London Day 3 and 4

Wednesday March 4

Today the National Archives- a long haul.  First, a walk to the Russell Square Underground, taking the Piccadilly Line changing at Hammersmith to the District Line and 40 minutes later arriving at Kew Gardens.  Luckily, there were signs directing me to the National Archives and to a street of interesting terraced houses.


In order to view documents, I was obliged to get a reader’s ticket which took some time.  Then, I worked with a librarian to navigate the databases.  My “French” grandmother whose family had lived in Martinique and Saint Lucia since 1690 had actually been a British citizen.  In the early 1900’s, she attended school in England with several of her sisters.  I was looking for the name of the school and evidence of her citizenship.

The librarian told me those papers if they existed would be in Saint Lucia not in the National Archives.  He suggested I go through Saint Lucian slave records since my relatives, who had been military officers, lawyers, and judges, most likely had slaves.  A bitter pill to swallow.  I spent the afternoon sadly perusing the available information and came across an 1822 protocol for selling slaves:

The slaves attached to any plantation are always to be sold together.  Personal slaves, unattached to plantations are always to be sold in such a manner as that the same person must become the purchaser of all such of the said personal slaves as bear to each of any of the following relations that is to say husbands and wives, parents and children.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833 but some scholars believe it continued in Saint Lucia, then a part of Britain, until 1838.

There was no mention of the name de Jorna.  Are they innocent?  I don’t think so.  The 1709 Martinque Recensement (Census) lists slaves held at a fort overseen by one of my relatives.  At the Quartier of Saint Pierre under the de Jorna regiment were 1864 enslaved negresses (Female) and 1649 negres (Males).   These terms were used from the colonial period until WWII after which they became racially charged.


And so the prejudice, the belief that skin color determines value passes down from generation to generation- a diseased legacy.  My father listened to his Aunt Yia deride his darker skinned relatives and assumed the mantle- identification with the colonizers, slave holders, ennobled ancestors while denigrating his other birth right- skin color.  Yet, he was the dark face amongst a sea of white at Saint John’s Grammar School.

IMG_7819My father, Louis Zinis, 3rd row from the bottom, 4th from the left                            Saint John’s Grammar School, Orange. New Jersey, 1919       

My grandmother, his mother, must have been worried when she sent him off to first grade.

He’s in for a hard time even though I dress him better than all the other children in this backwater, cette ville de remous.  He is so charmant in his sailor shirt.  My sister Yia worries.  Sometimes when she looks at him, she shakes her head muttering, comme un negre.   He is the darkest of my children although in summer it’s hard to tell.  The girls could pass the other way, noires pas blanches.  But he must endure all those pasty Irish faces, hear their taunts- darky, jigaboo.  He’s a gentle boy but they will change him.

She was right.  Reinforced by his prep school, Saint Benedict’s in Newark, New Jersey, then a bastion of white males, he took on their racism, perhaps, hoping to distinguish himself from his grandmother, Noel de Jorna, listed as “colored” on her death certificate.  Or did he want to align himself with his Greek father who described his wife to Greek relatives as ” ma femme francaise noire,”  my black French wife?  But like most people of color, there is no real escape.  Years later my five year old son called to me excitedly: his grandfather, Papa Lou, was on television.   But it wasn’t my father: it was Louis Armstrong.

 Thursday March 5

The good weather didn’t hold: a rainy cold day.   Nevertheless, I was determined to walk to Poetry, a clothing store not far from Regents Park.  My umbrella spent more time inside out than it did protecting me from the rain.  After an hour or so, I made it to the Marylebone High Street, a surprising enclave of small winding streets with upscale stores.  As for purchases, no joy.

UnknownMarylebone High Street

Given the weather, I took a bus back to Bloomsbury intending to do some research at the British Library.  After getting a library card, I spent the day in one of the reading rooms looking for information on my Irish grandmother whose family were also British citizens during the 19th century.  I went through ancient (17th and 18th century) records of Roscommon County where my grandmother had lived looking for a familiar name.  Compiled by the British, they listed names as British or Irish.  No luck.


The librarian directed me to another database where I found a last name I recognized: Beirne.  A Bridget Beirne was my great-great grandmother.   Down the rabbit hole I went.  In 1923, this Beirne had been a doctor in the village of Kilnamanagh where my great grandmother and great uncles had lived.  His correspondence was part of a large collection of Marie Stopes’ letters, the founder of the first birth control clinic in Britain.

He wrote of a client with an intact hymen who had managed to get pregnant.  Is this just a “condition” of rural Catholic Ireland?  But no, it’s possible.  There were other letters asking about a cervical cap she had recommended.  What did Dr. Beirne risk making such an inquiry while practicing in a country that prohibited birth control: to disobey was a mortal sin- and the consequence eternal hell.

Now I have library cards to all the public libraries in Paris, to the British Library, and to the British National Archives.  Overwhelming.  Where to concentrate my efforts?  Nana Daly from Ireland, Grand-mere de Jorna from Saint Lucia?  Pappous Zinis from Greece?





Paris Day Two

Sunday February 16

At breakfast, one of the residents asked If I’d like to go to Mass held at the chapel every Sunday.  I considered going, having watched The Two Popes last night.  Although somewhat cliched in dialogue and structure, I liked it: the acting, the discussion between the characters, some of the cinematography especially the black and white scenes in Buenos Aires.  Mercy and forgiveness played a large part in the film.  To whom should I show mercy?  And, there was call to help the poor.  What can I do?  Perhaps the priest’s homily might have held some insight.
However, “the book” or writing here about “the book” won out.  I finished at one o’clock barely in time to meet Christiane Makward author of Mayotte Capecia which examines Capecia’s novels,  Je Suis Martiniquaise and The White Negresse. Professor Makward took me under her wing last year when I followed Capecia’s life in Paris as a transplanted creole.  The plan was to meet at Gare de L’Est (a 3 mile hike), then, walk to Canal Saint Martine for tea with her friend.
      Viewed from Place de Petit Pont on my way to Gare de L’Est
I arrived at the stroke of three and we made our way to her friend’s apartment which faces the canal.  After introductions, he invited me to look around.  As usual, I headed straight for the book case.  I sighted a biography of Derek Walcott which he had written.
Serendipitous.  A good sign.  Here I am trying to piece together my grandmother’s life in Saint Lucia while breaking bread with someone who spent ten years writing Walcott’s biography and visiting that very island.  I learned that my great grandfather, Armand de Jorna, may have left Martinique for Saint Lucia as it offered more opportunity.  The de Jorna’s had been in Martinique for 150 years before he was born.  Maybe he decided it was time to move on.  But he ended up being a doctor, so does that scenario fit?
Canal Saint Martine
After sharing an eclair, a tart citron and a tarte de pomme (my lunch and dinner), Christiane and I walked along the canal to her apartment to retrieve Paris Creole, a book she had purchased for me at Musee Branly.  It traces the lives of creoles born in the French West Indies and living in Paris from the 17th to the 20th century.
At her suggestion, I walked home using Rue Temple. The street has many charms and with a fine mist falling, Paris was particularly romantic.  Malheuresment, by the time I got to Notre Dame, the mist became a downpour.  When I took refuge at an oyster bar, the waiters encouraged me to join them under the heat lamps, but I was tired and wanted to get home.  Not my best idea.  Il pleut, il pleut!  My umbrella kept turning inside out: by the time I got to Rue des Irlandais (Irish Cultural Center),  I was soaked.
Once dry, I began reading Paris Creole, slowly: it’s in French.
Some “creole” boys, ages 10 and 11, who were sent to France for an education, stayed to become lawyers and doctors, and, then, returned to the islands of their birth.  Could this have been Armand de Jorna’s journey?  Maybe I can find him in Paris, after all.
A good start, or so I thought until I tried to find the file I had begun on this infamous book of mine. Nowhere to be found.  I had written a rough draft of an introduction and hoped to work on it over the next few weeks.  But I’m empty handed and, it seems, empty headed.  I never attached the file to my email.  A Freudian slip of sorts?  Verlaine’s poem seems very apropros:
Il pleut dans mon cœur,
Comme, it pleut sur la ville.
It rains in my heart,
like it rains in the city.
Bien Sûr!

On My Way

February 14 Friday

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 on target, 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, history, anthropology. gender, race.  A sprinkling of French.   My grandmother and her sisters insisted they hailed from France.  Really they emigrated from Saint Lucia.  In their determination to hide all traces of 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 hour or two 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 16-17

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.

Mckeon 3

Germaine’s daughters

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.

Photo- Adria2

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.

IMG_6169        IMG_6168

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.


Return to Paris Day 9

Tuesday April 9


I been thinking of Jean Rhys.  She was a beke, that is, an Antillean creole descended from early European colonists in Dominica, like my relatives in Martinique before the African pot got stirred.  In her novel, Good Morning Midnight, the protagonist has returned to Paris after more than 15 years, a Paris she recognizes but doesn’t seems to fit. She’s older, she’s alone.  It resonates.


From Good Morning Midnight, page 1

“I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner.  I have arranged my little life.”

I’m into my second week but can’t say that I’ve made much of an adjustment. Would it be enough to take every meal in the same place?

Paris has always been home for me.  The first place I could own, that fit me, that did away with shyness, with not belonging and trying to belong.  At the other home, I monitored my speech, my friends’ reactions, my family’s approval, disapproval.  Like my father, I didn’t want to be discovered.  In Paris, I only adhered to the, then, strict rules of tutoyer, hand shakes, meal time punctuality, and the language I used with “adults’ versus my friends, mostly students.  Don’t use the shortened “formid,” only use the correct, “formidable.”  And never use “fric,” the slang for police.  These requirements weren’t personally attached to me. 

In Paris, that first time, I talked to strange men on motorcycles while walking along a road in Sottteville sur Mer.  But it was daylight and there were passerby’s.  I was safe.  My French family didn’t agree: I understood their concern but wasn’t deterred.  I broke it off with a boyfriend after a week when I learned he was smuggling cigarettes.  I created my own group of friends from other newspaper sellers of The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times.  My last liaison took me to meet his friends, to his favourite cous cous restaurant, and to a studio belonging to an artist friend.  As we approached the elevator, the concierge made her presence known.  He explained that I was his fiancé.  The only way to make it past her.  Under the eaves on a small bed, we kissed, tumbled, and that was all.  He didn’t get his way but he didn’t drop me.  We spent my last day in Paris saying good-bye at the Select where we met almost every night.  And, il a plura, it rained.

Like Jean Rhys’ character, I’ve returned to a Paris that doesn’t quite fit.  Or I don’t fit.  And like her character, some of it is age but also the blinders of narcissism and youth are off.  As they were in Au Bout de Souffle where in the end, the lovers don’t recognize each other, a free spirited thief and a conventional American.

After Tuesday’s class at the Alliance, students clustered together complaining.  One student said she dreaded coming each morning.  I feel the same and have decided to quit at the end of this week.  I’ll have more time to explore Mayotte Capecia’s experience as a woman of color living between two cultures, Martinique and Paris.   Her characters, Isaures and Mayotte, both leave Martinique for Paris, hoping for a better life.  Did she get it?  Do colonized people of color get that better life?  My grandmother and her sisters lied and said they were from France because surely France was better than Saint Lucia.

A long day, a difficult day saved by an aperitif at Bistrot L’Estrapade located at the end of my street.  I thought only dinner was served  but when I passed by,  the owner was enjoying a cigar at one of the four outside tables.  I asked if I could have just a drink.  Yes, yes, he agreed but could only find vermouth rouge.


Ca suffit as I look down the street towards the Pantheon.