PART I – WHAT I HAVE LIVED FOR
GREAT POETRY LIVES FOREVER IN THE HEART
Certain poems, such as “Ithaca” by Constantine Cavafy, Greece’s great modern poet, have been woven into the very fabric of my being and have added beauty and insights to my journey through life. They blend significant ideas with fine writing and can compress the meaning of my universe into a few lines. Some of them give us blueprints for building a life.
Great poetry uplifts us during hard times and gives us dreams and visions. It nourishes our awareness and understanding of what it means to be a human being among all of the other living creatures of Planet Earth.
Each of us doubtlessly has his or her own fund of these treasures, collected over the years and stored away just as squirrels store nuts and acorns for the coming winter. Like pebbles tumbled and worn smooth by a rushing stream, my beloved poems have been turned over and over by my mind countless times. I never tire of them just as I never tire of a beautiful sunset, a glorious aria, or a lovely painting.
Poetry has enriched my live. The list is long: Shakespeare, the psalms of the Bible, Robert Frost, Tennyson, Lord Byron, Keats, Shelley, Amy Lowell, Browning, Poe, Coleridge, Whitman, T.S. Elliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Whitcomb Riley, Vachel Lindsay…
Cavafy’s poem that is quoted on the next page is about Ulysses’ journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It was fraught with uncertainty and danger, but also contained great excitement and beauty. It is, obviously, a metaphor for one’s journey through life and makes me think more deeply and consciously about my own journey. It reminds me not to be ruled by my fears.
As you set out for Ithaca hope that your road is a long one, full of adventures, full of discovery. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them: You’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul set them up in front of you. Hope your road is a long one. May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter many harbors you’re seeing for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfumes of every kind – as many sensual perfumes as you can: and may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars. Keep Ithaca always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years. so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich. Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn’t have set out. C.V. Cavafy
FLOATING IN A BUBBLE OF BLUE
I had always envisioned Italy as a place of mountains and marble columns, piazzas and umbrella pines, old Roman roadways, and aqueducts. Italy is also a water place from its Mediterranean shore to the Adriatic splendor of Venice.
I would have said that the Teton Mountains of Wyoming were the loveliest place in the world, but I had not yet seen the Isle of Capri. One sunny morning we boarded a ferry in Naples and sailed into its harbor that I was seeing for the first time, and I found great joy there. It was a sort of homecoming for Bill who had stayed in a seaside hotel there when he was a young soldier on leave.
High, high on a cliff in the garden of a villa we sat, looking out over the Mediterranean where little islands seemed to float and shimmer in an azure haze. Blue! Blue! Blue! Ocean-blue blending with sky-blue in a visual rhapsody that swamped my senses and reduced me to a mindless piece of nature with no more “self” that the pine tree against whose rough bark I leaned my shoulder.
In Under the Tuscan Sun Francis Mayes described grapes that she said even smelled purple. I understand what she meant. The ocean and sky at Capri will define blue for me forever. If one could experience a color with all five senses then I heard, tasted, touched, and smelled the color blue as well as seeing it: the scent of blue flowers, the taste of pale blue icing on an angel food cake that Auntie Kelly baked for Virginia’s
birthday… the rustle of the blue formal which I wore to the Junior Prom, the touch of a blue velvet skirt that I wore in high school… the blue of the irises that Mother took to the cemetery on Decoration Days and those of Monet’s garden at Giverny… the wild bachelor’s buttons and larkspur growing along an Indiana road… the blue of the jay that squawks for us to feed him peanuts… All of those blues and more were present here.
It was as if I were floating in a bubble of blue. Rarely have I felt such a quietude, amplitude, and completion of spirit where I become one with the cosmos, laying aside all of the ridiculous, petty cares, bickering, hurts and struggles with which the human condition is freighted. It seemed to me that a message was being imparted to me: “Quit struggling… there is time… there is peace.”
No language is adequate to describe California’s Big Sur. I don’t believe that even the great Shakespeare could do it! Just as Capri is, Big Sur is the ultimate definition of blue.
Big Sur’s residents fought to keep it unchanged so that its present matches the past images of it that I stored in my internal photograph album when we were there the summer after our marriage. Around every bend in the road was another blue vision so lovely that our repeated exclamations of delight, “Omygod!… Look! Look!” became hackneyed.
Such as drink, eternal happiness shall fynd.Edmund Spencer – “The Faerie Queene”
Homer related in the Odyssey that the daughter of Zeus poured something into the sailors’ wine that brought forgetfulness and the end of sorrow. The Greek word for it, nepenthe, has been used many times by writers. Some believe that it was a form of opium; others call it an anti-depressant.
There is a restaurant named Nepenthe that’s located high on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. Orson Welles bought the property after he married Rita Hayworth, but never lived there.
During our first trip we didn’t think that we were dressed well enough, so Bill turned into a lane in the forest. We took clothes from the suitcase and got undressed, paying no attention to our surroundings. Then one of us said, “Isn’t that metal yard sculpture of a rooster fabulous?”
Uh-oh! We were standing there in our undies in the driveway of someone’s home! We threw our clothes on any which and got the heck out of there, pronto!
Nepenthe has changed little. Once again, suspended betwixt sky and ocean as had happened on Capri, my spirit left this world behind and floated away in a bubble of blue.
I would have liked to have stayed forever with Bill on Capri or high on a Big Sur cliff above the ocean, timelessly suspended in that blue bubble. Sometimes I pause when I’m trying to cram one more activity onto my to-do list and remember those nepenthes and think to myself, “Quit struggling. There is time; there is peace.”
ENTERING NEW HARBORS
Cinque Terre (“Cheenquay Tairay”) – The Five Lands – a far-away place with a strange-sounding name, is one of the most isolated places in Italy. Like spread-out fingers, mountainous hills come down to the blue Mediterranean. Between them are little villages next to the sea. It takes a long time to drive between them because you have to drive up a mountain and then back down on the other side.
The afternoon was growing late as we zigzagged down a narrow, precipitous road, not knowing where we’d spend the night. This place was as popular as the Brown County foliage season! Half of Italy seemed to be spending Sunday afternoon here. Cursing drivers maneuvered out of difficult parking places. One fellow sideswiped a car and cavalierly drove away without a backward glance.
There was a sign: “No parking beyond this spot!” Now what? “I can walk down, but I’ll never make it back up,” I said. I stayed in the car while the others hiked down to find a room. Adventures are a lot more fun when you’re sitting in your cozy home rather than being in the middle of one! A guidebook warned that was no point in trying to make reservations because they might not be honored. We didn’t relish driving along unfamiliar, tricky roads after dark. Would we have to sleep in the car? Eek! No dinner, no vino, no bathroom!
At last, the others trudged back up the mountain. “We found a place. Don’t expect the Ritz.” Bill warned. While we walked down the mountain they explained that they had no luck at the hotels. One hotel owner advised, “Go to restaurants and bars. Perhaps someone will rent you a private home.” A barmaid agreed to rent her place. “Just wait till you see it!” said Nichole.
“Does it at least have indoor plumbing?” I asked.
The downstairs had a kitchen/living/dining combo, and the upstairs bedroom had a double bed and a rickety single. The inexpensive furniture was old and battered; and the housekeeping was not meticulous. One of us slept on the couch. There was a toilet and shower with a miniscule overhead tank. “Nichole, you sure won’t be taking hour-long showers here will you?” Jean said. Nichole rolled her eyes.
I noticed little bits of tatty souvenirs and crafts with which the owner had decorated the place. I wondered what her life was like. Most Americans are so very rich when contrasted with many people in other countries. Her little apartment wasn’t much, but it was her home, her modest all.
I saw the owner as a fellow woman who was getting along the best she could in a place where the living is beautiful but probably not easy. She had allowed total strangers to intrude in this most private of places. The small sum that we paid for one night was probably worth several days of her hard work.
We walked a short distance to the seashore. A little, new-moon-shaped beach lay between two out-thrust promontories of the mountains. The sun was low over the ocean and cast upon the waters, hillsides, and pastel-painted buildings of the village all of the glorious tints of an ocean sunset. Mountain rock, many-hued sky, ancient stone walls and blue of water over-tinted by sunglow combined in that vast, timeless, natural symphony that never fails to enchant me.
We had the little jetty almost to ourselves. While we stood there a little motorboat chugged slowly up to the jetty where a man stood waiting. One of the men handed up a stringer of fish. The man on the dock handed down money. They all left. After our stress-making uncertainty about a place to sleep, the peaceful hush of the violet twilight seeped into tired spirits.
Nichole said, “Come on you guys, I am dying of hunger!” We left the jetty and walked to a seaside restaurant. Its owner came to tell us about the menu. Tonight’s special was fresh fish. It was he whom we had seen buying the fish twenty minutes before. That’s about as fresh as it gets!
After a restless night in the barmaid’s apartment, we washed up as best we could with the limited supply of hot water and tidied up the apartment. Rather than driving, we decided to hop from village to village on the rackety-clackety little train that runs right along the coast through tunnels cut through the mountains. Bill and Jean would go back to the car and bring it around the mountains once we found a room.
We got off the train at Monterossa al Mare. One of the more heavily touristed villages, it also has the best beach where already glistening, oil-anointed sunbathers lay spread-eagled on the sand. The ever-brown Nichole said, “Man! That’s for me!” We rushed to book a room before the hordes of fellow tourists arrived.
You can visit the quaint church, take pictures, and buy postcards and souvenirs later! Come with me down to the beach that is gay with striped umbrellas. Cast aside your cares and enjoy what has to be one of the most stress-relieving experiences life has to offer.
Even if you aren’t a sun worshipper, come on! You can sit under an umbrella. Everyone should become a sybarite once in a while and
give one’s self totally over to the enjoyment of the five senses; and this is the fastest way I know to get out of the rut of your everyday life and cut yourself a new groove.
First comes the slathering on of sun-warmed oil that smells like a piña colada. Ah, that’s better. Sweet smelling sea breezes keep you from becoming over-heated. Gentle warmth emanates from the sun-toasted sand. Relax and give yourself over to the sea-song and gull-cry that replace your internal dialogue so that you become mindless and one with the beach, the breeze, the sky, the surge of the great waters and the sun… Life just doesn’t get any better!
Now that you have rid yourself of all those serious thoughts, sit up and look at the marvelous views. The many-blued ocean and the sickle-shaped beach between great thrust-out “toes” of mountains on either side are surmounted by the pristine vault of the azure sky. Boats of every description from little fishing putt-putts to great white yachts float along far out on the waves.
Now turn around and look behind you. Above the beach is a little outdoor café where you can get coffee, wine, light lunches, and panini. Above it is a street with walkways and benches where tourists stroll back and forth, doing what tourists everywhere do. A row of small hotels, food shops, wine stores and souvenir places are all painted in pleasing pastel shades of pink, rose, ocher, dream and yellow. At one end of the beach, perched on the end of the promontory, is a 13th century church whose window frames a marvelous view of the sea.
Look up: Wherever the human being can dig and poke a seed into the ground, the human cultivates. Do you see those terraces high up on the mountainsides? They’re centuries old. Those are the olive groves and little vineyards from which comes the Vino dele Cinque Terre named for the region. Those who go up there must have legs of iron! This is the land of the grape and the olive on the one hand and fishing on the other. It is Heaven on Earth.
A SWEET LITTLE STORY
The next morning Nichole decided to take a strenuous hike up one of the hills while Bill and Jean walked to the next village. I went to the beachside café, found a table with an umbrella, ordered café latte, and pretended to read a book. Actually, I was engaged in my favorite sport of people watching.
I wonder why some Americans travel abroad. They’d be much happier if they just stayed in the U.S. An American woman was very curt with the waiter because he didn’t understand her immediately. “Why can’t he understand plain, simple, English?” she snapped petulantly to her husband before the waiter was even out of earshot.
The white-haired waiter had a close-clipped beard and was dressed in a baseball cap, faded shirt, frayed shorts and sandals. He had deep-set eyes, slender hands and feet and long arms and legs. Thin almost to the point of emaciation, he reminded me of the wonderful painting of a lute player at the Art Institute of Chicago that Picasso painted during his “blue” period before he went cubistic.
No wonder the waiter was so thin. He was the boy-of-all-works and kept constantly on the gallop by the café’s owner. He was in charge of collecting rent for the umbrellas and deck chairs on the beach and carrying them to wherever sunbathers wanted them. Then he’d dash back to the café to serve and bus tables.
I became an instant regular of the place by nursing as long as possible many cups of café latte, followed later by wine. I also assured my welcome and kept possession of my table by tipping generously whenever the waiter brought me a drink. He was ever so appreciative, and well he might have been! I never understood lira. That night when I counted my money I discovered I was missing a bill worth about $20. I had really been generous!
Had the cross American woman been patient, she would have dis-covered that the waiter spoke enough English to get by. I used a sweeping gesture to indicate the village, hills, and incredibly blue sea. “E molto bello!” (“It’s very beautiful.”) That set us off. We communicated very nicely, using my miniscule bit of Italian that I’d learned from a tape, his smattering of English, and French. Between bouts of work, he’d come and stand behind my chair:
“You from beeg ceety?”
Sketching an oval in the air, I replied, “Si – Indianapolis – automobile.”
“Ah, capisco. (I understand.) Vroom, vroom, vroom!”
“C’est ca!” (That’s right.)
“You know Cheecago?”
“Si we go to opera. J’adore la musique de Puccini.” (I adore Puccini’s music.)
He opened his eyes wide, surprised that an American would like opera. “Ah, buono!”
I asked, “La vie ici état plus tranquille avant le train et les tourists, Signor?” (Life here was more peaceful before the train and tourists?”)
“Si, Signora, but eet very – ‘ow you say? – dur (hard). All les gens (people) had was the feesh or the vino or the oleeve.”
The next morning, we went down for a last cappuccino. The waiter came to chat and to introduce the cafés owner who turned out to be his daughter. he said to me, “Please wait, Signora.” He returned with a framed, autographed photograph that he polished reverently with his apron.
“Thees my greatest tresor, Signora. I show you because of hier (yesterday). Capisce? (You understand?)
“Si. Grazie, Signor.”
“You see son nom (his name)? ‘Eemself he geeve to me w’en I leetle garcon (boy) and he come for vacation.”
The picture was of three or four barefoot urchins standing on the beach with Arturo Toscanini the famed conductor. The waiter pointed to one of the boys and said proudly “Me! Regardez! (Look!) Toscanini write, ‘To my leetle fren’ Roberto.’”
I have rarely felt more honored. Roberto, the Italian waiter who looked like Picasso’s lute player, probably never remembered the American woman to whom he showed his most cherished possession, but I shall never forget him. On the other hand, he probably remembered very well that enormous tip all the days of his life!
WHAT A TRIP!
Ah! The pleasures of summer travels! Bill and I have enjoyed many wonderful vacations, but I can’t say that our dispositions were always cherubic. If a couple wishes to test their matrimonial bonds, let them travel together.
Better still, let them travel in a cramped car with children on board whose litany is a familiar one: “I have to go… I’m thirsty… I’m bored… Who cares about a crummy old mountain?… He’s looking at me… He’s poking me… Am not… Are too…”
Driver: “If I have to stop this car, you’re going to be sorry.”
The worst story that I’ve heard was that of relatives who flew in their small plane from Texas to Indianapolis. The kids were crammed into a tiny space in the rear with the baggage. One of them threw up. The mother had to get into their suitcases and use their clothing to clean up, and the boy had to pee in a Coke bottle.
Vicki crammed most of the contents of her bedroom – books, toys, and games – into the back seat when she was little. When she was a teenager she took brushes, mirrors, nail polish, makeup and all the impedimenta necessary to maintain a teenage girl.
Packing the car let to arguments:
Bill always said, “I simply cannot get all this in the car. You’ll have to leave something home.”
“Not me,” said Vicki, “I need all my stuff.”
“And just look at all these sacks. Rose Mary, what’s this?”
“And this one?”
“And this one?”
And this one?”
“Empty sacks in case we need one.”
“You’re going to drive me crazy!”
Our car always looked as if we were the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath on the road. By the end of a long day, we didn’t look much better. I was always envious when I saw neat, stylish attired people sedately remove a couple of matched suitcases – Louis Vuitton, no doubt – from their immaculate trunks.
The time Bill backed the camper into a light pole at the Mormon Tabernacle because Vicki and I didn’t watch closely enough
was not a religious experience. He was furious with me the first time we took a train in England. I was afraid that the train would leave without us and insisted that we board the first car, rather than walking along the platform as he wished. We bumped and banged our way with our big suitcases through ten cars while other passengers glared at us. He didn’t defrost until we reached Plymouth.
Minor peeves grate on one’s nerves. My musical tastes are more limited than Bill’s. He even likes modern, soft rock that drives me crazy with its eternal repetitions and juvenile voices. “I want you-oo-oo… I want you-ooo-ooo…”
“Will you please switch to classical or even old-time rock and roll? I can’t stand that teeny-bopper sound another minute!”
Ah! Mozart! Violins and flutes! “Twedle-eedle, twedle-eedle-eedle-eedle-est… tootle-oodle, tootle-oodle-oot…” Back to the beginning. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bill grin. “Gotcha’!” he’s thinking.
While we were driving through Main, I was reading the Triple A book. “It says that former Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s library is here. It’s located on Norridgewock Road.” “Where?”
I said, “Norridgewock Road.”
“You must mean Norridge Rock.”
“Wock!” I yelled, “Wock, Wock, Wock!”
“Okay! You don’t have to yell!”
We stopped and asked several people for directions. They replied in their lovely down-east accent, “It’s right over theah. After driving around for half an hour, we finally found the place/ “Uh-oh,” I said. “It’s closed on Sunday.”
The night before leaving on a trip to Paris, I rushed to Kroger’s and hurriedly bought some pantyhose that I stuffed in my suitcase. One Sunday I wore a skirt. Halfway through the Rodin Museum, I began to suspect that all was not well with my hose which kept creeping down-ward because they were too short. We took a train out to the Palace of Versailles where the problem worsened. Surreptitiously, I kept giving little tugs to the hose through my skirt in a vain attempt to hitch them up. Undoubtedly some observant French person commented about the
lady with the strange itch: “Des pouces, peut-être?” (Fleas, perhaps?) Oh là-là-là! Those Americans!”
By the time we were walking back to the station, I had to clutch them through my skirt to prevent a most unseemly occurrence. I said,
“Bill, you’ll have to carry my purse!
“Rose Mary, for Heaven’s sake!”
“I can’t carry my purse and hold up these blasted hose at the same time. They’re going to be around my ankles pretty soon!… In fact, I can’t stand them another minute. I’m getting rid of them right now.”
I turned into a courtyard. “Come in here and stand in front of me.”
I yanked up my skirt, pulled off the hose which by this time were nearly at my knees, stuffed them in a pocket and continued merrily on my way. The poor dear has to endure much from me, but I keep him from becoming stuffy.
After reading this story, friend Elsie Freese sent me an extra-large pair of panty hose!
SHEEPLES AT THE SISTINE CHAPEL
Visiting the Sistine Chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica with Vicki would be a piece of cake I thought. After all, I’d had the desk clerk book us into a tour. The guides carry poles with colorful scarves or flags that they wave above the crowd so that one always knows where they are.
We were dropped off several blocks away. “Hurry!” shouted the guide. Already exhausted, I puffed along, wheeling my Rollator through the crowded streets. “Hurry, Mom, or we’ll lose the group!” Vicki even helped push my clattering contraption.
Named for Pope Sixtus, the Sistine Chapel was built during the 1400’s. It was patterned on the Bible’s description of the temple of Solomon and is 44 X 134 feet. Between 1508 and 1511, Michelangelo built a scaffold to reach the barrel-shaped ceiling that’s 68 feet heigh where he painted the beautiful frescos on wet plaster.
At the top of the stairs up which Vicki laboriously toted my Rollator, the group clustered like sheep around our guide. “Baa, baa, baa!” Vicki dubbed them “Sheeples.” You pass through a museum of many rooms before reaching the Sistine. Vicki said, “I know right now that I don’t like tours. She blathers on about what doesn’t interest me and rushes past what does.” I told the guide that we’d make our own way to the chapel. “No problem, Signora. Meet us at the door at 11:00.” We wandered happily through the galleries, stopping to photograph the Vatican’s lovely gardens from the windows.
Every available foot of the Chapel contained sheeples. I made my way to the side, sat on by blessed Rollator and turned Vicki loose. We were at the door shortly before 11:00 but couldn’t see our guides scarf waving above a jam-packed crowd. “Ohmygod!” We saw another
door across the room. Which door? Which door? “Baa, baa, baa!” we wailed. Leaving Vicki, I rushed as fast as I could across the room, bellowing “Excuse me!” in stentorian tones like an old bag and rolling over feet. I found our shepherdess and rushed back to get Vicki.
Thank goodness we found our flock as it would have been a very long walk around the huge basilica to the street where we were to meet Bill. Closed on Sunday, the Sistine is open only until 1:00 on Saturday. As our bus departed, there were still thousands and thousands of people in line. We passed one courtyard alone that must have contained a thousand people. The guide said, “Now aren’t you glad you’re with me?”
The Sistine Chapel is truly one of the world’s artistic marvels, but I enjoy it more from the pages of a book. I shall not return.
We were dropped on the street that leads to St. Peter’s to buy art objects that the guide assured us were authentic. “Understand, I am paid nothing for recommending this shop.” Bet me.
Book a tour where they pick you up at your hotel. The rule at St. Peter’s for both female and males is no shorts, no miniskirts, no bare shoulders – no exceptions! We laughed merrily when Jean’s daughter didn’t heed our warning and had to take jeans from her backpack and hitch them up under her mini before they’d admit her. Opera glasses or binoculars are useful for viewing ceilings.
VIVE LA FRANCE
While we were visiting Bill’s English Aunt, we told her that we were going to take a ferry over to France. She said, “Why evah would you want to go theah. Theah’s nothing over theah for you. Much better to stay in jolly old England than to have to deal with those dreadful French!”
After spending a summer in France before our marriage, I gained a great affection for the French. I admire their appreciation for the good things in life. There are over a hundred museums and ten thousand eateries in Paris alone. People who appreciate history, art and good cooking can’t be all bad!
The French aren’t always sweet-tempered. They can be impatient and rude devils behind the wheel of a car, and they freely use the horn: Going too slowly? “Honk! Honk! Honk!” Having trouble parking? “Honk!”
Some of them are surly. When we took an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower the elevator operator and a policeman were counting the people. Three American men started to enter. “Non, non, non!” gruffly barked the elevator operator. “You are one too many. Get out!” Not understanding French, they continued to try to get on. The policeman puffed up like a pigeon. “Non, non, non!” A cacophony of rapid French ensued as they pushed out the intruders.
They were what the French sarcastically call petits fonctionaires – little functionaries – who relish their tiny bit of power. On the other hand, I don’t believe that spending one’s days in a hot elevator full of smelly tourists would be conducive to a sweet disposition.
We were attending an exhibition of Monet’s paintings through which thousands of visitors were being herded like cattle. “Please move forward until you can read the shirt label of the person in front of you,” announced an employee. I dawdled along. “Madam, kindly move forward.”
New functionaries were waiting inside: “Move to the center of the room.” “I suppose we’re to carry binoculars,” I said to a lady. “And stepladders so we can see over people’s heads,” she snapped.
The next functionary ordered, “Look at the paintings on both sides of the room as you go. Do not turn around and go back.” Bill and I immediately did an about-face and went back. No, gentle readers, this wasn’t in France. This was the Chicago Art Institute. Little functionaries have no nationality and form their own detested, unpleasant subculture.
My internal trunk of memories of warm-hearted French people is full to the overflowing: Monsieur and Madame Bouguen were among the first French people whom I met when I spent a summer in Brittany. Every Sunday evening, they invited me to have dinner at their apartment. She showed me how to make mayonnaise, and dinner was always roast chicken. They’d take me out for drives in their Deux Chevaux, a lightweight little car.
Bill, Jean, and I spent a week at an old farmhouse in the south of France. We asked the jolly waitress at a restaurant to give us wine bottle corks for a friend who makes trivets of them. Amused, she’d stop at our table, giggle, and empty her apron of several corks. She also asked the other servers to give us corks.
On our last day in France, we went there for lunch. I said, “Bonjour, Madam Bouchon.” (Hello, Mrs. Cork) She did a double take and threw corks on our table. She was so darling to us that we called her over before we left. “Please accept this special tip because you have made us smile so much.” Teary-eyed she said, “It is the three of you who have given me so many smiles and great pleasure!”
I shall always remember an elderly lady who was eating lunch in a restaurant across from the Cathedral at Chartres. She was dressed in a well-cut suit, hat, and little old ladies’ shoes. Obviously, she was a resident of the town, and the staff were very attentive to her. We smiled and nodded as she was leaving. She stopped at our table and asked if we were Americans. “Yes,” I replied.
“Oh, I do like Americans! I worked at the embassy after World War II.” We invited her to sit down and conversed for a while. She typified the importance that the French place on owning property. “Me,” she said smugly, “I am well fixed. I live in an apartment near here, and I own the building!”
The bathrooms in most French hotels are pristine. One morning I filled the deep tub and had a leisurely soak. Ah! then I tried to get out of the tub. I’d forgotten that French tubs are narrower than ours and that they become even more narrow at the bottom. I couldn’t get a purchase on the slippery tub, and there wasn’t room for me to turn over onto my knees.
“Help, help, help!” I yelled until Bill opened the door. “I can’t get out of this tub!” He came in and pulled on my arms. No good. “You’re going to have to stand in the tub so that you’re pulling from the correct angle.”
He was afraid that he might slip and become stuck, also. Finally, he put one foot in the tub and pulled me up.
When I saw the jolly maid, who remembered us from a former stay, I told her the story. She laughed and laughed. Every day afterward, there was a bath towel spread out on the bottom of the tub to help keep Madame from slipping.
There are countless examples of French courtesy and friendliness: The ticket agent in the railroad station at Cergy-Pontoise left his post to come out and shake hands whenever he saw us because I spoke French with him. A druggist called a physician when I was ill and went outside to point the way. A woman missed her own train to help us when we were lost in the Metro. A young woman insisted that I take her seat while she stood for three stops. The woman behind the drink-stand at Notre-Dame swapped jokes with me. A waiter didn’t blink an eye when John Gruner ordered a Pepsi. “Ah! Monsieur desires some American Beaujolais!” And the lady at the Palace of Versailles…
Ah yes, the lady at Versailles! That is one of our richest stories. Some say that the only reason that the French treat Bill and I nicely is because I speak a fair amount of French. Not so! Bill says that you will be treated as you treat others and that a smile works wonders.
We made the mistake of buying travelers’ checks in francs before going to France. No one wanted them. Irritated, Bill said at Versailles, “I am absolutely determined to make them accept these checks.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll keep quiet.”
Bill held up two fingers and offered a check. The young woman at the ticket counter said, “Non, Non, Monsieur; je regrette…” Bill smiles inanely and held his ground. “Non, Non, Monsieur – ce n’est pas possible.” (Not possible)
Finally, she beckoned over an elegant lady to speak English. Bill didn’t understand English either and continued to smile and hold out the check. The line behind grew longer and longer. Conceding defeat, the lady led us over to where they were handing out headsets for a taped tour. “French or English.?”
“Two English,” Bill replied.
“Be quiet, Rose Mary.”
After we were out of earshot, I said crossly. “What was that all about? You knew I’d want French.”
“She let us in free!” Trust me, that has to be the first time in history that that’s happened.
Visiting a city several times allows one a comfortable sense of familiarity with it and its people that cannot be achieved in a day or two from a whirlwind gallop. You cannot soak up Paris’ unique ambience, flavor, and gray sky from a tour bus. Walking is the best way to fall in love with Paris; and once you have, you will love her forever because Paris is, as Hemingway said, a moveable feast. Come, take a few leisurely walks with us, and sample her wares. Who knows – perhaps you, too, will start a love affair of your own with this enchanting place!
Now, are you wearing comfortable shoes? Have your camera, guidebook, map, and money? (Bring beaucoup bucks!) Remember, there’s only one rule to follow if you want to enjoy Paris and the Parisians. YOU MUST NOT HURRY. Dawdling is not only recommended, it is an absolute necessity.
Here we go! Say “au revior” to the nice young man at the desk. “But I don’t speak French,” you say. Try to learn a few words such as “bonjour” (hello) and “au revior.” Also, “s’il vous plait” (seel voo play – please), “merci” (thank you) and “excusez – moi” are magic words that will usually be repaid in kind by the French who place far more emphasis on formal politeness. If you can’t say them in French, say them in English. The French will understand that you are courteous and respond accordingly.
Our first destination is only about 1500 feet from our hotel. Wherever one goes, one encounters history. We pass the Cluny. Built during the 1400’s on top of a Roman bath and later the residence of Mary Tudor, it houses the medieval museum. We’ll go inside later to view the exquisite tapestries that depict the age of chivalry and feature the Lady and the unicorn. Also, there are the ruins of a Roman circus in the area.
Here we are at the Seine. Across it to our left is the enormous, half-mile-long Palace of the Louvre. On the right are the 17th century town houses on the chic Ile St. Louis where many famous people have lived. To me, this skyline embodies the very soul of Paris. It is lovely.
You can see long distances because there is only one skyscraper in central Paris. After it no more were permitted. Instead, an area was set aside for modern structures where architects vied to design the most unique buildings. A modern arch so tall that Notre-Dame could be set under it was erected in honor of the soldiers of one of their wars.
Since France lost; they couldn’t call it an Arch of Triumph; hence the clever French called it “La Défense” in honor of the defenders of the republic!
I know what would have happened to Paris if Americans had been in charge: Beautiful buildings full of character would have been torn down to make way for gas stations, windowless boxes, or soulless high-rises. The French understand that a city is a living entity. The lovely old buildings, the river Seine, the bookstalls, the artists at work, the green spaces, the cafés, the Parisian skyline provide poetry for my eyes. Paris exists for the pleasure of human beings.
Now, look straight ahead across the Seine to the Ile de la Cité, the little island that was the place of Paris’ founding. I never tire of looking at her – Notre-Dame de Paris! Let’s lean on the railing for a minute and soak up the atmosphere and the marvelous view. Maybe we’ll come back and buy something from that artist or look at the stuff in the bookstalls.
Whenever we’re in Paris, I go into Notre-Dame and light a candle in memory of my devout little mother. I like to think that the essence from its tiny flame rises and mingles with that of the centuries where it will remain forever. I’ll light one also for Phyllis Otto with whom we spent a week in Paris.
Time for a break: We’ll sit on the terrace of a café from where we can still see Notre-Dame across the river. Here comes a waiter in his long white apron to take our order. A couple of leisurely glasses of wine, and it’ll be time for a little nap. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have a delicious lunch of cold salmon and champagne on a boat moored down on the Seine from where we can look up at the cathedral.
FOOD – THE GLORY OF FRANCE
The French are crazy about al fresco dining! Tourists and Parisians alike wine and dine at sidewalk tables even though noisy, exhaust-spewing traffic whizzes by a few feet away. Several of the cafés even have heaters to take the chill off the air during cool weather.
Obviously, it’s been going on for a long time. I found some note cards with reproductions of paintings done by Vincent Van Gogh back in 1888. One of them could have been painted on the narrow little street where we had dinner a couple of times. In Van Gogh’s painting, under a star-cluttered, dark-blue sky, golden light spills out onto the tables that are lined up on the cobblestones under an awning.
Eateries range from simple places with six or eight tables to places like four-star Tour d’ Argent that supposedly has the best view of Notre-Dame to be found in Paris as well as the most extensive wine cellar. It’s renowned for pressed duck which a chef found in an old cookbook in 1890 and turned into its signature dish. The ducks are numbered – they’re up to about a million – and cooked in port and cognac. Famous diners have included the Emperor Hiro Hito, King Edward VII, Teddy Roosevelt, and Rudy Guiliani.
I’d like to dine at the Tour D’ Argent, but common sense prevails when I see how unfavorable the exchange rate is. A splurge meal there or in one of the other ritzy establishments is a serious investment unless one is as rich as an oil sheik. What if the chef is having an off night or the waiters are in a bad mood? I just can’t bring myself to do it.
On the other hand, perhaps I need to adjust my thinking. People think nothing of plunking down major money for concerts, sports and race tickets and the accompanying drinks, snacks, souvenirs, and parking fees. A fine meal is as much fun for me as many of our other pursuits, so why should I feel guilty about it?
Food nourishes all five senses. What smells better than my mother’s vegetable soup on a winter’s day? Then there’s the velvety texture of a wonderfully prepared sauce when it touches your tongue or the crunch of a crusty baguette. The sizzle of a steak, the pop of the cork, the gentle hiss of champagne being poured are a kind of music. To me, a perfectly roasted turkey, nicely garnished plates or Bill’s cousin’s beautifully decorated trifles and cakes are little works of art.
A Foodies poem: “Mr. Sprat would eat no green; his wife would eat no lean. Thus, between the two of them they grew fatter and fatter, and fatter!”
I am an unabashed foodie. France is a foodie’s dream come true because the French take food seriously. They believe that good cooking should be one of life’s major pleasures and satisfy all five senses, not just taste.
Their view of the eating experience differs from ours. Here we often eat fat, salt, and carbohydrate laden “fast” food or microwave entrées. Consequently, we’re a nation of fat people. One sees very few fat French people although they ingest all that cheese, cream, bread, and wine, not to mention those delectable pastries! Perhaps it is that they take the time to prepare and eat real food in moderate quantities instead of pigging out on high calorie, processed junk. Also, they eat in moderation and they walk.
We are so busy, busy, busy doing important things, are we not? After our important things are done, we must get in our quota of television, social networking, and Internet time. Too busy to cook from scratch or to sit down with our families for a leisurely meal. Too busy to take the time to savor our food. Too busy to have a companionable glass of wine with friends or spouses.
DINNER IN PARIS
Where shall we dine? Another reason why we love Paris is that its eateries range from simple crêperies to the pricey gourmet palaces of haute cuisine. You can choose among the foods of every nationality along with every variety of French cookery. You can buy wonderful ham and cheese crêpes where they’re cooked at stands out on the sidewalk. Our friend, Alice, said that she had the best hamburger she’d ever eaten in Paris.
We stroll through the narrow streets, perusing the menus posted outside and trying to evade the competing restaurant owners who stand on the walk, trying to lure people in. “I have the freshest fish… Just look at these shrimp, M’sieu/dam… Free wine!” We refuse the dreadful free wine that resembles Kool Aid that we fell for on a previous trip. It’s much worse than the cheap wine-in-a-box in our supermarkets that I call “Urine de cheval.” Cheval means horse, and you can figure out the rest! They shout at us in English. Of course, they know that we’re Americans even though we try not to dress like tourists. How do they know? They just know, that’s all. Actually, it’s probably the scent of our travelers’ checks that tips them off!
Do join us during this slow process in which Bill absolutely revels. Back and forth, around, and around we wander, looking at the menus that are posted outside of eateries. Even the restaurants remind one of history. One of the places where we dined has been in business since 1845 and was a hangout of Hemingway.
“How about Chinese?”
“When I come to Paris, I want French food!”
“This one has choucroute garni.” Choucroute garni is an Alsatioan dish of mild sauerkraut seasoned with juniper berries and white wine and garnished with smoked meats and boiled potatoes. There’s Cassoulet, what we would call comfort food. It’s a complex, thick concoction of white beans and conserve of duck or goose, seasoned with garlic, onion and herbs and cooked for hours in an earthenware casserole. No? Fondu? Beef burgundy? Seafood? Lamb? Mon Dieu! Impossible to decide!
We choose a cozy little place that seats about 30 people. It’s owned by two young brothers. One is the waiter and the other cooks. “Par ici, M’sieu/dame.” (This way, Sir and Lady.) He uncorks a bottle of Beaujolais while we look at the simple, hand-written menu Both of us choose pork cutlets cooked in cream.
We start on the wine and chat quietly. Americans stand out even in crowded restaurants because they are often so loud. A good meal is too enjoyable an experience to be rushed. If you want fast food, go to a McDonalds. The food here is cooked to order. The pork is accompanied by individual ramekins of pommes de terre dauphinoises – potatoes fit for a prince – baked in cream and gruyere cheese. Our friend, Jim, declares that these are the most luscious potatoes that he’d ever eaten. I exclaim, “Nos compliments au chef!” The waiter tells his brother who beams and bows. Everything is piping hot. That’s another thing we like about the French to whom food is a serious matter. Hot dishes are hot, and cold dishes are cold. The potatoes are wonderful.
We first heard about Mad Cow Disease when we were in England several years ago. Bill’s English Aunt blamed it on the French who she despised: “Not content with all they’ve done to us, now they’re trying to poison our jolly English beef!” she moaned. “Also, I disapprove of that Chunnel that they’re building. It’ll just let all the French rats cross over to England.”
One evening I ordered a steak and French fries. The French deserve to have these excellent potatoes that they cook perfectly named after them. Bill said, “You won’t catch me eating beef here – Mad Cow Disease!”
“Pooh!” I rejoined. “I’ll just ask the waiter.” I started out: “Cette maladie des vaches – this disease of cows – can you guarantee me that I won’t catch it?”
He rolled his eyes heavenward, hand over his heart as if stricken to the very core of his being. Then he clutched his sides, bent from the waist, and laughed merrily at the foolish American lady. “Madame, me, I have only one child, a small infant of only three months. Madame, je vous jure sur la tête de ma petite – I swear to you on the head of my little one – that our beef is the purest and that you will not catch any maladie whatsoever from it.” I trusted him and ordered a steak. Tant pis! (Too bad!) It was tough.
When he escorted us to the door and thanked us, the handsome young waiter said, “Remember Madame, on my little girls head I swore!” That’s another thing I like about the French. Usually, their restaurant personnel are courteous to a fault and attentive. Neither they nor Italian waiters interrupt your conversation with ubiquitous “Is everything all right?” They watch your table and fill your needs automatically, or a raised finger or nod will bring them immediately.
When we were there with our friend, Phyllis, as we departed from restaurants, the manager and waiters would cluster around us, tenderly take our elbows, and ceremoniously escort us down the steps. “They’re probably afraid that the old bags will fall down and break something and sue them,” Phyllis said. Actually, this is just the type of courteous behavior that we take for granted in France and Italy.
TO MARKET TO MARKET
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a good time in Paris. Come join us in one of our favorite pastimes where we’ll spend an hour or two at an outdoor market and see the raw materials of wonderful cooking. This is one of the things that you don’t usually get to do when you’re on a tour. Museums, churches, and monuments are wonderful, but at the market you encounter the residents of the neighborhood rather than other tourists. Come with us!
They sell an assortment of jewelry, handbags, scarves, carpet cleaner and what-have-you at the market, but what we’re here to see is the beautiful food: fresh fruit and vegetables heaped high, whole fish and shellfish lying on a bed of ice, beef, rabbit, pâté, and poultry.
We always stop at this stand and buy a tin of pâté de fois gras to take home. The owner will give us little testes so that we can choose. We also want to go to the spice booth and get some Herbs de Provence that they’ll measure out for you… Don’t the herbs and spices smell heavenly?… We use it very sparingly so that it will last longer. You can buy it in the States, but this is more flavorful.
Just look at all the cheese! Oh, oh, oh! There is every imaginable kind of cheese, and it’s impossible to sample them all. President Charles de Gaulle said that it is impossible to govern any nation that has more than eighty kinds of cheese. Actually, I lost count at a hundred at this booth. We enjoy a sample of nicely ripe Camembert.
Do you see the little old Parisian dressed in black with thick hose and sensible black shoes, pulling her shopping cart? She’s going to buy a chicken for Sunday dinner, I’ll bet. Let’s listen to what she says. I’ll translate.
“Juene homme! (Young man!) Cette poul, elle est fraiche?” (This hen, she’s fresh?)
« Mais oui, Madame. Je vous assure que nous l’avons tuée ce matin ››. (I assure you that we killed her this morning.)
« Bon. Je la prendrai.» (Fine, I’ll take her)
Oh, how I wish we could go home with the little old Frenchwoman and see how she cooks the hen! She’ll probably roast it, as that’s one of the favorite Sunday dinners in France.
Let’s stop at our favorite bakery on the way back to the hotel. Look at all those yummy things! The only problem is that I always dither because it’s so hard to choose.
Bill likes the strawberry tarts that are made with small strawberries like the ones we had when I was a girl rather than the huge, tasteless ones that you get today. When he bites into one the intense aroma of strawberries fills the air. Our friends and I think that the lemon tarts are to die for. The crust is perfect, and the lemon flavor is intense. They don’t use artificial flavoring. Here, let’s eat one right now as we walk along! We were here so often during our trips that I asked if they would tell me how to make those divine lemon tarts. Flattered, the baker/owner himself came out and gave me the recipe for his crust.
I haven’t mentioned French bread which, along with their wine and cheese, is one of the most delectable foods in the entire world. Bill always says that he doesn’t want to do much when we come to France – just eat lots of bread. That may not seem like a very important want, but the bread of France is something extraordinary and can be had only in France. Just thinking about it makes me want to return. Ernest Hemingway said that Paris is a moveable feast, but French bread cannot be duplicated.
The bread of France is downright addictive. It has a crunchy, but tender crust and a satisfying firmness inside. They’ll bring you as much bread as you like in restaurants where a device similar to a paper cutter is used to slice the bread. The lucky French begin their day with a breakfast of baguettes, buttery croissants, or pain au chocolate.
Pain au chocolate is a bread roll that is baked with a chunk of dark chocolate at its center. Yum and double yum! When we took our twin grandsons, Chris, and Tony, to Paris as their high school graduation gift they went to the boulangerie every day and laid in a fresh supply of baguettes and pain au chocolate and were most unhappy if the bakery was out of pain au chocolate.
Were I a poet, I’d write a sonnet about this delectable stuff that the French take for granted and treat with so little respect. They casually toss it into the back seats of their cars or tuck unwrapped loaves under their arms while they ride motorcycles or bicycles.
French bread is best eaten the day it’s baked so that its crust is crispy-tender. When Jean, Bill and I stayed at a farmhouse in the South of France, our hostess went out early every morning to buy bread at the nearby bakery at the crossroads along with lemon tarts that made us shriek with delight when we bit into them.
Lest the wonderful crust become soft, the bread is never wrapped in plastic or entirely closed up in sacks or the cloth bags used by housewives. The ends of the long, skinny baguettes stick out. Often the tip
is missing from the loaves that people are carrying because they can’t resist nibbling.
Strict laws govern the making of “artisan” bread – the real thing – and forbid the use of preservatives, stipulate the amount of time the dough must rise and require that it be shaped by hand. The bakery where we bought our bread was an artisan bakery, and their bread-making was surely an art form.
The Bible calls bread the staff of life, and “breaking bread together” is a commonly used expression to describe the bond between people. I wonder how the baker of the bread at the Last Supper felt.