Monday, 31 May 2010

May: hymn of light, colour and leaf

May, in England, is extravagantly beautiful.

The garden is at its most demanding, but also its most rewarding.  A lesson in this?
Weeding, watering, feeding, and tweaking could take up every hour of the day, but on a sunny day those jobs are a pleasure.

May makes a person want to wax lyrical. 
Adam Nicolson, the heir to Sissinghurst -- one of the most famous gardens in the world -- wrote this:

This is a damp, lush country.  The late winters are grey and depressing. The spring is often a disappointment. But then in May, the condition of our life in these islands becomes heavenly.  "When I die," Monty Don wrote in The Ivington Diaries, published last year, "I shall go to May.  It will be green, actually the colour green in all its thousand shining faces.  Every moment will be like the arc of a diver breaking the waters of a green lake, a shifting, growing hymn of light, colour and leaf."

And yes, the world is so green . . . but full of other colours, too.
Lilac, wisteria, peony, allium, bluebell:  these are the May palette.

And horses kiss in a green, green field full of buttercups and white-blossomed May trees.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Shakespeare and Company

While the book doth live
and we have wits to read
and praise to give
Thou art alive still

Shakespeare and Company:  Is there a more storied bookstore in the world?

If you go to Notre Dame, and what tourist doesn't, it is just across the river on the Left Bank . . . so close to the Seine that a "well-thrown apple core will easily reach river water," says Jeremy Mercer, in Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs.

When I was 21, and visiting Paris for my first grown-up time, I read Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.  In that memoir to his Parisian salad days, Hemingway describes Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company -- the gathering place for the literati of the time.  Beach, an American expatriate, was hosting her version of the Parisian salon -- with a capitalistic twist, aptly.  She became known for her friendships, for her encouragement of writers and for the frequent readings sponsored by the bookstore.  Like her friend Gertrude Stein, she was a lesbian -- and Paris created a space for her to be truly herself.  As Stein said, America is my country and Paris is my hometown.

When mainstream publishers wouldn't touch James Joyce's Ulysses, Sylvia Beach bankrolled its publication.  Although the novel didn't make her any money, it did add luster to the legendary bookstore.  A biography of James Joyce graces one of  the window displays and is one of many reminders of the bookstore's rich history.

The second World War closed the bookstore's doors for a decade, but in 1951 another American, George Whitman, bought some of Beach's book collection and opened a bookstore -- same name, different location -- with her approval.   Whitman kept many of the traditions -- readings, a gathering place for expatriates, the promotion of starving writers -- and then he added to them, just as he kept adding to the bookstore.  Although Beach created a "home" at her bookstore, Whitman actually allowed the writers and wanna-be writers to sleep over.

Jeremy Mercer's memoir is an intriguing glimpse into the life of the bookstore, fifty years after Whitman opened the current location on 37 rue de la Bucherie.  Mercer describes a constant parade of book lovers, camping out amidst the stacks.  It must be one of the most unique youth hostels:  room, and occasional board, in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore.  One of the few things that Whitman asks of his residents is that they attempt to read a book a day.

I've often fantasized about living in a bookstore, but I will readily admit that for all its charms, Shakespeare and Company is probably too bohemian for my taste.  As of the year 2000, when Mercer was living in the bookstore, there was no heat and little in the way of facilities or privacy.  (Mercer describes, humorously and horrifyingly, how residents managed to wash themselves and scrounge up meals.)  Although an English poet managed to bunk in the antiquarian room for more than five years, most of the residents are just passing through. 

Whitman started a tradition of having his temporary residents submit their "biographies."   Mercer describes it as "an archive of sociological wonders . . . a vast survey of the great drifters of the past forty years."  I wonder if the best bits will be compiled into a book someday? Although Whitman's daughter now runs the store, a bit of his biography is still posted outside the store -- almost like a manifesto.

Of course, I had to buy some books while I was there.

I looked over the impressive selection of fiction, but in the end I settled for two books about the experience of living in Paris.  True Pleasures, by an Australian writer called Lucinda Holdforth, is a memoir of Parisian women -- not all of them French -- who have been inspired by and associated with the city.  Colette, Josephine and Madame de Staël are here, and so are Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.  Her themes are intriguing:  "On Grown-Up Women" and "But Women Are Politics . . .".  As Stein said, It's not what Paris gave you but what it didn't take away from you that was important.

I read this book weeks after I left Paris -- when I was sick in bed, in fact -- but it brought Paris flooding back to me.  The author stays in the same area of the Marais that I did, and she visits Shakespeare and Company . . . which brings the journey full-circle in a satisfying way.  But then I have no doubt that all English speaking book lovers eventually find themselves there.

The other book that I bought from Shakespeare and Company was The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham.  Wadham, a British woman just a bit older than me, marries a Parisian and attempts to immerse herself in French family and culture . . . which is a very different thing to just admiring and appreciating the abridged tourist version of things.  It's a strange measure of how long I've lived in England, now, but I felt a strong identification with Wadham's point-of-view. 

In Wadham's view, the French admire the English, while the English tend to despise the French.  On the other hand, the French despise the Americans, who -- in their innocence -- admire the French.  By the way, Wadham also attempts to explain why the French are so rude; although I didn't really find them so.  Indeed, I found it charming how all of the waiters described themselves as "désolée" when they couldn't provide me with a table . . . even though my French accent is atrocious.

There is no frigate like a book, said Emily Dickinson, but at Shakespeare and Company you are more likely to travel by train.  Or are those old cinema seats?

The young American man who rang up my book purchases asked me if I wanted the special stamp in my books . . . I guess it's the Shakespeare and Company passport.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Luxembourg Gardens

Although I grew up in a smallish town, and now live in the countryside, I like to think of myself as a "city" person -- by inclination, if not location.  Whenever I entertain fantasies of moving to London, my husband and children respond with varying degrees of horror:  House prices! Noise! Filth! Crime! Traffic!

But wouldn't you miss the countryside and your garden, my friends say, with all of the scepticism of country converts.  Well, yes; but mostly no.  This morning, as I weeded and fed my many rose bushes -- a thankless and thorny task -- I thought longingly of Queen Mary's Rose Gardens in Regent's Park.  I was there just a week ago, admiring the vigour and health of hundreds and hundreds of shrub roses.  Unlike my straggling, deer-chewed specimens, these bushes are beautiful -- and they aren't even blooming yet. 

Frankly, I don't need ownership of rose bushes to delight in them.  In fact, it may be the other way around. I am content to wander through a public garden and enjoy the fruits of someone else's labour -- not to mention taking in the sights of people out and about.  A park is a great place to be alone, or to walk with friends.   It allows for all of the pleasures of anonymity, and yet there is something companionable about it, too. 

On the first fine day of spring, when the pale city-dwellers throng the park, the feeling of solidarity is almost palpable.   A park exists for no other reason than the human need for leisure -- and the emotional/physical benefits of fresh air.

These boys had flung down their backpacks in order to play football at the gates of Luxembourg Gardens.  I don't know if it was a lunch-time break, or if they were playing hooky just because the sun was shining.  Remember when running and kicking a ball was pure pleasure?

In the wilder, "English garden" section of the park, the older generation take the sun with their daily dose of news.   The bright yellow forsythia was in bloom, and drifts of narcissus were just emerging.

When I was in Paris at the end of March, the forecast was for rain:  one solid string of dark clouds.  Most fortuitously, on the day we planned to visit the Luxembourg Gardens, there was an unexpected break in the gloomy forecast. 

Just out of sight of these three are Jenni and I, sharing a jambon baguette and a quiche lorraine.  Lunch from the boulangerie is a veritable bargain . . . and you can splurge your savings on some ice cream, later.

Do you think these French gentleman rendezvous daily for boules?

It was warmer on that late March day than it is now, in early May.  If you double-click on the picture, you can see a coat-rack -- where some of the men have hung up their jackets.

Although my love for city parks is genuine, I will confess that I wanted to visit Luxembourg Gardens because of a book.  Several years ago, I read Adam Gopnik's brilliant tribute to Parisian expat life:  Paris to the Moon.

Gopnik writes this: There are two kinds of travelers.  There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and see it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it.

I'm both kinds of traveler, but I went to the Luxembourg Gardens in a sort of emotional homage to Adam Gopnik and his young son . . . who spent many hours riding the carousel in the park.  Adam and Luke Auden's visits to the Luxembourg Gardens become the emotional timeline of this wide-ranging book -- which covers philosophy, history, politics, family and cultural differences.  When the Gopnik family first arrives in Paris, Luke Auden is just a toddler -- only fit to ride in one of the "safe" inner chariots, with his father as protector.  By the time they leave Paris, five years later, he is a confident boy -- reaching out for brass rings.

Unlike many things in life, the carousel in Luxembourg Gardens was just as Gopnik described it.  I could almost see the cautious baby face of Luke Auden in this young girl.  Unsure about the experience, she kept looking for her mother.  Meanwhile, on a horse nearby, an older girl crowed with satisfaction each time she managed to pick off a brass ring with her little stick.  Childhood pleasures and progress are so welcomely predictable.

Gopnik describes the children's playground as a "designated bacchanal,"  and I thought of that rather fanciful description again when I saw statues of Pan and Baudelaire amongst various queens of France and Marie de Medicis.  A park is an outlet for controlled chaos.

''There, there is only order and beauty,

Luxury, quietness, and pleasure.''

(Charles Baudelaire)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Parisian Life

It's been a month, now, since I was in Paris.
How dream-like it seems now.  But isn't that the way with most breaks from real life?
I left for Texas less than 24 hours later, and have never really had time to process either the pictures or the memories from that trip.  Thank goodness that one (the pictures) leads to the other . . . because I only have to look at the face of this funny little dog to remember that Sunday morning at Le Marché des Enfants Rouge.  He hopped up to the counter, eyes bright and senses alert to all of the gustatory pleasures of the market.  Watching the denizens of Marais going about their Sunday business made me feel like I could almost slip into the skin of a true Parisienne.

I'd rather have a good baguette than all of the croissants, pain au chocolat, and dull, dry toast in the world. 

Fromage, anyone?  I could eat Salade Chevre Chaude for nearly every meal.

These pink parrot tulips were a shock of color in the city of gray stone and spring gray skies.

(Postscript on a tulip:  I couldn't wait to get home from my travels and see the tulips flowering in my own English garden.  Sadly, the deer couldn't resist them.  Only one pale green tulip escaped their voracious greed.)

The rather prosaic sight of a family walking in the rain.  And yet, what a grand backdrop! 
So much to look at on the street, but the eye is drawn upwards, too.

The sheer scope of Paris -- its historic sweep -- makes a person feel rather small.

Tourists are tiny dots of colour -- so minute, compared to even the Rose Window in Notre Dame.

Ours was a pedestrian adventure.
Maybe next time we will cruise down the Seine.

In the pursuit of falafel, near the Rue de Rosiers, we spotted this musician.
The lines are really long on a Sunday . . . so it's nice that entertainment is provided.

I can't remember what this guy was playing.  What I DO remember is that he jumped up and demanded a euro from me after I snapped his picture.  I obliged him, of course.

Putting on the Ritz near the Hôtel de Ville .
I was completely captivated by this charming performer.
She favored sensible shoes -- quite unlike some of the funky fashions we saw in the nearby shops.

The Marais is fab for window-shopping.
We didn't bother with the museums.  We were too busy watching the entertainment on the streets.

Teenagers huddled in packs outside of their lycées. Apparently, they use their breaks to work on their smoking skills.
Variations on the student uniform include black, stripes and plaid.
Bikes and backpacks are the student accouterments everywhere, I guess.

Even the cool grown-up kids wear black and sit outside . . so they can light up.
This homme is quintessentially Parisian to my eyes.

Happy Birthday, Jenni! 
Even though she was the guest of honour, she got stuck holding both umbrellas more than once.
(And she was a jolly good sport about it.)

The Café Charlot was our "local."  We were only in Paris for a few days, but we managed to drink there often enough to compare the café crème to the chocolate chaud.  Oh, and I may have had a Kir there as well . . . but not for breakfast.

My idea of bliss.