The Public Theater

Finally got around to getting Hammy properly framed. I should get it back in a week or so.

Where I read

Recently rearranged favorite spot in my house.

judge my books
enlarge hither

Cadbury

Today I took a look again into my 90s travel journal, at the back half of my trip which found me in London, staying with a penpal of mine. At the time I was a shameless Anglophile, peppering my writing with embarrassing British euphemisms and lots of cursing. I was young. Reading back reminded me of how full those days were as well, seeing live comedy for the first time, going to a play (“Trainspotting”), wandering Brick Lane flea market in the east end and buying “beigels” for 10p, traveling to Richmond for supper in an 18th century pub, visiting every museum I could, particularly the free ones, and noting the van Gogh and Da Vinci paintings I saw, going to a rock show alone and being the usual wallflower, sitting on the wall across from Abbey Road Studios, and on and on and on. At the time, I LOVED London. I loved it again when I went again the following summer. But the love faded by the time I went back five years after that.

Coincidentally, I received a gift of English chocolate tonight. It is still a superior product.

Wooly

An absolutely lovely evening spent sitting in the bath with a glass of white wine, a baseball game on the radio, and reading this article about wool production in early America. Delicious.

After I read the sheep article, I read another chapter of “Howards End” by EM Forster. It’s wonderfully clever. I always like to have some kind of fiction to balance out the non-fiction I am usually reading. Of course even my fiction choices have of late been the kind that take place one hundred or more years ago.

My book club is in search of another new book to read. Any ideas? No “beach books.” I am actually thinking of finding a non-fiction book club here in town. I know of one that exists, but it’s not as though I can crash it. I shall have to procure an invitation. Or maybe I will just start my own. Book club/History club. It’s an extracurricular activity.

The Grand Opening of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown was this day. I want to go!! I will, someday.

Back on topic

I’ve been reading about John Jay. Also William Maclay and Thomas Jefferson, but that’s a different book. You know who is a big John Jay fan? Hillary Clinton. Someone who calls themselves a “John Jay fan” would appear to be extremely well-qualified to — but… I digress.

Why is it that Americans seem to mostly know about Revolutionary figures who appear on our currency? Imagine if John Jay was on the nickel instead of Jefferson. I would argue that Jay did a lot more for foreign diplomacy. He also wrote the New York State Constitution!

Anyway, more later, I need lunch and my thoughts are not organized.

The Foreigner


Charlotte.

Charlotte said we were going to the squat to meet some of her friends. Where I came from, a squat was a dark, abandoned building full of rats and garbage and junkies, with boards over the windows. In Grenoble, a squat was a crappy house in a bad neighborhood, but it had running water, electricity, and a working telephone. I am still not sure how that worked, something to do with the government taking care of the poor. Weird, right?

We went to the squat for dinner a couple times during my stay. Everyone who lived there was very friendly, but none could really speak to me. I think I was some kind of novelty. As we all sat around the kitchen table, eating, drinking wine, everyone but me smoking, I was forced to listen listen listen to their French, and magically, a little of it began to make sense. They would of course not slow down for me, unless asked to repetez. I tried to participate — my French was poor but I was getting by alright. It was far easier for me to read it than anything else. Actually speaking it was a challenge, and most difficile was to understand it when spoken. It was nice to feel like had I stayed another couple months, a little light bulb might have turned on at some point.

One of the boys, sitting near me, drew a picture during one of the dinners and gave it to me. He explained that the petite sphere “c’est vous“, pointing at me with a smile. It was an incredibly sweet little gesture, his effort to communicate with me through symbols. I saved the picture in my journal.

I sometimes still feel this way, that I do not fit in, that I am trying to understand but it’s going over my head. It’s a lonely feeling. But I am a lot more confident than I once was. I know that if I went to France today, and found myself at another dinner party, I wouldn’t just sit quietly and try to disappear.

Near the end of my trip to France, I decided to take a day trip to Avignon. I’m not sure why, maybe because it was on the train line from Grenoble and I had enough money for the ticket. I brought ten francs with me — about three dollars. I am still amazed that I traveled around Europe back then as dirt poor as I was. I was hungry all the time, though, and foolishly spent my money on coffee, usually. I also learned that in Avignon, it cost two francs to use the toilet. So I had eight francs.

It was a hot day, and I sat in the square of the Palais du Papes, too broke to actually get into the palace and see what was inside. So I walked around the city, over the little bridges, up and down alleys like canyons, five yards wide. I took a few pictures. Then I rode the slow local train back to Grenoble, hoping the batteries in my cassette player wouldn’t die on the way. Probably listening to Supergrass.

A couple of days later, I returned to Paris, where there was a five-hour layover before my train to London. There was no place to store my huge backpack, which by this point was hurting my shoulders, so I had no choice but to haul it around with me as I wandered the wide boulevards, in the rain. I bought a bottle of bordeaux in a supermarche, then I found a place to sit and write, in an ugly little park on la Rue de LaFayette.

Grenoble

I met Charlotte when I was 22, when she was visiting Berkeley and dating a guy I knew. She was a street performer who spit fire for francs, and in America, dollars. This involved putting some kind of protective agent into her mouth, followed by a flammable liquid, which she then spit out at her torch, producing a fireball. We became friends, and she invited me to visit her someday. The following year, I did.

She lived in the town of Grenoble, situated in the French Alps near Provence. I took the high-speed train there from Paris, meeting her at the station an hour after my arrival. Once there, we were picked up by an English band she knew that was playing in town. I was quite relieved to speak my language again. We were taken to her friend’s flat, then after a short rest, went to the club to help the band load their equipment. At the rear of the club, there was a chamber that led into an old dungeon. When I say old, I mean, medieval. Or, so we were told. The ceilings certainly were low enough.

I brought my little 35mm camera with me to Europe and thought it would be cool to take black and white photos. I regret that now, but some of them did turn out well. Charlotte took that picture of me in the kitchen of her small flat in the middle of the city. I stayed with her there for the week, where she showed me how to make espresso on the stove, adding sweet shelf-stable milk to it when it was done. She also made a pot of white rice one day for lunch and poured yellow mustard into it, which at first horrified me, then I discovered it wasn’t so bad. What was bad was something called “hearts of palm” from a can. Have never eaten it again since.

As I wrote in my journal, I was almost always dirty, sleepy, and hungry. I had very little money, and tried to be frugal with it. I also tried to practice my French, but I was so naturally shy that trying to be extroverted in another language was almost impossible. I did still manage to enter the boulangerie in the morning and say very softly “une baguette s’il vous plait” and hand over my francs. Then I would take my bread back to Charlotte’s and have it with butter and jam. Yes, it was the best baguette I had ever eaten.

After a week, we were taken into the country to stay with Charlotte’s family, who lived in a 19th century farmhouse. None of them spoke much English at all. They bred golden Labrador retrievers, so the house was filled with dogs. I slept in an antique sleigh bed in a tiny, spooky upstairs room. In the morning, I got up and threw open the windows to reveal this vista.

That picture doesn’t do it much justice. It was like something from a fairy tale. I look so fondly back upon my first trip to France, forgetting the poverty and taste of danger, and remembering the adventure and the people I met. Learning to kiss everyone twice upon introduction. I rather liked that custom.

Cartes Postal


“Greetings from this bleak and endless highway through the middle of nowhere. Here’s a picture of two horses butts.”


Lafayette <3 We Are Here
This is just a boring black and white photo of the Supreme Court.


Or… is it?


The roller skating in front of the Courthouse was getting out of control.

Twelve Hours in Paris

Last night I was thinking about Paris, my too-brief time there, trying to see what I could remember of being 23 and alone in that city. The memories are like snapshots, like dreams that don’t fit together. So I dug out a journal from my two-dozen-volume box of journals in my closet, to see what I wrote down that day.

There were no cellphones then, at least not for me or anyone I knew. So, after debarking the TGV from London, I sat in the Gare du Nord, parked astride my extra-large backpack, waiting for a total stranger, a Frenchman, a friend of a friend, to find me. After a couple hours, he did.

It was dark when we left the station, so I could not see the splendid architecture around me. The man, Ludo, did not speak English. My French was quite broken. But somehow we were able to get me fed, a cold sandwich from a street cart, all I could afford. Ludo tried to be polite, I think. He pointed at a huge dark building we passed: “La Sorbonne”, then looked at me to see if I knew what that was.

I followed him through increasingly narrowed streets until we reached a door, and then a steep, twisting staircase, to a tiny flat full of people. I don’t remember much from this night, except exhaustion and cigarette smoke and trying to sleep in a room filled with drunk French people who never went to bed, and hoping none of them would get inappropriate with me. Before dawn, Ludo woke me and showed me that I had to set my clock ahead an hour — it was mid-March. Then they all passed out.

Gray light came into the flat behind the heavy blankets thrown across the windows. I knew that now I could go, despite my fatigue. I had another train to catch. I gathered myself and my things, and I think, I hope, that I said “Merci” to Ludo on my way out the door, not that he would have heard me. I descended into the street. The sun was shining, just risen, and Paris was strangely quiet.

Except for the old lady who immediately asked me for a cigarette. “Pas fumée,” I muttered, and started to walk, following a tiny folded Metro map to the underground station. There was a cool spring breeze blowing, sending little whirlwinds of trash across the sidewalk. The city still looked beautiful, especially when so still and empty. I wish I had had more time to be there, one more day, instead of rushing to catch a train south to the countryside.

Which I did, somehow, and soon was rolling away from Paris, pointed toward the Alps.

Postcards

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time in a local antique shop, picking through a couple hundred old postcards. Many contained faded messages, many others were never sent. Quite a few of the ones with messages were missing their stamps, perhaps steamed off by a collector?

Here are the ones I brought home:


The Treasury Department. This postcard is early 20th century, before Hamilton’s statue was added to the front entrance. I enjoy the thought of some tourist taking the tour a century ago, buying this postcard for a penny, then never sending it, but keeping it safe forever.


The garden at Mt. Vernon. Not a particularly great photo, still interesting enough.


Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. This one is on neat textured paper. Unsent.


Thomas Jefferson’s deathbed at Monticello. The caption on the back lets you know that those are the Original Pillows that Jefferson died on. Okay.

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