May 8, 2014

Ambiguous Commemoration

Today is the day the French call simply “le 8 Mai” (the 8th of May) -- in remembrance of the day which ended the European part of World War II. This has always been an ambiguous commemoration. World War I stopped abruptly on November 11th 1918 but World War II had many endings. D-Day was June 6th 1944. Paris was liberated two months later. Hitler committed suicide on April 30th 1945 after which German forces in Denmark and the Netherlands surrendered on May 4th. The two page document signed in Reims on May 7th 1945 stated that hostilities would cease on May 8th. Stalin wanted his own ceremony in Berlin after that so for the Russians May 9th is the official end of the War.
France was clear that the war ended on May 8th but ambiguous over how to mark the occasion. On the first anniversary, the government decided to observe the day on the Sunday after May 8th so as not to inhibit reconstruction efforts. In 1951, veterans groups succeeded in having May 8th declared a public holiday. Seven years later, Charles de Gaulle became president, cancelled the holiday and decreed that the commemoration should again take place on the Sunday after May 8th. In 1965, the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou declared a holiday for that year only. Ten years later, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing decided that in the interests of Franco-German friendship, the day should no longer even be commemorated. When François Mittérand became president in 1981, he reinstituted both the public holiday and the commemoration of the end of World War II. This has remained true ever since.
Different communities have short ceremonies involving the laying of wreaths and the singing of le Chant des partisans -- a song written in 1943 in England by a Russian woman. Soon translated, it was adopted by the French resistants as their own. These ceremonies are, alas, attended by dwindling crowds. 

Often, I watch the Paris ceremony on TV. This year, I decided to participate and experienced another ambiguity. Crowd control and security measures have rendered the notion of a community coming together to remember all but impossible. The ceremony is attended by a few invited guests and hardy souls willing to stake out a spot before barriers and police block further access.
I am in neither category

. So today, I saw proof that a major TV station was doing its job.

I saw journalists from another TV station looking for people to interview.

Had I stayed at home, I could have seen François Hollande greeting Charles de Gaulle’s grandson before laying a wreath at the foot of the great man’s statue at one end of the Champs Elysées.

I could also have seen him greet other important people at the Arc de Triomphe before relighting the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Instead I saw the gathering of the Garde Républicaine near the Place de la Concorde.

I was impressed at the rapid cleanup of what horses leave behind

and enjoyed a view that they never show on television.

After a long walk and conversations with a number of friendly policemen and women as I tried to find an unblocked path forward, I finally did get to see the lonely wreath at the foot of de Gaulle’s statue after the ceremonial party had departed.

I continued up the Champs Elysées almost alone, greeting various policemen whose main task at that time was explaining to dazed tourists how and when they would be able to cross the street.
There were more people near the Arc de Triomphe. After having my purse and bag searched, I was able to join them to wait for the ceremony to end. We could faintly hear music but mostly saw pigeons enjoying their freedom and snacking on what the scrubbing trucks had apparently not cleared

Our wait was not in vain. We did at last see the president. Almost.


April 27, 2014

The Day of Books and Roses

You wouldn’t think there would be much concern about the future of books in France. When I explain to my French friends about Book Clubs in the United States, they look at me blankly. A specific event to discuss a book? Isn’t that what friends do whenever they get together?
Ever since television has existed there have been literary programs, both long and short.. At the moment there are five. The longest running is Un livre, un jour– a two minute program shown from Monday to Friday in the early evening since 1991. A different book is presented each day. The show is broadcast from a book store, a library, a café or a museum that often has some connection with the book of the day. As well as specific literary programs, there are regular segments on radio and television talk shows presenting books or interviewing authors. The major newspapers have book sections as does the most-read TV guide. There are also magazines devoted to books.
Then there are the literary prizes, usually announced in the autumn. At last count there were over 50 major and minor ones given by publishing houses, women’s magazines, and book stores or started by individuals or groups wishing to honor a specific type of literature.
There are over 2500 independent book stores in France. Some close each year, but others open so the total number remains constant. The 30 year old Lang Law which requires all booksellers to sell each book at the price fixed by the editor has helped. But operational costs rise more than profit margins so the smaller bookstores struggle.
Readers are changing, too. If they can’t get the book they heard about on television right away they’ll order it on Amazon or never read it at all. Only a smaller number of older readers are willing to wait a week. Some prefer e-readers or the internet; others have had to reduce their book budget for financial reasons.
Aware of all this, the fervent book-lover and Montmartre bookshop owner, Marie-Rose Guarniéri, decided 12 years ago to create a special day called la Fête des Libraires (the Booksellers’ Celebration) She decided to hold it on the Saturday nearest to St George's Day. (Yes, the Saint George that slayed the dragon.) He is not only celebrated in England but in Catalonia where he is the patron saint of booksellers. Local legend says that from the blood of the slain dragon a rose tree grew and that the princess Saint George saved gave him a book to thank him.
This year the Fête was on April 26th. 480 French and Belgian booksellers participated, thanking their clients by giving them a rose and a book. Naturally I could not resist and visited two book stores near me -- but just far enough away that I had never discovered them.

I chatted to the booksellers as regular clients came and went, picking up books previously ordered or in search of something new. I explored the shops and wrapped myself in the book lover’s atmosphere. Afterwards I came home, hurrying to beat the threatening rain. The skies opened just as I reached my staircase. I didn’t care.
I had new friends to discover, including one to share with the children I read to.

 I had my roses.

I had my special book.

made up of short texts by contemporary  French authors about other authors who share the initial of their last name, each letter designed by Christian LaCroix (Yes that Christian LaCroix)

As well as an independent designer, he is a book lover and illustrator.( Several years ago Lacroix collaborated with Camilla Morton in a new version of Sleeping Beauty .)
Let it rain.

April 22, 2014

Strolling Through History

When I first came to Paris. I saw it as part historical theme park and part museum. I was disappointed not to be able to see all the famous buildings I’d learned about. As years passed, I began to appreciate themany layers of history that coexist in this city that has been evolving for over 2000 years. Old buildings, often put to new uses, stand proudly next to more modern structures constructed on the site of their long-destroyed predecessors. Wherever you go, if you are observant, you will see plaques and statues put up by associations or the city commemorating those who lived and worked where you are walking. Since 1992, there are also 767 panels designed by Philip Starck installed throughout Paris reminding passers-by of old scandals, battles or celebrations that took place on the spot where they areThe city government pays the company that installed these panels 1.2 million euros per year to maintain them. Paris loves its history.


Let’s explore one fairly young street so you can see what I mean. A stone’s throw from the Louvre, next to the Comédie Française, you will find the unpretentious-looking rue de Richelieu.

Knowledgeable people will tell you that this street was named for the Cardinal de Richelieu, Prime Minister of Louis XIII. Even more knowledgeable people will tell you that the Cardinal had the street built in 1633 when he extended his Palace. He called it rue Royale but it soon became known as rue de Richelieu. In 1793 the Revolutionary government re-baptized it rue de la Loi (Law Street). Napoleon I restored it to its (almost) original name in 1806. For the first century or two of its existence the rue de Richelieu was the address of many mansions as well as theaters, the original stock exchange and the original national library. It was also shorter since Paris was still a  much smallerwalled city.
Now,shops, hotels, bars, restaurants office buildings and apartment buildings line both sides of the street. People stride along the sidewalks;cars speed along the street – all on their way somewhere. But we are strolling so we have time to see things.

One of rue de Richelieu’s most famous residents was Jean Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière. Towards the end of his life, he lived at Number 40 a short way from the Comédie Française. On February 17th 1673 after he collapsed at the end of a performance of le Malade Imaginaire.(the Imaginary Invalid) he was carried back here where he died. Even if you had never heard of him, you’d know he was famous.

There is not only a plaque on the wall of the building.


There is also one of Philip Starck’s panels telling the story of his death.


Across the street, at the juncture of rue de Richelieu and a street named after Molière there is also a large fountain built in 1844 to replace an earlier one that had been destroyed because it blocked traffic.

The facade of the building where the great man lived, its roof and the principal staircase have been classified as “Historic Monuments” but since time marches on, the rest of it has undergone extensive renovation and is now a chic events center with a restaurant scheduled to open in the basement later this year. 

Another famous Frenchman died in a building next door to the Molière Fountain but forty years before it was built. Denis Diderot, philosopher and writer has only a modest plaque.

No chic events center for him – just a casual take-away restaurant.

(though the cakes looked delicious )

Diderot just missed meeting a famous American who would no doubt have been delighted to talk with him. When he arrived in Paris as Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of Louis XVI, ThomasJefferson lived for a few days very near the philosopher’s home in a mansion long since torn down and replaced by a Tunisian restaurant. Unfortunately, Diderot died a week before Jefferson arrived. Some people are just unlucky
My favorite piece of layered history on this street is more complex than where famous men lived and died. See this peaceful small park.

At first it was the site of the home of the Marquis de Louvois,Minister of war for Louis XIII as his son was for Louis XIV. After the French Revolution, in 1793, the tempestuous Mlle  Montansier operated a theater here.
Two years later, the State acquired it and it became the Paris Opera until 1820 when the Duc de Berry was assassinated by an anti-Royalist as he was coming to attend a performance.
After this, the Opéra was moved to another location and this theater was demolished. It was announced that it was to be made into a public square. Several changes of government and aborted plans later, it finally was. No doubt those who come to enjoy a little fresh air and sunshine are undisturbed by the ghosts of the Square’s animated history.
This is only a taste of what the rue de Richelieu has to tell us. And there are over 6000 more streets to explore. But now it’s time for a coffee and a pain au chocolat.

March 10, 2013

Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright and me

I’ve always known Oak Park, Illinois. Daddy’s family lived there when he was a boy. My aunts lived there when I was a child. My parents lived there when they were first married. I spent my first Christmas in Oak Park, basking in the adoration of grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Later, I learned to my surprise that other people knew it, too -- as “the place where Frank Lloyd Wright lived”. My Aunt Pauline was probably the first to tell me about Oak Park’s famous citizen. She took great pride in both Oak Park and Chicago and was always eager for me to know that “famous people” had lived there (though I feel certain that Aunt Pauline was a bit perplexed by the Prairie School
I have a vague memory of being driven by Frank Lloyd Wright houses when I was older and saying “Ew!” in approved teenage style. Either my parents agreed with me or didn’t disagree enough to try to change my mind. We never visited the houses and, if anyone ever tried to convince me of his importance to American architecture, I don’t remember the conversation.
A few years ago, when my Charlottesville tenants went to Chicago specifically to see the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings there and in Oak Park, I felt that perhaps it was time I took another look, myself. This summer I got the opportunity.
Oak Park had always seemed a more suitable home for our fairly conservative family than for a cutting edge architect. In the early 1830s, an Englishman named Kettlestrings bought the land that became the village. In 1855 he moved to Chicago, subdivided the earlier estate and sold it to “good people who were against saloons and for good schools and churches.” After the Great Chicago Fire, its population grew as people who had lost their homes moved there. It is possible my great grandfather was among them. It is sure that the young architect and his first wife Kitty Tobin moved there in 1889 after their marriage. I imagine that, as a young architect, he needed a place he could afford more than one where he would fit in. Decide for yourself. Here are some of his neighbors’ homes


 And this is his wedding present to his wife

 which was gradually modified as their six children were born. The studio was added in 1898, two years before my grandparents married.
Though there was some overlap in the years both families lived in Oak Park, I’m sure they did not meet, though it’s fun to imagine that Aunt Pauline might have gone to school with the younger Wright children. One neighbor at least was willing to take a chance on the up-and-coming architect. Wright’s first independent commission was to build a house for Nathan G. Moore, a Chicago attorney who lived one block south of him. Moore did not give his neighbor free reign, however. He didn’t want anything too controversial. "I don't fancy sneaking down back streets to my morning train just to avoid being laughed at." he insisted. But when you’re just getting started and have a growing family, sometimes you have to compromise. Wright built it, and rebuilt it several years later after a fire destroyed part of it, but never liked it.


 I appreciated what I saw this summer, though I’d never choose such a house to live in. But there was one other Oak Park house I longed to see. I knew that my grandfather had lived in Oak Park until he died in 1941. Was his house still there? Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the address when I was there this summer. It was among family papers in Charlottesville. When I was preparing this post, I googled it. The village website confirmed a house at this address from the right period. Alas, there was no photo. A short time later, thanks to e-mail, digital cameras and the kindness of friends, I at last saw my own personal favorite house in Oak Park.


February 24, 2013

Roots -- and Branches

Growing up as an only child, I was always fascinated by large families. My own was quite small and most of its members were rather shadowy figures to me. Some had died before I was born or when I was a child. I saw the others only a few days each year at the most. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that the relatives I did know were almost all from my father’s family.
Of my mother’s family, I had only a few facts, jumbled like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled. I knew that, though Mummy had been born in a town called Royalton, Illinois, she identified proudly as a Texan. Her family had moved there when she was a baby. I knew her parents had divorced when she was a teenager and she had an older brother. I had fond memories of Grandma whom we visited every summer until she died when I was about 12. I never saw Granddaddy, though I did meet his second wife, Nell, when I was about 7. We visited them in Houston, Texas because Granddaddy was ill -- too sick for a little girl to be allowed to visit him. I met my Uncle Marion for the first and last time the summer after Grandma died.
The only other relatives of my mother’s I knew were her Uncle Quincy and Aunt Cora. Until we went to visit them in Missouri when I was about 10, I’m not sure I realized that grown-ups could have uncles. I have vivid and pleasant memories of them – Uncle Quincy was a fascinating storyteller and Aunt Cora taught me to play cribbage. But we never saw them again.
When Mummy died 26 years ago, I found a couple from Illinois with her maiden name in her address book. I had no idea who they were but I thought I should inform them of her death. I assumed they must be cousins but, though I got an occasional signed Christmas card from them after that, I was never sure. Then, in 2008 I got a long e-mail. The writer identified herself as my mother’s cousin’s wife and mentioned children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – over a dozen relatives whose existence I’d been completely unaware of. A year later I “met” one of her grandchildren on Facebook.
When I decided to visit my Lost Cousin  in California this summer, I thought it would be only fitting to give equal time to my mother’s family. And so it was, in late June, that I found myself on a train heading towards my roots.

There followed three days packed with discovery of previously unknown places, people and family history. I felt like I was in one of the family saga books I’d always loved. Only this was my family saga. I had cousins that lived on a road that was named for them – and my mother.

My mother’s cousin’s wife took me along a, to her, familiar road

to a private cemetery where every grave was that of one of my ancestors.

She showed me the site of my great grandfather’s home along an old Indian trail 

and the Old Home Place itself, moved, years ago to a different location 

where one of my second cousins still lives.

I saw the town where my mother was born,

the church that my granddaddy built there,

and, in the Royalton cemetery, his younger brother Oren’s grave (father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather of all the cousins I was visiting).

Finally, she took me to my own grandfather’s grave in a nearby, even smaller town.

The next day, my mind in a whirl at the end of a cousin-filled pizza party, I relaxed in a Southern Illinois summer evening,

and contemplated the complexities of families. In every one, there are wanderers and home lovers. I’m a third generation wanderer. My great-uncle Oren’s part of the family dug their roots in deep. I’m so glad they let me wander back this summer to discover them.

February 12, 2013

Summer in the City

I’d have been even more disappointed to leave Southern California if I hadn’t known my adventure wasn’t over. I had more cousins to meet. But before that, it was time for a weekend in Chicago, a place I had always had a special relationship with -- more than a visitor but never quite a resident.

Several of my father’s relatives had lived in or near Chicago. My parents had worked there when they were first married. But, for me, Chicago always meant summer. I had spent part of many summer vacations there visiting relatives. I especially remember 1966 when I spent time with my grown cousin who had an apartment overlooking The Lake. (Chicagoans seldom say Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, just The Lake and The River) A city with beaches! Cool!

I had to be re-convinced of that in 1968. I’d just finished my first year of college in Ohio. My father’s company had transferred him from Jamaica to Chicago. I had to face the fact that the Island in the Sun was now part of my past. I’d be spending all my vacations in Chicago for the foreseeable future. By the end of August, after weeks of roaming the City, I’d rediscovered the fun. It’s possible that, just about then, my parents wondered whether they’d made the right decision. For that was the August of the “Democratic Nightmare Convention” The day before it started, Mummy and I went down to see the candidates.

In those more innocent times, we were a little surprised to see so many of Chicago’s Finest as well.

For the rest of the week we stayed in our new home in a nearby suburb and saw more of them on TV. But that was long ago and many happier summer memories have overlaid that one. This summer, after a fifteen year absence, I was looking forward to making new ones.

 Chicago has always done summer well. Let me show you. But click here first. Let’s begin with a parade. The city has eight of them throughout the year. June is the colorful Gay Pride Parade.

We can’t miss seeing the Water Tower and the nearby Pumping Station, two of only a few buildings to have survived the Great Fire of 1871.

My aunt used to have a chest. She said her grandfather had carried it to the river that night. That chest and the Water Tower made a huge impression on me as a child.

 Wrigley Field always brings back memories of Cubs games with my Dad.

And we have to take a boat ride on The River.

There have always been parks for all to enjoy.

It’s fun to see the revitalized Navy Pier from the top of the ferris wheel.

My friends were pleased to show me Millennium Park, the newest addition to summertime fun.

Soon it was time for dinner in one of the bustling restaurants.

They all seemed so noisy! I realized I’d been in Paris too long where restaurants are quiet and one speaks in hushed tones. Chicago still remembers its speakeasy days. How can you have fun in a whisper? After dinner there’s time for one last look at Buckingham Fountain.

We can relax on a bench in Grant Park

and admire the city.

It’s true that we haven’t gone shopping. We haven’t visited the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Planetarium, the Field Museum or the Art Institute. We haven’t been to a jazz club, the theater or an outdoor concert. But we’ve had a pretty good day. And there’s always another day. Or another summer.