August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

images

Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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Day 4 and 5

Monday March 16

I woke up this morning remembering recent conversations with friends.  Sometimes, I say that I’ve been in training for the lockdown, having lived as a widow for the last 9 years.  Sometimes, I lament a life alone, not having that loved one in the next room.  Is it as hard to be alone as I claim, am I pleased that I answer to no one, or do I want people to feel sorry for me?  Why?  Perhaps, my desire for empathy is a desire to be seen, heard, understood.  Much of the time. I have kept my grief to myself, not wanting to put people off.  Who wants to hear about sorrow?  Maybe as the pandemic takes hold, we’ll all be immersed in it and won’t be able to look away.

To avoid these concerns, I went to the Delaware and Raritan Canal for a long walk, a breather, some peace.  But peace was difficult to muster.  People crowded the walkway and seemed surprised when I asked them to give me room.  Often I had to stand with my back to them which felt like I was shaming them.  Maybe I was.

img_7871-1Delaware and Raritan Canal

As three young men approached me on bicycles, I requested they give me space to pass.  They mocked me.  Got my ire up.  I threw back at them that I was trying  to protect them as well.   As I walked away, they laughed, shouting, “Talk, talk, talk” to my back.  Discouraged, I cut my walk short and retreated home.

But I had a plan: do taxes, clean sun room, correspond.

By the late afternoon, I had taken care of Milo the cat petting him for an hour or so to relax him, filled out an application for a census job, read the newspaper, faced time with family, called the garden center to check the availability of Brussel sprouts, and contacted the landscaper about putting in a garden.  Then, I relaxed into my new addiction, computer solitaire in all it’s variations: Vegas, Forty Thieves, Spider, Gaps, Mrs. Mop.

Tuesday March 17

Newly established morning routine.  First order of business is Milo: lift him on to the ottoman facing the couch, provide treats, apply blood pressure medication to his inner ears, more treats, brush him, pet him for a half hour or so, feed him, clean out litter box, more treats and petting, and finally, put him in his bed.  Next is a walk down the driveway to retrieve the paper, followed by a leisurely breakfast working my way through the Times.

IMG_8124Milo Bliss

Late morning, the landscapers arrived, reviewed my plan, a 10 by 20 foot raised cedar bed in the front lawn using organic mulch and soil.  I’m cheered by this return to vegetable gardening.

Although I haven’t done any writing, I did correspond with the writer’s I met in February while staying at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris.  Does that count?

Went to bed reading Samuel Beckett’s bio.  The description of cafes he frequented, the same as my haunts when I was 21 are bittersweet.   Nostalgia for hours of nursing a drink while reading, writing, staring.  But nostalgia has an edge, loss.

unknown-1Le Select Montparnasse

Day One and Two

Friday March 13 -Saturday March 14

This journal attempts to record observations during an extraordinary time.  Although the title for this entry says “Day One,” it is actually 207 days since my first interaction with the virus.  That day my doctor urged me to cancel my trip to Paris afraid I would be one of the now 5.7 million Americans stricken with the disease.  I didn’t listen: on February 15th, I landed at Charles De Gaulle airport.  My return flight was booked for March 20th.  I didn’t make it.  On March 13th, I raced home like thousands of other Americans after President Trump announced the closing of borders at midnight to anyone traveling from Europe.

Once home, I ran around the supermarket loading up on beans and toilet paper in a frenzy of ignorance.

The next day, March 14th, I faced my first day of reckoning.  Like many humans, my thoughts turned to vanity.  Who would cut and color my hair?  It was due.  My hairdresser had already closed her store but said she might consider seeing a few regulars.  I jumped at the offer, ignoring the risks .  These were early days.  Maybe I felt invincible.  I had been in France during fashion week when some Italians had been allowed to enter the country as Italy reeled from the voracious spread of the virus.  I had walked down the narrow streets of the Marais past fashion show venues bumping into people, perusing stores for hours.

UnknownMarais, Paris

 In London, I had been to the movies, to the British Library, the National Archives, spending whole days researching family history.

images-1Curzon Cinema, Bloomsbury, London

I was in Ireland just as Dublin shut down.

imagesO’Connell Bridge, Dublin

I had flown on a crowded plane for more than 6 hours and then taken an hour train ride home.  But I wasn’t sick.  So couldn’t I get my hair cut?  No, I finally decided, I couldn’t and so began five months of isolation and negotiations with family, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, with myself on what to do and how to manage.

Paris Day 15 and 16

Saturday, February 29

This morning I woke up exhausted after a good night’s sleep.  Do I have the corona virus or is it the ennui I seem to carry around?  Usually it dissipates after breakfast with the residents.  Today, overwhelmed by fatigue, I spent the day in bed and didn’t join the three women for dinner.

I tell myself there will be days of isolation and loneliness.  But why is it’s happening now?  I have stimulating conversations every morning, gatherings with artists in the evenings.  Although I have dinner alone each night, I’ve been very engaged.

IMG_7479                                                                 The last bouquet

I read my blog on Greece, written five years ago on the verge of a Fulbright.  I describe two days of staying in my Athen’s hotel room emerging only for a meeting one day and and a souvlaki the next.  Ennui is no stranger to me.   My expectations set me up for self-doubt.  I romanticize those that seem to have found their place especially the Bloomsbury group whose work I devoured many years ago, in particular,  Virginia Woolf.   Her country home with her writing shed surrounded by beautiful gardens, long walks along the downs, afternoons with writer’s and painters reading, discussing.  But like Samuel Beckett, she endured days of doubt, of mental anguish and, then, a swing to elation.  Her solution was suicide.  Perhaps, my urge to live on an island is a strategy to force me back on myself, to find my place.

Sunday, March 1

Today I feel alert, confidant, at home in Paris.  God, these extremes are exhausting.  

For my last full day in Paris (I leave for London tomorrow) I plan to have Sunday lunch at La Rotessirie d’Argent.  It faces the Seine two doors away from the famous Tour d’Argent, and next door to it’s bakery, Le Boulanger de la Tour.  I pass by frequently crossing the Pont de la Tournelle over to the right bank.  One day, I stopped to buy mini croissants.  Ils etaient parfaits.  The idea of eating roast chicken on a Sunday afternoon is part of a long tradition of Sunday dinner with Maman in which I long to participate.

UnknownLa Rotisserie d’Argent

On my way to breakfast one of the administrators of the Centre Culturel Irlandais caught up with me and asked if I still planned to attend the book club she had mentioned when I first arrived.  I thought I could  fit it in with my roast chicken.  But this was no intimate group meeting for an hour, this was a formal meeting known as Cercle Litteraire Irlandais (Irish Literary Circle) lasting three hours with drinks, food, a program and over 100 attendees.  There were speakers including Deirdre Farrell, Deputy Head of Mission at the Irish Embassy in Paris, and Lara Marlow, France correspondent for The Irish Times, as well as mediatations, readings, and even a group writing exercise.  It was a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Lara Marlowe in her keynote address discussed three women who inspired her: Iranian Nasrin Sotudeh, French Berthe Morisot, and American Edith Wharton.  All three defied their respective roles: Sotudeh, a lawyer, represented women who refused to wear the hijab, Morisot became a well-respected painter, the only women to exhibit in the first impressionist show in 1874, and Edith Wharton wrote novels becoming the first woman to win the Pultizer Prize for Literature in 1921 instead of being a doyenne in her privileged social circle.  My question to Ms. Marlowe was where are the Irish women of the 19th century without upper class privileges who fought against stereotypes to become artists in their own right.  She and the audience were stumped.

images   Nasrin SotudehUnknown-1Berthe Morisotimages-1Edith Wharton

 Then we were asked to write about a woman we admired.  I chose Molly Daly, my grandmother.  She lived in Ireland for 13 years without her mother.  She returned to the United States only to be teased relentlessly about her brogue.  She married an alcoholic whose family thought she was “shanty Irish.”  When he died leaving her with two children to raise, she often brought in family members who had no where else to go.  When her children married, she moved in with them usually with no room of her own, sleeping on a daybed in the dining room.  And she never complained.  Her solace, reading her prayer book and saying her rosary.

IMG_7779

Molly Daly on the right

 

Paris Day 13 and 14

Thursday February 27

At breakfast, we (the three female artists in residence and I) discussed Freudian and Jungian theory.  Each woman artist found Jung insightful.  I have my doubts: I’m skeptical of theories that have little basis in data but seem to be fabrications of the theorists’ world view.  Considering that Freud and Jung believed women were the lesser sex and lived in a world that supported that notion, how can I subscribe to their ideas?

My breakfast companions observed that many artists find Jung of value.  I know Samuel Beckett who once lived around the corner at Rue d’Ulm found him useful in the writing of his novel Murphy.  As Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s biographer explains,

The patient sinks into the unconscious altogether and becomes completely victimized by it.  He is the victim of a new autonomous activity that does not start from his ego but starts from the dark sphere.  

Beckett found a way to explore the protagonist’s, Murphy’s mind.

I posed the question why there wasn’t a woman analyst with the same recognition as Freud and Jung.  Interesting as men were raised by women.  How does that affect their theories and practices?

One of the artists mentioned the book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the Nobel Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk.   Her description excited me perhaps because the main character is a reclusive- a life that appeals to me.  I wanted to read it immediately.  The closest bookstore with English language books is Shakespeare and Company which I usually avoid as it’s a tourist trap.  To get there I had to walk down Rue Galande a charming street once an old Roman road, then, inhabited in the 15th Century.

IMG_7443Rue Galande

After I returned to the Irish Cultural Center, I got ready to go out again, this time, to the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris located in the Marias.  It has a beautiful reading room where I hoped to spend the afternoon writing.  On my way out, one of the artists asked if I’d like to go to the kitchen and finish off the pastries from the night before.  Mais oui!

While we were feasting, we met a filmmaker, Norah Dineen, who had been living on the third floor for over a month but never seen by any of us.  She can no longer afford to stay and would be couch surfing until some monies “turned up” to finish her film.  It’s subject is love in three cities: Berlin, Athens, and Los Angelos.  Whenever, she makes a film, she lives in the country for a month, immersing herself before writing, casting, and filming.  That’s the way to do it.  I’m just getting settled and I have to leave.  Why do I think I can just drop down in Paris and begin?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in libraries.  At the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris,  I had to get a library card in order to use the facilities which entitled me to all the public libraries in Paris.  Magnifique!  However, the woman assisting me decided to go beyond issuing a card: she would help me with my research.  What was I looking for?  What names did I have?  I was unprepared as we went from French to English to French.  All very confusing.  She assured me there was nothing there for me as she quickly went through databases, none of which I understood.

UnknownReading Room  Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris

Back to the mediatheque (a library with digital access) at the Irish Cultural Center.  As my great grandfather was a physician, it might mean he had attended a medical school in Paris.  I told the librarian I now had a library card and asked if there were records of 19th century medical students studying in Paris.   He found that the National Archives did have such a list which could only be accessed at the Archives themselves.  A plan for tomorrow.  I moved on to my Irish side and took out Social Change and Everyday Life in Ireland, 1850-1922.  It provided some interesting information on clothing, education, farming.

I ended the day with another writer from the center.  We met for coffee at Numero 220 on Rue Saint Jacques.  Her local.  Delicious coffee and a friendly owner.  She thinks someone should write a novel about women of a certain age- their struggle to be independent, that is, from familial demands.  Saying no to requests poses problems.

Unknown-1Numero 220

Friday February 28

Several of the artists have come to the end of their residency, so we arranged for a farewell dinner Saturday night.

I needed a pair of jeans, and, on my way to the National Archives, went to Cos, a clothing store in the Marais.  Success.   Since it was Fashion Week, the narrow streets were crowded.  Before people entered the shows, they were given an electronic temperature reading to exclude those who might have the coronavirus.  Many Italians were there although there had been were rumors that a travel ban on trains from Italy might be forthcoming.

I saw a small elderly woman and her companion making their way towards me.  I pushed myself against the building to give them room.  As they passed, this “frail” woman elbowed me- hard.  I turned towards her as she walked away, dumbfounded.  Then she cursed me.  I replied “Vous n’etes pas tres gentile Madame.” You are not very nice, Madame.

Unknown-3                                                           Rue des Rosiers

Although I had success buying a pair of jeans, my luck didn’t hold at the Archives. The receptionist informed me that I was at the wrong library.  This library only had records from before the revolution, that is, before 1789.  I asked if the correct library was open tomorrow, Saturday.  Yes, she said but the request for records had to be put in before 3:00 P.M. today.  It was 2:58.  I had forgotten the rules which I had once known by heart when I used the Archives d’outre Mer in Aix en Provence.  A bust.

But not completely.  I got the best fallafel in Paris.  No room at the inn, so I leaned against a building and chowed down.  Delicieux.

Unknown-4L’As du Fallafel