Sunday February 16
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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….
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
April 16 Tuesday
A day spent reviewing my options. If Capecia didn’t write the novels, she did live that life, so the depiction of Martinique could represent some similarity to my grandmother Germaine de Jorna’s experience. In Je Suis Martiniquaise, she describes a young girl free to wander, to explore a paradise of sorts:
“On arriving at our chosen destination, we undressed and bathed in the nude, boys and girls mixed, but with no thought of wrongdoing. In the distance, we could still hear the washer women beating their clothes against the rocks. Our spot was filled with moss, ferns and giant palms that rose like strange birds when the wind swirled them about.”
and later as the group decides to go on an “expedition,”
“Young bamboo shoots adorned the mountain with a soft green velvet; palm trees beckoned to us, bending and undulating with the suppleness of a serpent as they danced among the giant ferns.”
Northern Forest, Martinique
Perhaps, my grandmother had moments such as these, but maybe her life was closer to the character’s sister, Francette, sent to live with an aunt who restricted her freedom in order to be “proper.” In Caribbean households that held themselves above the “fray,” young women often stayed indoors, sewing, reading, changing their clothes morning, afternoon, and evening to fit a social protocol. According to my father, his mother also changed her children’s clothing three times a day.
Perhaps, Germaine was cocooned behind closed doors in Saint Lucia, imprisoned as was Francette.
Morne Coubaril Estate, Soufriere, Saint Lucia
Her sister Yia, my great aunt, imposed similar restricitions on their niece Adria who lived with her in New York. When guests came to the apartment to visit, to play cards, Adria was hidden behind the closed door of her bedroom, lest she betray her colonial mixed race roots.
Adria de Jorna
Late afternoon I visited the San Francisco Book Store on Rue Monsieur Le Prince looking for Jean Rhys that other creole. I found two books, a collection of short stories and Quartet. On my way home I walked past Librarie du Cinema du Pantheon Cinelitterature next to Cinema du Pantheon on Rue Victor Cousin. A bookstore specializing in film, they had original copies of Cahiers du Cinema for 10 euros and less. I bought one from February 1964 with reviews by Godard and Truffaut and another from June 1963 with a discussion of Jean Rouch, anthropologist, filmmaker, and a founder of cinema verite.
I finished my outing with a cafe alonge at Cafe du Nouvelle Marie. This time I was greeted warmly and understood the necessity of an additional container of water.
April 17 Wednesday
The restaurant Mokonuts was on the agenda. On my way, I crossed in front a small square which last year held a statue of Rimbaud, but he’s gone, replaced with greenery as at Bastille. As I continued on Avenue Ledru-Rollin, I noticed several books on a building’s window sill, free for the taking, one by Annie Ernaux, considered France’s memoirist extraordinaire. Relevance is fleeting. How could Rimbaud and Ernaux be discarded?
Mokonuts fed me well: a delicious lamb stew with fresh peas served by the charming owner who runs the front of the house. When I commented on her excellent English, she retorted that she had better be able to speak her native tongue. She hails from one of the outer boroughs of New York.
My way home took me to Pont Sully from where I could view the back of Notre Dame: she’s not herself, reduced and darkened.
Monday April 15
I met with Christiane Makward to discuss Mayotte Capecia at Le Brelan, a cafe on Rue Beaubourg. On my way, I passed the Pompidou Center: it’s exterior fits this streetscape quite differently than the celebratory atmosphere exuded on the Rue Saint-Martin entrance.
I arrived early and scanned the passersby but realized I had no idea how to recognize her. Then, I noticed a woman standing to my right, smiling wryly, and carrying a book.
When we found a table away from the noise in the cafe, she asked “How did you find Mayotte Capecia?” The question surprised me since I had been “living’ with Capecia for the last two months. It seemed obvious. I unwound my story of exploring the black experience in Paris, in particular, those immigrants from the French West Indies.
I asked about Capecia’s life in Paris. Professor Makward explained that Capecia worked as a cook when she first arrived. Somehow, she met a publisher who became her lover and who encouraged her to write of her life in Martinique. Then, Madame Makward dropped a bomb, “You know, she didn’t really write those novels?” I said no and asked who did. She believes the most likely culprits were her publisher and his assistants. Moreover, much of the second novel, La Negresse Blanche was plagiarized from a diary written by a French Naval officer who had had an affair with Capecia while stationed in Martinique. Before we parted, she gave me a copy of Mayote Capecia ou l’Alienation selon Fanon.
Her book about Capecia revealed this subterfuge: she had had access to Capecia’s sister and children as well as primary sources including the diary. What to do? I thought Je Suis Martiniquaise had given me a window into my grandmother’s early life in the Caribbean.
Although I’d read other portraits of Saint Lucia and Martinique, this was the first that described coming of age from a woman’s perspective. Of course, these were the same comments made by critics supporting Capecia after Frantz Fanon’s dismissal of the novels. Was I on a fool’s errand as I had feared?
I walked home in a daze unsure how to proceed. Each attempt seemed a dead end. I crossed in front of Notre Dame just as the many of the tourist buses were pulling away. Earlier thousands had waited in line in hopes of entering.
Tired and discouraged, I took refuge at La Method, a cafe close to my home, and ordered a Ricard. A minute later, I heard a loud boom; then, green clouds filled the sky. Other patrons and servers came out to watch as more and more clouds emerged. Soon, helicopters circled above us.
My phone had died, so I had no idea what had happened. I malingered for an hour or so attempting to read Makward’s book in French.
When I got back to the Irish Cultural Center, I discovered the reason for the billowing green clouds: Notre Dame was on fire. The first time I left for France at age 21, Notre Dame had been my go to for mass.
The day before I left for France that first time, I made sure I went to confession. After some pointed questioning by the priest, I admitted indulging in “heavy petting” with my boyfriend. He said I had committed a sin: I disagreed as I was in love. How to get absolution? Without it, I would go straight to hell should my plane go down over the Atlantic. We compromised. I didn’t have to agree to sinning as long as I went to mass every Sunday while living in Paris. And each Sunday found me at Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur.
The last time I visited Notre Dame, my husband cried at its grandeur and beauty. At the main alter a book lay open for visitors to name a loved one who had died. I wrote my father’s name: he would have liked being remembered in the family’s “country of origin” even though our de Jorna’s left France in the late 1600’s. Then, the cathedral would have been 400 years old and most likely known to that earlier ancestor.
My father did visit Paris once. My mother told me he used French to get around. His mother’s tongue came back to him. I returned him to Paris in words, his name.