How to Say Incredible

An old photo that never made it to the blog: Fifi and Léonard dancing at a soirée given by the Institut de Français after the first week of the first month, when everything was still new, terrifying, and incredible.


On the Metro to the Musée D’Orsay this morning, we sat next to a American woman who took her junior year abroad in Paris and never left. She was perhaps 35 years old. “It’s wonderful,” she said, “but the magic of discovering Paris eventually gives way to the reality of living here.” Now she dreams of moving to Boulder, Colorado.

We had been deep in the magic of discovering Paris earlier, beginning with breakfast with Sabine and Jules Aïm, our hosts at the B&B. Jules, who lost his sight ten years ago, was born and raised in Algeria, which means he was one of the million French Algerians, les pieds noirs, who fled to France during the Algerian war for independence. Jules’s yellow lab guide dog curled up beside Darlene, knowing he would receive lots of scratches behind his ears. Sabine is a watercolorist whose colorful work made our room a happy place. And it turns out Jules is a poet. For the past ten years, he has created an annual volume of his poems for friends and family. He collected his “best of” from those volumes in a book titled “Au Fil du Temps: Poémes 1993-2003.” He gave me a copy of the book and signed it with a signature he couldn’t see.

At the Post Office on a Fathers’ Day mission, we joined a line of 24 people waiting for service. As we inched toward the counter, I asked a young man behind me to help us pronounce the word “incroyable,” which means “incredible” in English. It’s a word Darlene is practicing a lot, but we found out the weakness of my own coaching when the young man said the word with a nicely rolled “r” sound in his throat that I had completely overlooked. We chatted about French and the U.S. and how to roll the r during the 15 minutes it took to reach a postal clerk.

I left breakfast and the post office thinking that, in the right mood, this business of making one’s way in a foreign country offers endless small delights, moments when ordinary life sparkles. For me, the joy of understanding and being understood by Sabine and Jules made breakfast memorable. When they disagreed on the best way for us to reach the Post Office, each insisting on a different route, their comfortable marital friction delighted me, simply because I could follow it. At home, I am not the sort of person who strikes up a conversation in a line at the Post Office. But here in France, we are still innocents abroad, with a free pass to ask a stranger how to pronounce a word and then to admire the amazing ability he has to say that word correctly, with a flawless vibration in his throat to mark the “r.”

The preceding is why the American woman on the Metro made such an impression on me. I am sure that after all these years in France, she never asks a stranger at the Post Office how to pronounce “incroyable.” Her impressions of Paris now tend toward problems such as pollution, overcrowding, and “the attitude of the French.” So it struck me as hugely ironic that all of Darlene’s and my effort these past two months have been aimed at attaining her level of assimilation in French language and culture.

There is no way out of this paradox. You can’t decide to remain an ignorant innocent, because you would miss the joy of each forward step. And you can’t avoid the reality that reaching the goal will end the joy of striving for it.

One strategy that occurs to me is to keep moving back and forth between the two cultures, perhaps living half the year in France and half in the U.S. Perhaps we would then, no matter where, always feel free to ask stupidly brilliant questions at the Post Office.

In all, we had a terrific day in Paris, spent mostly at the Musée D’Orsay. We each decided we would like to return to the Musée often. I have never been in a public space with a better vibe. Sitting under the high rounded ceiling after taking an audio tour of the Neo-Impressionist exhibition, I felt an odd contentment that seemed to express itself simply by rolling the words “Musée D’Orsay” through my mind. “Quoi qui arrive, quoi que je pense, je suis au Musée D’Orsay,” I wrote in my red leather journal while I waited for Darlene to finish her tour. “Whatever happens, whatever thoughts arise, I am at the Musée D’Orsay.” Incroyable!
Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two Paris Views

After checking into our quiet bed & breakfast in the 19th arrondissement, we rode the Metro most of the afternoon. All of the trains were as full as the one shown in the photo, and we had made the mistake of believing forecasts of cool weather that prompted us to bring coats, so we were hot even before finding ourselves pressed into very tight quarters.

We also learned that Metro ticket sellers use an unreliable reference book when they answer questions from tourists. At the Jourdain stop near our B&B, we asked how to take the Metro to the nearest Tourist Office, where we planned to buy tickets for the Musée D’Orsay tomorrow. The man at the window consulted a frayed book printed in about 3-point type, then gave us a map and carefully wrote out an address for us, with the correct Metro stops to take. At the designated stop, Louis Blanc in the 10th Arrondissement, I asked a young man at a street corner for help, prefacing my request with the magic French phrase, “excusez-moi de vous deranger,” which truly does open most doors. He pulled out a pocket book of maps and spent five minutes searching for the address, finally finding it and guiding us on our way. But at 187 Quai de Valmy, all we found was a high-rise residential building--no sign of a tourist office, or even a place where one might have been located in the past 10 years.

We’d heard that you can buy Musée D’Orsay tickets at FNAC, the wondrous French books-CDs-and-electronics chain, so we asked a taxi driver near the nonexistent tourist office if there was a FNAC nearby. “There’s nothing near here,” he said in very good English.

So we headed back underground, where we asked how to get to the Musée D’Orsay itself, a novel goal which we should have pursued to begin with. The woman at the window consulted her own frayed copy of the same illegible book and confidently informed us that the museum was at the Bastille Metro stop. She wrote out which lines and connections to make, and I thanked her very much. I was all but certain that she was wrong, because I couldn’t imagine why there would be a Metro stop on the map named “Musée D’Orsay” next to the Seine River right where we knew the museum to be located. I pocketed the directions and we set off following our own vectors.

We surfaced from the Metro again at the Musée D’Orsay at 5:02 p.m., two minutes after the counter closed where you could buy tickets for tomorrow. The good news was they were letting people in for free during the final hour of the day, so we had a chance to get oriented to the amazingly open space of the museum, which used to be an train station. On the top floor, I sat in front of a Paul Cézanne painting while Darlene excitedly checked out rooms full of paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Renoir. The Cezanne that caught my eye was titled “L’Estaque Vue du Golfe de Marseille,” a view of the Marseille bay which reminded me very much of our view from the apartment in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Cézanne painted it in 1878 or 1879.

After the Musée D’Orsay closed, we stopped at a café for a snack before heading underground again, for Montparnasse Bienvenüe, where I knew a wi-fi connection awaited us at Starbucks. We managed to walk for nearly twenty minutes underground after we got off the train, following “Sortie” signs all the way to the Montparnasse Gare. By the time we found fresh air again I was feeling claustrophobic and panicked, feelings enhanced by the tremendous Friday rush-hour crush of crowds in the underground passageways.
Here at Starbucks, we are sitting in a corner across from a young couple working on homework and kissing each other a lot. Darlene is reading a novel, and the Vaio is plugged into the net AND an electrical outlet. A Beach Boys classic has got my walking shoes tapping the floor beneath my little round table. The girl is nibbling the boy’s left ear as he shuffles through a stack of single-spaced typed notes. Tomorrow we return to the Musée D’Orsay to buy tickets in the morning Posted by Hello

Friday, June 10, 2005

Paul Cézanne’s “L’Estaque Vue du Golfe de Marseille”
at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
Posted by Hello

En Vacances

Sophie Cavory, left, and Darlene yesterday at ESCOM, the school where Sophie followed up our Institut de Français training with two weeks of lively tutoring in French. Nina, the ESCOM administrator, presented us with two more handsome certifcates upon the completion of our work. We celebrated with a long dinner in Mougins with our friends André and Jacqueline Letullier. School is now officially over this trip, and tomorrow we take the TGV to Paris for two nights at a B&B in the 19th arrondisement, near the neighborhood where Jacqueline, a 5th-generation Parisienne, lived as a child. Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Travel and Enlightenment

The fall 2006 issue of divide, the literary magazine of the University of Colorado at Boulder, will focus on “Travel and Enlightenment.” The call for submissions which editor Ginger Knowlton e-mailed me frames the theme wonderfully, beginning with this quote from Emerson: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” And from Mark Twain: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness.”

I’ve been suffering from blogger’s block lately. I have no desire to lug my camera around, even the tiny Pentax, in search of arty shots to post to the Chronicles. I’m sick of the role of tourist. I feel embarrassment toward my earlier enthusiasms, seeing a clumsy foreigner making shallow judgments about a culture about which he hasn’t a clue.

The beauty of blogging is the freedom to change the game. So far this blog has had its lit-blog phase, when I peppered each post with links to other literary blogs and articles, and it’s had its tourista phase with pretty scenes of the Cote d’Azur . There was even a gee-I’m-writing-in-French-phase: “Regardez maman, no hands!” We seem to be entering a new phase that doesn’t have a clear sense of itself yet. I’m sniffing around like a basset hound who has lost the scent of a fox in the woods.

In this sniffing mode, I might as well respond to an invitation from fellow blogger and Denver Zen student Joel Taggert to list writing that I’ve enjoyed. I reluctantly passed on a similar invitation from my nephew Seth, feeling guilty for doing so, but the list of questions he forwarded seemed too long and came at a time when I was très occupied with learning French. So this list is for Seth, as well:

The last book I bought was:

Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI and one of the bright lights of Bennington, has read this novel over and over, and a review he wrote for The American Scholar made me curious as to what all the fuss was about. So I’ve begun reading it in French, a slow but very pleasurable process. I read a page or so before I go to bed, and the story of Emma has already caught me up in its spell. By this time next year I may have finished it.

Five fiction books I like are:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. I read this book in an abridged English translation when I was about 14 years old. Except for Barbar the Elephant and the Little Engine that Could, this novel forms my first strong memory of being taken over completely by a book, of entering a world as real as the one I left. It was perhaps the first time I discovered how the written word could transport me from my baffling little life into a world of grand actions based on moral clarity.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. This novel delighted me with its perfect-pitch rendering of the world of a New England prep school and its crafty rumination on the rewards and perils of literary creation. It reads like a literary whodunit, with a breathtaking plot twist involving plagiarism.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This vast display of scary writing talent held me captive for several weeks, maybe months. I remember the mind-numbingly detailed notes in the back of the book, and how the descriptions of scenes and characters seemed feverish, intoxicating, and just this side of insane. DFW hasn’t written a novel since this one made him a star 10 years ago. I can’t remember much of the plot, which was a vague element of the book anyway, but I do recall that there was a lot about tennis.

Washington Square by Henry James. I enjoyed a fertile James period at Bennington, during which I read a series of stories and this novel, all suggested by my teacher David Lehman. My assignment was to find insights into the process of being an artist, and the stories were full of provocative pearls. Darlene and I were traveling through New Zealand, and I remember the joy of coming across my next James book on the list, hiding in the dusty shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Wellington. I frankly can’t remember any of the insights now, except for a general sense that James made the work of being an artist seem impossibly difficult and endlessly rewarding.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I am a great believer in serendipity when it comes to deciding what to read. Last fall, Darlene and I were exploring the old city of Grasse, about an hour north of Cannes, and I found a little stone bookstore. It had about 10 books in English, one them a falling-apart paperback of Lord Jim. I remember reading it on the train, here in the apartment in Cannes, and at various coffee shops. I simply moved into the protagonist’s life and lived there during the weeks I was reading it and writing exitedly in my journal in response to its complex moral provocations.

Five nonfiction books I like are:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This is nonfiction, right? I’m never sure. But this book has been a marker for me, and I can date shifts in my life directly to the two times I’ve read it, each time buying a motorcycle shortly thereafter. I’m sure it laid the foundation for my interest in Zen. I don’t want to buy another motorcycle (although I’m crazy with envy for the sporty Vespas and little Harleys which vroom the streets of Cannes), so I don’t plan to read Pirsig again any time soon.

An American Requiem by James Carroll. A poignant, beautifully written memoir of how the author, then a radical priest, and his father, a military official, struggled to transcend their fiercely contrasting views during the Vietnam War. In the end, they didn’t succeed in the effort. But Carroll’s honesty and courage in telling the tale touched me deeply.

Walden by Thoreau. I grew up near Walden Pond, and for many years Thoreau symbolized the actualized, liberated spirit which I feared I would never be. I give him credit for luring me toward my own life, but I frankly cringe when I think of how simplistic my reading of his exhortations was twenty years ago. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, except for artsy guys like me who read Thoreau and “get it.” Right. I’m more of a mind now to accept the fact that any life has plenty of quiet desperation in it, and that the job of growing up (and of being an artist) is to deal with it gracefully, doing as much good in the world as can be managed.

Humanism and Democratic Criticism by Edward Said. This is another book which confirmed my belief in serendipity. While in Oxford, England, last fall I happened on a moving tribute to Said in The Guardian, and shortly afterward I found myself in Blackwell’s standing next to a copy of his posthumously published book. I bought the book in spite of its deadly dull title and spent several months reading it along with Said’s beautiful and painful memoir, Out of Place. The result of all this was a review of which I’m very proud that was published recently in Rain Taxi, an excellent book review publication. My passion for the project, as is usual when a book review taps into real energy, was fueled by my sense of seeing in Said aspects of my own questions and quest.

One magazine I like is:

The Atlantic. One of my writing idols, James Fallows, is a leading light at The Atlantic, and I always buy a copy when I see it includes an article of his. Fallows was president of The Crimson, Harvard’s daily newspaper, when I was a staffer. He presided over the mainly lefty wunder-writers—including Frank Rich and Michael Kinsley--with what I thought was admirable fairness, intelligence, humility and rock-solid principle. It was a time of great ideological turmoil at Harvard, including the takeover of University Hall in 1969 when I was a freshman. I very much wanted to choose a side and fight the bad guys, but I could never figure out exactly who the bad guys were. Left and right both seemed to have a piece of the truth, and it didn’t make sense to me that half of the campus simply had its head up its ass. Fallows made sense to me 30-plus years ago, and so does most of what I read these days in The Atlantic.

Well, so much for blogger’s block.

Joel’s assignment has kept me blissfully occupied for several hours here at the apartment in Cannes. I had hoped that working on it might tease out an approach to divide’s “Travel and Enlightenment” theme. Perhaps this review of writing that has affected me suggests how best to pursue enlightenment through travel in the “real” world: by serendipity, mainly. By sniffing the woods for a scent that seems promising, raising your head to howl when you finally smell a trace of the fox, and scampering down the trail as fast as your little basset hound legs will carry you. I can’t think of a better reason to explain why we are in France, or what I’ve learned so far from our travels.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

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