Author Archives: harriet.welty

Getting to know how a writer thinks

In February my husband and I spent a month in Tucson, Arizona where I had been asked to give a speech to a philanthropic organisation on the topic of “Getting to know how a writer thinks”.

I admit I was perplexed by the title.

Frankly, I’d never thought about how a writer thinks – but was happy to rise to the challenge.

I rapidly concluded that the best approach would be to tell the audience about what and how ONE writer thinks.

I was off the hook!

First of all, I described my writing background. It goes way back to scribbling stories as a child, writing for the high school newspaper which was published in the town paper (first byline!) to majoring in English at the University of Michigan and getting an M.S. J. at the Medill School of journalism, Northwestern. Journalists don’t need masters’ degrees to write, but I must say that had I not had the good fortune to attend Medill, I never would have had the sheer discipline required to meet deadlines nor skill at turning out stories people would want to read, stories that were carefully structured, grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes, factually correct and reader-friendly (i.e., not boring).

As a freelance journalist in Paris, I had great gigs, ranging from reporting on business and culture for the International Herald Tribune (now International New York Times) to stringing for the Paris bureau of Time magazine, writing everything from obituaries to articles on strikes at French automobile factories to the coming of Eurodisneyland and the building of the Pei Pyramid. My favourite job was with a glossy publication called France Discovery Guide whose editors every year for about ten years sent out a bevy of reporters and photographers to cover specific regions of France. I calculated that I covered all 22 of those regions except Corsica and in doing so learned more about the food and drink and scenery of my adopted country than I ever would have from a book.

I loved journalism and the opportunity it gave to get into people’s lives, have different experiences, learn new things. But after freelancing for many years, I decided it was time to turn the page (pardon the pun).

I had often heard that writers write because they have to. They have something that they NEED to say. That was my case with my first book, French Toast. I wanted to tell the world (and especially my Mom) just exactly what it was like to live permanently in a foreign country literally “embedded” with a foreign husband, how it was different from being a tourist who can always go back home. In spite of fluent French and apparent assimilation, I kept running into situations and reactions I didn’t understand. I made a list of them and told my story using “I”. After all, it was my life and my book, n’est-ce-pas?

As for the matter of how I was thinking about that first book: I think writers need inspiration and I found mine in a serious and weighty book called Invisible Differences by Raymonde Carroll, a French woman living in the States where she observed and analysed specific Franco-American cultural differences from friendship to telephone behaviour. I loved everything she said – but vowed that if I wrote my own book I’d have some fun with it. Then, completely by accident, I came across Domestic Manners of the Americans, a book written in 1832 by Frances Trollope, the mother of the famous English writer Anthony Trollope. In it, she related anecdotes about the manners of the (mostly) uncouth Americans she met during a little tour of the New World. This frank and funny and no holds barred tome became an instant bestseller in its day – and the model for what I wanted to do in the book that would become French Toast. I wanted my book to be personal, light-hearted and informative. And that guided my approach to French Fried and Joie de Vivre, the two that followed it.

I could have spoken for several hours about the thought process that went into those three books but time was whizzing by. I decided instead to proffer a few generalizations about writing and writers. Some writers might agree: others might not. Once again, these are the observations of ONE writer – me.

  • A writer is neurotic (the ladies laughed rather nervously at this one). She is unhappy or at the least unsettled when not writing and when writing not too pleased about shutting herself off from friends and family.
  • A writer is alone. Why? She needs to do her job! Many friends wanted to join me on my annual reporting in the provinces gig in France. I mean, who would turn down an opportunity to travel down the wine road in Alsace or taste wine in Burgundy? As much as I love company, I had to say “no”. I would have spent my time chatting and laughing rather than finding and interviewing locals, dodging in and out of centuries old churches, checking out this intriguing monument or that hidden garden, giving myself the downtime to stumble on a totally unexpected someone or something that might give flavour to the story.
  • A writer is disciplined – or not. Sadly, I’m not. When I get into my subject, I can write for hours. But I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn and writes until lunchtime, takes a break and goes back to it in the end of the afternoon. Oh how I would love to be like that. I guess I do have a certain kind of discipline but it certainly could be improved.
  • A writer writes for someone, maybe herself, maybe her mom, maybe a former teacher or even someone she wants to get even with (not all motives are noble).
  • A writer needs time to dream, invent, plan and work on her project.
  • A writer needs devotion to the task at hand.
  • For – and in this age of fast communication where few re-read what they write, leaving sloppy errors and fake facts behind them – real writing, good writing is just that – a task.

You never get used to how hard writing is, actually. After three nonfiction books, I set out to write a historical novel based on a true story. The action takes place in Paris and southwestern France during World War II; the protagonist is an ordinary woman in extraordinary times whose fate is sealed by her carefree nature and willful ignorance of political realities. I knew my character who became more real by the minute and I knew the area I was writing about. I did the research to find out about what I didn’t know about political tensions during that frightening period called the “épuration” or purification. It took me years and years and tens of drafts before I finally finished. The book, which will be published in 2019, was a long haul and a magnificent learning experience. I can only hope that my readers will enjoy the result of all the hard work that went into it.

But I digress: what and how does this writer think right now? That it’s time to finish this article and time to give neophytes a little advice: write your heart out if that’s your wish. Don’t think of publication. Just think of what you’ve got to say, what’s important for you to get out of our system. Think of your craft. Do your best. The rest will take care of itself.

Demystifying the French – once again

Are you a Francophile ? Or a Francophobe ? It may seem contradictory but whether you are one or the other you are surely confronted with the same malady :  you don’t understand the French.

Of course the Francophobe probably doesn’t even want to.  The Francophile, on the other hand, is avid for all things French, the wine, the food, the aesthetics, the romance. l But even when the Francophile easily and eagerly catches on to the wine, the food, the aesthetics and the romance in France, he or she doesn’t necessarily understand or « get » the French. In that, France is unique. I mean, do people write books about « figuring out the Chinese » or « figuring out the Italians » ? Or « demystifying » them ? Mais non !

But the French…oh my. Now it’s time for me to tell you that I have lived a very French life in France for more than forty years (French husband, French in-laws, French schools for the kids, etc.) and am well-equipped to dissertate on the subject of the mysterious French and their ways. About twenty years in, it occurred to me that there were many things I didn’t understand. I felt an itch, an urgent need to investigate and if possible unravel the mysteries of the French.  (Mysteries, by the way, is often a polite way of saying that they’re driving you crazy and you don’t know why.) That resulted in my books French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre. One might say I had (and still have) an ongoing fascination with the French. And I’m not alone. A veritable cottage industry about France and the French has popped up. In fact, there’s almost a surfeit of books on the subject.

Fortunately, once in a while someone like Janet Hulstrand comes along and writes a book that stands out. It’s not a book about buying a cute little farmhouse and filling it up with Provencal furniture ; it’s not a book purporting to know everything about French cuisine or this or that. (These books often tend to ignore the French other than as caricatures, aka Peter Mayle). No, this is a helpful, practical, insightful and informative tome about the French and the way they are – and how to be sensitive to them. So many people aren’t. (And then criticize the French for being rude and arrogant !).

If there’s one book that will get you up to speed on the French and your relationship with the French, this is it. In a benevolent but no nonsense way, Hulstrand tells us all about demystifying the French, the title of the book.   Her subtitle is « How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You” – which I doubt will happen (I’ve been in France too long…) but is a nice goal. Even if the French LIKED you a bit (and you them), it would already be great.

Here’s what I like about Ms Hulstrand’s book : At 100 pages, it’s brief enough to carry around with you or read on Kindle so you can always have it on hand.  ( For more information and a look at the charming cover, please check out https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/.  And her advice is sound, starting with Part One which offers « essential tips for even very brief encounters «.

Tip #1, which is to say « Bonjour ! », seems amazingly simple as does Tip #2, « Ask ‘Do you speak English’ ? » – but the number of people who do neither is great. My favorite, though, is Tip #5 : Shhhh !!! (For goodness sake !). Well, my dear American friends, let’s face it : you are simply too loud so please, please remember to keep the volume down. Hulstrand explains why. If you follow her instructions, you will indeed be amazed by the results.

Part Two deals with the French mentality which you will begin to understand if you live here long enough (and even then it can be difficult) but which can be a major mystery if you’re a tourist. Hulstrand tells the reader about the French passion for complication, the importance of being « correct », the importance of taking your time, and the unimportance of money (this is a major difference with the USA). If you read and absorb and act on this information, you’re on your way to having a much easier, more relaxed time in France.

The author generously culls quotes and knowledge from others who have plumbed the mysteries of the French (full disclosure : that includes this writer). She also provides a wonderfully unorthodox glossary of French terms, such as Adieu and Au revoir and their nuances , Foutre, a crude, but often used word, Laicité and Système D, two concepts that are hard for the non-French to grasp.

With a list of sources cited and additional recommended reading, Hulstrand has done a fine job of covering the territory. You’ll want to read more after finishing it – but if you only have one primer on the French to read before your trip or bring along with you, hers is the one.

You may even end up « loving » the French – and making them love you. 

Sick and Tired of the Yellow Vests !

Last SaLet me say it loud and clear so there’s no ambiguity:  I am sick and tired of the Yellow Vests.

Saturday, January 5, was the EIGHTH time the Yellow Vests, a populist movement named for the bright yellow jackets French drivers must have in their car in case of an accident, filled the streets of Paris and other major cities to demonstrate.  About what?  Initially, it was about the carbon tax which would make gas more expensive. President Macron delayed the measure. It was also about the cost of living, and President Macron responded by making some moves (among them, 100 euros additional income each month) to try to ameliorate their situation.

So what is all this about now?

That’s what I’m asking myself.

As time goes on, the number of demonstrators dwindles, for sure.  But the violence is, if anything greater, more unpredictable, lightning quick, astonishing and frightening.  A few examples from yesterday’s demonstration: one Yellow Vest, a professional boxer, repeatedly punched a policeman who managed to protect himself from the vicious blows with his shield;  in another  mind-boggling attack, some of the protestors got ahold of a construction engine and bashed in the door of the Ministry of Relations with the Parliament while the Minister, who was there, was evacuated by security guards.  And we’re not even talking about the cars set on fire, the broken windows, the looting and pillaging (one fellow was caught by police after he tried to sell online three expensive Givenchy bags he had stolen during a recent demonstration).

Now here’s the kicker: the reaction to these totally reprehensible, totally illegal acts of sedition was, in general, a big ho hum.   French journalists and French politicians and the majority of ordinary French people  continue to sing the same old song:   we mustn’t  mix things up.  The violence is not the fault of the  innocent peace-loving  Yellow Jackets but outside infiltrators. Some even say that the violence of the acts is a response to the violence of the government. Uh, that one’s lost on me.

Today on TV, I finally heard a member of Macron’s party deliver the message I have been longing to hear ever since this tomfoolery started:   “This violence is insurrectional and must stop. Now.”

Too bad it’s not the majority message. Most of the pundits shrink from going this far.

To try to understand the woes of the Yellow Jackets, the government has called for a national consultation starting on January 15.  It will  try to involve simple citizens in determining what is wrong, where and grievances can be remedied. This is all good and well – but personally I think that these people, who have no leaders, very different demands and are being manipulated mostly by the extreme right plus the extreme left and revolutionary movements, will never have enough. Because their ultimate project is to overthrow the government.

Of course there are decent, hard-working people and people down on their luck and people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet. They deserve respect, they deserve help.

But their movement has been hijacked.

And there is no excuse for the violence that we have seen the past eight Saturdays and will see much more of as time goes on.

If I were the French Head of State, which I’m not, I would refuse to enter into any kind of negotiations until the Yellow Vests get off the streets and give them back to law-abiding citizens.   Personally, I, and many people I know,  have not gone out for eight Saturdays because although the Yellow Jackets say they will be demonstrating in one place, they quickly move to another (which, by the way, is illegal).  My husband loves to go to the Stamp Market at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées on Saturdays. He can no longer go because the entire area is barricaded either because they have said they would demonstrate there-  or because they might turn up .

Tourism is down, shops and restaurants and hotels are losing money, the damage to streets and stores and cars and monuments can be counted in billions of euros.  And don’t you think it is absolutely terrifying that the demonstrators have actually approached and entered the center of power by forcing their way inside a Ministry? I do!

But never forget: in France, the right to strike is sacrosanct  even when those strikers penalise all the other millions of people who are just going about their business.

Something wrong with this picture?  You bet.

 

Yellow vests get violent – what’s next?

Paris, December 3, 2018

Many people who have seen or read about the recent violent demonstrations of the “yellow vests”  in Paris have asked me:  How bad is it?

Here’s my answer:

I have lived in Paris for the past 47 years and have seen many demonstrations, but never anything like this.   (As an aside, French police  say exactly the same thing). In France, demonstrations or  manifs, short for manifestations, are frequent and generally peaceful although many times troublemakers come in at the end to loot and pillage.

But the demonstrations held the last three Saturdays in Paris and throughout the country are different. The thugs did indeed come from the outside – but they were inside as well.  And that’s a surprise, actually, considering that 72 per cent of the French approve the yellow jackets and their protests. They see their colourfully clad compatriots as non-violent which is the image that the protesters give – and what one can hope they probably are for the most part.

But, according to the Prefet de Police, there’s another side to the story.  Of the hundreds of people arrested and summoned to make an immediate appearance for acts of violence, the majority were men from the provinces aged between 20 and 45, with jobs and families, whose main aim in coming to Paris was precisely to have a fight.The others were the usual delinquents and thugs from the extreme left and extreme right.  Some of the yellow vests don’t even deny the accusation:  They are filled with rage against the government and high taxes, feel they have nothing to lose and say that their acts of violence and vehemence are nothing next to the “violent” way in which they are being treated by the government. 

A few weeks ago, just when the movement was starting, I took a trip to southwest France to the village where my mother-in-law was born.  It’s a pretty little town in the Périgord where many English, Dutch and other foreigners settle to enjoy the fabulous food and wine and scenery. So far all good and well. But as I walked down the streets admiring the ancient massive golden-stone houses which reeked of history, I saw abandoned shops as well as shops with hardly anyone in them.  I didn’t see a post office or a hospital;  it’s possible that people living there have to travel when they need to see a doctor or post a letter.  And that’s one of the reasons the yellow jackets are mad:  in the absence of the public transportation people in big cities enjoy, they depend on their cars. And their cars need gas.  And gas prices have skyrocketed due to a new energy policy and new taxes imposed by the Macron government.  One woman living in a small town in Brittany wrote an angry post about this situation on Facebook and it spread like wildfire:  a popular movement against the government was born. And the protests began.  The movement eschews leaders and is having a hard time organising to meet and hold discussions with the government.  The movement doesn’t like or want unions or political parties to interfere.  This  total lack of structure is responsible in part for the chaos reigning in the demonstrations.

The third demonstration, on Saturday, December 1, was an unmitigated disaster, fuelled by rage.  Cars burned, cobblestones and barricades and projectiles of every kind were hurled at the police – who were accused of not being aggressive enough (but if they had been, things would have been even worse.  They were ordered not to engage with the protester.  One police officer, in a television interview, confessed that he was convinced that some of the yellow vest protesters were there, not just to injure, but to kill).


My take on this?  I’m sorry for the low-paid, highly taxed nonviolent yellow jackets who simply want to be able to live decently and who are offended and angered by Macron’s lack of response to their demands. He really does need to address them with compassion and offer them viable solutions.  They see him as a cold Parisian technocrat who cares nothing about the little guy.  He needs to at least look like he cares.  


I am sorry for the store and restaurant owners whose premises have been trashed and whose livelihoods are endangered by all the damage done to their businesses.   I am aghast at seeing the Arch of Triumph tagged outside and ransacked inside. I am  horrified by the spectacle of the yellow jackets tearing down the gates around the Tuileries.  I once saw an excellent film about the French Revolution and those protesters chillingly reminded me of the people railing against King Louis XVI and his lack of response and compassion.  

Let’s hope everyone and everything will settle down and this doesn’t end in a beheading!


Next Saturday, December 8:   Act Four (and we hope, the last act) of this continuing French psychodrama.

Harriet in Wonderland

OK, so you’ve been to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph and the Seine.  Maybe you’ve hopped down south to the Riviera to check out sunny St. Tropez and Nice.  Some of you may have ventured to the Périgord with its prehistoric caves and foie gras, and to Brittany to enjoy its spectacular ocean views, fresh seafood plates and succulent crêpes.

But have you been to Alsace, in the northeast corner of France?

If not, it’s time to go!

On a recent trip, I was amazed at my own delight in re-visiting this magical land of lush vineyards whose slopes run right down to the road, fairy-tale villages with brightly coloured houses – and even storks (real ones!) who oversee the towns from their nests on high.  Local specialties are a feast for both the eye and the stomach: they include the Kougelhopf, a prettily shaped brioche made in a colourful mold,  heart-shaped pastries and gingerbread,  and  of course, perfectly made to-die-for choucroute (sauerkraut) served with local charcuterie (also to-die-for).

From Paris, It’s easy to get to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.  Those of us who endured the  five hour plus ride in the olden days are grateful for the sleek fast trains (French and German) that barrel along at more than 300 kilometres per hour, reducing total trip time to a mere hour and a half.

Strasbourg’s main attraction is the immense, one-spired eleventh century Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral and its astronomical clock. Fashioned from sandstone, the cathedral takes on different hues, from grey to pink to almost red, depending on the season and the hour of the day.  A friend and I, sitting in front of it at a nearby café savouring a flammekeuche (kind of an Alsatian pizza with cream and munster and bacon on the top), concluded that we could happily remain there all day just to watch the pageant of changing colors.

Strasbourg has scores of half-timbered houses, narrow streets, charming canals and a lovely Old City. But it is also  the well-kept up modern home of several European institutions including the European Court of Human Rights and, with Brussels, the European Parliament which holds 12 sessions a year of four days each. And as everywhere else in Alsace, Strasbourg’s streets are clean – and such a contrast to the  litter-strewn ones of Paris.

South of Strasbourg is the well-known and much travelled “route du vin” which features village after village of colourful houses, storks on their high posts, places to taste –  and buy  –  the wonderful wines of Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Noir).

Riquewihr, a wine-making town of 2000 inhabitants (and easily ten times that of tourists), is the jewel in the crown.  You are literally stunned as you wander down the cobblestoned streets gawking at the medieval half-timbered houses painted in what some might consider outlandish or garish tones – that somehow work.

To be sure, there are softer hues, such as this green house I love

But then we move on to bolder colours, such as this blue and yellow duo side-by-side

I thought that was probably the height of daring color combinations but saw I was wrong when I came upon the gem below which conjured up images of gingerbread houses, witches, black cats and cobwebs.

We could barely tear ourselves away from Riquewihr to our final destination:  the town of Colmar and its world-famous Unterlinden Museum. Located in a former 13th century convent, the museum houses the magnificent and moving 16th century Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. He painted this tableau of the Crucifixion for sufferers of the plague in the nearby monastery of St. Anthony; its powerful message still resonates today.

Alsace is a feast in so many ways, in the taste of its traditional food, in the architecture of its houses and churches, in the tranquility of its villages and vineyards.  No wonder Germany coveted it, occupying Alsace from 1870 to 1918 and annexing it in World War II and forcing Alsatian men to enrol in the German Army – they were called “malgré-nous” (in spite of ourselves).  The Alsatian artist Jean-Jacques Waltz, better known as “Uncle Hansi”,  illustrated books showing typically dressed Alsatian children in a pro-French happy Alsace. (note the French flag planted in the soil of the vase with the cardboard cutout of an Alsatian boy).   Hansi was captured by the Gestapo in 1941 and beaten so badly he was left for dead. (He survived and died after the war in Colmar).

The Alsatians speak a German dialect, but don’t think (or tell them) they’re speaking German. That’s an insult.  They are fiercely proud of their region, fiercely proud to be Alsatian. They even refer to the French people who don’t live in Alsace as “les Français de l’intérieur” (the French of the interior).

I imagine it might be hard to fit into their culture if you aren’t born into it, but it’s not hard at all to take a little trip and admire this thoroughly admirable part of France.

 

“I’m American. I Hug” says Meghan – but for how long?

So the deed is done.  Prince Harry has married his beautiful, bi-racial, feminist American sweetheart and I’m here to say that I witnessed their tying the knot – even if it was on French TV with French being spoken over the English.  So terribly weird!

Of course, being a sentimental type, I, like Meghan’s mother and many others, spent a lot of the ceremony with tears in my eyes.  What could be more beautiful, more touching, more dreamlike than the enactment of a fairytale? How wonderful for Harry to have found the woman of his life – a compassionate, outgoing, nonconformist, modern woman who brings to mind his late mother, Princess Diana.

Yes, I’m happy for Meghan and Harry – but a little worried as well.

“I’m American. I Hug” was the headline of this morning’s front page article in the international edition of the New York Times. It  dealt with the (painful to some, especially in the monarchy -and welcome to others who aren’t) fact that Meghan is a hugger.

So, big deal, you’ll say.  All Americans are huggers.

And therein lies the problem.

Having lived abroad for more than forty years, I know for a fact that when not on home ground you’ve got to make compromises – every day and all the time.

Europeans, especially the reserved English,  do not hug each other.   The Spanish greet each other one way, the Polish another, the Italians yet another.

In France,  the bise  is the way you greet a friend and it’s not as easy as it looks. You lightly graze the cheek of the receiver twice (in Paris) and three and even four times in the provinces.  There are some people to whom you would never give a bise  (your boss, your kid’s teacher, someone you have just been introduced to) but of course, you, the foreigner, have to figure this out by watching people and making the effort to learn.

I try to imagine what would have happened if I had said “I’m American. I Hug” in France.   It’s almost an act of war!  It means, “I’ll do things my way. I’m superior. America is superior. Why would I bother to do what you guys do?”  My French family and friends would have been stupefied had I grabbed them and hugged them.  They don’t understand the hug anymore than I understood the bise in the beginning.

But I learned. You know why? Because I was living in their country. If I wanted to do things my way, I would have stayed in my country.

It’s good that Meghan brings a new perspective to the stilted and stuffy monarchy. If she feels like hugging an adorable little girl or a charity worker for the homeless (pictures below) from time to time, well, why not?

But the Palace Guards? Please, Meghan. You’re no longer in California.   Good luck!

Franco-American friendship at the Chateau de Blérancourt

Welcome to the Franco-American museum in the Chateau de Blérancourt (that’s yours truly in the picture above, standing at the entrance).    I’d been hearing about this museum which is a mere hour’s drive from Paris for quite some time.  Truth be told, and I don’t know why, it wasn’t on my list of priorities.

But fate took care of my lack of interest:  on our way to another French monument, the Abbaye de Royaumont, a road sign indicating “Blérancourt” suddenly loomed up on our right.

It was not just a sign but a “divine sign”, we laughed, as we happily changed our plans and our route.

We were happy with our decision but our GPS wasn’t.  According to its little pictogram, our car had veered off the road and into fields!  Given our precarious situation, we immediately decided to do something hardly anyone does these days: stop the car and ask directions of two locals lazily drinking their beers in a front of a café.

“Excusez moi,” I said, as I rolled down the window to peer up at our potential saviours..  “We are looking for the Chateau de Blérancourt but keep going around in circles.” (I didn’t mention the picture of our vehicle plowing through fields).

One of the fellows, a grizzled old-timer, glanced at the cell phone I was holding in my hand.

“It won’t tell you?” he asked, pointedly but with good humour.

Red-faced, I admitted that I hadn’t even thought of consulting it.  He and his friend grinned and pointed us in the right direction.  “You should stop here for lunch before you go,” they added.  We almost did, but it was time to be on our way (and reflect for a few seconds on how few and far between these informal exchanges are becoming now that we get our information from machines instead of humans).

We did end up eating before going to the museum, repairing to a  small town named Cuts (pronounced “coots” in French)  which featured all in one place, the Holy Trinity of almost all French villages:   the  church, the Mairie and the school.  It also boasted a Michelin starred restaurant but we opted for the town’s one and only simple little café  where we ordered up big tasty sandwiches and a couple of glasses of wine.   As we sat on the terrace enjoying the lovely spring weather, something odd happened.  Every single passer-by greeted us with a smile and a bonjour.  This was so astonishing that we almost choked on our wine.  Yes, we were definitely no longer in Paris.

Then it was on the museum,  a country residence built between 1612 and 1619 by the French architect Salomon de Brosse for the Potier de Gesvres family.  During the French Revolution, the  main building of the original residence was totally demolished.   Fortunately the portal and two pavilions remained.

The American connection started at the end of World War I when Anne Morgan, daughter and unique heiress of John Pierpoint Morgan,the richest man in the world, toured the devastated area of the Aisne region, staying at the Chateau de Blerancourt where she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France (CARD).

“The French Friends of Blérancourt Museum” was founded in 1923 and a year later the chateau became a museum  – and a continuing testimony to the French support of the American War of Independence and the American commitment to the French during the First World War.  The eclectic collection you can see today after a recent renovation of the buildings ranges from plaster casts of famous American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and the famous French friend of America, Lafayette (picture below), to posters depicting U.S. aid in World War I and an elaborate  costume of a Native American.

The beautifully and carefully landscaped gardens surrounding the chateau made us want to sit down with a book and stay all afternoon.

 

 

 

But it was time to go and make some other discoveries:  in the nearby town of Noyon we stumbled on the house in which Jean Calvin was born. (By the way, contrary to what I thought, Calvin was French, not Swiss).  Back to his birthplace:  who knew? (Well, I wasn’t all that surprised: everywhere you go in France, even in the least touristic regions, history is your constant partner and  monuments abound).

 

On this sunny Sunday morning the people sitting at the tables on the sidewalk cafés in Noyon were mostly men and mostly Arab or Turkish workers.  Many stores were closed – not just for the day, but seemingly forever.  Is it just a sleepy town, I wondered?  Or has it been hit by massive unemployment?

I don’t have the answer to that question but I do have one certitude: if you want to see France and know France, you’ve got to hightail it out of Paris.

And when you do, you’ll see how and how fast you leave the City of Light behind.  Under wide skies, you see enormous fields (like the one in the picture below of a yellow field of “colza” or rape, and farmers tilling the land.   You’ll see villagers leisurely stopping to talk to each other on the street – and oh, how those conversations can last (reminds me of the small town in which I grew up in the Midwest).  People are wary of newcomers, but if you don’t come on as a big city dude, you’ll be just fine.   Voilà –  et vive la différence.

As the famous American writer Henry James wrote in his book “A  Little Tour in France” : “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France.”

The people of Paris – one man survives and thrives among the multinationals

At first glance, the Maison Legeron  looks quirky, homey,  topsy turvy.   Hard to imagine that the charming, old-fashioned atelier houses the  last independent family firm that makes and supplies the exquisite handmade artificial flowers worn by top models strutting down the runways at haute couture shows (and also sold for astronomical prices in high fashion boutiques). 

 Bruno Legeron, whose great-grandfather bought the establishment in 1898, tells me that there was a time when hundreds of firms like his turned out handmade flowers and feathers for ladies’ hats.   Then came the automobile, more informal ways of dressing and notably, the demise of le chapeau.  The legions of small ateliers were snatched up and became part of  big fashion houses. Legeron is the last to hold out, fashioning his artificial flowers for designers from Dior to Jean-Paul Gaultier to Jimmy Choo and supplying feathers for the Lido and the Folies Bergères.

Times have changed, though, and Bruno admits that  “we used to make flowers – now we make profit margins”.     In spite of his words,  you can tell that he believes in what he does and that in his atelier there’s more to the process than profit margins.  There’s heart.

The process looks deceptively simple – the silk  (or leather or latex) is stretched on wooden frames to stiffen and dry all night, then the petals are cut with dies and wax heated so that each petal can be individually shaped with a special instrument solely for that purpose.  Some of the tools date back to from Bruno’s  great-grandfather’s days. Bruno personally takes care of finding and mixing exactly the right colour for the petals.

“The only thing we don’t do”, Bruno joked, as he showed me around the picturesque  atelier  only steps away from the Palais Royal and its gardens –  which are filled with “real” flowers  –  “is raise our ostriches down in the basement.”    There are no birds in the basement, for sure, but there are bird feathers galore, whether from pheasants, black guinea fowls,  swans or others,  carefully stored in plain oblong cardboard boxes lining the walls from floor to ceiling.  Ostrich feathers notably, are classified according to quality and labelled  “très très belle”,  “très belle”, and “belle”.    Those feathers are used on everything from boas to accessories on shoes like the gorgeous bright blue pair in the picture below.

 

On the day I visited the atelier, Bruno was dressed in jeans and a tracksuit top over which he wore a black apron adorned with huge safety pins with various roses and feathers. He certainly looked “modern”, but he’s proud of  doing things the old-fashioned and collegial way (workers in the atelier all have specialities but pitch in to help each other when there’s a rush, he says).  Pointing at an antiquated cash register where the amounts are still in French francs, Bruno joked:  “That’s my computer”.   

I cast a glance at the “computer”, then gazed up at the ceiling.  Hanging over our heads were rows and rows of enormous silk white peonies which Legeron had created for a Cartier window display.

I was filled with admiration for the exquisite craftmanship I had witnessed during the visit  – as well as a fleeting but powerful desire to own a drop dead gorgeous 2 meter black and white boa made of top quality ostrich feathers that  I gently fingered on my way out the door….But then, who wouldn’t want to possess a handmade creation with more than a century of French savoir-faire behind it?

 

This article was adapted from a passage in the chapter “Savoir-Vivre: Life as an Art Form” in my latest book, Joie de Vivre.

Paris Beauty – Paris Blight

I love the 5th arrondissement of Paris.   When I arrived in Paris in my early twenties, I discovered the rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest market streets in Paris. I rented a small studio with a toilet on the landing – and in spite of that inconvenience thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I loved leaning out my sole window on the third floor to sniff the smells of the market and rejoice in the noise and the hustle and bustle and the cries of the vendors as they  rushed to place their stalls and their wares.

Years and years have passed since then. I’ve gone from being a carefree, adventurous twenty- something-year-old single woman to being a I-won’t-tell-you-how-old grandmother!  I’ve lived in other spots in Paris  – the upscale 16th and Neuilly where we practically lived in the Bois de Boulogne and now the 20th, near the Père Lachaise cemetery.

I still love the 5th best of all.

As a matter or fact, it took me a long time to bid good-bye to the 5th. After I left the rue Mouffetard, I moved up the street, first to the rue Descartes and then to the rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique;  I married my French husband at the “Mairie” of the 5th arrondissement right across the street from the Pantheon;  after he retired, my husband got his doctoral degree in History at the Sorbonne.

Maybe one reason my husband and I both like the 5th so much is that it is filled with great institutions of learning – the Sorbonne, of course, but also Le Collège de France and L’Ecole Normale Supérieure.  Unlike certain parts of Paris, the 5th doesn’t put on airs but is comfortable just being itself. And while it’s lively, sometimes, rather eerily, you’ll find yourself on a street that is as quiet is if you were in the country.  The picture above of the officers on horseback was taken on Easter Monday when my husband and I were walking down the rue Aymot,  not far from the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Institut Curie. There was not a soul or a sound – until a clip clop, clip clop reached our ears.    We turned to look and voilà in our line of vision,  two handsome horses mounted by officers of the Gendarmerie Nationale who kindly stopped to pose for the picture before moving on at a leisurely pace.

We continued our stroll until we reached the Place de Pantheon.  With its impressive dome and intricately decorated Corinthian columns, this beloved neoClassical monument modelled after the Pantheon of Rome is the collective resting place of France’s greatest men and women from Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas to Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Simone Veil. On its pediment you’ll see the motto:  aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante  (to the great men, the gratitude of the country).    Hard to change the writing on a pediment but, as mentioned, the Pantheon is home to the remains of some of France’s greatest women as well as men.  A stately building, it dominates one of the most beautiful “places” in Paris. With your back to its front, you look straight down to the Luxembourg Garden. Facing it, you see behind it on the left the ancient Eglise Sainte-Genevieve.  It is a very special historic place in the heart of the city.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I spied a series of ugly horizontal blocks on either side of the monument making the entire esplanade look like a work site.  I couldn’t figure out what they were or imagine they could be “benches”  – but they are, just as the platforms of wooden slats are a place for skateboarders or budding actors to declaim their texts.   What a scandalous shame, I thought, and laughed when I saw that some impish soul had placed a mask on the nose of the statue of the famous 17th century French dramatist and tragedian Pierre Corneille.  I imagined him saying “this new idea stinks”! Or “speaking of tragedies” !

A planned tragedy, at that.  As you’ll see on the sign below which explains the desecration,  the benches are  part of a comprehensive project of the City of Paris and its Mayor Anne Hidalgo to make several Paris “places” more user friendly. The idea, I can only assume, is that all these boring age-old “places” should be fun-filled.   That means smoking and eating sandwiches and skate boarding and sitting back and relaxing on the backless granite benches (if you can relax on a backless bench) instead of doing what people used to do which was take a stroll, stop in front of the monument, appreciate its beauty while standing and move on. The idea is to “re-invent” the places mentioned in the poster.

I’ve got a better idea.  Just leave them alone.  Give people a chance to enjoy beauty without the noise of skateboards, music blaring from earphones, constant flap and flutter.

If there’s silence, they might even hear the surprising sound of horses hooves!

 

 

April in Paris – almost

Wednesday, March 21:  the sun actually came out so I wandered around the streets of Paris and marvelled at the flower displays outside shops. It was as if every owner of every flower shop in Paris suddenly decided winter was over, enough was enough,  and hauled out every single plant to put on the sidewalk.  In one place I smelled the flower before actually seeing it:  the scent of jasmin was so overpowering I thought I’d faint. All this gave me the feeling that spring might actually come….

But it’s all so strange – my first photo, snapped from the car on my way to my book club at the American Library in the 7th, is of the “bulbs” of the Russian Cathedral (also known as the “Holy Trinity Cathedral and The Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center”) decorated in snow. Then only a couple of days later the snow melted, the temperatures rose slightly,  and the flower vendors displayed their beautiful wares – as only the French can do with such artistry –  out in the streets in front of their shops. Go figure!

By the way, the book we discussed at the American Library was “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton.  If you want to learn about social strictures and the way it was in New York “society” pre World War I, this is an excellent start. When Wharton lived in Paris, it was in the oh so respectable 7th arrondissement.  One can hardly imagine her anywhere else.

As for me, I’m all over Paris.  My joy is constant discovery – and I’m happy to invite you, dear reader, to come along with me.  A bientôt!