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 13

Saturday April 13

I had to have the raclette that I’d had last year which meant a trip to Marche d’Aligre.  I could go to the market and also have lunch a Mokonuts, a restaurant recommended several months ago in The New York Times.

The market is located in the 12th, that is, on the right bank: the best way to get there is to go through the Botanical Gardens and cross Pont d’Austerlitz.

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Since I was planning to have lunch out, I resisted much of the stalls and headed straight for Fromagerie L’Alpage located on the sidewalk along the back of the market.

The shop was full.  Eventually,  I explained to the shopkeeper, in French, that last year I had bought a raclette flavored with wild garlic from the Swiss mountains.  He seemed to understand and told me that they had none.  Then, he decided to get someone who spoke English to help me.  I asked him, “Vous n’aimez pas mon français?”  You don’t like my French?  At first he looked confused; then, he laughed.  I made a joke in French!  C’est parfait!  I did get a raclette but sans herbs and a recommended roblochon.

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Mokonuts, my next stop, is on Rue Saint Bernard off Rue Faubourg Saint Antoine.  I made a few wrong turns and when I got there, it was closed.  I decided to walk along Rue Faubourg Saint Antoine to admire the handmade Italian shoes I had passed earlier and then on to Place de la Bastille, across Pont Sully on the back of Ile Saint Louis, and meander along Rue du Cardinal Lemoine stopping for drink along the way.
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Bastille was a nightmare.  They are redesigning the square to include green areas: trying to get to the right street almost requires a map. When I did get back to my “quartier,” I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner.  I passed by La Truffiere, a Michelin named restaurant, just off Rue Mouffetard.   When I asked if I could have a reservation for tonight, I expected a “no” since it was now four o’clock in the afternoon.  And that is just what I heard.  The restaurant was fully booked.  As I turned to leave, the Maitre d’Hotel changed his mind.  He could seat me but it would have to be at seven.  That suited me: I was tired from walking over six miles and hungry from skipping lunch.
At 7, I arrived but they weren’t ready.  They sent me away for 10 minutes.  When I returned, they seated me in a back room.  I was the only diner.
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I got lots of attention from the server who brings the bread, from the sommelier who suggested the wine, from the server who brings the menu which was explained in great detail.  I had an “okay” very expensive meal, alone in the above room for most of  two hours.  An English couple, at one point, was seated not far from me but left when they discovered none of the desserts listed were available.
When the server came with my check, he apologized, telling me that the French don’t eat dinner at 7.  But it was almost 9 and there were no other diners.  I told him that if I had wanted to eat in a room alone, I could have done that at home.
Was I banished because I was a woman without a companion or because I wasn’t French?  I remember a line from Jean Rhys Good Morning Midnight.   In a restaurant in Paris, the narrator overhears a diner say to the waiter, “Qu’est-ce qu’elle fout ici, la vielle?”  What is she doing here, that old woman.  The narrator was barely 50.

Return to Paris Day 10,11,12

Wednesday April 10

At breakfast, a resident asked why I was drawn to this project.  I told him I had a keen sense of injustice especially concerning “the other” first expressed at the age of seven when my father forbid me to go to my friend’s house: she was black.  Then, I explained my personal interest, the family secret.  He didn’t buy it.  According to him, I hadn’t been affected.  Stunned, I agreed, considering my privileged life.  But no.  He’s wrong.  My father worked tirelessly to overcome his secret heritage, to fit in, to make sure I didn’t get too dark in the summer, to aggrandize his history, to be prejudiced himself as a false means of elevation.  Yes, it affected me.

I live in a country whose MO is oppression, destruction of the other: Native Americans, African Americans, any immigrant of color, any non-Christian.  The land of opportunity mostly works if you are white and male and, sometimes, if you can pass.

Since last night I had been thinking about violence committed by American police mostly against men of color.  While I was enjoying my aperitif, four French soldiers dressed in camouflage, cradling machine guns walked past me.  I asked my breakfast companion if he knew what they were doing: he writes about military matters.  He said it’s a strategy against terrorism.  Small groups of armed military pop up unexpectedly and, by their presence, deter possible attacks, a Macron strategy not entirely embraced his citoyens, (citizens).  When I was 21 living in Paris, soldiers with machine guns stood in corners on Boulevard Saint Michel.  I was told they were there to protect “us” from Algerians, yet another colonized group.

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Thursday April 11

At the end of class, I told the teacher I wouldn’t be returning.  She wondered did she speak too quickly.  I reassured her.  I rushed home, dropped off my books, and met a woman introduced to me by mutual friends.  We had a noisy and interesting lunch in the Marais at Miznon, an Israeli import.  Afterwards, we meandered along Rue de Montorgrueil, a mostly pedestrianized street in the 2nd, got a cup of coffee at L’Arbre a Cafe, sat on a wall in a small square and continued our conversation from lunch, mostly about the state of the world.

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She has a few concerns about life in Paris: people in big cars thinking they own the road, ignoring pedestrians and their safety.  I watched her take a few to task and applaud her.  She’s also concerned about the yellow vest movement.  She understands their situation but believes the destruction in Paris doesn’t make their situation better and abuses a city that is theirs to enjoy.  When we parted, she asked how I would get home.  Walking, I told her.  She directed me to go towards the Seine-her only advice.  Without any additional navigational aids, I found my way home.

Friday April 12

Nose to the grindstone.  Using the Mediatheque, the library that is part of the Irish Cultural Center, I unsuccessfully searched for the location of Mayotte Capecia’s grave and failed to locate any Caribbean groups.  I’ve written to the Christiane Makward the scholar and author of the book, Mayotte Capecia ou l’Alienation selon Fanon and asked for help. A long shot.

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Return to Paris Day 9

Tuesday April 9

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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.

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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.

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

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Return to Paris April 7-8

Sunday April 7

One of the residents encouraged me to attend mass which is offered here at the Irish Cultural Center each Sunday.   On other Sundays, I admired the singing heard in the courtyard.  A beautiful chapel, good music lured this lapsed Catholic.

Except for funerals, I haven’t been to mass since my 20’s when it was still in Latin: consequently, I couldn’t follow the service.  The priest encouraged his flock to “Not look to the past” but, “look into your heart and find something new.”  I seem to be doing the opposite.

In fact, I spent the rest of the day going down the rabbit hole of de Jorna ancestors searching for my elusive great grandfather, Armand de Jorna.  He’s always just out of reach.  I did learn that one of the de Jorna’s from Martinique, Joseph de Jorna, did return to Paris and lived on Rue Boulard which intersects with Rue Daguerre where I’ve spent so much time looking for Agnes.

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Monday April 8

Rebellion in the classroom.  I’ve been unhappy at the Alliance.  I fondly remember last year when the teacher began each Monday by inquiring about our weekends, bringing the class together and making French part of our every day.  This morning a student asked the teacher if we couldn’t do just that.  She didn’t like it but agreed. 

The discussion became quite interesting.  We covered the yellow vests whom the teacher supports.  She told us they are protesting restrictions in their daily lives.  Libraries and post offices have been closed in small villages.  Doctors are few and far between.  Their quality of life has deteriorated just as it has in Britain.  Disturbing.

Since I still haven’t heard from the Cultural Director at La Colonie, I decided to go to a creole restaurant, La Creole, not far from the Alliance on Rue Montparnasse and see, as Mr. Micawber said to David Copperfield, if “something will turn up.”  I ate delicious goat stew as I had in Saint Lucia when my daughter and I searched for records of my grandmother, Germaine.

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As the atmosphere was friendly, I asked the waitress in my bad French what I had asked the bartender at La Colonie: could she direct me to a Carribbean group that I could talk to?  She went into the kitchen and returned with a name, Les Delices.  My French must have been very bad: it is the name of Carribbean grocery store.

Given I was in the neighborhood, I went to Rue Daguerre and Rue Boulard, home of the ancien Joseph de Jorna.  When I reached the street, I stopped in a book store and a real estate agent asking if they could direct me to the oldest house on the street.  No, they could not.  There are two blocks noted for their age.

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Joseph de Jorna according to my source, “Il mourut en 1726 en son hotel.”  He died in his hall or townhouse in 1726.  Were any of these buildings here in 1726?  Could this be “son hotel?”

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I chose it because my father, who wanted so much to be the ennobled small de in de Jorna, would have approved.

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My father, Louis Zinis, second from the right, back row

Then, one last stop on Rue Daguerre, last home to Agnes Varda.

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