Thursday, March 31, 2005

Our planet dies while we buy

I read an article on how lovely it would be if gas went to $10 a gallon. It was one of the many on how we cannot continue to consume as we are, not just gas, but all resources.

Today the following was reported by the Guardian and has been the lead story on many European news programs.

The human race is living beyond its means. A report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries - some of them world leaders in their fields - today warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure.

“The study contains what its authors call ‘a stark warning’ for the entire world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.”

I fumed really when I was in the US over Christmas and saw all the gas guzzling cars. I wanted to shout “murderer” to anyone who is not driving a fuel efficient car and by that I mean any car that doesn’t get 30 miles or more to the gallon. I want to say, “you have helped kill those 1500+ American soldiers, you have helped killed those Iraqis, you have helped kill the 30,000 Europeans who died of the heat in summer 2005. You are selfish. You are irresponsible.”

A lot of me would like to see the unhappy face of a person with a 30 mile commute to work in a car that gets 15 miles to the gallon and he has to pay $40 a day or $200 a week to get to work.

Yes, it would be an economic catastrophe, but the catastrophe will come anyway. To me the only question is which generation will pay for our utter selfishness to consume, consume, consume. Rome burned while Nero fiddled. We buy while our planet dies

The Cat Not in the Hat But The Library

The tiger cat, curled up on the blue chair, was bigger than a Pekinese. What made it strange he was in the reading area in front of the circulation desk of the Argelès library. When people stopped to stroke him, he would open an eye, and perhaps purr, perhaps not. When a group of kids off from school as they always are on Wednesday came through he did the cat equivalent of a frown, but once they trooped past, he shut his eyes again. When the library closed for lunch he slipped off the chair and marched out the front door.

After years in Europe I am used to having animals in restaurants, cafés, hotels, buses, but this is the first time I saw an animal in a library. Unlike animals in other places, the cat was obviously alone, although with his thick coat and size there was no question of being a stray. Either he decided this was a more comfortable place to curl up than outside or he wanted to read the latest issue of LeMonde. He looked wise enough for the second.

Years ago one of the NGOs in Geneva moved to a farmhouse that had been converted to offices. A white kitten adopted the staff. She wormed her way into regular meals, trips to the vet when needed, and a comfy bed at night. When a new Secretary General needed to be appointed, one of the tests was how the candidate responded when the cat walked through the interview. The one hired liked the cat although, she did have the proper credentials as well.

Somehow, being nice to animals, seems to make us all a bit more human, don't you think.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Time doesn't really change...just the clocks

My first clue that the clocks had moved ahead was that my computer time was an hour faster than all my clocks. I walked down to the corner where Babette informed me, yes, I had missed out on the time-change while Jean-Pierre, his arm in a cast, shook his head. Another American stupidity, to be treated with amused tolerance.

It wasn’t the first time I missed the change. Years before at the end of September my then lover Michel bet me an order of profiteroles what the time was. I thought that was an easy win. He counted on my lack of knowledge that French time changes are different from the US (It has since changed). I do wish he hadn’t smacked his lips as he ate his profiteroles.

And then…

Llara had come from the States and I had come from Geneva to Edinburgh in March about four years ago for a quality mother-daughter visit . We stayed with our mutual friend Christiane. While she worked Llara and I took in the sites of the city. She went to the Writers’ Museum for me, I went to the Whiskey Museum for her and we both were thrilled to stand where Mary Queen of Scots once stood.

In the evenings we ate with Christiane, appreciating her newly found cooking skills, or going to restaurants. Our last day, a Sunday, we opted to stay at home, watch movies, Friends, do needlework and talk.

Monday morning Christiane planned to drive us to the airport. She had an errand to run, while Llara and I leisurely showered and packed. A screech of brakes outside was followed by a door slam. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Christiane yelled. “The clocks changed.”

The ride to the airport would have qualified Christiane for a Formula 1 slot. I made my plane. Llara did not, and got to spend another day in Scotland and fly home business class as I jealously went back to work.

Although this Sunday I had missed the religious procession with the statues, I did see the Easter carolers. Nothing was lost, but I enjoyed taking out a couple of memories of missed time-changes. They are worthy of a smile, not a worry. After all, the clocks may change, but the number of hours in day do not.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Catalan Neighbors and Wet Walls

My arms were full of purchases from the marché, including a new small radio to replace the large one that was rapidly dying after ten years of sporadic use, a basil plant, a bottle of wine for when Peter and Val come for lunch and a bunch of daffodils.

When I bought the flat 18 years ago, I expected that I would spend most of my time trying to integrate with my Catalan neighbors, but one by one the houses on my street have been sold to Denmark television people, artists, writers and film makers until I think of rue Vermeille as Copenhagen South. As a writer, albeit as an American and wantabe Swiss, we have more in common.

As if to break the trend, a retired Catalan couple bought the house next to mine and renovated it. I own one flat, and a Frenchman named Franck owns two. The first floor flat is tied up with hundred of inheritors as can only happen here and has been vacant for years while they fight about its disposition.

Houses in Argelès fall victim to damp with walls often crumbling from moisture, especially if left empty. My new Catalan neighbors have discussed with Franck the moisture on our shared wall. Last summer Franck replastered much of our hallway and painted all of it. At the moment it is dry.

My neighbor showed me how they’ve renovated the house. Once dark and depressing, it is now bright with a modern kitchen, new stairs that are not a risk to walk up and down, and plenty of cubby holes that my neighbor explains that he designed for maximum storage. One he opens to reveal home canned tomatoes and sausiscon in abundance. There are plaster shelves that hold family photos. He says he hopes now that his place will be heated in winter that the moisture will no longer be a problem. He has had someone look at where our two walls join.

“It is so small,” they say of their place.

“Not as small as mine,” I say.

In turn I invite him to show him our side of the wall as well as my studio, which they agree is small but charming.

Our words have to be repeated many times. His Catalan accent is as thick as my American, but we keep at it. Rather than frustration we laugh at our misunderstandings. We shake hands and wish each other a nice Easter.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Barbara doesn't have a fiancé

“Will Barbara bring a fiancé with her?” the fish seller asks me. We are in Jean-Pierre and Babette’s store and I am buying some things for lunch. Jean-Pierre is upstairs nursing an arm after an operation. Babette sits behind the cash register. The fish seller, who is as wide as she is tall, has her store next door. She only opens when she can buy the best fish off the boats.

They look at me.

“Why?” I ask.

Another person thinks that may be the reason Barbara is returning later than usual from her winter trip to Boston.

“C’est la meme chance que le neige en l’enfer,” I say. They laugh. Obviously snowball in hell doesn’t translate like many sayings such as like father like son, tel père, tel fils.

I explain, my friend is working a couple of weeks extra to make up for lost time when she had a bad back.

They make the pft sound, that only the French can do right. “Pas romantique,” the fish seller says. Babette nods. Part of me feels badly that they can’t continue to imagine my friend having a romance.

Easter Carolers

The Easter Carolers will be around for most of the four-day Easter weekend. These are men and women in local dress, black pants or skirts and vests, red sashes around their waists, and Grumpy-like red dwarf hats. They will sing native songs. In other years I’ve seen them distribute beignets from baskets carried by a donkey with yellow and red Catalan ribbons braided into his tail. They offer Muscat drunk from a pitcher with a spout as long as the pitcher that they pour into open mouths without lips touching the glass. Some years they give out eggs. Some years they just sing. Each time I see them, brings up good memories.

The first time I saw them my daughter and my mom had come for the week. My Dad had died a few months before and it was my mom’s first trip to Europe. At that time I shared ownership of a house around the corner from my current studio. The house was three stories, had the original fireplace in the kitchen which in the 1600s was how the owners cooked all the meals. The kitchen was so French that one would expect Gerard Depardieu to be drinking un verre at the table where baguettes and olives would be next to the dish of anchovies soaking in a bowl. Strings of onions and garlic would hang from the beams.

We arrived to an empty house. It was cold. The water had been shut off. My neighbor, Monsieur Dombis, drove me to the water company and translated. By the time the water was back on, my Mom had a cold.

I led her to the medical center. She told me she had never been to a doctor she couldn’t speak to. Neither could I, but we emerged with prescriptions. At the pharmacy I wanted to make sure she had something for her cough and Kleenex. I grabbed my throat and coughed. I acted out blowing my nose. “Oh, you want cough medicine and tissues,” the pharmacist smiled. “I speak English very well.”

We went to Easter Day Mass and watched as statues of the Virgin and Christ were carried around the 700-year old church in what seemed much like a dance.

We didn’t go to the Sanch in Perpignan because she didn't feel up to it, although I have been since. The Sanch is a religious procession with its origins in the Middle Ages, where each church carries its flower-draped statues. Penitents follow the statues, some of who are barefoot. Many are dressed in what looks like Ku Klux Klan sheets died red. The resemblance to the KKK makes me uncomfortable. I prefer the singers.

That first Easter the Carolers came around and we watched them sing. That Easter I learned much more about my mom, my Dad’s second wife -- that she had served in the Navy in WWII, how she felt on topics we had never discussed. I learned that under less than comfortable conditions she was a great sport. I learned that she was willing to try things that seemed strange even if it were tentatively.

Thus each time I look at the Easter Carolers the memories will include those of a woman living in Florida, far away from these Catalan singers. Both make me smile.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Franck's New Tea Room

Franck has opened his new tearoom across from the 700-year old church. He and his English wife Louise used to own Les Flowers a crêperie where we had many parties, conversations and meals but when they tired of 18-hour days, they sold it.

The new tea room was a chacuterie forever, successful until sold to a man who did an excellent job in insulting his customers first by his mouth and worse by the inferior quality of his meat and pre-pared salads, meatballs and roasted chickens.

The inside walls were auctioned off, allowing Franck to get it at a good price. In France, merchants often own the inside, but not the outside of the buildings. They can sell it, or even charge for use of the inside walls as a one time charge in addition to the rent that is paid monthly.

For months Franck lugged stone, tile, plaster out of the small shop, which has metamorphosised into a really big place now that the back is open. In one way I am delighted. In another, I feel disloyal to George who runs a tea room around the corner. Franck had pretended interest in buying George’s place, found out how to run a tea room, than opened one that will compete.

I will frequent both places. Too lazy to make lunch I stop for a sandwich and order a smoked salmon and shrimp salad club, something George doesn’t carry. George has brownies and good chocolate things that Franck doesn't. Maybe I will be like Doug, the huge Canadian who plays musical tea rooms moving one tea room left when the music stops.

Foreign Currency Charges

Citibank wrote me to tell me that they would now charge 3% on all foreign currency transactions. Well, that’s one card I won’t use again.

I read that last year credit card companies earned over $11 billion in late charges. That is another reason I use my credit cards as little as possible. Too often the bill arrived after the due date. I won’t even go into the ill thought out bankruptcy bill pushed through Congress by credit card companies.

Credit card companies do not make money on me. Although I have over $100,000 in credit lines my balance at the end of each month is 0. I use them only when absolutely necessary saving for things I want and prepaying rather than paying later. Credit cards are handy when ordering books from the States, but I will use another card then my Citibank Card.

My grandmother is clapping in her grave at my New England frugalness.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Marché

The Argelès winter marché is half the size of the one during tourist season, although the village will fill for the long Easter weekend.

I am a merchant’s nightmare. Moths fly out of my wallet, angry that their peaceful home has been disturbed. It is not just spending money I dislike, it is having another thing in my life to deal with. Things need to find a place, to be dusted, to be cared for. This attitude does help with my limited budget, but it existed even when my income exceeded my expenses at a disgraceful amount. I consider a half empty closet a sign of my optimism and a full closet just plain depressing.

However, browsing the marché is fun. I need gifts for the people I will visit in Damascus next month. The merchant who sells olive wood dishes and accessories, made from local trees, was there. I tried to decide what people would like. Auntie Leila always has seeds out for her guests, so I select a wooden dish that has a second indentation for shells. For the woman I will visit in Aleppo, who reads a great deal, and teaches, there is a letter rack. My fingers trace the silken swirls. I already have a present for Hannan and I have ordered something for Melanie, her daughter.

I see a pant suits that will be perfect for my trip to Rome to cover a conference, but decide to wait. Even in marchés, I detest clothes shopping, and secretly wish things would appear in my half-empty closet without me having to do anything. My rule is if one thing comes in another goes out. Since I like everything I have, I can’t decide what to get rid of to keep the free space I treasure. If I were a painter I would favor the Japanese use of empty space versus the ancient Egyptian love of feeling everything up.

As an aside, it takes a long time to build memories into clothes. I like to remember that the sweater I am wearing now I wore the first time I went to a Chinese Buffet in Florida with my Mom who gave it to me. I wore it when I got a good job review, and the day I met Llara at the airport for her Christmas visit. I imbue my clothes with the memories until they become like trusted friends. What I wear is my past, present and future.

The spice man’s table is an array of paper sacks folded back, with wooden signs saying coriander, cumin, canelle with the prices underneath. I am almost out of cumin seeds, a disaster if I want to make the Indian food that I miss when I am in Argelès. Chitra’s family has addicted me to the cuisine. I take the last of his supply, and while he weighs it, I inhale the scent of fifty mingled spices.

I had planned to plant pansies then geraniums in the blue pots outside my blue door. The pots were bought in a small town in Northern Spain that has hundreds of potteries, ceramic tile places all at wholesale prices. However, the flower merchant has geraniums and no pansies, a sign to skip the first step, although if the merchant at Saturday’s marché has pansies, I will buy some for the ground floor window of the unoccupied flat in my building. My street is full of flowers and now that I am here more often, I don’t want my house to be the poor flowerless one.

I don’t choose any cheese stand, but go into the cheese store to use my fidelity card. When it is filled I will get a credit of 10% of my purchases. Not able to decide between two different cheeses, the owner has me taste test them. The brebis is sweeter, better for the breakfast I have delayed.

As I walk by the pottery stop, Rosella, the potter grabs me, kisses me, welcomes me back and asks me to translate for her. Her customers want to buy tile house numbers. They can decide on the style and the background painting and then she will paint the tiles, but Rosella isn’t sure they understand. They decide on a green gray number 1 with bamboo in the background. I decide it is time to go home, plant my flowers and get back to my writing.

Remembering Puppy

I realized while reading a book, that when I die, I will be the last person to remember my grandfather. He had been dead several years by the time my brother was born. Because I was little, I am not sure of how much I remember and how much was told to me.

He was an engineer, brilliant. When he took the qualifying exam at the State House he was told he hadn’t passed. He went in and asked to see the exam. He had answered every question right.

I called him Puppy, and have been told I was the only thing that muffled his gruffness and lack of tact. “Looks like a God damned Jew,” he said about one of my mother’s friend’s baby. He would not have done well in the PC age.

However, with me, he played marbles even making a special rack with holes and numbers that I could shoot the marbles through. He beat me at tiddlywinks and pretended to be Freddie Bobbsey to my Flossie.

“Why go on vacation. I am here,” he would say and descend into his garden, that I am told was laid out with a precision that would stop corn from growing one centimeter out of line from the other ears. Until he died, I never ate a bought vegetable. My grandmother canned everything we didn’t consume fresh. I thought the only part of asparagus you ate were the tips. At the cost of asparagus today, I now eat the whole thing.

He joked about saving money on a grave. “Just plant me in the garden and when the tomatoes come up better than ever you can say, that’s Walter.” My grandmother opted for a conventional grave in the city of Malden. On Memorial and Labor Days we would go and she would plant flowers.

I was nine when we went on one of these excursions. Parking the car we walked to the family tombstone. My grandmother stopped suddenly, dropping her trowel and started to cry. Where my grandfather was buried was a huge tomato plant covered with beefsteak tomatoes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Daughters and Demonstrations

My daughter Llara has been in my mind more than usual. The 2nd anniversary of the Iraqi war was the trigger. Two years ago when the bombs began to fall she was in the air on her way to Geneva to look for work, basing herself with me in my tiny flat. We had already discussed how we could co-exist between her territory-marking messiness and my neurotic neatness.

I am pretty much a non-directive parent, encouraging her in what she wants to do, only pointing out some things she should think about. I have complete confidence in her either to make the right decision or the ability to correct a wrong one. However, I have a trace of Hillary Clinton in me. She answered “Gosh, I’d miss her,” to the question “what would you do if Chelsea became a Republican?”

Almost as soon as she landed that March day in 2003 I said, “We are going to an anti-war demonstration in Bern on Saturday. This is one of those situations if you say no, your inheritance is at stake.” Since my writing has yet to produce Danielle Steele-like monetary results, this is not a bad threat. I don’t think she believes that anything she does would ever cause me to deny her. I can’t think of anything either, but I won’t tell her that.

“Mother, mother, mother, I’d go without you,” she said, once again giving me the that’s-my-kid feeling that I’ve had since the mornings when I would walk into her nursery and see her head poking over the crib bumper.

We took the train to Bern and went to lunch. She was thrilled to be able to get wurst salad, something she had developed a love for when she was studying in Munich in Germany. I felt so grateful to all the gods that she was in touching distance. I could look at her, laugh with her, share ideas without long distance rates or reading the words on a screen.

We marched together. It wasn’t the first time. As a small child she had gone to Equal Rights Amendment rallies, Take Back the Night marches. We had stood shoulder to shoulder at pro-choice demonstrations when she was in her teens.

Now that our worse expectations about the war have been met overmet, she is in the States and I spend my time in Argelès and Geneva. We are back to sharing with long-distance rates and words on the screen. Although I am sad at how it is, I know she needs her own nest and needs a job to pay for it and if she can’t find it in Europe she must go where the work is. I am so grateful that on that day in Bern at the restaurant as we shared a wurst salad, that I was so aware of how lucky I was to have her in front of me face-to-face. May I never take that’s-my-kid for granted.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Spring Cleaning

I am back in Argelès but I can’t get an internet connection. As soon as the computer store is open I am at the door. They say they are too busy, but I beg, so they promise to try.

Having the next six hours to do nothing, I decide to spring clean. My studio is in an attic, the grenier. It has a cathedral wooden ceiling with a skylight and lots, and lots of texture. It is perfect for a minimalist and the lack of space makes minimalism necessary, a good circle. For photos

I discover 25 English and 10 books I will never read again. Out, out, out. The remaining are filed as to read, cookbooks, reference, photo albums (but not in alpha order—my neurosis with neat does have its limits).

Why do I have three bottles of nail polish remover when I don’t use nail polish? Out, out, out.
I sort through my papers. So much extra junk. Out, out, out. Now there is not one sheet of paper that isn’t necessary. And for the first time everything is filed, almost in order.

Tourist booklets. There is one book that covers everything. One local map, one regional map. The rest? Out, out, out.

I have two pans more than I need. I’ve never used them. Out, out, out.

I wash everything: my fireplace tiles are spotless and a copper bowl with pinecones is in the center of the tiles, an idea from a Salvation Army officer.

My goal is that when I die, my daughter can go through all my possessions in less than a morning and will have plenty of time for coffee breaks. If she were to clear out my studio today, I bet she could do it in an hour and half, although I suspect she will keep it and rent it.

A wonderful feeling of lightness comes over me as I learn that I have nothing extra, but exactly what I need and not a paper clip or a staple more. Just as I put the sponge away, the computer store calls. My laptop is ready.

A Nine Hour Train Ride Isn't Wasted

Rather than change trains I took a direct Paris-Argelès train leaving from Gare de Austerlitz, forgetting it is the long way round and that it will add three hours to the trip. It is longer than a Genève-Newark flight. One of the things that I like about train travel, besides the scenery is that time is suspended.

However, the trip became more. The usual nice parts of train trips existed, a friendly woman to chat with, the inevitable orange that I have decided it mandatory. I cannot think of the last time I took a train trip that did not include the smell of an orange that someone in my car peeled.

Limoges…this is not far from Michel’s farm. He is a former lover sadly also a former friend and his family owns a wonderful farm outside the city. Even after several visits, I was still finding rooms. Memories to take out and smile at:
--Watching the farmer next door salt a new born calf so his mother would lick harder
--Michel’s mother asking how my dogs liked their grade A steak cooked. I suspected if I had said flambéed in Cognac, she would have done it.
--Long multi-coursed meals on the terrace over looking the woods. Even when we started at seven, his mother would still be serving courses when the stars came out at ten each better tasting than the one before..
--Trips to a nearby pond, etc.
--A Bach concert in a church
--A fun fair and learning that cotton candy was called my father’s beard
--rushing into the woods with the kids to see their discovery of a four-foot anthill

Michel’s sister Elisabeth owns the farm now, and I do have an invitation. Someday I will go.

Montabon: Michel and I were driving through when my Japanese Chin Amadeus decided to jump out the window. I held his leash, screamed. Michel slammed on the breaks as I hauled Ama back into the car. Although my vet says no, I wondered if Ama’s neck problems started from almost being hung that day.

Brive: At a museum that didn’t allow dogs, we checked Albert and Amadeus while we looked at music boxes, including a life-sized one of a four-piece jazz group.

Toulouse: Even before I lived there with Michel and his kids, Fanny and Raphaël, I had visited often. I resisted the temptation to get off the train to call Françoise, who I call my sister without borders. She remakes old books by hand tapping on letters in gold leaf. An artist. Her daughter has had a liver transplant and has visited me in Switzerland. Her son spent part of a summer with me in Boston.

Canal du Midi: I’ve biked up and down, passing boats ambling along the water. I notice there are now wind farms in the background. Good on France.

Carcassonne: I started my research for my novel Heretics and Lovers here, discovered cassoulet, a dish of beans, duck, sausage and whatever else happens to be near. Fanny and I stopped there one time, eating at a restaurant with a fire for a cold February day and an Irish folk singer that serenaded us.

As we continued, fruit trees appeared in full blossom, and trees were budding. Not only was this a ride where I could take out good memories, smile and tuck them back in my pocket, but I could pass from winter into spring. As I age, I like this reverse direction.

In between memories I read, Martha F, a French novel in the first person from Frau Freud’s point of view by Nicolle Rosen. It is riveting, but I can only read riveting French books. Part of me feels smug that even by page 154 I have not had to look up a single word. I eat English books like M&Ms, but I savor French books like I do hand-made Swiss chocolate, a piece at a time over a long period.

I tell people, intellectually learning French is the hardest thing I have done. I have no gift for languages and was thrilled to discover that my bad accent is partially explained by my inability to differentiate certain tones and sounds. I prefer that to thinking I am stupid. Thus every time I read a French book, I give myself a pat on the back. I say it to the woman next to me, but she politely says I speak French well, she can understand everything.

The covers of French books interest me or the covers of any country’s books. Many French books that I have bought (especially from the book stalls along the Seine) are plain beige paper not unlike construction paper, a red rectangle that makes an internal frame with the title inside. No fair maidens with handsome men lurking behind them. No dramatic graphics, just the title, author and publisher.

I have found that publishers in England and the US might have two different covers. The English often like paintings where Americans often go for portraits.

I am curious what the cover of my novel due out in October will be like. Chickpea Lover has a woman’s hand picking up a chickpea. The Russian edition has a cartoon woman with a green facial mask, her hair wrapped in a towel. She is holding a peapod in her hand. I assume from that Russians do not have chickpeas, but I am unable to check the translation. I don’t even understand the letters.

Martha F is plain beige but there is a jigsaw puzzle not much bigger than two inche squares with Frau Freud’s photo and two pieces out to the side. The rest of the cover is plain beige construction paper.

The train trip, like this blog, is a jumble of conversations, sights, memories and reading. Nine hours, not wasted because I enjoyed every minute.

Le Marais, Music and a Meal

Marina and I had spent a good part of the day exploring Le Marais, le quartier Juif of Paris with its antique shops, jewelry stores, art galleries, clothing boutiques in ancient buildings and under medieval arches. Tired we sat in the park at the Place des Vosges surrounded by a palace where Catherine de Medici had plotted power moves to protect her sons and discourage Philippe of Spain from religious warfare.

The sun was warm. We wore no coats, a great change from the week before when we had been bundled up to protect us from the falling snow. Spring, after one of the coldest, snowiest winters in ages, was arriving.

Since it was Wednesday with no school the park was full of children playing in the sand box or tossing balls.

A business man, suit, briefcase and cell phone walked by. He was talking softly on what could have been an important deal, but suddenly he started walking on the low metal wall surrounding one of the grassy squares as if on a tightrope, the way he must have done as a little boy. Back and forth he went and as he talked a smile on his face made us decide he must be chatting with his lover.

Marina knew of a vegetarian restaurant. To me vegetables are a wonderful thing and I try and make them, beans and grains 95% of my diet. I do eat meat, preferably when I know it was raised humanely and hormoneless and slaughtered as quickly as possible. I will never be a total vegetarian until I no longer succumb to the smell of frying bacon which removes all resistance to any ethics.

The restaurant was small with less than 20 tables. The walls were light yellow with original paintings. The owners do everything themselves from preparing the food to waiting on the tables. Even the bread was made by them.

As soon as we ordered, a strolling musician entered. By his costume, I suspected the other two Musketeers were waiting outside along with the green ostrich that had donated the feather in his hat. His guitar was pasted under miniature flags of countries hiding all the wood. He approached our table. “Bonjour.”

“Bonjour,” I said.

“Where are you from?” He switched to English. Okay, my accent in French always screams Anglophone.

“Genève,” I said.

He went back to French and sang a song about Switzerland. Table by table he made his way around the restaurant making sure each patron had a personalized serenade. Sweeping his hat from his head he received the donations and left either to work another restaurant or to gallop away on his horse to save some damsel then sing to her. I suspect the first is true, but I prefer to imagine the second.

Our food came: cole slaw, a perfectly seasoned squash, ratatouille, and a terrine of cèpes, mushrooms.

The joy of the day was partially created by the sensations of sight, smell, taste, partially by the panorama of Parisian life around me, but also there was the satisfaction, or outright smugness, that for me Paris is not a once in a lifetime experience, but a place where I have spent a lot of time and can easily get to again, again and again with or without a tightrope walking businessman or a Musketeer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Socksy and Bocksy are Freed

The photo arrived by email. A pair of socks. I had left them at Marina’s Paris flat when I went home to Geneva.

She is exhausted from her life as a resident and needs humor. I designed a letter from the Red Cross saying I heard that they were being held ransom and we were arranging a visit in March to check their status as hostages.

At this point copies are flying around between the US, Switzerland, Syria and France where friends and relatives are being let in on the game.

My daughter in Boston writes Socksy and Bocksy offering them hope. They write about being nearly drowned in a washing machine. Marina’s sister contributes ideas from Damascus.

The ransom price are two lipsticks, colors available in Geneva, but not in Paris. Globilization has not made it to makeup.

I arrive with the ransom. Horrors...Too late. Socksy and Bocksy are hanging from the lamp under a sign with skull and crossbones. I cut them down, even though they are blue, probably more from the dye used in their manufacture than lack of oxygen, put them in the bed and leave a label ICU. They are saved.

No one is shot at when they are returned safely to my suitcase.

Sights, Smells, Sounds of the Paris Metro

For a carnet of 10 tickets at a cost of 10.5 Euros, there is another world under Paris, that of the Metro. It contains a bit of everything that is happening on the street above.

Walk long corridors, some marked with little boutiques, flower shops, scarf stands.

Blue signs with white letters tell what stations the train stops at. Anyone who can read can’t get lost.

The Metro stations domed, like a wine bottle with one flat side. There is a smell of electricity and rubber

Floor to ceiling publicity marks each station with historic names: Bastille (tiled painting of the revolt), Louvre (art works in the subway, copies), La Defense (the other arch).

Mama Mia, internationally acclaimed musical, has arrived in Paris one poster says. A series of posters feature women with gray hair, wrinkles, freckles and chubby and proclaim them beautiful. A do-it-yourself store, Bricolage, is having a`sale.

A group of American students on a week abroad board a train. Each has two large suitcases, a sure sign they aren’t experienced travelers. They are loud. Americans of all ages have a reputation of speaking loudly. A question I am often asked is why we do that. I always answer softly.

There is a man with long hair, a sweater, and a scarf around his neck, indicating a sore throat.

A man reads Le Monde (liberal), a woman Figaro (conservative).

A woman in all black, but not of mourning, looks at her watch.

An expensively dressed couple get on. He wears a plaid cap. His hair is gray and I wonder if he is bald. He smiles. They speak French. His wife’s clothes say real money. There is an announcement to watch your step. “Mind your step, like London,”
he says.

“That’s not it,” his wife says in French.

“Mind the gap,” I say.

“That’s it,” they both say in English. They get off at Sablons.

A woman dressed in French clothes gets on with a silver coffee mug. You almost never see people carrying coffee mugs. Coffee is to be drunk sitting down and observing the world. I wonder if she is American. She speaks to her companion with an American accent.

The train arrives – Terminus the announcer says. I have nine of my carnet of violet rectangle tickets that used to be green that used to be yellow left.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Why I Feel America is Being Destroyed from the Inside

Someone asked me why I hate America. I don’t. I cry for it, am disappointed in it and grieve for people who suffer there. I see it slowly being destroyed not from the terrorists but from the inside as people work harder, have less chances to lead a reasonable life, etc. Often this is pshawed so to speak, when people tell me, no it is about choices. You can have more vacation if you work for a university, etc. Yesterday a friend sent me this grouping of data that says – no it is not about choices. Life is harder for Americans that it is in other developed countries. Until we recognize we have a huge problem, we will not begin to solve it. The source of the material is at the bottom.

No concept lies more firmly embedded in our national character than the notion that the USA is "No. 1," "the greatest." Our broadcast media are, in essence, continuous advertisements for the brand name "America Is No. 1." Any office seeker saying otherwise would be committing political suicide. In fact, anyone saying otherwise will be labeled "un-American." We're an "empire," ain't we? Sure we are. An empire without a manufacturing base. An empire that must borrow $2 billion a day from its competitors in order to function. Yet the delusion is ineradicable. We're No. 1. Well ... this is the country you really live in:

• The United States is 49th in the world in literacy (The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2004).
• The United States ranked 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
• One-third of our science teachers and one-half of our math teachers did not major in those subjects. (Quoted on The West Wing, but you can trust it – their researchers are legendary.)
• "The International Adult Literacy Survey ... found that Americans with less than nine years of education 'score worse than virtually all of the other countries'" (Jeremy Rifkin's superbly documented book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, p.78).
• Our workers are so ignorant, and lack so many basic skills, that American businesses spend $30 billion a year on remedial training (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004). No wonder they relocate elsewhere!
• "The European Union leads the U.S. in ... the number of science and engineering graduates; public research and development (R&D) expenditures; and new capital raised" (The European Dream, p.70).
• "Europe surpassed the United States in the mid-1990s as the largest producer of scientific literature" (The European Dream, p.70).
• Nevertheless, Congress cut funds to the National Science Foundation. The agency will issue 1,000 fewer research grants this year (NYT, Dec. 21, 2004).
• Foreign applications to U.S. grad schools declined 28% last year. Foreign student enrollment on all levels fell for the first time in three decades, but increased greatly in Europe and China. Last year Chinese grad-school graduates in the U.S. dropped 56%, Indians 51%, South Koreans 28% (NYT, Dec. 21, 2004). We're not the place to be anymore.
• The World Health Organization "ranked the countries of the world in terms of overall health performance, and the U.S. [was] ... 37th." In the fairness of health care, we're 54th. "The irony is that the United States spends more per capita for health care than any other nation in the world" (The European Dream, pp.79-80). Pay more, get lots, lots less.
• "The U.S. and South Africa are the only two developed countries in the world that do not provide health care for all their citizens" (The European Dream, p.80). Excuse me, but since when is South Africa a "developed" country? Anyway, that's the company we're keeping.
• Lack of health insurance coverage causes 18,000 unnecessary American deaths a year. (That's six times the number of people killed on 9/11.) (NYT, Jan. 12, 2005.)
• "U.S. childhood poverty now ranks 22nd, or second to last, among the developed nations. Only Mexico scores lower" (The European Dream, p.81). Been to Mexico lately? Does it look "developed" to you? Yet it's the only "developed" country to score lower in childhood poverty.
• Twelve million American families – more than 10% of all U.S. households – "continue to struggle, and not always successfully, to feed themselves." Families that "had members who actually went hungry at some point last year" numbered 3.9 million (NYT, Nov. 22, 2004).
• The United States is 41st in the world in infant mortality. Cuba scores higher (NYT, Jan. 12, 2005).
• Women are 70% more likely to die in childbirth in America than in Europe (NYT, Jan. 12, 2005).
• The leading cause of death of pregnant women in this country is murder (CNN, Dec. 14, 2004).
• "Of the 20 most developed countries in the world, the U.S. was dead last in the growth rate of total compensation to its work-force in the 1980s. ... In the 1990s, the U.S. average compensation growth rate grew only slightly, at an annual rate of about 0.1%" (The European Dream, p.39). Yet Americans work longer hours per year than any other industrialized country, and get less vacation time.
• "Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European, while only 50 are U.S. companies" (The European Dream, p.66). "In a recent survey of the world's 50 best companies, conducted by Global Finance, all but one was European" (The European Dream, p.69).
• "Fourteen of the 20 largest commercial banks in the world today are European. ... In the chemical industry, the European company BASF is the world's leader, and three of the top six players are European. In engineering and construction, three of the top five companies are European. ... The two others are Japanese. Not a single American engineering and construction company is included among the world's top nine competitors. In food and consumer products, Nestlé and Unilever, two European giants, rank first and second, respectively, in the world. In the food and drugstore retail trade, two European companies ... are first and second, and European companies make up five of the top 10. Only four U.S. companies are on the list" (The European Dream, p.68).
• The United States has lost 1.3 million jobs to China in the last decade (CNN, Jan. 12, 2005).
• U.S. employers eliminated 1 million jobs in 2004 (The Week, Jan. 14, 2005).
• Three million six hundred thousand Americans ran out of unemployment insurance last year; 1.8 million – one in five – unemployed workers are jobless for more than six months (NYT, Jan. 9, 2005).
• Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea hold 40% of our government debt. (That's why we talk nice to them.) "By helping keep mortgage rates from rising, China has come to play an enormous and little-noticed role in sustaining the American housing boom" (NYT, Dec. 4, 2004). Read that twice. We owe our housing boom to China, because they want us to keep buying all that stuff they manufacture.
• Sometime in the next 10 years Brazil will probably pass the U.S. as the world's largest agricultural producer. Brazil is now the world's largest exporter of chickens, orange juice, sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Last year, Brazil passed the U.S. as the world's largest beef producer. (Hear that, you poor deluded cowboys?) As a result, while we bear record trade deficits, Brazil boasts a $30 billion trade surplus (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
• As of last June, the U.S. imported more food than it exported (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
• Bush: 62,027,582 votes. Kerry: 59,026,003 votes. Number of eligible voters who didn't show up: 79,279,000 (NYT, Dec. 26, 2004). That's more than a third. Way more. If more than a third of Iraqis don't show for their election, no country in the world will think that election legitimate.
• "Americans are now spending more money on gambling than on movies, videos, DVDs, music, and books combined" (The European Dream, p.28).
• "Nearly one out of four Americans [believe] that using violence to get what they want is acceptable" (The European Dream, p.32).
• Forty-three percent of Americans think torture is sometimes justified, according to a PEW Poll (Associated Press, Aug. 19, 2004).
• "Nearly 900,000 children were abused or neglected in 2002, the last year for which such data are available" (USA Today, Dec. 21, 2004).

• "The International Association of Chiefs of Police said that cuts by the [Bush] administration in federal aid to local police agencies have left the nation more vulnerable than ever" (USA Today, Nov. 17, 2004).
No. 1? In most important categories we're not even in the Top 10 anymore. Not even close.
The USA is "No. 1" in nothing but weaponry, consumer spending, debt, and delusion.
This was taken from

Thursday, March 10, 2005

To be Great You Build Not Destroy

I was at the Syrian Consulate in Geneva getting my VISA for a three-week visit to that country. This will be my second trip. The first was one of those life changing experiences that knocks preconceived concepts over forever. What I found was more than a history and culture that was extraordinary but a warmth and understanding from the many people I met. Unlike the average tourist I have the good fortune to stay with families that have become almost like family to me.

Many people have told me not to go, and I do admit to some worry with the situation so volatile at the moment. I would prefer to travel on another passport, but I don’t have one, although I hope to by the end of the year.
It took 23 hours to get the VISA.

The Syrian consulate has no security guards unlike the American center (See my blog Absurdity of Fear over Love). As for the consulate in Geneva it is surrounded by guards and barbed wire. You ring, and without a check the Syrians let you in.
As I was leaving I met a man in the elevator who had also been in the consulate.
“Sind Sie Swiss?” he asked.

“Nein, Americanishe.”

“Iraqi,” he said showing me his passport.

Growing up in America I read a lot of history, but it was words on a page.

When my daughter spent a year in Germany, her host father told me of being a boy outside Dresden and watching the Allies destroy everything he knew.

When I first went to work in Geneva, a Jewish woman, told me of being a child in France during WWII. Her mother and she were shopping, and her mother urged her to move faster, but she held back, whining. The mother was grabbed and put in a concentration camp. The war ended a few days before the mother was due to be shipped East.

In Garmish, where my cousin worked as an American Army Nurse, she took me to a chapel where every bit of space had the photo of a man or boy killed from this small town in WWII. Each face represented the pain of a mother, wife, sister, daughter. As we said in the 60s, “War is not good for living creatures.”

It is one thing to read about history, another thing to see it through the eyes of someone who is in front of you.

The Iraqi spoke neither French nor English and as we walked to the street he continued in German, “My mother was killed by an American bomb on March 25.”

“Enschuligan fur mein Land,” I said. My German is not good. I could not tell him how ashamed I am of my country for the hundreds of thousands of people we have killed not just in Iraq but in other countries. I am ashamed of my country for what we are doing to our own people making financial survival on a daily basis harder and harder. I am ashamed that we are not taking responsibility for eating up the world’s natural resources much like pac man ate up little dots. I am angry, that the country’s ideals that I was brought up to believe in no longer exist.

Back home I received a newspaper talking about General Tommy Frank who gave a speech and how he said the US was the greatest land. To me greatest means you build, you don’t destroy. You don’t bomb an old woman on March 25th.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Swiss Dinner, Indian Lunch

Once again I found myself at a Swiss dinner party. Seldom do two couples just agree to share a meal, but plans are made weeks or sometimes months in advance.

This time there were five couples. We greeted each other either with a handshake or a triple-kiss on the cheeks, left-right-left. I vous’ed those I didn’t know and half the people I did know. The ones I knew really well, almost family were tu’ed.

Everyone was well dressed. Two of the men wore ties ad shirts under their sweaters. Half the women were in dresses and stockings, while the other wore dress slacks.

As always we sat in the living room, in a circle for the apero, a local white wine served with salted bread sticks and crackers with a tapenade. After an appropriate time we were called “A table”. The host and hostess were perfection in their sharing of responsibilities, each knowing when to offer another dish or pour another glass of wine.The table was set with candles, flowers, all the right wine and water glasses and cutlery. The wine was half decanted next to the dusty bottle proving it came from the host’s private cave. I had made the mistake a long time ago to wash the bottle only to be stopped by my shocked companion.

The food arrived in correct order, salad, main course, cheese and bread, dessert, coffee and tisane. The conversation involved people they knew who I didn’t and Vaudoise politics which I did know. Soft music played in the background.

One of the women worked at Mauler & Cie, la Cave Champagne in the minisicule village of Môtiers, where I spent my first three years in Switzerland. It brought up fond memories of going there with dinner guests for a tasting before selecting the right champagne to go with what I was serving. The Cave was located in a 13th century monastery next to a brook that did its cliché babbling all year round. In hot weather, we stopped for more champagne before we took our picnics of quiches and salads upstream near the waterfall. My two Japanese chins loved these picnics. One waded in the water while the other watched the cows in the field next to our picnic spot as the cows surveyed them.

All toasts in Switzerland include each person gazing into the eyes of every other person. Table manners require keeping your hands on the table, not in your lap. Using your left hand for the fork and the right for your knife, including gently pushing food on your fork, is far more efficient than American manners. No meal is ever started without the words “bon appetite.”

If the rituals seem stuffy, they provide a respect for the people who are there as well as for the woman who spent hours preparing the meal and for the food itself. People eat slowly. The conversation and ambience make eating more than a meal. In the Swiss family, where I have spent almost 12 years of meals, even the most informal meal is well presented, manners observed, conversation quality important.

When my daughter was growing we had polite and rude meals. Polite required table manners and dinner conversation. Rude might be in front of the television or with books, but basic use of cutlery was a must. When I eat alone, I do set a place, I arrange the food attractively because for me food is an experience important in each step from the selection to the swallowing.

The next day I had lunch with my Indian friends switching cultures at the drop of a napkin. For almost four years this family along with my Syrian friend regularly ate together sharing cultures as well as food.

Chitra often prepared Sunday morning Indian breakfasts and Marina and I would roll out of bed and instead of going to our own cupboards would go one door down the hall. We would eat in our pajamas, before returning to our own places for the rest of the weekend.

I also lived with this family for several weeks while I was moving from one Geneva location to another.

I found Chitra still in her nightdress. Anil was in the kitchen preparing one of my favourite yoghurt dishes with tomatoes, ginger, chilis and onions. A vegetable-rice dish was in the rice cooker.

We were celebrating the purchase of a new dining room table, one that they loved, but did not have to sell their first born and only child to pay for. Nandita and I set the table.

I have learned the Indian way of eating, using my right hand to break the bread and scoop up the food, although I do wimp out and resort to a fork from time to time, but so do they.

Our conversation was about politics, books, movies, mutual friends, travel plans, their native dancing and my writing as we watched the blizzard outside.

Afterwards we watched a Mollywood movie, a mystery. They explained that was an Indian film from a certain region. The movie was subtitled in English.

Although Anil is often willing to drive me to the otherside of the lake, I assured him I could take the tram(s), leaving them with the rest of their Sunday in peace.

In less than eighteen hours, I experienced two very different ways of sharing meals, both which enriched me both personally and nutritionally. Life is good.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Retirement Boring??? I Don't Think So/

A few months ago I saw a former colleague at a café. I asked him how he liked retirement. “I am so bored,” he said. “There’s nothing to do.”

Today, I decided to take a day off. I have been busy trying to sell a number of articles, am editing two other writers’ books, and working on my own new novel.

On an almost spring day at the bus stop, I once again talked to the Bolivian man who has lived here for 50 years. He shuffles using a cane, but his clothes are finely tailored and he bears a dignity. We have had many discussions as we both catch the same bus frequently.

I met two ex-co-workers for lunch, a Canadian and another American. When they discussed office politics, I could see little had changed, except the location of an office or two. I do not miss it. As usual we talked about world politics. The Canadian has a theory you can tell a lot about people by their official documents. For example, The Declaration of Independence talks about “Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness.” However the Canadian government’s Constitution mentions its goals as peace and good government. Perhaps that is why we are at war, our capitalism is out of control, the Canadians are at peace and have health insurance, the individual vs. the collective. The American and I share the same dismay that our country as we knew it, is being systematically destroyed.

Because it was so beautiful I decided to walk the couple of miles to the American Library which is located in the American church. The friendly hellos were accompanied by dismay that the plug for the tea kettle was not working. The library was cold because the American Church that houses the library ran out of fuel. Compared to the Boston or Brookline Libraries, the collection is miniscule, microscopic, but they did have Paul Krugman’s new book. Since I read between two and five books a week, I am grateful for the library and the friendliness with or without heat.

I walked by the jet d’eau, across the pont Mont Blanc to the Confederation Centre to see Neverland. Geneva shows most anglo films in V.O., original version. I prefer this. Chinese, Spanish, etc. in V.O. lets me read the subtitles, making it easier to follow. The subtitles are in German and French, which always allows me a chance to pick up vocabulary. I now can say I am sorry as “je suis desolée” or “je suis navre,” but I don’t know the weight of the sorrow.

In New England the saying is “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” It works for Geneva. When I came out, it was raining, by the time I got on my bus the rain had turned to snow. Driving down the lake road, not only had the Alps disappeared, the whole lake was hidden behind a grey curtain.

Tomorrow, I will go back to work, editing the mystery for Martin and writing the letters from the American soldier I killed off in my new novel. I am anything but bored.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


I’m sure other expats find that friends from home don’t understand your expat years and current friends don’t understand our early years. In some cases there is no interest in the other life. Although it isn’t a situation worthy of seeking counselling, I found I was given a huge gift when I found a new friend from Massachusetts who has lived abroad longer than I have. What a delight to be able to speak both Boston Baked Beans and Raclette.

Words became torrents as we compared our interests and attitudes. Although we both love museums, we find equally fascinating discoveries in exploring small villages: an artisan who makes cheese, a water fountain of an unusual design, a famous chef, an underground river, the history of absinthe. Combined with our mutual devotion to writing we explored communication methods, childhoods, parents, the Middle East where we both have had wonderful experiences, the list could go on forever and ever and...

On a cold day in a small French village overlooking Geneva, I toured my new friend’s new house. No matter the view of the Alps and Jura were hidden, I was happy to imagine them. She showed me the tile that will be on her kitchen floor, and where the armoire from the 1600s will go. I had touched the carving of that armoire and wondered what the life of the person who pitted the knife against the wood was like.

We stopped at a bakery for pastries to go with tea. As in most French bakeries, the decision between delicacies is harder than deciding to change countries. A photo of the village in another time is on the wall, but the streets have not changed that much.

My new friend had another gift for me. She spoke of the poet Rumi. I said I had never heard of him. She loaned me a collection of his poems. Poetry can not be read fast, even for a speed reader like me. I look forward to days and weeks of savouring his words in the same way I look forward to the unfolding of a new friendship.