Paris, Day One

Saturday, February 15

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I’ve been busy proclaiming my intention to write a book.  Staying at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris often means people “want to know,” that is, what are you up to?   Not only does the Center have artists in residences, it attracts fellow travelers: writers and would be writers.  I explain to those who ask that I’m working on a “project.”  If more is required, I describe the book I aiming to create.  “It’s an exploration of my grandparent’s experience as immigrants, background history of the times, anthropological theory, and fiction.”  This idea sounds ridiculous to my ears let alone theirs.  But I say it none the less.  As I told one of the administrators who politely inquired, “I admit to what I’m doing as a way of keeping my feet to the fire.”   To another inquisitive writer, I lamented that since the book encompasses vast amounts of material, the notion of sorting through it overwhelms me.  She described her approach as plowing through and seeing where it leads.  I agree.  What choice do I have?

I managed to avoid my nemesis, the blank page, by searching for a set of glasses: one for flowers, one for drinking, one for toothbrush and toothpaste, one for pens and pencils.  But this is Paris where like stores often live side by side: book stores, furniture stores, plumbing stores, sock stores.  I thought I was up to locating the street of houseware “magasins”: this is not my first foray.  But after several turns around the neighborhood, no success.  What to do?   I knew the Monoprix on Boulevard Saint Michel didn’t have them.  Been there, done that.  Then, I remembered the outlet or overstock stores catty corner to the Luxembourg Gardens.   I purchased two which fit the bill and was able to buy L’Official at the kiosk.  Now I can avoid that blank page by perusing all that Paris has to offer.

Having walked five miles and been awake for 36 hours, I made it home, had a long nap, and, then, a very good dinner at my old stomping grounds, La Méthode.

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Finishing with an impressive cafe gourmand.
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Then, a walk home.  Pas mal.
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On My Way

Today, I’m starting on the long, tortured journey of writing a book that perhaps no one will read but may take years to complete.   I’m terrified, scared shitless.  To keep my feet to the fire, I’m writing this blog, exposing to many or no one this quixotic enterprise.  Quixotic indeed, as it can’t be categorized: part memoir, part fiction, part exploration of sociology, gender, race scholarly sources.  A sprinkling of French.   My grandmother and sister insisted they hailed from Franch.  Really they emigrated from Saint Lucia.  They wanted to be from France as a way to hide their African heritage.  In order to get rid My family’s determination to hide any drop of  their African blood, they wiped out large swaths of their history and denied the rest in order to pass, in order to be taken as white.

Can I pull it off.  Who will care?  Is it of any value?

Ann Patchett in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer, Lucy Grealy,  after waitressing all day, after being divorced, and living at home once again, reveals her own doubts about writing:

I was starting to wonder if I was ready to a be a writer, not someone who won prizes, got published, and was given the time and space to work, but someone who wrote as a course of life.  Maybe the salvation I would gain through work would only be emotional and intellectual.  Wouldn’t that be enough, to be a waitress who found an our or tow hidden in every day to write? If Lucy was struggling to find her way under the burdens of surgery, surely I could find it in the comfort of my mother’s guest room.  I made my resolve to work for the love of the work, to write for myself, but it didn’t have to last for long.  She got a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown which gave her 7 months to write with some money and an apartment.

I’m hoping for this type of resolve as unlike Patchett, I won’t be rescued.

Return to Paris Day 22

Monday April 22

My last morning in Paris, I walked to Rue Berthollet the first place Mayotte Capecia lived in Paris.  It’s Easter Monday, so the streets were empty.  The walk from Rue Irelandais goes along Rue L’Homond, passes a small garden, turns down Rue Retaud adjacent to yet another garden.  Paris is like that, places of unexpected green and rest.

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Rue Retaud
Yet, where Claude Bernard intersects with Rue Berthollet, there is little greenery.
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15 Rue Berthollet, Mayotte Capecia’s first home in Paris

What was it like for Capecia to land here coming from a small island surrounded by the sea, alive with verdure?  In Je Suis Martiniquaise, her first person narrator, also named Mayotte, describes an idyllic childhood:

Why did I decide to write?  I had just arrived in Paris….. It was cold and snowing and the gentle whiteness falling from the sky that I was seeing for the first time both fascinated me and caused me pangs of homesickness.  That is when I wrote down some of the childhood memories about my country.

Each day for me was different, each day brought it’s own revelation, each day was like a net that brought strange fish to the shores.  But I think that my favorite moment was the evening when all the village children gathered on the endless beach.  We rolled in the sand, still lukewarm, flecked with tiny stones, clear as glass in which the last rays danced, and which I thought, were like dead stars fallen from the sky the night before.  On our half naked bodies we felt the voluptuous caress of a fresh breeze.  The sun set slowly and, minute by minute, the colors changed.  The ocean horizon became yellow, then orange- I do not remember ever in my life having seen a more beautiful spectacle.

In 1905, my grandmother faced the same contradictions coming from the small town of Soufriere, Saint Lucia to Hoboken, New Jersey, then, onto Washington Heights in Manhattan.  Perhaps she was not so disconcerted.  Her father had sent her and a few of her sisters to school in England, so she knew a different “lieu” or place.  Perhaps, she looked forward to leaving the confines of a small island where there were few surprises.

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Hoboken Ferry to Manhattan, Early 1900’s

Soon after arriving in Paris, Capecia became a cook for a family in order to make ends meet.  She was alone, her children left behind in Martinique in the care of her twin sister, Reine, who later joined her.  My grandmother was eventually brought to New York by a sister, her older sister Yia.  What greeted her?  Aunt Yia lived above a store front.  Even in the 1960’s, she had to be called from the street in order to enter her apartment.  In the early 1900’s, she had access to the cellar where she put up boarders, each bed separated only by a sheet.  One of those boarders was my Greek grandfather.  Was this a shock to both grandparents, one from Saint Lucia, one from the small village of Kastellia in Greece?

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Women Playing Cricket, Saint Lucia 1905
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Kastellia, Fokida, Greece
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My Greek grandfather, Efstadiou Zinis, (middle, top row), early 1900’s shortly before he left for America

Capecia had to work most of her adult life.  She wasn’t a stranger to supporting herself.  And my grandmother?  She certainly had it better in Saint Lucia than Capecia in Martinique.  She had been abroad to school, she and her sisters played instruments, traveled first class to America, and like good Victorian women, they knew how to sew.  After her sister Yia threw out her husband, she earned her living as a dressmaker or as Yia, always aiming high, described on her card, a dress designer, not merely a seamstress.

Another commonality between Capecia’s protagonist and my grandmother, Germaine, was a preference for white men.  When the local priest in Je Suis Martiniquaise offers to help her learn her catechism lessons, she writes:

He looked at me with his bright blue eyes.  Oh, how I have loved to be blond like him!

Later when the character learns that she had a white grandmother, she wonders if her mixed race mother had married a white man instead of her black father, would her life have been easier.  She ends the chapter with this declaration.

I, who was still thinking about the Father (the priest), decided that I could love only a white man, a blond with blue eyes, a Frenchman.

Although in the early 1900’s when my grandmother married my Greek grandfather, he wasn’t exactly considered “white.”  This possibility was pointed out to me at a coffee I was required to give as a Marine Corps officer’s wife.  The women were discussing the marriage of Jackie Kennedy to Onassis. “How could she marry that dirty Greek?” one woman decried.  The others clucked in sympathy.  After a few minutes of decision making, I told them, “My grandfather is Greek.” That was the end of the coffee.  Unlike my grandmother, I didn’t hide my heritage, at least, not what I knew of it.  But I wasn’t in danger of being lynched for the color of my skin.  Between 1882 and 1968, almost 4000 African Americans were lynched.  And it only took “one drop” of Africa heritage to fall into that category.

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My great grandmother’s death certificate.  She is described as colored

Years later, while visiting  my grandfather’s Greek village, a cousin said to me, “Oh your grandmother’s name was Mary.” No, I told him that was my grandfather’s second wife after my grandmother Germaine died.  His disdainful response, “Oh, yours is the black grandmother.”  Did my grandfather have the same contempt for his wife.  It seems he did: he told his Greek family Germaine’s secret with his white Irish wife on his arm.

And this prejudice or preference runs deep.  My daughter’s  Greek professor when meeting me said with pleasure, “Ah you have the blue eyes of the north.”

What is it this desire to be white, to be blue-eyed?  Was my father pleased I had blue eyes even if my skin didn’t quit meet his standards?  Not always.  Too dark.

I planned to uncover the experience of being a mixed race French West Indian living in Paris trying to get closer to my family’s experience of passing.  I’ve only scratched the surface.  I will come back, come home as my family and I seem to view Paris.

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View from my room, my last night

As Jean Rhys, that other creole, says to a companion at the end of her novel Good Morning, Midnight

Well, there you are, Paris, and this is a good-bye drink….

Return to Paris Day 20-21

Saturday April 20

On my way to buy gifts at Bon Marché, still trying to trace Mayotte Capecia’s life in Paris, I strolled along Rue Mayet where she had lived with her sister in 1947.  The small street runs between Rue de Sevres where Bon Marché is located and Rue du Cherche-Midi, I didn’t know the number so I used my imagination to guess where she might have hung her hat.  Could one of these have been her building?

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I’m anxious to buy an important birthday gift for an interesting four year old.  Last year, I discovered that Bon Marché replaced their extraordinary notions department on the top floor with an equally extraordinary children’s department.  Another disappointment.  The department pour les enfants has been drastically reduced.  As I told a salesperson, “C’est dommage,” that’s a shame.  Nevertheless, I manage to spend over 50 Euros.  After dropping more money at Zara’s located across the street, it was time to make my way home.  Back on Rue du Cherche-Midi, I passed Le Nemrod and stop for lunch.  I should have done more of this: sit outside with a delicious salad, a glass of rose, and watch the French go by.

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On my back through the Jardin du Luxembourg, a young man approached me and said in French how beautiful “it” is.  Assuming he was referring to the espaliered apple trees we were next to, I readily agreed.  He realized that I was an American and continued in English, making niceties as we strolled together.

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He suggested we exchange phone numbers.  I declined, graciously, I hope, and he wandered away unsuccessful at snagging  what he may of thought was a woman of a certain age with a comfortable income.  Is this a Jean Rhys moment from the pages of her novel, Good Morning Midnight?  In the evening, her protagonist, having returned to Paris after years away, wanders up the Boulevard Saint Michel confronting her age, her older status.  And like me this is a location where she has walked often.  Two men approach her and one asks, “Pourquoi etes-vous si triste?”  Why are you so sad?  She tells them she’s not sad although she admits to herself she is:

”Yes, I am sad, sad as a circus-lioness, sad as an eagle without wings, sad as a violin with only one string and that one broken, sad as a woman who is growing old.”

Because she discovers they are Russian, she accepts their offer for a drink.  Is she braver than me, sadder than me, less cynical?

I arrive back at the Centre Culturel Irlandais by late afternoon.  It’s cooled off and the courtyard is almost empty.  A good time to write, to consider answers to those questions.

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Sunday April 21

It’s Easter Sunday and Jean Rhys is still with me.  Parallel walks, parallel observations.  In the novel, she describes an earlier time in Paris when the protagonist worked in a dress shop, and got off the metro at Rond Point at 8:30 every morning just as I had years ago hawking newspapers.  Her character Sophie must face the dilemma of Sunday in Paris.  “…Sunday – a difficult day anywhere.  Sombre dimanche….”

I feel compelled to go to La Brasserie de L’Isle Saint-Louis for lunch.  I’ve sent people here for supposedly the best sauerkraut in Paris.  In order to get there, I had to negotiate every inch of Pont de Tournelle as hundreds crowded the bridge to photo the blackened Notre Dame.  Hot and sweaty, it was seventy-six degrees, I managed to get a seat on the terrace overlooking the Seine.  When I ordered choucroute garni, the waiter asked if I was sure that is what I wanted, a dish piled high with different cuts of ham, sauerkraut, and potatoes.  I wondered myself.  An odd choice for a hot April day,  But I stubbornly proceeded.  I like it but ate only half.

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After a stroll around the L’Isle Saint Louis and some ice cream I noticed crowds forming by the Pont L’Archeveche and watched an enchanting escape from the charred remains of Notre Dame fully in view.  A group of professional skaters lifted spirits as they graciously danced along the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Paris Day 18-19

April 18 Thursday

Sampurna Chatterji, a writer in residence at the American University in Paris, lives at the Cultural Centre Irlandais.  We’ve had some interesting conversations over breakfast, about how long it takes to settle into Paris in order to begin writing, about the difficulty of writing fiction while the world moves towards nationalism and fascism.  She invited me to hear her read at the American University’s new digs overlooking the Seine.  The weather was perfect for a long walk.  I carefully chartered my journey but managed to get tangled up in the streets around Les Invalides, making me quite late.

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When I finally arrived and entered the elevator to the second floor, another hurried woman entered.  She, too, had gotten lost and like me was going to Sampurna’s reading. We arrived  in time to hear her students read from their work before Sampurna began. She included something she was working on, an entry from her Encyclopedia of Everyday.

“Is writing like walking?

I would put in it a spoon. The sound of a spoon

moving in a thick glass beer mug

from which an old person is drinking

her unsugared milk for the day.”

An excerpt published in Paris/Atlantic, AUP’s (American University in Paris) Creative Arts Outlet

A vivid dream we were invited to enter.  Mesmerizing.

The woman who accompanied me in the elevator was a friend of Sampurna’s and had been raised in Africa.  She encouraged me to contact her: she would like to discuss her experience as a person of color living in France.  Interesting that as I’m about to leave, I meet someone who could speak directly about the very problem I’ve been trying to explore.

To avoid further street entanglements, I walked home along the Seine.  It was a clear night, the temperature in the upper sixties, quite perfect.  Pedestrians walked arm in arm, leaning over walls as they gazed into the moonlit river.  Restaurants and small canteens like impromptu beer gardens lined its banks.   This long, almost six mile walk, reminded me of my first summer in Paris when my rag tag friends and I walked along the Seine stopping to play guitar, to read poetry at the Square du Vert-Galant, underneath the Pont Neuf.

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“Ian took me to walk the banks of the Seine with Mike I, Mike II, and Martin.  At the end of the Ile de la Cite- a French guitarist, Martin on the banjo, a juggler and a man in tails. Formid!” Journal Entry

April 19 Friday

As I did last year when I was about to leave, I treated myself to dinner at Bistro L’Estrapade, the small restaurant at the end of my street.  A delicious meal- an amuse bouch of whipped pike, a salad with warm goat cheese and a strand of carrots, dorado with a butter sauce, quinoa and cruciferous vegetables, ending in tarte tatin and ice cream decorated with ground cherries reminding me of the cloudberries on St.Pierre and Miquelon.

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Towards the end of the meal, two black couples sat at a table across from me.  The women impressed me, full bodied, as big as their male companions, adorned with big jewelry and clothes that hugged their bodies.  Yet, they sat demurely, their hands clasped in their laps while the men spread their elbows across the table dominating the space.  A contradiction.  They didn’t conceal their magnificent physical presence but acquiesced territory.  Was the same true of the Les Modeles Noirs in the Musée D’Orsay’s exhibition? 

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Adrienne Fidelin, 1937 by Man Ray, her lover

As I lingered over coffee, I considered another contradiction, my leaving a week early.  What was my sudden need to get home?  Was it becoming too hard to be alone?  I almost always travel on my own for a month or more and had never felt a need to depart.  Was the frustration with this project too much?  Had I forgotten to enjoy the daily pleasures of living in Paris?  I wonder if I’ve become too focused on my work ignoring the joy of returning to my first home.

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My first home in Paris, Rue Mongenot, 1907 Postcard