Archive for the 'france' Category

adventure time: so that happened

dear paris

O Paris, my friend.

You continue to be outrageously beautiful and interesting.

See you again soon.

ashes and air

The unexpected highlights of Paris this year were Sainte-Chapelle and the Pantheon. At the top of the servant’s stairs into Sainte-Chapelle I stopped for ten seconds, struck entirely dumb. A jillionty tonnes of stone are transformed into a soaring volume of space, filled with the rainbow light of stained glass. I knew the first part of the story from Waugh’s Helena and the True Cross: how Constantine’s mother had travelled to Jerusalem to find the relics of the Passion. I hadn’t known that Emperor Baldwin went broke and sold the Crown of Thorns and assorted True Cross bits to Saint Louis in the 13th century, and that Louis brought them to France. In doing so Louis was trying to combine spiritual and political power, heavenly and earthly crowns, and so the Sainte-Chapelle has the hybrid vigor of a place both sacred and imperial.

So too does the Pantheon, but the other way around. It was originally conceived as a church but consecrated, in the end, as a secular memorial to great men of the Republic. It has become another way for France to assert what it believes itself to be in the durable languages of stone and human remains. We took a tour around the dome and the view of Paris was beyond anything; between the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse we saw a Montgolfier-style tethered balloon levitating its tourists. Down in the crypt we all separately found Marie Curie and were, to our mutual surprise, moved. She was interred there on her own merits, the first woman to be so honoured.

It’s what I meant when I talked about choosing our own ancestors: in my case, Saint Jane Austen, Saint Harvey Milk and Saint Octavia Butler. The future is a nation we build with our hope and the work of our hands. It derives its power from our beloved dead.

grand tour

I realized just before our flight that we would be landing half way through the matinee for which we had tickets; proof if proof were needed of just how badly I needed a break. I called Grant and woke him at 1am to explain, and somehow by the time we landed he had cajoled the theatre into exchanging our cheap-ass matinee tickets for tickets to the evening performance. Grant’s impossible to describe. He’d be one of my favourite people on earth even if he hadn’t introduced me to Jeremy; as it is, he is responsible for most of the great joys of my life.

Our hotel was a stone’s throw from St Pancras. Grant met us there and took us to one of the restaurants on Battlebridge Place, the newly developed expanse of public space between St Pancras and Kings Cross. Miss Jo came to meet us and so did Kirsty, so there I sat in the warm evening with my kids and some of my dearest friends, my Mardi-Gras-and-Burning-Man-crossover friends, bewilderingly happy. Kirsty and her friend Sacha joined us for the show, Lin-Manuel’s other musical, In the Heights; great fun.

As we walked back to our hotel we stopped at the large birdcage covered in rainbow LEDs, and Julia swung on the swing inside.

The next morning we hit in quick succession the British Library Reading Room (pages from Leonardo’s journals, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen’s writing desk and Persuasion in her handwriting), the Wellcome Collection (Napoleon’s toothbrush) and – our overwhelming favourite – the Grant Museum of Zoology, with its quagga and thylacine skeletons and its dodo bones.

Still jetlagged, I dozed off on the Eurostar and woke having no idea what country I was in; southern England looks a lot like Northern France. I had slept through the Channel tunnel! Arriving in Paris by train is infinitely preferable to flying in. We took the Metro from Gare du Nord and walked from Odeon to our apartment.

We travel like such nerds. Picking up where we left off last year in the Louvre, I noticed myself noticing things. Last year, feeling crosser, I was outraged at the self-congratulatory imperialism of places like the British Library and the Louvre. This year, humbler and more grateful, I thought: Yes, and; England and France robbed the world but in their museums, we-the-colonised can look at the things once kept only for our foreign kings. I love palaces made over into public spaces. I love the children in the Grant squealing over the jar of moles, and the black women among the Egyptian antiquities, their hair in cornrows exactly like the people in the friezes.

the yatima book awards of 2015

Best capstone to a trilogy that, unbelievably, saw my OT3 made canon: Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series explores oppression both overt and covert, personhood and autonomy, cruelty and choice. It is also and very intimately about love and trauma and about the slow and painful process of recovering from having been used as a weapon. It is difficult and allusive and strange and I have seldom loved a story more.

Best memoir containing descriptions of the surface of living human brains: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

A few years ago Jeremy and I saw The English Surgeon, a beautiful documentary about Henry Marsh, and this book of his is an extraordinary complement, the effect of which is to make both texts deeper and richer. You walk away from the film thinking that Marsh is some kind of genius angel. The book is all about his fear, doubt and failures, failures that led to the deaths of patients he loved.

Best inspiration for a hit Broadway musical: Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father is fantastic in its own right, but looking at how Lin-Manuel Miranda manipulated the timeline and even the construction of some of the main characters is a master class in creative transformation.

Best book whose first chapter will make you ugly-cry into your latte at Cafe St Jorge, to the mild alarm of your fellow guests: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize this year but be warned: her stories about what actually happened in the aftermath of the explosion, and how social class dictated who suffered and who died, will fuck you right up.

Best and most moving farewell from a writer you have loved all your adult life: On the Move: A Life

What can I add to what has already been written about Oliver Sacks, his imaginative compassion, the generosity of spirit that grew so unexpectedly out of his privileged and circumscribed circumstances? Not much. (In close second place for this category: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia.)

Best gift for your girlfriends of the crazy cat persuasion: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

Disappointed in love, the brilliant Jessa Crispin packed up her apartment and couch-surfed her way across Europe, reading in search of reasons to go on living. A manifesto for all of us who are lost, lonely and ugly, outside and in.

Best book you bounced off hard as a stupid kid and now recognize for the straight-up masterpiece it is: Beloved

The insane, vindictive ghost baby? It’s us.

Best book-length elaboration on the theme that Black Lives Matter: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his son may also turn out to be an enduring masterpiece, but for me the most intimate pleasure of it was its celebration of Paris, a city that for all its fucked-up flaws is one of the finest things human hands have made.

Best book that killed off my favorite character from the previous book in its opening scene: The Philosopher Kings

Jesus, Jo! This series is obviously written for the pure motherfucking joy of it, for the wish-fulfillment of standing shoulder to shoulder with the writers you adored and building a city even more beautiful than Paris. (And then finding out that you had overlooked some very important questions about personhood, autonomy, cruelty and choice.)

Most heartbreaking memorial to our own lost generation: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

An essential book and a companion to the equally essential The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Randy Shilts’ history of the plague documents the appalling cost of it and the sheer inadequacy of our human response.

Most beautiful portrayal of raw grief: Men We Reaped

Five young men close to Jesmyn Ward died in four years, and this devastating meditation on their deaths brings their loss into razor-sharp focus.

Most accurate portrayal of Australia as an airless mining asteroid that turns men’s hearts to stone: This House of Grief

Helen Garner is our Janet Malcolm and this book is our Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

By the numbers:

Books by women: 7. People of color: 3. Gay men: 2. Straight white men: 2. (Is this the most charming sentence in Wikipedia? “Marsh is married to the social anthropologist Kate Fox and spends his spare time making furniture and keeping bees.” Kate Fox wrote Watching the English! BEST DINNER PARTY GUESTS.) I used to joke that I didn’t read books by straight white men because their concerns were too narrow and parochial, but it’s not a joke any more.

Australian writers: 1. Russian: 1. English: 3ish, although Jo Walton is Welsh and lives in Canada and Oliver Sacks spent most of his life in New York. American: 7.

Total books read: about 120. Either I am slowing down or I lose 30 books’ worth of capacity in each year in which one of my parents dies. Guess we’ll find out!

hashtag humblebrag

Re-entry has been tough, because apparently all I really want in life is sunshiney France, steak frites, gelato and endless hours with my kids to swim and read frivolous novels.

Now I am back to my mundane life of sunshiney Northern California, high-stakes venture finance and show-jumping.

the separation of church and state and the tour de france

A busy week! We are in Villerouge with the girls’ grandmother and uncles. On Saturday, Christopher and Alicia drove up from Barcelona with their puppy, Tosia. We walked the puppy up to the ruined castle and ate blackberries warm off the bush. We had a lovely dinner together (tomatoes and basil from the garden, grapes warm off the vine) but our visitors had to leave the next morning. We see Chris about once every five years for 24 hours. It’s not enough. I didn’t cry when they left but it was a near thing. Afterwards we all went to Annette’s for a swim.

On Monday I was hell-bent on visiting Carcassonne at last. It was extensively rebuilt in the 19thC by Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored Notre Dame. Carcassonne is only thirty-odd years older than the Eiffel Tower but the Tower looks forwards and Carcassonne looks backwards. It’s a gaudy, inauthentic fantasy that is said to have been an inspiration for Disney. Visiting felt like I imagine Disneyland, which is to say crowded and hot, until we got through to the old keep itself and the crowd thinned and J and I looked at each other and heaved a sigh of relief.

On the way home we visited Lagrasse, a village nestled in a wild limestone gorge. I needed a bathroom, Claire wanted ice cream, J hoped that there might be cassis sorbet and Julia wanted to swim in the river. Lagrasse granted all our wishes in our first five minutes there and has thus endeared itself to me for life. Like Cacassonne, it is a funny melange of old and new. Half its famous Abbey belongs to the state; monks restored and moved back into the other half in 2004. You have to pay to visit both sides but it was worth it – the state kept the spooky medieval parts, but the monks got the cloister and the garden. The garden was fragrant with rosemary and thyme and I missed Skud very much.

Tuesday we rented bikes and rode the Canal du Midi, another thing I’ve wanted to do since I first came here in the ’90s. We rode an 18 mile round trip and the girls were magnificent throughout, each winning their own private Tour de France. Me to Jeremy as we set out: “When did we become the sort of family that does this kind of thing?” J: “About ten minutes ago.” For dinner I roasted a chicken with parsley and rosemary and thyme from the Villerouge garden, and we were all so hungry that we ate up every scrap.

Wednesday was supposed to be a quiet day but the markets in Lezignan were even more crowded than Carcassonne. I bought hats and sundresses for both girls and we went to Jill’s for a swim.

Today J, Claire, Barnaby and I had a road trip out to the Millau Viaduct. Good lord.

All of which sounds frenetic but there have been long quiet spells, driving through the red-earthed vineyards under the limestone cliffs, sitting in the garden listening to the cicadas and the cuckoos. There are moths here big as your thumb, with long probosci to sip nectar from flowers. The insect version of hummingbirds.

les enfants du paradis

au revoir louvre!

notre dame de paris

Yesterday was a lovely, lazy day full of serendipity. Our regular breakfast cafe had a broken coffee machine so we strolled on until we found La Rose de France on Place Dauphine and had a breakfast so splendid and beautifully presented that we fully expected it to be ridiculously expensive, but it came to less than ten Euros per head. I mean seriously, Julia’s pyramidal tea bags alone should have cost that much.

Then we visited Notre Dame, which was beautiful and creepy, and then we had ice cream from Berthillon as everyone had urged us to do and how very right you all were, and then we wandered through the Marais until we stumbled across Au Petit Versailles du Marais again, so we had lunch there and the baguettes brought tears to my eyes, so soft and sweet were they. We revisited the Centre Pompidou and went to the cat cafe and then Jeremy went to the Corbusier and Mona Hartoum exhibits while the children and I bought sandals and found ourselves passing La Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde, which Ada had strongly recommended, so we went in there as well.

It was all delicious and happy until we got back to the apartment and Liz texted me “Rach – are you ok -” and I had to sit down because nothing good ever starts that way.

Our friend Nóirín was a pretty special person.

cité des sciences

We braved the Metro (Jeremy deftly blocking a pickpocketing attempt) out to Parc de la Villette to visit the Cité des Sciences et l’Industrie, which according to Wikipedia is the biggest science museum in Europe. It is pretty big! We bought tickets to all the temporary exhibitions, which was a bit of a misstep because the permanent exhibitions were exquisite and we didn’t get to spend anywhere near enough time with them.

As we were touring the Argonaut, a decommissioned submarine, I got mail from the neuroscientist in London who is writing the case study about Dad’s blog. We had hoped to move Dad’s brain to a brain bank for further study but unfortunately this won’t be possible. The neuroscientist reassured us that although Dad’s brain has already been embalmed and used to train surgeons, the resulting anatomical report will still be very helpful in establishing the diagnosis of fronto-temporal dementia.

Dad used to take us to the Observatory and the Australian Museum and the Powerhouse and its precursor, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, all the time. He took us to Taronga and Western Plains Zoo and Tidbinbilla and Parkes. His factory built fire control systems for the Collins Class submarine. He would have loved the Cité. I feel a space where grief should be. Proposed Site for Grief. What happened to Dad is so huge and terrible I can’t even get there yet. All I have is these tiny, inadequate glimmers of what he was. Of all that we have lost.

city of light meals

A cool change blew through on our first night, thank the gods. The jetlagged girls couldn’t sleep, so I went out and lay on the sofa bed with them until the “Mama Bear is here” signal overwhelmed the “STRANGE ROOM” alarm in their reptile brains. Then I couldn’t sleep, so I climbed back in with Jeremy and his “Papa Bear” signal overwhelmed mine.

Saturday we found Kirsty outside the Louvre Pyramid, exchanged many kisses and saw the Nike of Samothrace (better than I ever dreamed), the Venus de Milo (quite lovely) and the Mona Lisa (whatevs.) I adored the Roman Egyptian mummy portraits and we all loved the Islamic art. I decided that Christian art is mostly sentimental rubbish. Jeremy says I’m going through a phase.

We had an insanely delicious lunch at the Bistro Richelieu. I had the confit de canard. It was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.

We only see Kirsty every few years but on each occasion it is as though no time has passed.

Dinner at Vin et Terroir with Kirsty’s friends Justin and Peter. I had the lentil soup, which was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth. Sunday we did a little more Louvre, swung by the Musee d’Orsay and the Orangerie (Monet is amazing) and crossed paths several times with the end of the Tour de France. Hurrah for the sportspokes! Dinner at a City Crepes, where the grownups became perhaps too merry upon cider.

Today we walked across Ile St Louis to the Centre Pompidou.

Jeremy first went there when he was Claire’s age, and last time we visited, pre-kids, he said that if he ever did have children, he wanted to take them there.

They loved it. Renzo Piano also built the Cal Academy, their favorite place in SF, and Jan and Richard’s house was always full of bent wood furniture and Matisse prints, so it must have felt like home. Jeremy went into a full-on Art Dad fugue state and we stormed around for hours. (Matisse is amazing.)

Then we went to Au Petit Versailles du Marais for Kirsty’s farewell meal, which, wah. I wish London was closer to San Francisco. Saying goodbye is boring.

Julia ordered, and I finished, the Pyramid, a structure of passionfruit mousse with an apricot center and a macaroon base. It was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.

cave of forgotten dreams

I dreamed that Werner Herzog was giving me a lift home. His forest-green car shapeshifted between Porsche and VW Beetle, and when he remotely controlled it out of its parking space it turned over in a ditch. Not to worry. Herzog threw a rope over a tree limb and hauled it out by hand.

The dream is true to the spirit of the film. It’s a documentary about a French cave found in the 1990s that is full of paleolithic art. Herzog, being Herzog, found the stone eccentrics: a circus-trained scientist, an “experimental archaeologist” and a master perfumer who snuffled his way around the Chauvet Cave before announcing it didn’t smell of much. Oh Herzog, how I love you! NEVER CHANGE.

The paintings, though, are ungainsayable. Despite a couple of weird layering artefacts, the film is worth seeing in 3D because of the way the painters used the contours of the rock. There’s one frieze that made both me and Jeremy laugh because it could have been the Picasso we’d seen earlier at SFMOMA.

Very comforting to me to know that for as long as people have been people, some decent proportion of us has been spellbound by horses.

in france

the steins collect

A small and exquisite Renoir: the head of a blushing girl.

Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse: monumental and charismatic.

A melancholy Matisse self-portrait.

Matisse as a genius colorist. Picasso as a genius of line. But three big pieces from the Blue Period. That’s a good blue.

Two from a Marie Laurencin that I really liked. This is one.

The Le Corbusier house. Daniel Stein gambling all the money away! A magazine headline: “From Picasso to ponies!” Zomg!

Bit overwhelmed at that point… I should go back. We joined SFMOMA. The building is gorgeous, and so’s the Blue Bottle kiosk with the Louise Bourgeois spider on the roof.

les oliviers

The children and their bears are sprawled across the twin beds in the yellow room. It has been a day of wandering around the market and exploring the garden and swimming. They are fast asleep. I touch their sweaty hair.

Nearly twenty years ago, the first time I came here, still only a girlfriend at the time, not even a proper daughter-in-law, I looked at those beds and harboured an illicit thought:

“My children will sleep there.”

vive

I have Les Oliviers all to myself: Jan and Jeremy and Godfather Chris and the children have gone to the market in Lézignan-Corbières. I am curled on the beautiful, cozy toile sofa in the sitting room. It’s absurdly warm with a brisk breeze making the lavender nod and cicadas singing endless songs in the trees.

The cicadas take me back to the Long Trail. I can see a burnt-black trunk of a Banksia tree, and Alfie’s iridescent chestnut shoulder twitching under a fly, and the leather and canvas rein in my hand, and the red clay of the trail. Little horse, where did you go? I miss you.

Les Oliviers is full of Richard, too. I can’t stop expecting to run into him on the stairs. All my dear dead. Stay close.

did i mention the apricots? god!

Um, and so. France was freakin amazing. I set up shop in the kitchen of the flat and cranked out words and words and words. Janny had a couple of friends with pools: Annette, with a walled garden on a hill surrounded by vineyards and wind farms; Ian and Jill, with a pool among prickly pears on the downslope of Villerouge. The kids swam every day, I think, which was lucky because temperatures were in the thirties, or hundreds, depending on where I am. We climbed the hill and sat in the window of the ruined castle. My God, France is just beyond gorgeous, the red earth and the ink-green forests and the vines in their lime-green lines. And yellow grass and the bronze-bright sky.

We had lunches in the cool dining room and dinners on the terrace looking out over a yellow field of grass next door. My God, the food. Tomatoes and cucumbers and greens and avocados and hard boiled eggs and black olives. Cheese! Creamy brie and nutty gruyere. Dense rich baguettes. Jesus God the stone fruit: nectarines so juicy eating them was like trying to eat a mango. Apricots jumping out of Jan’s tree, red-speckled and hot from the sun, intense as concentrate.

We didn’t do much else but eat and talk. I read A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel – this after reading her Tudor novel Wolf Hall in England. Best holiday reading since Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in Paris. We bought a game of Carcassonne in Cambridge and found it to be great fun, like mah jongg; we played it for an hour every day after lunch. Jan took me to the market in Lezignan-Corbieres, where I bought a quilt for our bed that may be the most beautiful and grownup thing I have ever owned. It cost fifty euros.

McKenze and I were chatting so hard we missed the exit to Carcassonne airport. Being Californians, we assumed the autoroute was like the freeway and that we would be able to turn around in a few miles; in fact, it was 17km to the next exit… we made our flight, which was late anyway, and Jan and Jeremy were having fewer kittens than I would have expected. I would have had dozens of kittens, me. A tearful farewell ensued. Jan will be visiting us in San Francisco soon.

Ryanair is horrible. Stansted is miraculous and the express to Liverpool Street was at least fast, but then we were on the Underground in rush hour with all our luggage, and that blew. I remembered we could get out at Lancaster Gate and walk, and that saved us a transfer and four stops, which was good. Our hotel was expensive and our room was tiny, but very very welcome. Grant and Jo met us at a funny little Italian place around the corner and we had a very merry dinner.

Our one day in London was way too long and intense from my trying to pack too much in; but the girls got to see Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, at least from a distance, and we met Cait and Nora and James and rode on the London Eye, and then Grant and Christian met us for lunch at Canteen and I had Eton Mess, which is always a highlight. Then we caught the bus to the British Museum and I showed the girls the Parthenon Frieze and the Rosetta Stone. And Kirsty and Chris met us in the Great Court for tea and scones. And then we went to Kensington Gardens and had a bottle of wine while the kids played in the playground there, so very civilized, and then we went to a Thai restaurant, and then I had to take the kids back to the hotel and collapse.

And then we came home. The flight was fine/awful. The cat is overjoyed that we are home and I have the scars to prove it. Monday was a public holiday, luckily, so I did two loads of washing and weeded the flower garden and went to the vegetable garden with Salome and Kathy and all the kids, and we harvested the arugula and had that for dinner last night. Yesterday morning I rode Bella, far better than I expected to, but we did have a parting of ways after she took a long spot at a fence and I lost my balance. Talk about coming back to earth with a crash. I’m a little bit gimpy but fine.