up on the news.

Eliot, the black and white kitten, who entertained my neighbors with his grape-ball soccer games up and down the street, had disappeared. He was found in the post office, but his owners were fed up with his antics. Babette and Jean-Pierre, owners of the green grocery on the corner, had taken him in to the delight of their cat, Max. Max let Eliot attack him, but when the kitten became too rambunctious Max pinned him between his paws until Eliot calmed down. Often it was a long wait. Eliot stayed on his back with his feet cycling in the air, but unable to right himself. However, two cats were more than Babette wanted, and Eliot found a new home across town.

Christine, the Danish artist and hotel owner, was on a small holiday. Her studio where artists from all over the world come to give lessons and to paint in the south of France, is shuttered. Her assistant, May, who found hotel work fun after retiring as a mid-wife from Scotland, was using the lack of tourists to relax.

The young Belgian woman who works at the cheese shop is doing well. Her partner is still struggling as a freelance journalist.

I left a note on the door of my neighbors who were out. They are renovating a four-story house, and from their terraced roof I can see the sea, the mountains and most of the village.

Madame Fernandez, briefed me on her care of my two plotted plants flanking the entrance of my building that has a total of four tiny apartments.

The young woman where I buy my fresh herbs has almost finished her wedding preparations. She will make a beautiful bride.

Back in “my nest” I am ready to write. Life is good.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Dinner in the Latin Quarter

My Syrian friend and former neighbor has an apartment in Paris where she studies medicine. On my way home from the States I decided to spend a few days with her. As often happens, when staying with Marina, any number of people, show up.

This time it was another American, Marsha, a person Marina had met in Syria when she was opening the a poison center. Marsha had been in Egypt and was taking an overnight break on her way home to see Marina.

“I’m taking you both to dinner,” Marsha said.

Marina lost out on her usual protests with the arguments she had been on call for almost 24 hours with only a short nap after Marsha’s arrival. Marina’s cooking is wonderful, but she needed to be cared for instead of caring for others. Both Masha and I are older, and lectured her on what a great giver she is, but she needs to learn to take. If pushed, Masha and might have told her, we recognize the dichotomy because we are the same, but fortunately that didn’t come up.

Because of the French transportation strike (which is so organized the trains and metros that are running are posted on the internet – although the French strikes are terribly disruptive, they are so much better than people accepting worsening conditions in their lives without protest) we grabbed a cab to Saint Michel.

We wandered into the Latin Quarter to peruse the restaurant windows with Gourmet Magazine photo-like window displays of fish, meat and other goodies. Broken dishes, another tradition, littered the sidewalk as the maître d's tried to entice us into their restaurants with offers of a free cocktail, music, mouth-watering descriptions of how our meals would be prepared and circular tables.

The final selection left us seated on the second floor (American) or first floor (European) over looking the street where we could see the ancient buildings, the tourists. We could imagine students in the middle ages wandering by on their way to classes at the nearby University of Paris.

Marina took our picture and the waiter offered to take one of the three of us. The expectation that our salmon and skate would be sauced to perfection and presented with a sense of art worthy of a painter, was met, but we weren’t surprised. This is Paris. This is the Latin Quarter.

And we talked about politics, the war, our lives, the lives of others we care about, the decisions we make and how aging really instead of something to be feared has freed us, not limited us.

We even gave into dessert, a bitter chocolate cake with black chocolate sauce, tarte des pommes and crème caramel. We were freed from calorie worry.

Good food, good wine, good conversation with intelligent caring women, good ambience. Life does not get much better.

The Empty Seat

One empty seat on the Lufthansa Boston-Frankfurt and I was lucky enough to be next to it. The Indian woman next to me and I exchanged smiles and congratulated ourselves on our good luck as we waited for the luggage of the missing person to be removed.

The plane took off, the seat belt sign was turned off and a tall German woman stood next to me asking if the seat was vacant. She said her seat mate was ...and she rolled her eyes. The Indian woman and her friend and I agreed.

Curious as always, I asked where she was from. “

“A little town near Stuttgart,” she said.

“I lived in Stuttgart for two years and loved it,” I said.

This led to a discussion of our lives that went deeper. The two Indian women joined in.

A small head up popped up in the row in front of us. We started playing with three-year old Victoria, taking turns taking her dolly, flipping the head cover back and forth and playing finger games.

The plane began to bounce then drop and rise, drop and rise. The crew was told to take their seats. The Indian woman started to cry with fear. She said that they had a terrible flight and only later did they realize that they were flying over the tsunami. The German woman held one hand, her Indian friend the other, while I tried to quench my own fear by reassuring her.

When the plane calmed, and the woman who had been afraid walked to the front of the plane to talk with a co-worker also on board, the other Indian woman moved and we discovered she was in pain. The German woman grabbed a pillow and put it on her lap. “Lay down,” she said. The woman did.

We talked about the poor, how lucky we are to be living the lives we live, which we were sure were better than 99% of the people who’ve ever lived in this world. We talked about work, families, hobbies. We laughed, we cried.

The flight ended much too fast (except for the turbulence that went on much too long). I went on to catch my Paris flight, the Indians looked for a place to spend the hours before the next leg of a journey that would last at least 30 hours and the German woman took off for her Stuttgart connection.

We’ll never see each other again, but for a few hours there was an intense friendship of four women despite being of three nationalities, three religions, and speakers of five different languages with thirty years difference in ages. The differences were not important. The similarities were.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Winter ice cream sodas - more than ice cream

A vanilla soda with chocolate ice cream is not the typically desired treat on a storm swept day in Ocean Grove, NJ unless like me you are about to return to Europe where the treat is impossible to come by.

The combination has been a favorite of mine since the time I would go to Torre’s in my hometown of Reading, MA. Torre's was an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with dark booths. The smell of ice cream and hot fudge permeated the air. If I ever defected from my soda, the sundaes were served in silver dishes with hot fudge spilling over onto the matching silver saucers. Saturday afternoons after football games or on Friday nights before Rainbow I would treat myself to one or the other.

Years later, my daughter would spend summers in Ocean Grove, bleaching her blond hair white and changing her skin to the color of chocolate ice cream. I would visit on weekends, and a trip to Nagle’s for a soda was a necessity. Two decades later on a return visit to this mile-square town with its Victorian houses, a trip was equally necessary.

Entering is entering a time warp. The floor is a black and white mosaic. An old fashioned soda fountain with a bar and stools is along a windowed wall-filled with clear, blue and green glass jars. On one counter is a 1937 winner certificate from the Racing Forum given to Sea Biscuit hangs as well as the colors his jockey wore in a race. Under glass each table has yellow newspapers from the 30s and 40s. Houses for summer rentals are listed. The price of food and are other goods are what we would pay in sales tax on the same goods today.

Nagle’s was there long before I was born. The chocolate ice cream and vanilla soda existed long before I was born. However, the one that I had on a cold day was more than a just a soda, it was a memory that tasted damn good.