Always Rachel, The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman
I am in her house, but not in her world. I can see the body of water, the Sheepscot River that eventually reaches the sea, but I can not touch it. This morning, my first morning, I walked along the path that leads to the shore but could go no further than the long ledge of rocks that line the coast, slippery and dangerous.
When Carson first moved to Southport, Maine, she had a note from a neighbor, Dorothy Freeman, welcoming her. She invited Dorothy and her husband to a Sunday exploration of the very coastline that challenges me.
After a friendship developed between the two women, Carson wrote to Dorothy that she wanted to preserve the forest off Dogfish Head Road which extends north to the tip of a peninsula of the same name. It’s the site of an early settlement as well as the port where steam boats carried summer guests to Southport. Dorothy was one of those early visitors, traveling by steamer from Boston to Southport when she was just an infant.
The act of preserving was imperative to Carson. But as Linda Lear (a Carson biographer) explains, ”She also wanted to preserve the paths these two friends had lovingly tread.” Carson called them the “Lost Woods.” I walked along the path that seems to lead to those woodlands, but it went nowhere; instead, I saw only houses. So the woods are lost. I’m saddened. A contradiction as I’m sharing her very house with my two loving friends, Karen and Iris.
The Lost Woods
Karen and I rose early. She is reading the Sea Around Us, Carson’s poetic and scientific portrait of the sea, and I’m reading Always Rachel, a present from Karen. I began to peruse the book, looking for links to my stay and read aloud those first few entries hoping to inspire our outings. Karen also explored the grounds and , like me, reached only the top of the rocky shelf. But she feels confident we can make our way if we do it together, much like Rachel and Dorothy did on that first meeting.
Stanly Freeman, Dorothy Freeman, Rachel Carson
We have a hard time getting out of the house, so much to share, to review. I worry that I won’t be looking for Rachel.
Today, we visited monarchs at the Costal Maine Botantical Gardens in Boothbay. A guide in the Butterfly House told us that the staff knows when the Monarchs will migrate: then, they lift the screened roof and the monarchs make their journey to Mexico. This guide was particularly fond of the Mourning Cloak butterfly: it doesn’t migrate but toughs out the winter in Maine, making its home in an oak tree, then, in the Spring, climbs down the trunk to drink it’s sap.
Tomorrow is Labor Day and we will look for Rachel at the Newagen Inn which she visited for the last time on another Labor Day. My worries were unfounded- a serendipitous link to Rachel.
On this May day, the last day, a full day, a full meal. I continued my search for the 1968 revolution and found May 68:Pano Ne Passera Pas, a film showing at Le Saint André des Arts Cinema. The day would include the film, a walk to the store Merci for present buying and finally, packing. But much much more filled my last twelve hours afoot in Paris.
The film was scheduled for noon. The walk to the cinema located on Rue Saint André des Arts took less time than I allotted, so I walked around the block a few times and made a few discoveries. On one of my rounds, I passed a restaurant, Allard, a familiar name. Almost a decade ago, I had wanted to have a meal there but it never came to pass. Carpe Diem. I must have my last meal at Allard. Inside the restaurant, cooks scrambled. I approached the receptionist. Alas, the only available seating was at 9. Too late for me.
Disappointed, I walked around the block again and found a tree lined square, a good place to while away a half hour. I sat down at a café and ordered tea. After some eavesdropping and people gawking, I decided to call Allard and give it one more try. Success. A table at 7 was available.
At the cinema, there was some confusion about which door to enter. It was guarded enthusiastically by a rather fierce woman. “Non, non, interdit” she called loudly and with disdain from the ticket window. Several people, old enough to have participated in May 68, stood talking to each other oblivious to the drama. Finally, we were allowed to go through the “right door.”
The film reminded me of the American film, Medium Cool. Both involved a journalist trying to cover an event in 1968. In the French film, it is the revolution unfolding in the streets: in Medium Cool, it was the 1968 Democratic Convention, a revolution of sorts with similar violence between students, activists and the authorities. Both journalist were seeking to tell the truth while being hindered by their workplace. Both films use fiction and documentary throughout the narrative. I felt right at home.
The same people I had observed outside were the filmmakers who spoke after the film. They agreed it could not be made today as such a revolution couldn’t take place. We are too carefully monitored. C’est dommage.
I walked to Merci by crossing Pont Saint Michel to Boulevard de Palais. At the intersection with Rue de Lutèce a poster announced an exhibit devoted to May 1968 at the Préfecture de Police. C’est bizarre. I went in and was invited to see “Derrière Les Boucliers” or Behind the Shields, that is, a look at the events of May 1968 from the perspective of the police. The exhibit through sound and images immersed me, put me on the streets with a barrage of noise, cobblestones being thrown, tear gas exploding, screams of protest and pain from students attacked by police.
Stunned, I walked to Merci, the upscale hip store where I bought presents for friends and family. As I left the store at the Boulevard Beaumarchais exit, I saw protesters against French President Macran had filled the streets. I joined them and like the citoyens and citoyennes of 68, I was faced with the “shields.” However, no violence.
I rushed home, changed, and got to Allard on time. The intimate restaurant seemed to be divided into two sections. I was placed with the tourists. Americans to my left and right and down a table or two a woman whose companion was a large teddy bear. She asked the waiter to take a photo of the two of them.
I ordered an expensive first course of asparagus with hollandaise, the most exquisitely cooked asparagus I’ve every eaten and the saltiest hollandaise. The salinity continued throughout the meal. I had to say something: my meal cost well over 100 Euros. I asked the waiter if I could speak to him using French so as not to make a scene with the other English speakers. I explained about the seasoning: he was surprised but offered an explanation. They use salted butter from Normandy. When I raised my eyebrows, he agreed to talk with the chef. Later I discovered that the woman I had seen earlier in the kitchen was the well known chef Fanny Herpin and that Allard was now under the auspices of Alain Ducasse who vowed to save traditional French restaurants. At one time, Allard had been in the same family for close to 50 years.
Paris, a city of contradictions: strikes and privilege, liberty, tradition, anarchy. All in one day
I walked home through cool night air and spent the rest of the night packing. I had an 8:00 AM taxi for my noon flight. Luckily, I awoke at 3 A.M. and looked at my phone. My flight had been cancelled. After furiously phoning the airline, I was able to rebook for a 9 A.M. flight. But how to get there. How to get a cab by 6 A.M.? Another stroke of luck, par hasard, I found the security guard who was able to get me a taxi.
At the airport, I discovered that due to strikes, all flights on United from Paris had been cancelled. I was on the only one that left that day.
I got the last seat on the plane, facing a bulkhead. At a loss as to how to handle the devices, that is, the location of the television and the tray for meals, I sighed loudly. The passenger next to me gallantly helped me arrange myself. He was lanky, laconic, and spoke with a west Texas drawl.
He’d spent a week in Paris with his wife who was seated on his other side. When asked how he liked the city, he replied, “Well the wife likes museums and I just go along to keep her happy.” Welcome home to a part of America, a kindly man with graceful manners, and a willingness to accommodate. Another country filled with contradicitons.
I leave in two days, so I decided on a last visit to market Marché d’Aligre, in search of the raclette cheesemonger: he had many versions including one infused with spring garlic from a Swiss meadow. Afterwards, I planned to make my way to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in search of the panther of Rilke fame and mentioned by my friend the poet shortly before he left.
Although this was my third visit to the market, it still overwhelmed. I perused the “antiques,” more like a large garage sale, in search of faux ivory cutlery. Found them but too expensive. A decision I would later regret.
Alas, the cheesemonger was closed. However, the aroma of an Algerian bakery, Amira, seduced me. I purchased a mihajeb aux légumes, a semolina bread filled with roasted vegetables, greasy and delicious.
Returning to the left bank, I crossed the Pont d’Austerlitz, entered the Jardin des Plantes, and meandered towards the Ménagerie. Unable to tolerate animals in cages no matter how attractive the cage, I hadn’t been to a zoo in decades.
At the entrance, school groups and families entered with me. I watched them oohing and aahing at the various animals and wondered what they were learning. That viewing animals was for their entertainment? That humans have the right to inprison them for our benefit? Nothing about animal life, nothing about respecting them.
On my way to La Fauverie or the cat house, I passed antelopes whose only outside environment resembled a large kitty litter box, hard dirt with no greenery. Does that make it easier to clean?
The flamingos looked content, perhaps because they are pretty like their leafy fenced enclosure.
As I neared La Fauverie , I passed vultures. I felt like one as I devoured images of exotic animals, but unlike them, I had the freedom to move about.
The leopards have an old fashioned indoor cage, but they can escape to the “outside” a large glassed in area where they pace or climb rocks to a door that goes back inside. However, it seemed to be locked. They were on display for our amazement.
The Panther Rainer Maria Rilke
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
On my way home I passed a poster announcing a Chris Marker exposition, Les 7 Vies D’un Cinéaste, distracting me briefly from the panther. Then his film, La Jetée, where there is no escape, came to mind.
Perhaps my view of the Pantheon as I reached the top of Rue Soufflot might provide a refuge.
My last day at the Alliance. On my way, I prepared what I would say about today’s significance: May 3,1918, the 50th anniversary of the 1968 French Revolution.
The class began with the teacher asking how we spent our holiday. I began by connecting my Paris Walk about the 1789 revolution to the May 3, 1968 revolution. He looked confused. I repeated, “C’est le cinquantieme anniversaire de la revolution du 3 mai 1968.” “Ah, oui, oui” he replied and quickly moved on to another student. Is he is too young for it to have any significance? I dismissed that notion since the government almost collapsed under the protests. Perhaps the policy of the Alliance is to not engage in political discussions.
After class, a student from Ireland and I discussed staying at the Irish College when our teacher joined us as we lamented the high cost of living in Paris. He was very open about his salary, which if I heard right, is around 20,000 euros a year, amazingly low. He has to share an apartment in the 11th arrondissement in order to make ends meet. I asked him about improving my French and self deprecatingly referred to my lack of progress. He assured me I speak well but lack confidence and kissed me on both cheeks in a friendly good-bye which warmed me considerably.
My task after class was to buy gifts for my two nieces, 7 and 10. There are a cluster of children’s stores off Blvd Raspail on Rue Vavin and Rue Brea. I found the perfect shop, just candy. Candy in charming metal boxes. Les petits magasins of Paris delight me, for just socks, for just parapluies, for just nostalgically boxed candy.
On my way home, I passed Emile and Jules where Rue Vavin meets Rue d’Assas in front of Le Jardin du Luxembourg. I have frequently pasted my face against their window, looking longingly at the breads, brioches, croissants, and sandwiches. Today, I finally entered and choose a small whole grain baguette filled with salad nicoise.
I dined next to Baudelaire in the le jardin. The sandwich was delicious, but unwieldy. I managed to drop a significant amount on my lap. After a half hour, I gave up, chucked the remains, and headed back home.
As I passed the lawn at Place Andre Honnorat, students were strewn across it’s expanse. Usually, in Paris parks, it is “Pelouse Interdite.” No sitting on the grass. Is this their way of remembering May 3, 1968? Not much at stake, not like their predecessors. When I looked more closely, the sign read “Pelouse Authorisee.” C’est vrai?
This was the night for L’Estrapade, the restaurant at the end of my street. When I opened the door, I hadn’t much hope: it’s 12 or so tables were full. However, the wait person assured me she would find me a place. She managed to seat me and another couple check to jowl. In order to use la toilette, I had to ask a diner to get up, had difficulty squeezing by, and then had to go through the same embarrassment on my way back to my table.
I went all out. First, l’entrée, la terrine de foie de volaille, next, le plat, le magret de canard aux clémentines, and finally, le dessert, la tarte tatin, the meal accompanied by un pichet de vin. Most satisfying. And later, out my bedroom window, the Pantheon.
Today, I followed my previously upended plan of visiting the Jeu de Paume, now a museum of photography, by walking through the Tuileries, and, afterwards, searching for signs of Duras. I will look for Rue Dupin, her husband’s family home where a resistance cell often met. It was there that her husband, Robert Antelme, was arrested and, then, sent to Buchenwald and, finally, Dachau. His arrest, imprisonment, and rescue figure largely in her memoir, La Douleur (The War).
“There’s no room for me here anywhere, I’m not here, I’m there with him in that region, no one else can reach, no one else can know, where there’s burning and killing. I’m hanging by a thread, by the last of all probabilities….”
Another quiet breakfast without my pals. I did nod hello to a younger resident who sometimes joined us. But he was surrounded by a bevy of laughing young women, completely engaged. I never saw him again.
On my way to the Tuileries in a gallery on Rue Bonaparte, I saw a photo depicting the riots in 1968- the revolution that sent De Gaulle running. This is the first recognition I’ve seen of the momentous event that took place 50 years ago. Why? I’m thrilled I will be here on it’s anniversary. Am I the only one?
Duras must have celebrated De Gaulle’s cowardice. She wasn’t a fan as can be seen in La Douleur,
“De Gaulle doesn’t talk about the concentration camps, it’s blatant the way he doesn’t talk about them, the way he’s clearly reluctant to credit the people’s suffering with a share in the victory for fear of lessening his own role and the influence that derives from it.”
I walked to the Seine and over Pont Royal, crossing Quai Francois Mitterrand.
Mitterrand, a member of that very cell at Rue Dupin, narrowly escaped arrest the night Antelme did not, according to Laure Adler in Marguerite Duras, A Life:
“Mitterand called again from a public phonebook in Boulevard Saint-Germain. This time Marie-Louise (Robert Antelme’s sister who was also arrested and later died in Ravensbruck) was curt, ‘Monsieur, I have already told you, you are mistaken.’ Then Mitterand understood.”
Dark thoughts as I wandered through the gardens on a cloudless spring day.
I reached the Jeu de Paume at the end of the Tuileries where it faces La Place de la Concorde. In Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard used the same location to film Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo taking a spin in a stolen car just 15 years after the liberation of France. Although he used jump cuts to shorten the film, his editing created visual energy and excitement mirroring the relationship between Seberg and Belmondo.
There are two exhibits at le musée: an Austrian photographer, Raoul Hausmann and an American, Susan Meiselas. I began downstairs with Hausmann who was part of Berlin Dada, the images taken from 1927-1936. At the entrance, the show’s curator introduced Hausmann’s work via a looped video. Several minutes passed before I realized she was speaking in French. I understood it all. Quelle surprise!
A Nazi exhibition denouncing “degenerative art” which included Housmann’s work.
The Meiselas exhibit took up the entire second floor: it’s depth and humanity startled me. I began photographing each note and image. The Prince Street Girls reminded me of Little Italy in the winter- the smells of Italian pastries, small cups of espresso, steamed windows.
Dee and Lisa on Mott Street, Little Italy, New York, 1976
In the next room, the work on Nicaragua distressed me. I wanted to leave: too much pain. But I couldn’t pull myself away. Her work makes me hopeful. A humanist artist. She, like the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, considers what it means to capture an image, a life, not just the shot.
In the bookstore, I find Duras and another American, Diane Arbus. A celebration of both my histories, France and America.
I sat outside on the terrace of the museum’s salon de thé et café, La Boîte à Images, had a coffee, and gazed across the gardens. Now, the photo I put up on Instagram of Agnes Varda as she entered her home haunts me. I was so excited- I had caught her. I didn’t consider her right to privacy, her right to go through her day unassaulted. As a mea culpa, I took the image down, replacing it with a closed notebook and the comment, “Instead of Agnes Varda who deserves her privacy.”
I left the cafe in search of Duras. It took me a long time to get to Rue Dupin. I kept getting turned around, finding myself going up and down Rue du Cherche-Midi or ending up on Rue de Sèvres. One detour reaped a reward, the offices of Les Éditions de Minuit where Duras published many of her works. In his book, A Walk Through Paris, Eric Hazan laments the loss of publishing houses in the 6th arrondissement to what he calls the “capitalist concentration of publishing” and comments on those that stayed:
“A few major publishers have remained in the quarter, Gallimard, Minuit, Fayard, and Bourgois among others, but they are like vestiges of a past splendour.”
Finally, I found 3 Rue Dupin where the Antelme apartment was located on the floor above the post office.
Then, I noticed L’Epi Dupin, a restaurant whose card I’ve been saving for years. I don’t know why: I don’t remember eating there. How did I get it? How easily I get waylaid by the minutiae of my own life even when faced with the tragedy and loss that took place on the same street almost 74 years ago.
After ten miles of walking, cheese, radishes, and a baguette in my room became dinner.