Friday, July 29, 2005

Things You Can't Get From A Book

My mother used to say she didn’t need to travel. She could see every thing in a book. She was wrong.

She could have looked at pictures of the Vatican in a book, but she wouldn’t have seen the relation of the tiny country to the rest of the city, felt the texture of the small grey-brown rectangle bricks of its walls, realised that stepping into St. Peter’s Square that it was a circle not a square. Nor would she have had small purple flowers drop into her hair when a gust of wind rippled the trees on a Roman Street outside the Vatican.

Because I was covering a conference, I could only get a smattering of Rome, but that smattering was wonderful. I had wanted to see St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel leaving the rest of this city that makes me want to sing as I walk down the street to another time. Where else can you take a walk and come across a 2000 year old cistern for a villa, or a gate that Julius Cesar could have walked through near a modern office building? The new buildings, the flowering trees all gave an ambience not possible to feel, touch, smell and hear from a book.

The sun was blistering, relentless, hot, sizzling…writers are told to not use adjectives and to show not tell. Let me show you about about the heat -- a cherry Popsicle would have had about 1.5 nano seconds of life before being turned into pink steam.

The lines were long going into St. Peter’s. The basilica was impressive, imposing and oppressive all at the same time. The art showed the greatest talents of centuries (I wonder where art would be without the Christian Church). The feeling of power, perhaps more of man than God, was overwhelming.

I was a bit disgruntled to realise that there is €4 Euro charge to enter the church and another €3 to use the elevator. I pictured any pope meeting St. Peter at the gate and charging the newly deceased four euros to enter heaven and another 3 to use the elevator to God’s office or be made to walk up 320 steps. I can see charging for audios, souvenirs, toilets and even non Catholics. I can see asking for a donation forcefully, but if I were Catholic I would resent paying to enter the seat of my religion. I guess I’ve read too much about the humble Cathar Good Men and Good Women roaming the Pyrenees preaching goodness and forsaking all worldly wealth or the Gnostic gospels.

By the time I got to the Sistine Chapel the line was approximately two hours long, at least 75% in the sun. I am not a cherry Popsicle but I pictured myself vanishing in steam. Another trip, off tourist season in cooler weather, I said to myself. Guaranteed. But if I never set foot in that city again, being there was truly a treat that I could never capture in a book. I am truly blessed to have had the experience.

The Professor, The Archeologist and Me


When I was in Syria, my guide to the ancient city of Ebla was Mohammed Ali (not the fighter). I want to use Ebla as part of a future novel. Ali put me in touch with the Italian professor who translated most of the cuneiform letters found there. As luck would have it he was spending one day back in Rome between a trip to Chicago to give a paper and his summer holiday at his Sicilian holiday home.

I spent Saturday morning doing pre conference stuff then waited for his phone call. “Can you come to me?” he asked. Of course, I could. I would have walked or crawled for this short cut in my research. However, the taxi ride through flower-decked streets deposited me in front of his home.

He offered me orange juice, moved a fan so I would be cooled and preceded to give me more information that I dreamed possible. I know the names of kings, ministers, intrigues, what people ate, supposition on gender roles. I can now build a plot.

His wife who has her own dig near Ebla, stopped in and we started talking about career choices, passion in work and what we feel we accomplish. The translating professor even though he knows Sumerian, Eblabite, Hittite and other ancient languages, can translate cuneiform etc. does not feel he has accomplished much. Accomplishment, I told him, is often not considered important by those doing it. We think if we can do it, everyone can. It is a trait I find more common in women than in men. His wife agreed with me.

Their flat was huge, large rooms, book-filled of course, antiques, high windows, but the warmth came not from the heat, but their generosity in sharing their knowledge with me, a fiction writer not a scholar, when they were both jet lagged and preparing for a holiday.

Finding a Photographer in Rome

“You want a photographer?” As I hung up the phone from talking to my editor, I wondered how the hell was I going to pull that off. It was Friday night, later, in July and in Italy where people are at the seaside leaving Rome to the tourists and people like me who cover conferences.

Early Saturday one of the desk staff at my hotel handed me a phone book and told me the word for photographer. I called and called and left messages on answering machines in English. No one called back. I doubt if anyone understood me.

At the conference hotel, different from where I was staying, I asked Markus one of the concierges for help. He was young, his scalp covered in light red stubble similar to a five o’clock shadow in the wrong place. I watched him sort out lost luggage, booking for a guided tour, a doctor with nary a blink of his grey eyes which crossed when I told him what I wanted. But only for a second. "We will try madame, but..."

"I understand."

“How many of the requirements can we be flexible on?” he asked.

“The credit card and English.” I knew I could go to the ATM machine (I was wrong because for some reason my card didn’t work, although it did when I get back leaving me almost cashless for the remainder of the trip).

After close to 22 calls he found my guy, but not for Sunday night but Monday, when Luigi, the photograph (LEP) returned to the city from the beach. He said he was going back after he finished with me.

I met him at 11:30 Monday. He was a short man, grey-haired, dressed in a black suit that did not look as if he had been outside in the heat (maybe he changed in the men’s room). He reminded me of Allan, a man I almost married years ago. Allan was a good man. LEP was a good photographer and maybe a good man.

He had bustle down to a science.

We rushed around taking as many people as possible. I wanted both the names and the non-names among the attendees. LEP knew the hotel back and forward and we took so many shortcuts through the bowels of the building that I was almost on a first name basis with the cooks and laundress. I wore a pedometer that day and before I gave it back to the owner, I had logged just over 7 miles.

I gave my initial instructions using Markus as a translator. From then on we resorted to hand motions. I learned melori (better, but don’t count on my spelling). He learned closer. “Perfecto” worked for both of us. He laughed each time he called me Signora Donna, which is a little like saying Lady, Lady or Mrs. Lady. His eye was that of an artist, and many of the shots weren’t news worthy but were beautiful.

We finished and he took my hand, not to kiss, but to point out that he would be back in half an hour with my CD-ROM. He was. A half an hour after that photos were at my paper.

I walked upstairs, wrote a note to the Markus' manager that I thought Markus walked on water. Whether there are stones under the surface for his feet didn't matter.

Carlo the Driver

Carl strutted into the hotel lobby to whisk me to the airport. He looked like a refuge from the French image of an Italian in a film. Slim but with well-shaped body and butt in jeans, a blue shirt opened to reveal a gold medal nestled in manly chest hair. Black hair, slicked back from his chiselled cheek bones ended in curls around his collar.

Because it was fixed price and I wasn’t rushed, he undertook a mini tour of the city showing me the catacombs, different ruins and famous streets. In his broken English I learned he was from the heel of Italy, he works seven days a week ten months a year, pays €600 for his room, is self-taught in English. He gave me cards for other trips and to give to my friends. This is his business and he opens a shop at night.

When he wrote out the receipt he offered to double the amount. I said no. “You are different,” he said. I don’t want to think dishonesty is different even if they are two “d” words.


In Rome I experimented with simple Italian phrases. I was repeatedly told I had a great accent. ???????

My French accent sucks out loud, a former favourite expression of my daughter.

French people hearing me speak for the first time say, “You’re American aren’t you?”

The only Italian phrase book I could find was French/Italian which meant the pronunciation was French letter cued.

I am still trying to decide if the Italians were polite or if Italian is easier and I will find a language someday that I can speak well? I would like to think the later, and have a modicum of hope only because I didn’t hear them saying to others that they had a great accent. Or maybe I wasn't listening closely.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The blueberry muffin

I thought I might apologise to Starbucks, which as anyone who knows me understands I DO NOT LIKE, especially outside the US in countries where the coffee and tea are superior and tea rooms or coffee shops are a way of life. However, while waiting for a friend the other night I wandered into one in Geneva and I saw -- drum roll, trumpets, singers going Hallelujah -- blueberry muffins.

Blueberry muffins and rasin cinnamon bagels are things that I constantly miss. Well maybe not constantly, but the memory of them tiptoes over my tastebuds at least once a week. My daughter when she visits always brings some from Dunkin Donuts and more than once she has been teased as she entered the plane about taking her own food on board when attendants have spied the pink and white Dunkin Donuts boxes.

I will say the Starbucks clerk was nice and friendly and I do not expect the same family feel I get at the tea rooms that I frequent regularly from a corporate chain. He came back to me in English as many people do as soon as they pick up on my accent that screams ENGLISH SPEAKER ENGLISH SPEAKER. His accent was adorable.

I bought the muffin. and even ate more circumspectly at dinner so I would be able to treat myself to the muffin for dessert. No way did I fool myself that I would be able to wait until morning.

At home I carefully unwrapped the muffin and put it on a pretty plate to increase my enjoyment. I cut it in four pieces so I would eat it slowly, savouring every mouthful. I lifted it to my lips, felt it on my tongue, swallowed.

It was too sweet and stale. Even an hour later there was an unpleasant chemically aftertaste.

I wonder where I can find a good blueberry muffin recipe so I can make them for myself during the blueberry season here. Then again maybe the joy when my daughter brings them leaves blueberry muffins as a treat to be treasured rather than taken for granted.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

One Perfect Spaghetti Strand

“You can buy beautiful scarves in Rome,” Florian said.

I looked at him. I am going to Rome on Friday to cover a conference. I will have one extra day there and will divide that on a quickie tour of the city and with a meeting with a Professor who has translated cuneiform letters dating back to 3000 b.c., research for a book I want to write. Once the conference begins, I will be working hard, but happily. This is fun work.

It had never entered my head that I would enter a store while in Rome. Even if I were not attending a conference, I couldn’t imagine wasting a precious second in one. Now if some of the merchandise arrived miraculously in my home that would be okay.

In a way I feel as if the Rome part of this trip is like being led into a Roman feast and being offered one perfectly sauced strand of freshly made spaghetti. I will savour that one strand and I know that by looking at the feast, I will know what to eat on my next trip to the Roman table of historical delights.

Being Right is Fun

I said last year I paid too much tax. I know everyone says it, but I did. When I went to get my final she-has-paid-all-her-taxes form stamped for my Swiss citizenship dossier in fall 2004, they told me I owed mega-francs more. This surprised me because my income in my alleged retirement had taken such a nose dive, but I paid it and got the form stamped and signed.

Now, I don’t mind paying Swiss taxes. I live in a country with safe, clean streets, a good education system, an excellent public transportation system, etc.etc.etc. I never considered the taxes exorbitant. The infrastructure has to be paid for and I feel my taxes are going for a good use for my benefit and for the benefit of everyone around me. However in 2004 my taxes almost exceeded my annual income.

Imagine my pleasure to open an envelope from the tax people to find repayment for my overpayment to the amount of the equivalent of almost a year’s living expenses if I am frugal and nine months if I am not. I am a happy, happy puppy.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Bus Ride from Hell

The temperature dropped in seconds as I sat on the bench at Rive waiting for the E Bus to take me to Corsier. The sensation would be the same if you jumped into the North Atlantic off the Maine Coast on a hot August day turning your skin icy blue to match the water in a matter of seconds. The bus arrived five footsteps before it started to pour.

This wasn’t raining cats and dogs, but cats, dogs, geese, ponies, giraffes and an elephant or two. We could not see the mountains, the lake or the walk in front of the lake which is no further than a traffic lane away.

When people jumped onto the bus, the water came in after them in grey sheets of water drenching those unlucky enough to sit near the doors. The new passengers were soaked to the skin. Surprisingly enough many had towels with them (the ultimate of preparedness) that they used for their hair and then threw them over the shoulders.

To make matters worse a skinny drunk Arab, his shoes untied, walked up and down the aisle berating every one. An Arab woman in a head-to-toe sopping burka yelled at him, telling him in French and Arabic that he was a disgrace to his mother, his father, his country and his religion. He became so obnoxious that the bus driver and two other men decided he needed to leave at the Arrêt Ruth. However, he refused to let the bus go blocking it in front in a game of I’ll-Out-Wait-You. The bus won, and at the last blurry site of him he was walking down the centre of the highway.

The rain let up enough to see the good surfing-level waves on the lake that had been floor-flat two hours before. We past the giant posters from the Cinelac Theatre, the outdoors summer movie theatre over the lake, just as wind ripped them from the wall and blew them along next to us before being skidded over by cars.

The rain slowed slightly, although the side windows were covered with water washed up from the street. Then the bus stopped all together. “Everyone out,” we were told.

The passengers obeyed. A pine tree lay toppled across the road. The air smelled like a home when a newly cut Christmas tree is brought in. A man in an official jacket decided we could go no further.

There was a bus on the other side of the tree its destination opposite of ours. The old managerial me who looks for solutions thought it would be smart for the passengers in each bus swap places, the buses turn around and retrace their routes getting everyone to their destinations, but I was told that wasn’t possible without directions from headquarters.

The rain had let up, but we got back on the bus until we were told we couldn’t stay there any longer, but must make our own way to wherever. On a sunny day, an approximately three-mile walk would be nothing. Even today with a raincoat and boots it could be interesting if I didn’t try to do a kite imitation. However, in my flapper style dress and ballet style shoes, it did not seem appealing.

A car stopped. Two teenage boys started to get in then looked at me and another woman. They exchanged glances and with a Sir William Raleigh sweep of their hands gave up their place. The driver took us each to our own door. By now it was hailing, half golf ball sized stones.

Jean Calvin preached the hell, fire and damnation, a cruel God that throws unexpected horrors in front of people. I am convinced, although there is no documentation to prove it, that it is the Geneva weather that helped shaped his philosophy. Today’s storm was exceptional only in that it isn’t that exceptional.

The Bluewin web site says that vineyards all over the region were destroyed by 100 MPH winds (actually they reported in Kilometers) and the hail.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Magical Visit

I expected three days with an American couple showing them the sites of the Argelès area to be fun. I wasn’t prepared for the magic.

The man is the son of a friend who died too soon. When I first heard about the son he was in his teens. He is now in his forties. His wife and I met a few years back at dinners when I was in Boston catching up with old friends. I found both a delight to be with. They are intelligent, creative, insightful, kind, funny and courageous in their life choices.

Thus I offered them my studio for a week, but moved to a friend’s place for part of that time so I could share some of the things I love in the area with them before going home to Geneva.

Reality exceeded expectations. I have never grown tired of the street dances, the fireworks shot off the hotel, the crêperie up in the mountains with its tables on different level terraces shaded by cork and olive trees, the café-sits, the friendly people. They took to them as fast as I had.

A trip to Collioure was a second visit for the man. He had been there in another lifetime. He wanted to show his wife the site, where under an upturned boat on the beach he had found the cat they now have, one he saved from a life as a wild cat. Sauvage is that black cat’s name and in the bar a few steps from the location of the saving a woman had on a T-shirt with a black cat and the word Sauvage.

When it was time to leave for Geneva, they walked me to the train. Considering Argelès is my place, it is an amusing role reversal that the non-residents saw the resident off. Once on the train I tried to figure out why the visit seemed so magical to me.

It was only as I rode the bus between Geneva and Corsier where I live did I figure it out. I passed a field of sunflowers, destined to become oil. The field runs as far as the eye can see. The flowers faced the bus and in the early morning sun the brightness made me wish I owned a pair of sunglasses. Later in the day going the opposite way, instead of the flowers facing me, their backs were to me, once again facing the sun. I understand why the French call them tournesols which means turning toward the sun.

The flowers follow the warmth, the light, the nourishment. It was then that I realised why the three days had been so magic, although we did nothing out of the ordinary. The couple was light, warm, nourishing of each other and also nourishing to me. There is something ordinary that a sunflower turns to the sun. There is something ordinary about sitting in a café sharing ideas. But sometimes the ordinary carries the magic of the extraordinary when there is so much warmth, light and nourishment.

The Geneva Cow Herd

The first cow was outside UBS, a white life-sized plastic statue covered in tiny red hearts. I had just gotten off the night train. It was not quite seven on a Saturday morning. A publicity thing by the bank, I thought, as I went in to get money from my account via the ATM.

But then on the trolley, I passed another life-sized cow and another and another and another and…

Each was decorated differently. One black cow had golden horns, tail, and feet. One had a map of Carouge, the arty-farty section of Geneva. The hide of a rhino decorated a cow. Some were in psychedelic colors. Cow after original cow turned up all over the city.

I know Switzerland is known for its cows. I learned this on my first Saturday living in the tiny Jura town of Môtiers where the cows outnumber the residents ten to one. That morning I woke to a clanging of cow bells. It was so loud my two Japanese chins (now gone to the great dog biscuit factory in the sky) dived under my bed. I was braver and went to look. About thirty cows marched down the street, some veering off to drink out of the fountain in front of my house. That night they marched back. It was a daily occurrence in the spring and fall. In the winter they stayed in the barns.

I love the Alpinage, the cow parade where the flowers are wound around the cows’ horns. The Queen cow, the cow the other cows look up to, has the most elaborate bouquet – a table top sized Christmas tree of flowers. She wears the largest bell, another status symbol. I have wondered if the position is worth the extra weight of the bell, but maybe that just shows that if I were a cow, my leadership qualities would not be sufficient to qualify for queen cowdom. Cow herders follow dressed in native costumes; there is music as the cows are put on trucks for their trek up into the mountains for a summer grazing on sweet grass. The grass in the villages below is cut for hay for winter eating.

I have not yet found out why there are plaster cows all over Geneva. I think it is one of those things that I prefer not to know. It is more fun just looking.

Fish, fields and foreign languages

Florian and I ate filet de perches with a bear garlic sauce under the grape vine awning. I’ve been told that the garlic comes from the Jura mountains and once was a favourite of the bears that lived there, thus the name, although ail d'ours sounds nicer than bear garlic. The grapes were still two months away from being pick-ready. The terrace of the restaurant was close enough to the lake that we could hear the water lapping along with the murmurings of the other eaters.

After we ate we drove through Canton Fribourg. The sun did not set until 9:58 letting us enjoy the summer-lush fields covered in wheat, cow corn, fruit trees and grape vines. A few fields were left fallow and were filled with buttercups and Queen Anne’s Lace.

The signs changed from French to German depending on the section we were riding through. Zu Verkaufen or Vendre. Buy a house in German or French. Vermitten or Louer. Rent a house in German or French. There is something about changing languages that gives the sensation of being on holiday rather than just going out for a good fish dinner.

My Daughter and Prince Albert

One Swiss Sunday paper carried an article on who Prince Albert of Monaco should marry.

I have a candidate -- My daughter.

She is a beautiful blond, who when her hair is in a chignon could carry the same icy elegance that Princess Grace did. Her tiger tattoo, would keep the press happy with articles about its significance.

One of the writers thought he should marry a businesswoman. My daughter has a degree in business and is working for an international headhunter. A few summers ago she thought if she were tanned enough, she would resemble a goddess. “A goddess of what,” I asked?

“Goddess of Management,” she said. Certainly a goddess matches any royaltyness or celebrityness, the prince might require.

And although she does not speak French, she does speak German, and has spent enough time in Francophone countries to know she could add a third language without much difficulty if it were a job requirement.

Certainly the chores would be interesting, running balls, overseeing a château, doing charitable work, producing an heir or two.

I have not proposed the idea to either Prince Albert or my daughter. Some things need to happen on their own. I wouldn’t want to be considered an interfering mother-in-law so early in the game.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Early morning smells and memories

As I sit at my computer the sun is coming up over the tiled roofs. The cock has crowed, the garbage men have rattled down the street, and I can hear my neighbor’s alarm tingle its soft melody. I have been emailing with my friend Susan in the States who is up late playing Spider solitaire. There are birds calling to each other. The breeze is carrying the smell of fresh-baked bread from the bakery around the corner. The last is Pavolian in its results. I must get dressed and go buy the bread that I know is warm to the touch.

When we lived in Boston and there was good baguettes sold at the Spanish grocery store, they never arrived home without a chewed heel. The joke became that a big mouse named Pedro, attacked the carrier of the bread, grabbed it, and ate the crunchy end. There are a series of bread-attacking mice wherever we go. If we bought bread in the Italian North End it was Luigi Mouse, and if the purchase was in Yuppified Harvard Square it would be Biff Mouse.

I could say that in Argelès it is Pierre Mouse, but I have to admit that I would pummel any mouse that comes between me and my morning French bread.

Paintings and ports

Magali’s vernissage (French for the opening night of an art exhibition) was in the ancient Roman village of Port Vendre, although village is maybe a misnomer for a port that can hold shopping mall-sized ships. Fishermen bring in their catches and there are a few pleasure boats dwarfed by the working boats.

Magali is a painter, one of those women who came into her own in her 40s. Her paintings have an oriental feel and there was one of a seated Indian woman that belongs over my computer and between my two windows. I bought it, but will leave it there for the rest of the exhibition.

Afterwards we stopped at one of the little restaurants overlooking the port. I had the esclavide, the local grilled vegetable dish of courgettes, eggplant, tomatoes and onions with a glass of sangria. Barbara opted for calamar, and Elaine, who had eaten, had chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The bill came. Barbara looked at it to find an extra coffee and my sangria was billed as something else. The waiter corrected the bill, but we all decided that they took us as tourists not locals. Annoying but not enough to diminish the pleasure of the setting sun over the water.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The face in the pan

Sven, Winde and Barbara came to lunch. We were engaged in our usual conversations over dahl and basmati rice when Sven looked up at my fry pan hanging from a beam. “There’s a woman face in it.”

Closer observation showed he was indeed right.

“We’ll say it’s the Virgin Mary and I’ll sell it on Ebay,” I said.

“No, no, charge a 10 Euro admission,” Winde suggested. “She is about to start her own business and thought an ongoing source of income might be better than a one-time payment.

We even decided that she should touch it and claim her sore back was healed. She said she could pretend to be a stranger, which in a village this small is hard to do.

By the time I dished out the strawberry dessert, I decided to just keep the fry pan where it was. I can always contact Ebay if things get rough.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Beverly Gray and Me

I am living the life I wanted to live from the time I was four when I decided to be a writer. My desire was only enforced by the Beverly Gray mystery series. No Nancy Drew for me. I wanted to be like Beverly, who not only went to college, she became a journalist and traveled the world.

The first time I set foot in Europe as a new bride of twenty, I felt as if I had come home. Home turned out to be Stuttgart, where my husband was in an Army band. I never wanted to leave. My husband couldn’t wait to come home.

I spent the rest of my adult life trying to get back here, although I had a wonderful time in the process, raising my daughter, building a career, etc. And if I didn't really like the business world, it did provide a good living.

But these days, waking up in either Geneva or Southern France and knowing my day can be spent writing be it on a journalistic article or my anti-war novel as I research my next novel is how I pictured myself spending my life way back when I was curled up under the eaves at 200 Grove Street in Reading. It took me a long time to get here, but at least I did.

This month I will cover a conference in Rome, a city I have never been to. Once the conference starts it won’t matter where I am because I will be busy from morning to night, but this is not a complaint. I love meeting the people, listening to their stories, writing them under pressure and transferring them back to the paper.

I am also scheduled to meet with a professor who has translated cuneiform letters found in Syria. The letters go back to 3000 b.c. and the professor has agreed to meet with me. It was total serendipity that we would be there at the same time, although I would have happily traveled to Rome to meet him at anytime. I even suspect I will get a chance to do a quick tour of Rome that will make me hungry to go back on my own. From Geneva this is neither hard nor expensive, thank you Easy Jet Airlines.

In that way, I am living the life of Beverly Gray, journalist and writer, a dream fulfilled.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Vengeance begats vengeance

I would say that the bombers are sharing our values. The US and the UK shocked and awed Baghdad not in four sites but night after night after night after night killing thousands of Iraqis. If Tony Blair considers the attack yesterday “barbaric” what we did to Iraq is what then????

In both cases innocent people lost their lives. Vengeance begats vengeance and disgusting rhetoric and righteousness.

I guess it is a double standard, we can bomb them but they can't bomb us.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The theatre festival at St. Andre

One thing I love about summer in Europe is there are so many cultural festivals, week long celebrations of different arts. And although it is possible to enjoy one during a vacation trip away, there are so many local ones it is not necessary to leave home. Some are major productions bringing in large amounts of money while others are locally produced. I’ve never been to one that wasn’t fun.

In Switzerland there is the famous Montreux Jazz festival. I will never forget my first festival listening to African music with my buddy Robbert until the middle of the night.

There is the less well know Avenches opera festival. This is the first time in seven years that I will miss sitting in a Roman amphitheatre watching the birds swoop into their nighttime nests and then listening to the music under the stars. The only reason is that I have seen the opera that they are showing this year and it is not one of my favorites. Avenches was the Roman capital in Helvetica.

Then there is Paleo in Nyon nearby to Geneva. Nyon is also where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fought their way through their marriage. Paleo is more pop and international music. Two years ago Llara, Marina and I went to celebrate my birthday, wandering through different tents listening to different types of music, buying a meal from the many stands and eating on the grass. Being with both these people and having music too, what could be a better way to celebrate a birthday?

Last night I went to the Theatre Festival at St. Andre. There are two plays a night with a chance to eat a good French meal in between. The stage was outside. It is run by Argelés neighbors. He is a lighting engineer for the Royal French Academy. His brother teaches theatre arts. They bring amateur theatre groups from the region together. Last night’s group came from Narbonne.

Different characters recited letters to their children, parents, lovers, grandchildren. An official talked through bureaucraticeese so identifiable by the audience that the laughter had to have been heard in the next village. A grandfather wrote to his daughter in the hospital where she was recovering from accident. In sixty-five letters all the disparate elements came together.
In Avenches Florian and I always run into people we know, but in St. Andre it was more intimate and more like sitting in a local café, an interesting combination of a very professional performance with the intimacy of village life.

There are far more festivals than I can attend, but at least one a summer is as traditional as turkey at Thanksgiving or eggs at Easter something to be savoured for its specialness

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Happy Artist

Chris stood outside his gallery, with his pipe in his hand. He wore his white and black striped jersey and looked more French than English. Chris designs sets for the London stage, but his heart belongs in Argelès where he spends as much time as possible. His grin made me think he had sold another painting. His water colors of the area capture its full ambience. No, it was better. The head of the Argelès Art Association has asked him to go to the port with other local painters to sit and paint one evening a week.

When the Hirondelles come back to Capistrano

Under the eaves of the third stories of Barbara’s house regularly at each point where a tile juts out is a hirondelle’s* nest with two exceptions where nests have fallen to the ground. Each spring the birds raise their babies.

Babies are almost grown and their heads stick out as they call to their parents. Some are already taking their first flights. Meanwhile the parents seem to have gone into repair mode bringing bits of sting and gluing them to their old nest.

Although there is something charming about having a bird apartment house in a village to take Barbara back to nature, another aspect is less appealing. Two of the nests are directly above plant-filled windows that need to be cleaned of bird offerings.

Today when the plumber visited to restore cold water to her bathroom, I suggested he add miniature toilets into each nests. Miniature toilet paper rolls are available from doll house stores. Training might be difficult, he pointed out.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Fly your way home

After a week of solid writing, both on the novel and on articles, today is a total day off. I decided to get up early and go to the beach before the sun was too high. My neighbor, Kay, regularly heads for an early morning swim so I rode with her. By 8:30 we were installed on the sand, almost alone, except for the gulls and mountains and the medieval towers on top of the mountains protecting us if Spain ever decides to invade again.

Kay swims. I could be an Olympic gold medalists in wading. The water was warm, but then I am used to the blue-skin creating New England seas.

I finished my wade, she finished her swim and we stretched out on our blankets for a good jaw before heading back to really start our days.

We were not alone. Lady bugs joined us, not one or two, but hundreds. They were not put off by warnings of houses on fire.

The vinters import them each year to protect their grapes, ladybugs being far more eco friendly than pesticides, but I wonder, if like Kay and I who want a quick trip to the beach before starting our day, if these lady bugs were doing the same thing. “Let’s go to the sea, then’ll we get down to work protecting these bloody grape vines.”

If Argelès were a sit com

If Argelès were a sit com, there would have to be a recurring role for Patrick, who runs around the village wearing boxers in place of shorts and a clashing shirt. There’s always a smile on his face and a willingness to lend a hand.

If he asks, the only smart thing to do is say, NO! Although he buys and renovates houses for a living his tenants mention things like no hot water or hot and cold water faucet reversals. Toilet flushing can be a luxury and no one wants to even think about the wiring.

He went into one neighbor’s house to help with the gas. The green grocer Jean-Pierre saw it and rushed in, but too late. Fortunately the explosion was only a little one and there was not even enough damage to submit a claim.

Then when a potted tree on the sidewalk became root bound, Patrick was more than happy to help dig through the sidewalk to replant the tree. The water department was not sure where the water main had been laid perhaps six decades ago, but they didn’t thank Patrick for finding it. In summer sun, flooded streets dry quickly.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Live Aid/Live 8

When Live Aid played I was living in a condo that I adored on The Riverway in Boston. My daughter was a teenager and we lived in amazing harmony considering our various hormonal stages of puberty and menopause. I dreamed of living in Europe. I wanted to be a published fiction writer. It was hot.

Live 8 was on yesterday. The lack of progress is sad. Even with the forgiving of debt, there are so many issues not talked about enough if at all – arms sales, affordable drugs, and reaching the corporate paymasters of our politicians, micro finance. My daughter is grown. I live in Europe. My novels are being published. It was hot.

Will Smith and the cross continental finger snapping every three seconds indicating the death of a child. One finger snap is worth a million words made and I wanted to cry at so much pain that exists needlessly out of greed.

I hear so many people complain about wanting this or that, but I never forget the fact that I am richer than most of the people who live or have ever lived in the world. At one time owning a needle made a woman wealthy. Even with a studio and a small place in Geneva that those with McMansions would turn up their noses at, I feel truly, truly, truly blessed. Sadly, there are those that have not fulfilled their dreams because of poverty.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Traffic jams

On my list of things I never, ever want to do, right up there with appearing on Fear Factor, bungee jumping and hari kari, is traveling in France on July 1st. Half the country goes on holiday for their annual four-weeks and traffic jams miles and miles or kilometers and kilometers long clog the roads. The French call them bucherons.

The only day that is worse is August 1st when the half that weren’t on holiday in July also take to the road changing places almost doubling the lines waiting at tool booths and cars filled with youngsters. Est-ce que nous sommes là déjà the French version of are we there yet is no more pleasant in French than English. Meanwhile I can smugly sit anywhere in my village knowing I am already here. Not nice maybe...but certainly sincere.

Cool not canicule

Out with the canicule in with the cool. The weather changed about 3 a.m. I know because I was on the phone to New Zealand on a story I was writing. I woke up hot and sweaty and the sudden drop made me get out covers before I went back to bed. Today, the same people that ran around yesterday in sleeveless tops have at least partial sleeves if not cloth to their wrists. However, the sky has the brilliant blue that is normal when the wind is high. It left me the energy to run around and get my ticket for my return to Geneva and do several other things I have been postponing. Coming from New England with its “if-you-don’t-like-the-weather-wait-a-minute life style, I am content to ride out the changes.