Thursday, May 26, 2005

Conversation for a Summer Night

The first summery night I headed for the Café du Soleil. The manager Olivier, who I hadn’t seen in a couple of months, a record of time away, triple-kissed my cheeks and without my even asking pointed to where my writing mate was waiting for me on the upper terrace.

It stays light until well after nine, so we felt no rush as we ate. For almost 12 years we have supported each other in our writing attempts. Because we worked across the street from one another there would be emergency coffees or lunches as we critiqued each other’s work. The critiquing helped us become better writers. The moral support saw us through rejections. We would celebrate non form rejections offering encouragement, and we celebrated our acceptances.

Our lives are changing. We no longer rely on each other to approve each word. Our self confidence has grown. We can hear the other’s suggestions in our heads even as they flow from our brains to our fingers. We might still ask what do we think about this or that.

Despite my dropping the pepper mill that luckily didn’t hit anyone sitting below and confusion about my order, we caught up on what we doing. She is an Australian of German parents, married to an Austrian, living in France and working in Switzerland. Transitioning into retirement she is on the final steps of her move to Vienna. She was just back from giving a paper in Montreal. I told her where I was on my various projects, how lucky I was to have the right guide in Syria to visit Ebla and how he put me in touch with the man who translated the cuneiform letters from 2000 B.C. and how I would meet that man in Rome in July. When we talk about individual work, we know each others characters much like we know living/breathing friends.

Although she offered to drive me home to the other side of the lake, I suggested we wait for my tram. A man from our writing group appeared after attending a meeting on ending world poverty. A political conversation began.

A woman, an intern at the UN who arrived at the stop, added her opinions. Another man approached and joined in. The tram came, and my two writer friends went their way. The two new comers and I continued the discussion on the tram. The man had his groceries and kidded about preparing us a meal. A Dalmatian, who got on the trolley, checked out the bags, didn’t find anything of interest, and laid his head in my lap. He had no opinion at all.

Riding in Cylinders

Why I get into cylinder objects to be hurled across distances is beginning to make less and less sense to me. Sometimes it’s an airplane, but more often it’s a train.

I’ve done the Argelès-Geneva train run for years. When I was still working I would take the train at 10 p.m. in Geneva arriving in Argelès just as Lopez was pulling the first hot bread from the oven. He would see me and put a tartine and hot chocolate at my table. I’d have two full days in my nest then Sunday night at midnight I would reverse the route arriving in Geneva at 8 with time to rush home, shower and get to the office only a little late.

French sleeper cars, called wagon lits, have six bunks. Granted they come with blanket, pillow and water bottle, but there is still a steerage feeling about second class. First class has four bunks not that much better. With the exception of the Paris-Argelès route, the sleeping arrangements are not gender separated.

During the many trips I have met some wonderful travelling companions. One group of mothers and daughters from Zurich turned into an overnight pajama party. Another time I shared experiences with a travel writer that was doing the handicapped person’s guide to France. When I thought a group of recent American college graduates would be a problem, they turned out to be great kids even if they didn’t know who John Calvin was, what the Protestant reformation was or even what a Puritan was, although Thanksgiving did trigger recognition.

Some have been less nice. One woman took my blanket so her small son would have something softer to lie on and made such a scene that I used my coat for a cover (people tease me about my duvet coats, but all the teasing in the world made the coat worth ecery feather). Another time a couple arrived and woke the whole car as they flipped on the light (most people try to be quiet) to arrange their affairs and had a lengthy and loud conversation long into the night.

Once I was with a girl friend. This was her first overnight train trip. We were in the top bunks, the lights had just gone out and she whispered across the car, “Good night John boy.”

Now that I no longer am working I more often take the day train, but on this last trip I decided on the night one. It is still off season and the middle of the week. There was only one other passenger, a man.

Being locked into a compartment with a strange man made me uncomfortable. Overall trains are safe. One summer there were a few pocketbook thefts and once someone was murdered in the toilet, but when I lived in the States two acquaintances were murdered, one in her home and one in shopping mall parking lot. I did not give up having a home nor would the murder keep me from a parking lot.

The only thing the man did all night was breath and from time to time turn in his bunk. He did not even snore. At Lyon he got off, giving me a private car for the next couple of hours. He was considerate enough to slip out silently carrying his shirt and jacket so he could dress in the aisle. I am sure he had no idea that his presence had caused me concern. Now on the other hand if I were to find myself alone in a compartment with Garou or George Clooney they might not be safe from me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

This and That

I am about to transfer my life back to Geneva, taking the night train that lets me sleep to the gentle swaying of the bed. There’s lots of planned activities: a play, an 80th birthday party, a master writing class and the end of the year writing dinner with readings at the Café du Soleil.

I’m looking forward to seeing my housemate Julia and lunching with different friends. I have missed walking along the lake and as interesting as the Pyrenees are, they lack the majesty of the Alps. Even after 15 years of Swiss life the Alps shock me with their beauty. When once I thought I would take this beauty for granted, I was wrong. I will never stop marvelling at my good fortune to live where exceptional beauty is considered normal.

I want to eat filet des perches, tailleul bread, sushi (I know that’s not Swiss), to visit the library and to have Munchkin the cat curl up on my bed or lap as I am writing at the computer. If I am lucky I will see Phoenix, the remarkable Jack Russell of a Swiss friend. This is a dog who when on a walk gets tired, sits by a bus stop refusing to budge. I can report, he doesn't always chose the right direction, reassuring me he is only a dog genius and not competition for Einstein. I want to see the progress on the rebuilding in front of the UN and read the Tribune de Geneve in paper format not electronic.

Rather than buy any more food, I decided to treat myself to magret de canard in Banyuls sauce at Les Flowers. My favourite place next to the plant surrounded stone fountain was free. Eating alone in a restaurant has never held the horror it does for some women. In a way I can concentrate on the good taste in a way I can’t when forced to participate in conversations.

A very pregnant woman waddled in. She wore a form fitting dress. Many pregnant French women in no way camouflage their pregnancies. I thought of my Victorian grandmother and her generation of women who did not leave the house when their stomachs began to protrude. Even when I lived in Germany in the 1960s, I seldom saw a heavily pregnant woman.

My maternity clothes were loose fitting dresses, far prettier than my mother’s tops and skirts with the elastic insert over the tummy.

As the pregnant woman lowered herself into her chair, it struck me as pregnancy has gone from something to hide to something to flaunt.

A definition of wasting time

“I have no patience with boring people, anymore,” Elaine said. We were having hot chocolate at La Noisette, probably the last hot chocolate of the season. Paris is supposed to have temperatures in the 30°s centigrade, the beginning of a heat wave.

We had been talking about how lucky we were to be able arrange our schedules that did not include eight+ hours in an office dealing with stupid politics and sometimes stupider bosses, although both of us have had positive work experiences.

“I sometimes like to sit here, just reading, or even watching people going by, although some people would think that is wasting time,” I said.

Before she could respond, a four-year old girl with a pony tail and bangs/fringe (depending if we’re using my American term or Elaine’s English one) came up. She explained to us how she was putting the feather she found in the planter because if the bird came to look it, she would have a better chance to find it against the bright flowers than the grey pavement.

When the child moved on Elaine said, “Doing nothing is not wasting time. That’s feeding your soul. Wasting time is doing what you don’t want to do.”

I have to agree with her. It is the difference between feeding and draining your soul.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Liking Lives

Winde (Wendy) and Sven brought out tomato salads with basil picked from the edge of their 6x4 foot terrace. Tarragon, thyme, mint, petunias and tiny trees bordered the area. Although this Belgian couple look as if they should be cramming for final exams they’re pushing thirty. Despite the age gap, they invited Barbara and me to lunch.

Their rented fieldstone house is part of an old Mas on the Massane River. The Pyrenees rose green against the grey sky that promised storms to come. Most of the houses in the neighbourhood were renovated buildings from the original farm.

Snap, the sort-of golden retriever Sven had adopted when travelling in Paraguay, put her paws and head on my lap, trying to convince me that she was love-deprived. A look at her basket, food dish, and well brushed coat, told more about her place in this household then her acting. Two black kittens that have just gone gangly flew out the door. Winde scooped them up and placed them back inside, and offered them to Barbara and me. We both turned down the offer as we did the next few times. We did promise to be on the outlook for prospective cat parents.

I like having friends from a variety of ages. When I was a bride of 20 living in Stuttgart one of the couples we hung around with was in their 40s. In Geneva, one of my neighbours in her mid 80s was a shared-meals-and-conversation friend. My next door Indian and Syrian neighbours were in their late thirties, and my work buddies were ten years younger than I am. I also have friends my age.

Although my parents loved their retirement community in Florida, I want to hear children running up and down the street and see everything from joggers to wheel chairs. I won’t disparage these communities with names like senior citizen ghettos. That life style made my parents as happy with their choices as I am with mine.

Sven is trying to make it as a free lance journalist. Winde is a sales girl in the new cheese shop working both behind the counter and the marchés. She is good. Since Sven writes in Flemish I have no measure of his talent. Last year, before they found this house they lived in a tent with the animals.

Much of our conversation concerned the French vote on the EU constitution, a little on Barbara’s and my winter in the US, parents, friends and family, especially in context of positioning and expectations.

The time passed quickly. The storm held off. We took our leave. As we headed for our car, one of Winde’s and Sven’s neighbours told his German Shepherd it was not a good idea to chase the black kittens. The dog obeyed instantly. This led to a discussion of a pink spikey flower in the stone pots in front of their house. No one knew its name in French or English.

The man led us down the path to the river. Snap and Winde joined us and Winde told of the pleasure of walking the dog along the river to the next valley. The water burbled over the rocks. The river was down from February and will be trickle in August. Snap and the Shepherd splashed in the water.

One of the things that struck me was Winde’s and Sven’s total satisfaction with their lives. They like their work. They like each other. They have all they need and want. No, that’s not true. They need to find homes for the kittens.

Friday, May 20, 2005

My Mom and Claude François

This is a corrected version of an earlier posting.

I wish my step mom had been here last night to watch the two-hour variety show staring the French singer Claude François (CF). Although I call her my step mom, she is much more my mom. In the forty years she has been in my life, we have never had a cross word. This woman doesn’t even know the ugly step mother manual exists. I doubt is she even read about those wicked women in Snow White or Cinderella.

The program was over 30 years olf. François was electrocuted in his bath in 1978. He pioneered pre-Brittany type acts and wrote the song MY WAY (no, it wasn’t Paul Anka who changed the lyrics. To see different translations of the song that has provided François’ sons with money for life )

French TV couldn’t function without dead singers. They regularly celebrate the anniversaries of their deaths with programs which I call the 25 ans déjà (25 years already) syndrome, although it could be another time period. Their music is replayes, people talk about the deceased, etc. But then this a country that announces deaths without saying the word death. A judge might bang his last gavel, a lion tamer tame his last cat. Arthur Miller’s death was announced as Arthur Miller joins Marilyn in Paradise.

So the replay of the old show was no surprise. Why did I wish my mom was with me? When she visited me in Geneva years back, I showed her a tape of one of the X Ans Déjà programs about CF. She barely noticed his dancers, the Claudettes, with their exposed breasts. She was too busy tapping her feet.

She loved his music so much I gave her a CF CD, solving the problem of what to buy a woman who has what she needs and wants. When I was in Paris I took a photo of the place where CF had lived and worked and sent it to her.

I’ve always loved the book stalls flanking the Seine. Once I could read French, I loved to browse and buy. This springtime walk had had so much rain that the Seine was almost overflowing. Everything smelled fresh. A boat with tourists drifted towards Notre Dame. One stall sold old issues of magazines and I spied the March 1978 issue of Paris March which is a high class People. Lots about celebrities, but they also have articles about writers, painters and world events. CF was on the cover and inside were photos of his life and death. I grabbed it and mailed it to her. At least I knew she wouldn’t have two.

Watching the program brought back good memories of a good woman much more than memories of CF.

Uninvited Visitors

Flapping wings and frantic tweets woke me. It was not a dream. Alfred Hitchcock was no where around. My bed is under a skylight and many mornings I watch little birds from the underside tap dance over my head. The Argelés Tabernacle Bird Chorus serenades the street from the roofs opposite. However, this flapping and tweeting came from my chimney.

When I looked up the chimney a soot-encrusted bird landed on the pine cone filled copper dish that decorates the fireplace when there’s no fire. He shook his head and took off circling my flat. His attempt to fly through a closed window stunned him, but by the time I found a towel to cover him for release he had staggered to a hiding place.

I opened the window and tried again to capture this. He took off running then flew to freedom.

This is the second time I have an early morning avian experience. Two years ago I was showering in Geneva when my daughter screamed, “Gwen has a bird.” Lady Guinevere (Gwen) has Garfieldesque body that moves slowly except when she’s hunting. Llara passed the cat through the bathroom door. Her legs were still racing although she was two feet off the floor. Her mouth was clacking.

Then Llara screamed again, “the bird is alive.” We shut Gwen in, threw a towel over the bird and threw it out the window. Gwen when released came out of the bathroom anxious to reclaim her prey. Meanwhile Llara and I were sure that the bird was telling its friends about its narrow escape and warning them that my balcony was probably not a good place to land.

Now listen up all you birds. Wait for an invitation. Attends une invitation. D'accord?

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Retirees say they are busier now then when they worked, and before I “retired-HAH” as my daughter refers to my alleged retirement. However, I often feel I don’t get done what I want to accomplish each day at the same time being aware that my mental to do list is not realistic.

Today I happily worked on my novel. After not being satisfied with what has been happening, my heroine Peggy has taken a temp job she likes after being fired from a bank where she hated working. She will meet with her niece and her reporter boy-friend to plan her next steps in her anti-war drive. Meanwhile sister Katie is heading for Florida with her husband to look at houses. Katie doesn’t want to move, but her husband is fed up with New England snow. Progress. The words still don’t go deep enough, but I know each day when I go back to polish the sentences will be strengthened.

I’ve solved the time consuming mailing of my newsletter W3.It has taken too much time to send it out of my 7000 subscribers, but I need to do one more to tell them I have created a new blog I know I’ll lose some readers, but I will post once a month. I transferred the old newsletters from my web site.

More important I caught up on paperwork and emails, including setting up my new journal. Barbara and I split outside chores, she taking my letters to the post office when she mailed her toothpaste orders and I took her old thrown out clothes and mine to the recycling center.

Then a trip to the train station for my ticket back to Geneva next week, about a five minute walk. A lot of things are coming up there that I don't want to miss, a play, a master writing class, a night of readings, a birthday party for the sister-in-law of my Swiss gentleman friend, plus a mini vacation with him. I will be busy when I get back.

I felt I earned the café sit at La Noisette across from the church. The outside tables have an African print in golds and rusts. The tables are blocked from cars by planters. The plaza across from the church (see for a photo) is surrounded by old houses. Two men, their shirts off and their bronze skin cover muscles that should be only on models, lay red roof tiles against the bright blue sky.

I read my book SEA GLASS as I sip my peach iced tea in the warm afternoon sun and listen to the buzz of French conversations around me. Two women, one in a red shirt and the other in green, order syrups, mint and strawberry, with bubbly water. Franck, the owner, serves them in reverse order and they joke with him they ordered the colored of their drinks to match their shirts.

I need to get back to my to-do list: needlework, the newsletter, the novel, checking e-mail, reading various political sites, and some research on my future Syrian novel and a project that has been bouncing around in my mind. There are articles I need to write. Barbara is coming for dinner, although it will only be pizza bought from down the street. There is no way I can do it all today, and I tell myself that is all right. Stop beating myself up for trying to do so much, but the problem is not the shortness of the day, but the great number of things that I find so enjoyable. And if it is stupid feel guilty for not doing it all, there is a larger awareness of how lucky I am to be doing so many things I love.

Tomorrow is another day. The one thing on my to-do list that I can’t forget is be aware of how truly blessed I am.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

We need more Galloways

At last. I heard someone in the Senate savage our policies in the Middle East from the Reagan days through now. Unfortunately, it was a British politician, George Galloway, who won libel suits against papers that printed the same charges that he was supposedly testifying about, yesterday.

My only sadness is that everything Galloway said should have been said by our own people.

Sadly, reading the Washington Post this morning, the meat of what he said had been cut out. I could find nothing in The Boston Globe. CNN’s web site and CNN international covered it thoroughly.

If I had one wish, it would be for the American leaders to listen to Galloway.

Rainy Day and Tuesdays Don't Get Me Down

The pounding of the rain on my wooden cathedral ceiling woke me. Rolling over I could barely see the red tiled roofs across the street. Sheeting rain looked as if I had hung sheer curtains on the outside of the window.

Years of going out to work in bad weather when I wished I could stay inside were forgotten. I wore my sweats, read, did needlework, wrote and even played a couple of computer games. Thunder and lightning came and went. The wind blew down the chimney. A wire danced.

It was necessary to turn on the heat to take the chill off later in the day. My heater is on my wall and is also an air-conditioner. Its 3x6x.5 feet. Its manufacturer has a great ad with a mime and no sound. At the end the sign reads “Celebrating five years of silence.” After loud, blaring commercials, it makes me doubly glad I gave in to my daughter’s insistence I buy the unit. Of all the noise generated by computers the silence stood out.

Silently I shut the heater off, celebrating the day inside.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Getting Barbara's Goat

The drive to the goat farm was through a vineyard into the mountain foothills. We turned off the road, crossed a stone bridge where a small stream gurgled over rocks.

The farmhouse itself was in an old stone house built centuries before. A stable was to one side.

For years I had seen one of the owners, Leo, selling his goat cheese at the Saturday marché dressed in blue coveralls like farmers wear in kids’ books. His beard is Santa Claus thick. For many years there was a video on his stand showing how the cheese was made, contrasting low and middle tech.

My friend Barbara and I were searching for a goat, a three-month old male that had been culled from the 15 goats born this spring. Two bucks ans all the females survived. We weren’t looking for a pet, but dinner.

I am 90% vegetarian. I eat meat when someone cooks it for me. I don’t buy it. Seeing pigs, sheep and cattle stuffed in cars like the Jews in Nazi Germany, travelling miles to be slaughtered turned me off meat. I also don’t like American meat because of the hormones. Although no one listens to me, I think the fattening-up hormones in American meat is also contributing to the obesity in the US. So when Barbara who had lived in Africa and ate goat there raved about its taste and was thrilled she could get goat meat from Leo, I was willing to try it because I knew the goat had been treated humanely. I loved the taste and so the news that she was about to get more, pleased me.

We were greeted by Marjika, Leo’s wife. She and her husband aren’t French, but Dutch. Like so many a trip to Southern France led them to move. They managed to buy an old farm before prices in this area went crazy and succeeded where so many have failed, living off the land. Their vegetable garden provides most of their needs and I could see tomato plants, onions and raspberries in early stages of growth. Both have certificates in cheese making.

Because it was Sunday, the goats were in the long stable. During the week, they have the run of the farm. The stable was long, with about 70 goats sorted more or less by age. The bucks were separated from the females. They ranged in age from babies to about 12. A milk goat usually produces until they are 10 or 11. Marjika said that she only milks her goats nine months a year. Feeding them just straw causes their milk to dry up. Baby goats restart the production.

She keeps four bucks. I thought of the New Zealand’s Footrot Flat’s comic book character of Cecil the ram, who is too lazy to do his job None of the bucks looked as if they would avoid their siring responsibilities.

Two female goats were good friends, always together, Marijka said. “Maybe once a year they fight, I separate them for a couple of days, then they are back to being friends.”

The goats greeted us, one deciding that my sweatshirt tasted good. The goat that learned to open the gate was identified as we walked to the milking room.

Two cats, one a taffy tiger male and a calico angora walked us back to the showroom where we packed up our butchered meat, the source of many good meals to come. I imagine eating the roasts and chops over Barbara’s shop with a good local wine and whatever vegetable is the freshest. We will have many good conversations as we eat. I will not try and think of their eyes and their personalities.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Changing Nationalities

I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and cried with relief and happiness. It said the ruling on my Swiss nationality was favourable from the Federal Government in Bern and the Cantonal Government in Geneva. It has only taken just under 15 years from the day I embarked on a new life in the Val de Travers in the Jura Mountains.

When I had my first interview with the authorities last November 20 months after filing my papers, I told the woman who shared my love of animals, that changing nationality is like changing religion. You don’t do it lightly, you really have to believe. With the 12 year waiting period and the amount of paperwork, official translations of documents and a mini essay on why I wanted the nationality it wasn’t easy.

I don’t remember exactly what I said in that essay, but it had something to do with wanting to be a full participant in my new country in repayment for the better lifestyle I was given. With rights go responsibility to the society you live in. For the first time in my adult life I was paid more than enough, had six weeks vacation, felt safe on the streets. I was living in a country with universal health care, albeit I paid for my own coverage, but it was affordable. With my Permis C, earned after five years, I had almost all the rights of a Swiss in buying a home, changing jobs, etc. but I could only leave for a limited amount of time without not being allowed back and most importantly I couldn’t vote. Other than not to create mayhem, I had no responsibilities.

I had been once to watch a session of the Bern government in session. It is set up like the House of Representatives and Senate, but instead of president there is a council of seven with the president rotating every year. It is a multi-party system.

I am not so naïve to think that this is a perfect country. Watching the politicians, certain scandals, things that are down right annoying, I know Switzerland like all countries has problems and is ruled as all countries by flawed human beings. Still it works, better than any other place I have ever lived. I like the fact they vote on issues that in other countries are done by the government. Imagine voting on if the Army should buy planes or not, the retirement age and other social issues. Nor do I always agree with the decision, but I do appreciate it going to a national vote. It is easier to live with a dissenting decision if it comes from a consensus.

I have a couple of more steps to go through, including having to sing the national anthem. I did warn the woman who interviewed me, that this could be awful. My daughter at three asked me not to sing her any more lullabies, because my singing hurt her ears. She laughed and did say that singing well wasn't a requirement. I still wonder if my commune will do an interview or not.
None of this negates my American roots, the one where honesty and doing the right thing was drummed into me. Nor does it rub out the fact that I received an excellent education that is less and less possible in the US, with driving teachers who wanted top performance from me. And there are still people I adore in my natal country. One Swiss man who I talked to said the acceptance of foreigners as new nationals means they bring a different depth to the country, and I hope I can do the same by being myself, a dual-national.

At one point there was discussion about dual nationals having to give up their other nationality if they wanted to remain Swiss, and I wondered what I would do. At this point so much of my life has been lived here, I realised I would keep the Swiss, but it is not a choice I have to make. The Swiss voted down the recommendation.

On a less serious note, I am waiting for the first time I am asked whether I am American or English. It happens often when I speak with my heavily accented French. I am dying to see the person’s face when I reply, “Swiss”.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Three Questions

The reading group where I went a while back to discuss my novel was nice enough to give me a gift certificate to Payot, a Swiss book chain. The one on Rue Chantepoulet, is enlarging its English book section. The woman who works there is the former owner of the now defunct Elm Book Store, an English bookstore that gave great support to Anglo-writers in Geneva. Payot is trying to build up its English books section using her expertise.

With the certificate in my hand I went to buy my stash. I suppose I could have supported Elm better, but with the cost of books and the fact I can go through six books in a week, I use the library for the good of my bank account. Also, unlike most writers I don’t keep books except for a few reference books, preferring not to have them take up my limited space.

I came across a book on reducing clutter and it said to look at each object in your house and ask three questions.

1. Does it give you energy when you look at it?
2. Is it beautiful?
3. Is it useful?

If you can’t answer yes to all three they asked another question “Than what are you doing with it?”

I didn’t buy the book, because I had all the information I needed. I have looked at every item I own, and have been able to answer yes to all three questions. However, I did get rid of a beach chair someone left in my place that I never use and an old radio and some clothes I will never wear again. Except for that nothing, absolutely nothing doesn’t merit a resounding three yeses, although sometimes the beautiful and/or useful are said with varying degrees of force. As for the books I bought, they are read and passed onto other readers.
When I worked for Digital Credit Union in another lifttime, we instituted a telephone service where people could dial up and order checks automatically. One woman called me, and in a quivery voice that spoke of age, said she had dialled several times, she was sure she had done everything right, but no money came through the telephone.

I explained, the service cut a check that was mailed to her.

“Ah,” she said. “I wondered how it worked.”

Older people are supposed to be techno-phobic. My Swiss gentlemen friend says that computers were not of his generation, even though he has been saying it since his fifties and he is now in his seventies. He ignored me when I told him that a 95-year old woman from my writing group was complaining that surfing the web, emailing people known and unknown was cutting into her writing time. He still refused to even use an ATM card.

Thus, when I went to my bank’s ATM, I was surprised to see two very old women, grey-haired, well-dressed in heels and stockings, grey-haired, stooped, probably at least in their late seventies using the ATM machine. One was showing her friend how to use it. “Formidable,” said the neophyte user, “I should have done this years go.” It was formidable, wonderful.

Bisbal, Bills, Buffalos and Bulls

We hopped over to Spain, my friend Barbara and I. She wanted to get some tangines in Bisbal, a town that is 90% ceramic stores, sold at factory outlet prices. A large percentage of the products are made by local artists. It was our fifth trip and our favourite store is owned by Joseph and Carmen Torres, who also offer lessons in ceramics and a chance to try your hand in creating, setting them slightly apart from the other stores.

I had bought my bathroom mirror there, which is tiles with birds and branches, surrounding the mirror. The mirror is part of my goal to keep mass produced items out of my place, and only have things that I really, really love and use regularly. Even my dustpan is a signed work of art by am American artist. I get to sweep dirt into a pretty dustpan covered with painted fruits and berries. I won’t claim it makes sweeping the floor a pleasure, but it certainly is a slight help to keep my stupid decision to buy light colored tiles free of the crumbs that mock me.

As usual our transactions were done quickly and were followed by a more in depth conversation. They told us they had a couple from Boston and asked us if we planned to live in the States again. Both of us said we didn’t want to live in any country without universal health care.

Barbara is under the French system, while I am under the Swiss. Switzerland requires that I buy my own insurance at pre-determined rates. A portion of my payment is used for those that can’t pay. Barbara’s health insurance is part of what she pays taxes for. Costs for doctors are low 20 Euros, house calls are possible for 35 Euros and a large percentage is reimbursed. In both countries waiting lists are non existence, although a wait in the doctor’s office might be necessary. France is considered by the World Health Organization as having the best system in the world. Swiss costs are higher but covered after I meet my deductible. We are both worry free when it comes to health insurance.

The couple was shocked. They couldn’t understand how 45 millions could be without health insurance. They pay 216 Euros a month and after that everything is free. “But don’t people care that others are suffering?” They asked in at least five different ways. They couldn’t imagine having no medical insurance and life destroying medical bills.

We stopped for Tapas, before driving back to France. The potato and zucchini pies, the olives (I had grown addicted to olives as breakfast in Syria) the mushrooms in olive oil, parsley and garlic abated out appetites as we kidded about tapas as Spanish dim sum and dim sum as Chinese tapas.

We found a parking place at dusk by the river. River is a loose term. Most of the time there is no water. In fact I was here for at least 15 years before I ever saw water in it at all, although it has been known in times of severe storms to overflow the banks and wash away cars.

This night, I looked and looked again. “Barbara, there’s a buffalo.”

She was busy looking for something in the back. “Don’t be silly…and a-a-a camel.”

“And a horse with its foal.”

“And a long horn bull that could run with the bulls in Pamplona.”

Walking home we passed a neighbour, who confirmed the circus was in town, which explains buffalo and camels in the river, or at least I hope the animals were with the circus.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Deep Sleep and Purple Vases

I start awake from a sleep so deep that I am not sure where I am or what day it is. The place where I came from was my childhood home, the living room to be exact and I was looking at my grandmother’s two purple vases on each end of the mantle over the fireplace. Although the glass is thick and translucent they look perfect for ice cream sodas.

My grandmother promised them to me, but on her death my mother took them. Some years later she called me to tell me that she was selling them, but was giving me first chance at $300, then a week’s salary. I was furious. The anger comes back.

As I look around the room, at my orchid with its two flowers and six buds, I think of Colette’s mother, Sido, did not go to visit her daughter because the invitation came for a time when a much loved plant would blossom while she was gone and she did not want to miss it. Although I enjoy my orchid, it would not stop me from a trip. I see the German edition of my book with its changed title Jungen Gemüse . The covers of the Russian and English edition are so different, but I am still too sleepy to wonder about marketing decisions.

I see the stone wall, repointed a few years back by Gérard. Before he did it dust filtered constantly onto my stairs at a rate that as I walked back up the stairs after sweeping the dust away, more fell mocking me. Gérard had cleaned my flat cleaner than it had ever been. As good a worker as he is, I swear he would make a fortune as a cleaning person.

I am back in the correct place and the correct day, knowing that I will meet Rosalie for morning tea, Robbert will pop in later to use my faster ASDL line as he job hunts. No need to foodshop today, there’s enough in the frigo. I will drop off a newspaper to Barbara that might be a good place for her to advertise her shop.

I seldom sleep that deeply, but I was really tired from the night before when worry about my daughter’s cat kept me awake, and I had worked until almost midnight. I am reworking the beginning of my new novel Triple Deckers flushing out the character of the woman who lost her son in Iraq and also sending e-mails to people I want to talk to about the ancient city of Syria for my next book Murder in Damascus. That I don’t have publishers for them yet, does not stop me. I am hoping one of the professors who is translating cuneiform letters from the ancient city of Ebla in Syria will meet me when I am in Rome. It is often the way I work juggling multi projects. Although I wish I could concentrate on one thing, I can’t. Maybe I should self accept.

I throw on jeans and a painter’s blouse, still happy I am not putting on a suit and stockings. My anthropologist friend calls clothing cultural coding, and I prefer this code, the comfortable code. I make my breakfast. For some reason lately I have had a desire for cornflakes, that American of breakfasts in the morning, even though the brand is local.

As I busy myself with morning tasks, making the bed, brewing a cup of tea, sweeping the floor, turning on the computer, I realise that had my mother given me the purple vases, I would have no place for them in my current lifestyle and I let go of the residual anger. In another way, their existence in my memory will last as long as I do and that is enough.

The triangle cat hunt

PLEASE BE THERE. It was almost midnight in Europe when the words flashed across the messaging screen. I had rewarded myself for a good day of writing with a computer game that kept going and going.

"What's up?" I answered Susan in Boston.

“Morgana is gone,” Susan typed.

Morgana is my daughter’s cat, who moved only yesterday from Boston to Leesburg, VA so Llara could take up her new job.

“How” I messaged back.

The people who changed the glass in Llara’s new apartment had let her out. Let may be the wrong word. Morgana, unlike her feline sister the Lady Guinevere (Gwen) is an explorer deploring Gwen’s under-the-bed style of life. Gwen has never been on the street. Morgana came to Llara as a foundling after college kids going home for the summer threw her out to fend for herself. Except for moves, she is not an outdoors cat but loves to escape whatever apartment is home to visit neighbours. I suspect she wanted to see who else lived in the new building.

Susan told of my daughter’s pain and the hunt plans as well as her helplessness being so far away across land. I was equally useless to help an ocean away.

There are times like this that you want to be there to do something useful, not offer verbal support. However, I still telephoned. Llara said the cat had been spotted around 1 a.m. outside Llara’s building. Morgana is grey and white angora and looks different than most cats, little chance it would be another cat. At least Llara knew she hadn’t fallen from the second story.

Perhaps I should add that I am more a dog person, but these two felines had wormed their way into my heart while they shared my Geneva flat. I still miss having pets, but when I am tempted to get a dog I wait until 10 p.m. on a rainy night and force myself to take a walk. Knowing its optional usually cures me of the puppy blues. None of this was important at the moment. I only wanted Llara to find her cat and to stop hurting. I wanted Morgana to be all right and cursed myself for every morning that I resented the cat who appeared on my chest, stroking my face not in love, but in placing her breakfast order.

Llara was walking her new neighbourhood on the way to the store to get paper to put up signs. She had already made the acquaintance of several neighbours.

With nothing more to do but to send good thoughts across the Atlantic I went to bed, but not to sleep. Around 3 a.m. the phone ran. “The lost is found,” Susan said. A very dirty cat was back in the apartment when Llara got home from her paper buying, mostly likely put there by the superintendent.

I rolled over in bed, feeling relieved. My daughter was no longer hurting, which even though she is a fully-capable adult, competent to handle her own problems, is a state I still would like to protect her from. I know I can’t and shouldn’t, but I still wish I had been there to walk the streets of Leesburg looking for the cat, rather than an ocean away offering moral support.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Rabbits, Taxis and Trains

A rabbit hopped around the small green island. The only thing strange thing about that is that the grassy and tree area was in the center of a Paris Street.

I would have liked to point it out to my taxi driver who was taking me to the Gare du Lyon on my way home after my trip to Syria. This is the fourth time I have had this driver, and we have become friends. He is an Algerian Moslem that has lived for years in Paris and we first met when he picked me up at a friend’s house when I was on my way to the US. We began talking politics.

This trip he is upset about Tony Blair’s reelection. “Menteur (Liar)” he says of Mr. Blair. I offer that people voted on the English economy not the war, although at that moment I didn’t know about the reduction in Labour seats.

I don’t point out to him that in the past few months I have seen Israelis blame Palestinians, Palestinians blame Israelis, Sunnis blame Shiites, Shiites blame Christians, Christians blame Moslems. With everyone blaming everyone there is no time to look for solutions. Better to become entrenched in a point of view that closes off any hope of improvement in mutual interests.

He deposits me at the train station, not as a casual driver, but as a friend. “See you next visit,” we say to each other.

Because of my mega suitcase I cannot mount the stairs to my favorite spot to wait for my train. Do take a minute to look at the link of this wonderful restaurant with its paintings. If you have a window seat you can see the trains coming and going, like being in an Impressionist painting. Instead I opt for the Bleu-express downstairs for a traditional French petit-dejeuner, tartine, croissant, fresh squeezed juice and hot chocolate. I feel nostalgic for my Syrian breakfasts with cheese and olives and tea. There are few paintings on the wall in the same style as the main restaurant, but the ambiance of being in the station as it must have been in the early 1900s is lost.

My train comes and I am on my way home. I wonder about the rabbit on his green island in the middle of Paris. Unlike my taxi driver I doubt that I will see him again.

My trip to Syria

So many people told me that going to Syria was dangerous. After all it is a country that supports terrorists.

Well they were right. There is real danger – but not from terrorists. Crossing the street is taking your life in your hands. Imagine cars from the last five decades transformed into yellow taxis, two horse drawn carts, cars of all vintage and trucks. Eliminate traffic lights. Picture standing on the sidewalk of a multi-lane highway, looking for a break then hurtle yourself in between rushing cars to reach the other side. Now that’s danger.

The second danger is Saladin’s revenge. All those little microbes that are strange to a Western body set up housekeeping with results leaving the carrier an expert on any toilet within a 50-mile radius. Fortunately traveling with a doctor reduced my downtime this trip. Last trip I collapsed on the stairs of the Tomb of the Three Roman Brothers and also thought it might be the tomb of One American along with the brothers.

As last time I only found wonderful people and sights. Because I was researching my next novel, I was put in touch with those that could help. Their generosity in time and spirit touched me. As for the family I stayed with, their warmth is too big to be measured.

Being in Syria is a little like living in many centuries at the same time. A woman in the latest style might be next to a veiled Moslem woman sitting on a sidewalk selling thyme from a burlap bag. Old Damascus has an internet café but the store next to it will make pita bread as they have for centuries, and bakers walk down the street with ten or more pitas draped across their arms.

Although there is some international business, I did not miss the huge stores and the pressure to buy, buy, buy. I was told that the many merchants in the tiny stores and souks earned enough to live. Enough is a wonderful world. The Syrians in general also have enough time to spend time with friends and family. Visiting friends at the drop of a doorbell is different to the Swiss habit of planning weeks in advance. In Syria when someone comes, the matei, coffee, nuts and biscuits are produced and news is shared. Scarcely a day goes by without at least one visit, often more.

American TV has come to Syria and although I was thrilled to see West Wing, I am not sure Judge Judy is needed. Watching BBC news and some Arab news I saw far more in depth coverage of what is happening in the world than I did from watching the US morning shows which seemed more concerned about the Runaway Bride than the devastation in Iraq.

One Sunni talked to me about museum tourists. Although I was busy exploring sites for my novel and have visited Syrian museums (including a psychiatric hospital dating back to the Middle Ages that was as advanced in its treatment then some of ours today) the Sunni expressed his approval of my type of tourism which is to know people. The image of this country given by the papers is so different from the on-the-ground reality. At the same time there is no forgetting that people have been living here from before measured time, making Syria a living museum. To see the window where St. Paul is thought to have escaped from, to walk on the same Straight Street that is mentioned in the Bible, to see buildings centuries old where people lived, laughed, loved and died, is an experience that I have been lucky enough (there’s that word enough again) to have lived not once, but twice. I am so glad I trusted the Syrians and not the worrywarts, although I do appreciate that they cared.