(A series of 8 articles)
Sign up for Sicular and Associates Article and Commentary List
(A series of 8 articles)
After two months away, I landed at Newark late on a Tuesday night in early September and came home to a steamy New York. Customs and baggage were uneventful, as was the taxi ride home, a “mere” $100 including tolls and tip.
Other cities have grown in relative importance, but New York still has that undeniable concentration of financial, intellectual and cultural clout that holds onto people like me. Just recently aged 65, I am often overwhelmed by the crowding and unreasonable expense of living here. Yet I try to adapt, drawn to the continued possibilities of the place, unwilling to throw in the towel or retire.
Temperatures hit 90 degrees after my return, and the late summer dissatisfaction was general—on the crowded subway, as reported by our office receptionist, and even in a shared Uber car, where another passenger spoke of a headache in the heat. New York has always had hot summers—Dad grew up here in Queens in the 1920’s and 30’s and said that many handled the worst of it by sleeping outside on fire escapes.
Forecasters have predicted many more hot days, and the midday heat and lack of breeze becomes intolerable. But worse is the oppressiveness of the subway stations, the grimy staircases and passages, steamy platforms and overcrowded cars. These all seem even more unbearable when temperatures rise. The climate is changing, and sea levels are rising. But the urgency of these issues is seen in the future rather than in the present.
New York is a big international city, increasingly rich and successful. It is a magnet that draws poor immigrants from other places, the rich to its culture and elevated consumption, gay men and women to its freedom, and the young and ambitious from abroad and across America to opportunities in the arts, in theater, in finance, in high tech, and in dating.
But now the city is bursting at its seams, suffering from its success. The density overwhelms us with increasingly difficult traffic and ever-taller high-rises everywhere, not only in Midtown, which has been rezoned for super-tall-super-bulk new office buildings, but also in residential neighborhoods that are being up-zoned to encourage low income housing.
When the offices become obsolete and the new housing is still inadequate, will we be build still taller? City Planning believes that density is a positive good, but certainly there is a limit to how much is good. Is building new, 70-story, energy-efficient office buildings really energy efficient?
New York has been overcrowded before. The walk-up tenement districts of 19th century New York were extremely overcrowded, and the solution was elevators, to build up, and subways and trains to move uptown and out-of-town. Now however the city builds up, hardly adding to the subways and trains that drive development outwards. Infrastructure improvements aren’t keeping up, and the streets, sidewalks, trains and museums are increasingly difficult to negotiate.
This was a country of big thoughts and big spaces, but our vision is now needlessly limited, and New York has lost its imagination for big dreams and big projects. Instead is residents are increasingly squeezed and doubled up, and those deciding these things tell us this is good. It is remarkable that we live in a city so rich, so unbelievably rich, yet with so little will for fundamental improvement and so little imagination for large public projects.
The city’s present problems are not limited to infrastructure. Many do not have places or adequate places to live; many city schools are substandard; access to health care is uneven. In the periods of its greatest growth, New York has often had ample room for poverty and suffering. However, in an increasingly progressive and civilized society, this has become unacceptable. Yet we are unwilling to agree on how to change what we do not accept.
The New York Times reports frequently on malfunction and overcrowding in the subway system. Of the two heavily-used train tunnels under the Hudson, connecting New York to New Jersey, one may soon have to be closed. Yet work on the subway system is slow and underfunded, and a replacement tunnel is still in the planning stages.
To alleviate some of these problems, we allow developers to build-up on private property, or we add new high-end buildings on public land in the Hudson Yards, a game that promotes development and increases real estate tax revenues, but where we never seem to catch up. At the same time, every need is viewed as primary, every budget constraint as unjust or unfair, and every tax increase as unreasonable. We avoid the difficult decisions and believe that others, the federal government, the rich, the unions or ineffective teachers ought to pay.
Thus the city is periodically strapped for money, never ever able to fund or execute all that we demand of it. And it is likely that its progress will remain stymied and minimal unless there is some support and re-prioritization by all of us.
Or alternatively, we can wait for the present to overwhelm us.
This is the first in a short series of articles examining possible solutions to New York’s seemingly insurmountable issues. I am doing this by interviewing experts in planning, development, finance, and transportation. Each will be spending sufficient time with me to develop a coherent approach or proposals.
New York, October 5, 2018
I have taken a break from writing about France, partly from fatigue and partly from the fear that what I am sharing has become too personal. But I am increasingly overwhelmed by the power of what I am seeing, and so have returned to my laptop.
First I am focusing on the place where I am presently writing, a house in a town in lower Normandy, in an area known as the Suisse normande, due its relative hilliness. I am visiting Carolyn Douglas a friend and classmate from New York, who is here with her husband John, son Ben, a cousin and a niece, in a large, elegant house that was built and enlarged in the mid and late 19th century. The house and its furnishings, inherited by Carolyn’s mother and her sister, through a lengthy line of mothers, photograph life as it was comfortably lived by the haute bourgeoisie, prior to the Second World War and for some years thereafter. During the occupation, it was taken over by Nazi officers, and Carolyn’s great-grandparents were eventually forced out, to a year of wandering through hayfields and farms, which they fortunately survived. But the house was not damaged and its furnishings and gardens have been preserved. I have had two wonderful evenings here, with drinks in a nearly-square library, and dinner in a large dining room. Annette, the cook, is a special, friendly woman and the food is in her words simple and fresh. If only I can reproduce it.
On Saturday, August 18, I took the high-speed TGV from Paris to Nantes, a local regional train to Pornic, and then a car to Prefailles, a small 19th-century seaside town on the south coast of Brittany, where I spent five more-than-pleasant days with Francois and Claude Marion, their son, Sebastien, and his family, Claude’s sisters, Michele and Cecile, and various other grandchildren, a partner and friends. I have known and loved this family for a very long time.
Lunch is every day in France, and typically at one o’clock, when on holidays and weekends, everyone sits down to a full meal, including an entrée, main course, and salad, then often a cheese course and dessert, followed by coffee. From the American perspective, these meals are time consuming, as they cut into the middle of the day, but there is pleasure in shopping in outdoor or covered markets, and in modern supermarkets, and in preparing (or watching the preparing) of food. Most importantly it is the pleasure of the lengthy conversation at the table. Then, more informally at dinner, the talking continues. Again, we might find this to be a lot of eating, but breakfast is very light in France, and lunch and dinner portions are not large. There is a great deal of emphasis on taste. There is wine, but not always, and my friends drink relatively little.
Francois and Claude serve lunch in the garden, as weather permits, as did Eric and Anne-Genevieve de Saint Germain, on the terrace of their house in Dinard (on the north coast of Brittany). Anne and Jean Elie served coffee, after lunch, on their lawn in Hermanville-sur-mer, on the Normandy coast. All three houses have walled (stone) or hedged gardens. And so setting up and eating or drinking outside becomes part of the effort and the pleasure of the meal, which needs no further justification.
Dinard, on the north coast of Brittany is a striking seaside town, overlooking cliffs and beaches and an intense emerald colored English Channel. The many, many, often-large and tall, 19th century houses have walled gardens, on streets and squares or on narrow, charming alleys or lanes. Many were built by the English who came here, for sea-bathing and leisure, in the late 19th century. There is still a casino, which no longer looks too interesting and a 50-meter saltwater pool. I had not been in a saltwater pool since the 1960’s, and had forgotten its additional buoyancy. The effect of Dinard is of a small, old-fashioned, privileged city, yet with lots of public spaces and beaches, many summer visitors and a crowded and fabulous weekend market. However while in Dinard, I focused almost exclusively on my friends and took very few good pictures.
After Dinard, I visited Anne and Jean Elie in Hermanville-sur-Mer, another small, beach town, this one on the Normandy coast. The English landed on this beach in June 1944, and their house was used by the Germans as a defensive gun position. The house and its immediate neighbors, survived the shelling and the landing, but the allied invasion moved inland. Jean himself, now just 85 and an 11-year-old in 1944, fled the nearby city of Caen with his family and lived in the countryside for two months, to escape the fighting and the bombing of the city.
History lives of course in this part of France, in many 19th century beach houses, in the much older villages, walled chateaux and churches visible from the road (some dating to Norman times), in the hedgerows, and in the memory of the two great 20th century wars. The Normandy landing was the first step in the liberation of France and the invasion of Germany. Of course Americans too were heavily impacted by these wars, but they took place in Europe, and I am writing this in Normandy; the memories are physically present here. But they are also proximate elsewhere. Anne Genevieve and Erics’ fathers were prisoners of war in Germany. Francois Marion and Anne Elie’s mother, Andree, traveled into the mountains above Lyon to get fresh food. Other friends’ grandparents were visited by the Gestapo in Paris, but their mother had learned German, and the German officer suggested that they leave immediately for the countryside.
Anne and Jean invited me some years ago to visit them in Hermanville, to see the beaches where American, British and Canadian forces landed in June 1944. I was finally able to visit them this summer. On our first afternoon together, with three of Anne’s grandchildren, we biked into the village, and visited the old Romanesque church. Then we headed to the British cemetery nearby. Jean explained that the British set up a number of smaller cemeteries after the war, whereas the Americans consolidated the graves of our war dead, to a very large one at Colleville-sur-mer, overlooking Omaha Beach.
At the British cemetery there was a monument, and a visitors’ book, which I read through briefly. One entry was written by a woman from West Sussex, England who brought her 95-year-old father, and after reading it I was very moved by the strength of the love it describes.
“Probably the last year I will bring my Dad—he visits the grave of Derek Wright. . . his second wife’s wartime sweetheart. When May died 24 years ago her ashes were buried in Derek’s grave. Dad has visited every year since on May’s birthday. I(n) remembrance of Derek and May who never found the happiness of marriage and family together.”
The next day (after lunch), we drove to the cemetery at Omaha Beach. There are thousands of crosses and some Jewish stars and clear and impressive monuments. This was August 28, and at 5 o’clock, two American flags, were raised, from half mast, to full height, before being lowered in honor of Senator John McCain. Jean then drove me to the Pointe du Hoc where, he explained, many American soldiers had died scaling cliffs to take down a German gun position.
Seeing all of this is a reminder that that my life is due entirely to the United States, who saved my mother when her family fled from Europe and added its power to that of the alliance, defeating the Nazis. Even my present disappointment does not lessen a fundamental belief that I am obligated.
Before the visit, I wrote my maternal cousin Stephan Greene, to ask about his father, George’s, landing in Normandy. He reminded me about George’s memoirs, which I had never entirely read. But they were saved in my laptop, so that evening I read them to Anne and Jean and the children. I’m not sure that the children understood it, but the three of us did, and for me, it was an important circle backward.
George, a Jewish refugee from Austria in 1939, was inducted into the US army five years later and landed on Utah beach a few days after the first wave of the invasion in June 1944. Working as a technician, a surveyor and a translator on the front, he participated in the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the invasion of Germany before returning to New Jersey. His sister, our mother, was the only one at home when he arrived unannounced. His mother, our grandmother, hugged and covered him with kisses, which he remembered as he wrote this in 2010, and his/our Aunt Eva gave him a new, then very expensive, ball point pen. (My uncle was grateful and in his retirement made the large stained glass windows in his synagogue.)
His younger brother Jack also fought in Europe, was wounded and rewarded the Purple Heart. He left no memoirs, and preferred not to talk too much about it, but my cousin Elliot Greene has written “that being Austrian, he and George were given the opportunity to serve in the South Pacific, but chose to go to France to fight the Nazis.” He also wrote that “Neither George nor my father were citizens at the time. I’m not sure if George was included [editor: turns out he was not], but apparently some officers in France discovered that these young boys (my father would have been all of 20 in 1944, George 22), who were not citizens, were fighting for the U.S. My father was brought to the US Embassy (Paris?) and given US Citizenship without a test and without waiting.”
(I am adding to this article on December 8, as my mother’s cousin Jack Herschlag has written to advise me that Jack landed in Normandy on D-day, “late in the day, as he said, not wishing to appear too heroic.” He was wounded in France and taken to a hospital in England, where the bullet was removed surgically. Once recovered, Jack rejoined his unit, then in Belgium, and earned the Bronze Star. The medal helped him get the paperwork done in Paris.)
Now completing my trip and return to France, I’d like to thank my uncles for what they did for me and apologize to them for taking so long to realize how important it was.
I was heading back to Paris, by high speed train from Amsterdam remembering my first visit many years ago.
Paris was not on my first trip to Europe. Mom took us to Rome in about 1967 and maybe to Venice or Florence. Then, ill-advisedly, we went to Vienna, where she was born, and then to a hotel on one of the lakes in Austria. (Frau Professor, the innkeeper called her, annoying her to no end.)
It was on the second trip, five or six years later, returning again from Asia, that Dad took me for a brief first visit to Paris. (Today, August 15, would have been his 97th birthday.) We stayed in a small hotel near the Place Vendome, and one evening I walked to one of its grander hotels and used my high school French to talk with one of the bell boys.
Now, many decades later, I am back in a city where I lived and have visited many times. Alexandre M. and Dorota K. have lent me their apartment on the rue d’Aligre, which is in the 12th arrondissement, within walking distance of the Gare de Lyon and adjacent to the marche d’Aligre, a covered and outdoor market open mornings, or mornings and afternoons, except Monday.
A very friendly cab driver takes me to the cleaning lady to pick up the key, then back to the apartment, and while I have been here before, I am thrilled. It is in a garret, under the roof of a small three-story building that dates from the late 18th or early 19th centuries; the living room is under a long, sloped roof-line, with skylights, bookshelves and a desk; and the entry, kitchen and guest bedroom face a small, bright courtyard, through red geraniums in pots and planters. The kitchen is my favorite room, with two rows of counter, each with upper and lower cabinets, a dishwasher, an oven, a cook top and a table under the window.
It is curious to think back to when travel was a rarer privilege, when we dressed up for the plane and had pleasant conversations with the strangers sitting next to us. Before the reasonable discount fares and the long security lines we have created, seemingly before every interesting city had become a tourist mecca where we go to see each other, and certainly well before young people posted self-congratulatory messages adding up the considerable number of countries they have visited.
So I am particularly happy to get up this morning, and to walk out to a market square where people come to buy food and to have many choices. Yesterday I walked into the covered market, where a number of the shops are closed for the August holiday, their metal shutters drawn down. But many are open, a couple of cheese and dairy shops, a butcher, a fishmonger and a charcuterie. I stopped at the last for a slice of country pate—made with pork, the clearly middle eastern young salesman told me. There were a number of other pork products in the display case, but I did not ask the differences.
Outside are vegetable and fruit stands, and these are also up and down the rue d’Aligre where I am staying. I tasted a fig and an apricot—there are always tasting pieces available—but they were not so good, so I take a scoop of mirabelles, a small yellow plum en promotion. Buy whatever is on sale, my friend Stefani counsels, it is always the freshest, and they are very good.
Behind the stands, specialty shops line the rue d’Aligre, a middle eastern butcher and pastry shops, a small, modern, organic market, a bakery, cheese shop, wine store, etc. One night I bought a rotisserie chicken at the butcher, and we had a fairly long conversation. Private schools in Paris, he said, are expensive—I think he said 350 to 400 euros a month, depending on how many children you are sending. A few doors down, another store sells regional specialties, a higher grade version of Nutella, a very good apple juice, mustards, a reasonably priced wine. According to an authoritative source, on the rue d’Aligre or within a block of the apartment, there are . . .
–5 bakeries including one specialty, Algerian bakery
–2 wine stores (rue d’Aligre) and 3 more within a block
–2 fishmongers (rue d’Aligre) and 2 more in the covered market
–2 cheese shops and 2 more in the covered market
–6 butchers on the rue d’Aligre of which 3 are halai, plus 4 more in the covered market (one specializes in fowl)
–a number of spice shops
–at least three restaurants listed in the Michelin guide.
—“bref, un quartier de bouffe”
. . I’m lacking only dinner guests; it’s August.
Although resisting, I am venturing out. First to the swimming pool at the centre de Reuilly and then back along the Coulee Verte Rene-Dumont, formerly an elevated railway line, now a landscaped park that preceded Manhattan’s High Line. The difference is striking. While the High Line is crowded with visitors and expensive new condominiums, the Coulee Verte is quieter and more spacious, as it connects with adjacent parks. The buildings along it are sometimes innovative, not as new or as pristine. The people seem to be a mix of visitors and people from nearby, using the Coulee to go places.
Later, its with Catherine, to the peaceful Musee des Arts Decoratifs on the rue de Rivoli, (next to the very crowded Louvre) where we spent a fair amount of time looking at medieval statuary and where she taught me the meaning of the term “annunciation”, a delicately carved 18th century, walnut paneled room, a number of very beautiful things made in the late 18th and very early 19th centuries, and a number of very ugly things made in the late 19th century.
Then at my suggestion, we walked further down the rue de Rivoli to café Angelina, and a table in its high-ceilinged, worn and gilded, belle epoque rooms. Its specialties include Catherine’s very intense hot chocolate, too sweet to my taste, and a dessert I always think about, the mont blanc, a confection of chestnut paste, whipped cream and meringue. It is August, and the place is filled with other tourists, but the rooms set the mood.
Unfortunately, the rue de Rivoli’s arcades are marred by overflow display racks from tourist shops, mostly clothing and stuff. Catherine and I marvel that the city permits this invasion, but concede that the stores would not survive if people were not buying. A compromise solution—stores for everyone, where products are shown behind plate glass windows, the elegant arcades restored.
Today, I walk old haunts in the Marais. My favorite, the Hotel de Beauvais, was built for a woman, who was said to have been Louis XIV’s first mistress, and is now an appeals court. It is the inner courtyard and its petit escalier that I admire, but its massive outer doors are closed for the August holiday. So I settle for the much better known Hotel de Sully, and marvel at the symmetry created on its uneven site, on the courtyard and garden facades, and on the rear garden doorway, which leads directly to the arcades of the Place des Vosges.
Here of course I am sharing space with growing numbers of people, but enjoying it until I start to turn left, on the north side of the square, to the rue des Francs Bourgeois, where I see a crowd of shops and visitors, and so leave the square and head back to the comfort of the rue d’Aligre.
These comments are dedicated to Alexandre, to Dorota and to Catherine, for sharing wonderful places.
Paris, August 15, 2018
Prefailles, edited after lunch and a nap at Alexandre’s parents, August 21, 2018
I’ve taken a side trip to visit some younger friends in Amsterdam. I know them from the year they spent in New York—Brune, the daughter of friends in Paris, and her boyfriend Frederic, working respectively in solar-panel marketing and on-line auction sales, jobs that didn’t exist when we were young and reflect Amsterdam’s start-up culture.
They live in a quiet, residential neighborhood known as De Pijp, which consists primarily of five and six story brick buildings, many on winding streets, most of which appear to have been built from the 1930’s to the 1990’s. Many of the apartments have doorways to the street, a reference to the individual townhouses that still populate the older sections of Amsterdam. The streets are a series of doors, and thus largely occupied.
My last visit to the Netherlands was in the late 1970’s with a friend whose parents had a house in The Hague. There, I remember a tall staircase, reminiscent of those I later saw in townhouses in New York, and a reminder that in the United States, 19th century urban architecture was derived from what the Dutch and the English built.
That visit to Amsterdam, was very brief, so I do not know the city. This time, for the first two days, I recovered from previous weeks, staying close to my friends’ apartment, writing and walking the neighborhood.
There is a commercial street a couple of blocks away, Van Woustraat, the kind I like, with a barber/hair dresser, Asian market, nut-roasting shop, bakery, organic market, coffee shop. . . everything is different and most of it is unique. The center of the street is torn up for some kind of infrastructure work, adding inconvenience to its charm. The first afternoon, I found a one-off place, but with windows and long tables, like one sees at a Pain Quotidien, and I ate smoked mackeral on dark bread with some kind of berry jam.
As a gay man, it is impossible to walk Amsterdam without noticing the relatively numerous, tall, gorgeously blond men (and women). Reminding myself there are many different types of good looks, and that blondness is no longer the standard of beauty, does not lessen their impact.
As an American Jew, I am reminded of the importance of Holland in our history, a country where we were welcomed and prospered, while repressed or excluded elsewhere. As children, we were taught that Holland welcomed a Jewish/Sephardic community escaping the Inquisition in Spain, that we/they built an important business community here, that some of our/their number founded (via Recife, Brazil) the first Jewish colony in New Amsterdam, that the Dutch West India Company insisted that Governor Peter Stuyvesant accept us/them, and that our oldest Jewish synagogue still standing is sephardic and in Newport.
At the Temple Emmanuel religious school (the one in San Jose), I built a model of the Newport synagogue. I am reminded of this during my visit to the much larger, beautifully preserved Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, which clearly inspired it.
Jewish history in Amsterdam is also tragic, and that too seems to be amply observed. Walking to the synagogue, the names of those deported, during the 1940’s, are on plaques along the canal, opposite their houses. The Dutch saved many of us, but many also cooperated. And so I am reminded of my own history, of how few of us escaped, and why many of those who did (and those of us born to them) can never see Europe as tolerant or safe.
With the present alternate reality, in the United States, we may wish to reconsider. Dutch tolerance seems present and easy in the considerable racial and national mixing in Amsterdam. Everyone is speaking Dutch (and everyone speaks English) reminiscent of the welcome tolerance inherited in New York and the real reason for our national being.
Amsterdam, August 11, 2018
It is impossible to convey my love for France without writing about the Vink sisters. Both are now married, with husbands, children and grandchildren, but of course that was not how they were when I met them.
Therese was a charming, friendly, urbane young woman, working in Paris in the late 1970’s, formerly the girlfriend of a friend at Columbia. Anne, whom I met a bit later, was almost a schoolgirl, neatly and conservatively dressed, with just a hint of the very glamorous, worldly woman she has become.
I thought I was a big deal at that age, raised in the Bay Area, living in New York, school at Princeton and Columbia, years with my parents in India and Singapore, and already a year in France. But I was unprepared for the urbanity of the Vinks—Dutch father and French mother, raised in the Hague and Paris, years in South America, speaking easily French, Dutch, English and Spanish. But it wasn’t only their languages; it was their refinement, their eclectic origins, their friendly manner, disciplined informality, and ease and willingness to talk with everyone. If I could have wanted women, I would have been happy to have been chosen by either of them.
So we are friends. There are actually four sisters, two in Holland, in Amsterdam and the Hague, and two in France (It is the French sisters that I know well.) Therese married Jacques, a retired agricultural engineer, a great reader, a conservative and unconventional thinker with clarity and memory. Anne married David, an American physician who fought infectious diseases at the CDC and the World Health Organization (in Geneva) and now continues to do so from London.
It is summer, and both sisters are near Lake Geneva (lac Lehman), Anne at her family house in Sauverny, France, near Geneva, and Therese at a chalet in the mountains above Evian les Bains, also in France on the south side of the lake.
To see Therese, I have taken the train from Lyon, with a quick change at Bellegarde, and Jacques is waiting for me at the station in Evian. I can see from the train that the old 19th century Evian factory, romantically abandoned at my last visit, has been torn down for new apartments, not yet finished, with direct views of the lake. Evian, a 19th century water-cure resort for the rich, has been revived, retaining much of its lakefront elegance, a few grand hotels and houses, a water spa, a wonderfully-restored funicular, and some of the less-interesting shops, café’s and smaller hotels that populate a place that many people visit. Therese and Jacques are in Bernex, an old farming village about 600 meters above the lake. The drive is sharply up, to a chalet at the end of a valley, where the hot weather cools down at night and where the Alps are close and present.
Jacques is French. Therese retains her intriguing blend of refinement, open sincerity, and informality, but has spent her married life in France, and seems now more decidedly French. Therese and Jacques have a daughter and two sons, and this summer the children are alternately with them in Bernex, where Therese and Jacques help look after their grandchildren. Helene, their daughter, brings her children while her husband is recovering from a medical procedure; their son and niece bring their families from Geneva, to visit and escape the heat. Their oldest arrives the evening of my departure, to pick up 18-month-old Gabriel, before taking him to visit his other grandmother in the mountains of Algeria. Gabriel is a heart-toucher, starting to mimic a few words, charming and happy and affectionate and friendly, and just sometimes demanding and tiring. Therese and Jacques feed, teach, nap and entertain him. We were swimming and walking, eating, talking and watching him. Therese and Jacques are private people, focused on family and good friends.
To Anne, I’m on the ferry from Thonon-les-Bains to Morges in Switzerland. The boat is clean, orderly, quick and a bit expensive (27 euros). David and Anne, at the other end, show me Morges and propose dinner in downtown Geneva at the Bains des Paquis, a worn, crowded, concrete, quasi-public beach, built on piers, with views to the entire city lakefront. The place has a great energy. Everyone is there: all classes, nationalities and races, and everyone is well behaved, even groups of young men.
We eat at an open, outdoor, casual restaurant, under awnings and right on the water. Anne’s daughter Laura is there with her husband and two children. Laura is clear-minded, accomplished, a Swiss-trained contract lawyer, very direct, open and independent, and by her thinking and delivery, the daughter of an American father.
It is very hot and all of us are at the house in Sauverny, eating outside in the evenings and mornings. The kids both have golden blond hair and blue green eyes, more like each other than like either of their parents. They are sometimes naked, almost-always happy. Lucie, at four, is creative and funny and endearing—one afternoon she runs around in a cape–and occasionally she tries to be the boss. Paul at 12 months is mostly exploring or eating and looking to be held. What is striking about all of the Vink grandchildren (for someone who has none) is how open, friendly and welcoming they are, and how much love they exchange with their parents and grandparents. They are used to daycare, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. I am yet another source of curiosity, hugs and affection.
On all of my days with both sisters, we are in the water, at public beaches on Lake Geneva, from a boat in the middle of the lake, or at a small lake in the mountains near Bernex. The beaches have pebbles, tough on naked feet, but the water is clear and clean, and I have no need for goggles. The views are incredible. I love outdoor swimming and the cool clear water, daily, is an incredible paradise for the now-old-man Californian.
Anne and David are home for the summer break but enjoying London. For David, London keeps him working, teaching, and busy. For both it is theater, many other things to do, and friends. They know lots of people, and more so as they are open and generous and stay in touch with many, I think, as they have with me. Their lives are very bi-cultural, multi-cultural; their household, including the grandchildren, alternates between French and American English. This is an easy, relaxed place for me.
Anne’s charm is elegant and mischievous. Like Therese, she is efficient and seems to do everything without effort. Laura handles repairs to the washer and refrigerator. The house is pristine, without much or any outside help. Anne is an open and interactive grandmother, strict when needed.
Like me Anne loves beautiful places and houses so shows me a few Swiss villages, on the lake and in the hillside vineyards. All are superbly maintained, as are the hedges and the open farmland between them. Many of the newer buildings are conventional, some very interesting. The older farmhouses are large and voluminous. An entire effect of scale and history has been maintained. The shopping streets are real streets, with stores and café’s, catering to those who live there, not just to tourists. This is a wealthy, gilded, area, which alone does not explain the Swiss commitment to intelligent urbanism. Change is everywhere, but it is carefully managed, and history has not been sacked.
Amsterdam, August 7, 2018
Marseille, July 29, 2018
Despite its mixed reputation, I was hoping to like Marseille. I took a hotel room in an attractive, not-too-expensive place recommended by a friend of young friends, in a residential area not too far from downtown. It is very hot here this summer, and the hotel has gardens, an outdoor restaurant, and a pool. During my entire childhood, in the Bay Area, we had year-round access to outdoor swimming, a lost pleasure. Swimming and the Mediterranean explain, in large part, the appeal of this city.
Marseille is a great port dating to the Greeks. It is said to be run down, unsafe in parts, filled with north African immigrants, and with pickpockets. Younger friends tell me that it is polyglot, interesting, with a great variety of food and markets, and with inexpensive bourgeois apartments, no longer wanted by the affluent classes.
If you have seen the Netflix series, Marseille (with Gerard Depardieu), then you know that the city is tough, corrupt, proud and lawless, but also that it is connected to the sea, warm, and inclusive. I was looking forward to coastline weather, to more variety, to some beautiful things, and to some good meals.
Marseille surpassed my expectation. From the train approaching the St. Charles Station, it was the bare rock of the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, and the tall, seedy, working class apartment buildings. Marseille is immediately evident as a large, living, working city, with a big-time energy that eludes Montpellier or Bordeaux.
Once checked in, I walked towards the coast, not yet clear that I was high over the Mediterranean. The neighborhood is a series of walls, closed in, and then it opens up, to an elegant shuttered 19th century villa overlooking the sea, to a hot and dry park with a friendly but unconventional stranger, to other beautiful houses, also facing outwards, to lesser houses and a large apartment block. Stairs walk down to a busy shore road, that runs along the cliffs to the center of the city, looking down to rocks and the sea, and eventually a beach. The marseillais are in the water, or on the stairs, or sunning themselves—lots of sunbathing, unembarrassed bodies–or drinking at the restaurants hugging the rocks, or walking on the sidewalk with me. The water is clear and magical, calling me in, but with no place to leave my glasses.
The next morning, I shared a cab with a Norwegian woman visiting her half-French daughter. The cab driver explained that there is a lot of unemployment here, and that the port has lost a lot of its business due to aggressive unions and strikes. The ship-repair business, for which Marseille was well positioned, has moved down the coast, or to Italy. Recently, one company folded, as it was unwilling or unable to retain surplus jobs, and it could not reach an agreement with the workers. There are two important unions in Marseille, he said. They are the bosses.
Marseille is the third largest urban area in France, but not one of the faster growing; nor has it been distinguished by its income growth. It has a very large poor-to-working class population, and the sometimes-romantic seediness of a large sea port, but these are not necessarily qualities that attract investment capital or businesses succeeding in the new economy.
It does seem to hold the affection of its residents. One cabbie I spoke to moved back here for a break, and has not returned to London, another was brought here by his parents from Lille and speaks now with the marseillais accent. There are a lot of comfortable, modern apartment buildings on the south side of the city and lots of people heading to and from the beach, all the time. Perhaps its economy relies on its geography, its guts and its ability to attract and hold people to it.
Paul Lebas, a young entrepreneur from Lille, a friend of the young friends mentioned earlier, graduated from the Kedge Business School and has stayed in Marseille. At lunch, with him and from those friends, I have heard that the city is appealing for its lifestyle and inexpensive cost of living. But most of the big companies and the best jobs are in Paris. This did not stop him from starting a business, at first managing Airbnb apartments. Now it is a partnership in two cities, growing to three or four, renting and re-letting large apartments, short term. In Marseille, the renters are business groups and weekend tourists, mostly French, but also Chinese, Russian and American, or sometimes the families of prosperous north-African immigrants. The apartments are furnished and maintained, and the landlord receives income from Paul’s company, a reliable long-term tenant. Paul has been living here for a while and has begun to invest. Apartments are cheap, it seems, with an 8% return possible, but tourism may be the major source of economic growth.
Marseille’s renewal as a tourist destination was energized by its selection (together with Provence) as the European Capital of Culture in 2013. According to Wikipedia, the operating budget for related efforts was about 100 billion euros, and an additional 600 billion was spent on cultural infrastructure, a new museum (the Mucem) linked to the old Fort St. Jean, and a conference center.
At the center and ancient heart of Marseille is the vieux port, a penis-shaped inlet, overlooked by old forts, filled with pleasure boats, and surrounded by café tables. Some of the buildings are contemporary housing, built in large pieces of stone, with an arcade. Others are 19th century hotels, now for budget travelers, often with their entrances at the rear, leaving the full port-frontage to cafes. There is an old Opera House and a bourse behind the port, lots of narrow, tall old housing, again with cafes, on the south side, and an ancient old city on the north side, again set back from the port. All of this is busy, much of it is for visitors. Above all that, on the north side is an old City Hall, an old Church, and a luxurious Intercontinental Hotel, all beautifully presented, and behind that a Haussman-era traffic circle, where I had lunch with Paul, and the Canabiere, a broad 19th century avenue.
One of the highlights of Marseille was a visit to Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse (1947-1952), a large mixed use apartment building, on the south side of the city. To get there I took the bus, along the coast with stops at the beaches, and then it turned inland, to an area of large avenues and apartment buildings. The building is located on the huge tree-lined boulevard Michelet. Not far from it is the huge Orange Velodrome sports center, with a very new and very impressive enclosed shopping center (a step up from the Odysseum in Montpelllier).
The art is all Le Corbusier, despite the now-dated presumption that industrialized housing and towers-in-the park can be identified with quality. Even the best post-war apartment buildings that I have seen in New York, do not match the excitement of this design, be it the huge stilts that carry the building or the refined fenestration of the stores and the restaurant. This was a mixed-use concept, now a little tired and worn, but with views of the sea, a wonderful hotel and restaurant, some offices and some shops, on the 3rd and fourth floors, and a new art-exhibition center, on the 8th, which is the top.
Today, I walked up the Canabiere, past the bourse and other grand, 19th century commercial buildings, past area signs with important aristocratic and political names, Noailles, Thiers (the politician or the place?). The side streets are filled with charming, narrow, tall, shuttered, and tired apartment houses. The once-grand avenue has seen better days. This district was the city’s living center in its heyday. The King of Yugoslavia was assassinated, by a Croat nationalist, on the Canabiere, before the Second World War, as was the French foreign minister. The buildings and the squares are intact, but now affluence has abandoned it. It is crowded, but touristy and poor. Where then are the professional activities of the city center? Are they hidden away on the upper floors, or like the shopping center on the Boulevard Michelet, have they moved to the outer districts? The power of Marseille, like New York, a polyglot city where everybody mixes easily together, has been lost here.
Beyond the church of St. Vincent de Paul, on the way to the water palace, de Longchamps, I found the quiet, very tired, but elegant, residential Boulevard de Longchamps. The name is that of the 19th century race course in Paris, an overly obvious reference, but the quiet, the streetcar track, and the elegant dog-eared buildings called my attention. I had lunch in a corner café- restaurant, whose retro chic matched the cool of its young, artsy customers. I’m not sure I’d like to live here—I’m called to a view and a pool. But I’d love to collect a building on this street.
Everyone has been very friendly to me in Marseille, indeed with rare exceptions, on this entire trip. In the south the French look informal, but they are very friendly and unfailingly polite. In hotels and stores and restaurants, clients are addressed with courtesy and patience, and typically, others wait politely, knowing that they will receive the same consideration. Unlike New York, where so many daily service jobs have been delegated to newly-arrived immigrants, people who are born and raised here are driving taxis and working in stores and restaurants. Perhaps their salaries and certainly their benefits are superior to what we offer in the United States. Perhaps it is harder for immigrants to have access to these jobs, or perhaps this type of work is viewed as professional and therefore good enough.
Montpellier, July 25, 2018
After Bordeaux, I took intercity rail service to Montpellier. The train line passes through Toulouse and continues to Marseilles, but I stopped in Montpellier to see one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in France.
Its took me a few days to realize that both the city’s future and its present are reflected in the new Sud de France train station. It is a remarkable and impressive structure, and likely big enough to handle future growth. When I left it and found myself, on a Sunday afternoon, at some distance from the center of the city, I was taken aback. This didn’t seem very French. But Montpellier’s France doesn’t look at all like the France of my youth.
There is of course an old Montpellier. It is on a defensible rise, formerly surrounded by walls, and now ringed by roads and streetcar tracks. It is very old, almost medieval (founded in 985), not so much the buildings which mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the tightly woven and many narrow streets. There are electric lanterns lighting the narrowest of these, and their effect is both helpful and antique.
The feeling of ancient remove is most marked at the northwestern end of the city, near the Cathedral of St. Pierre and the old medical school which abuts it, and around the Place de la Canourgue, which was its center in the 17th century. The nearby streets are quiet and small, punctuated by open squares and small verdant parks that are closed at night. (I had two wonderful evenings, and then a third, at l’Atelier wine bar on the Pl. de la Carnourge, whose owner Emmanuel Bray, suggested a very good Macon Villages (2017), and then served a very good apricot tart, pairing it stupendously with a white Auslee cuvee (2015), from Austria.)
I have taken again, on this trip, to visiting churches, a deserving European habit because of their frequent beauty and spirituality, and because they are also cultural centers, for art and for music. In the case of St. Pierre, a one-euro donation for church maintenance, as I was leaving, earned me a private tour from an informed volunteer. A large 17th century painting, of a reactive Joseph, awakened by an angel with news of Mary’s pregnancy, was interpreted as his surprise at being told that he was to be the stepfather of the Son of God. And the adjacent hospital, according to the volunteer, was merely housing for the medical students. Classes were held outdoors or in the church. Dissections were held in the nave.
Montpellier is a famous university town, with ancient liberal arts, medical, and law schools, and a large portion of its population is students. The medical school is the world’s oldest in continued operation, its early success due to the liberal policy of the lords of Montpellier, allowing any licensed physician, including Jews, to lecture. The school was immensely prestigious during the middle ages, according to Wikipedia, reputed to have inherited the medical knowledge of the Arabs and the Jews and attracting students from all over Europe.
The center of old Montpellier has not been extensively redone, but it has been preserved, and museums and cultural institutions have been added. Post 19th century buildings are rare and are generally built at the edges of the old city. But Montpellier has been growing beyond the old city since for well over 100 years.
The great and extensive Place de la Comedie faces an opera house and other 19th century buildings. It is filled with people who are walking through, waiting for the streetcars, sitting in cafes or watching evening acrobatics. Its activity is of little interest to me, but clearly it captivates many others. At its southern end, the place opens to another square, and then transitions from stone to ceramic paving. The newer place is framed by modern, concrete buildings, including shops, perhaps 20 to 30 years old, a very good bookstore, cafes, and an architecturally interesting Ibis Hotel where I am staying. At the end of this square is a very busy, multi-story shopping mall, which has a among others, Galleries Lafayette, Monoprix and a FNAC. Throughout the day and evening, large numbers of people are walking in and out of the mall, across the square, into the Place de la Comedie, or the reverse. Everywhere there are cafés, bakeries and snack bars. These public squares are car free (with parking underneath the mall) and very successful.
North of the Place de la Comedie, the pedestrian activity flows into much of the southern portion of the old city. Most of the old city has been closed to vehicular traffic since 2004. At night, the streets and squares are filled with tables and people and restaurants, outdoor cafes and wine bars. Daytime, the stores are for the occasional shopper, juice stands, luxury goods, etc. The old buildings are there, but the street activity is transitory and one-dimensional. It took me some time and street-car travel to realize that the new soul and dynamic of Montpellier have moved outside the old city. Much of the old city has been re-adapted as an entertainment center.
Yesterday, I took a streetcar ride to the Olympic swimming pool in Antigone, a quiet planned neighborhood of large, modernist offices and apartments, built after 1979. The pool, the master plan and most of the buildings were designed by the Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill. Not the very strikingly modernist pool, but many of the other buildings, are neo-classical, in concrete, with exterior columns, a material that has not held up well and a design that is reminiscent of the 1930’s and Mussolini. The emphasis is on calm, not on street life—I saw few stores, but visible through the doorways of a couple of larger buildings are some very beautiful courtyard gardens. Walking out of the Antigone and back towards the old city, I saw streets, with cars and shops, 19th century buildings with ornate iron balconies, and taller mid-rise, apartments, some attractive, others unfortunate. These were pleasant, normal places, reflecting the character of the 19th-20th century city that lies around the old core.
Montpellier is a formerly provincial city that is pushing well past its 19th century boundaries. I followed the same streetcar line in two directions this afternoon, in the westerly direction to the terminus at Odysseum, and to the northeast, just one stop short of the end of the line at Mosson. Riding west, I saw many new (or no-longer-new) apartment buildings, surrounded by open areas and gardens, within walking distance of streetcar stations, and with roads and parking. At Odysseum, I walked off the tram into a new, two-story shopping area, which reminded me of nothing more than southern California, and specifically, with this week’s dry heat, of Palm Desert, where I visited my parents regularly some years ago. And then, I understood why Montpellier is growing. It is France’s version of the Sun Belt—affordable, modern and with wonderful weather. I spent much of my life running away from California, and here, happily, I felt at home.
Of course, it is not the same. This shopping center has sun and outdoor dining, including a very nice salad place where I had lunch, a Burger King and a parking lot (just like California), but its public goods are important and visible, a kitschy outdoor Greek theater (with classical statues and a Mahatma Gandhi), a planetarium and an aquarium, a street car station. But the cars in the lot are smaller. The atmosphere less blatantly affluent. From the train, I saw apartment buildings rather than single family houses. What it does have is the same celebration of good weather and the same feeling of middle class leisure.
Returning to the center, again by streetcar, I got off at the Port Marianne stop facing a modern building and a Kaufman & Broad showroom, a southern California builder, for whom my father did some consulting engineering work in the 1970’s. I was told that Kaufman & Broad is active all over France. Beyond it, the neighborhood, the open space, and the city hall overlooking the Lez River were strikingly beautiful. While cultivated Frenchmen (including most of my friends) prefer their country houses and elegant, or at least antique, Paris (or Bordeaux) apartments, a sunny style of modern apartment living is better, for many, than old darkened houses on narrow village streets (or carless, narrow, Montpellier streets). There is a reason for suburban living, and Montpellier is producing a higher-density version of it.
On the second trip, north and east, I saw again, an older 19th-20th century city, this time with some houses, outside the old city. This gave way again, to newer offices and apartments, less striking than some I had seen on the westerly route. What was impressive, in this direction, was the university and hospital buildings. Montpellier has retained its intellectual tradition, and an Irish passenger next to me confirmed that it is a major medical center. My map shows a number of hospital and university buildings on the north side of the city. This one is apparently brand new.
Only at the outer stops did I see what I had not seen previously. A banlieue of deteriorated contemporary housing, populated almost exclusively by middle eastern immigrants. Elsewhere in the city, everybody appears to mix with ease.
Montpellier, July 22, 2018
From Arcachon, I took the train into Bordeaux.
After the importance and elegance of Paris, and the evident, nearly uniform affluence of Arcachon and Pyla, I was initially taken aback. Of course, Bordeaux is much smaller than Paris, but much of it is also run down. My first walk, from the St. Jean train station, was through a busy area of very old, two story houses, generally in elegant limestone, but not in good shape. Everything looked low rise and small. Even at the center of the city, the buildings have no more than 4-5 stories, and in many other areas, there are houses, shops and streets that are too neglected to be charming. The vaunted St. Catherine Street consists largely seedy and generic shops, drawing tourists and poor immigrants.
This is not what was emphasized in the reading before my arrival. Queen Elizabeth herself described Bordeaux as elegant. The historic city has been largely redone. Its classical buildings are among the finest in Europe, and its historic district, which appears to include the entire center city, is a UNESCO world heritage site, the second largest in France (after Paris). Its history and wealth are fortunately tied to the wine trade–Bordeaux vineyards are north, south and east of it—and unfortunately to the slave trade, although in the latter it is not unique. For some hundreds of years, Bordeaux was an English possession, although the English rulers at that time spoke in French. The trade in “claret” has strong links to England, as shipping wine by boat to England and Holland (where it was made into spirits) was easier than shipping it overland in France. More than in the rest of France, I was told, the bordelais like clairet (between a red wine and a rose) and tea.
But the city has a cultural importance that held my expectations, and it improved vastly with the visit. Indeed, within a few days I had found and was converted to its incredible beauty, both where it has and has not been fixed up, now fully convinced that a highly-evolved urbanity can exist in a city that is both relatively small and affordable.
Bordeaux is a city of endless, classical, limestone facades, gracing the housing of both the rich and the poor, the native-born and the immigrant, and providing a varied yet consistent backdrop to government buildings, the public garden, traffic circles and irregular church “squares”. None of it has been over-renovated—it all looks and feels old. The buildings, dating from the 17th, 18th and even 19th century, are mostly contextual, that is modest, with occasional flourishes, all in limestone, respectful in scale.
The city is busy with traffic, much of it from small cars, visible everywhere except in the large pedestrian area at the city’s center, yet unlike well-preserved Boston, it not overwhelmed by its considerable traffic—most of the streets are simply too narrow. The whole thing is tied together by a bus network, which I never figured out, and by a modern, futurist, tram system, that floats slowly on the streets, tracks embedded in the stone and cobblestones that it shares with cars, and even with pedestrians on the main central square that faces the Grand Theatre.
The buildings, even the largest and grandest, are intimate, no more than 5 or 6 stories. Many are one-family houses. Cafe’s, bakeries, grocers, and luxurious stores such as JM Weston (the shoemaker), Figaret (the shirtmaker) and iconic Hermes (which epitomizes luxury by selling nothing that is absolutely needed), are all graced with classical facades. Even the 50-meter public swimming pool on the rue Judaique, which dates from the 1930’s, with a modern glass curtain wall, sundeck, and 1970’s concrete dressing rooms, is set behind an 18th century limestone gate, perhaps the former entrance to a park or an aristocratic residence, known in France, as an høtel. (Sorry, I cannot get my mac to type the circumflex).
Does it lack individuality? Perhaps, if you are an architect or developer seeking creativity, or a land owner who would prefer to speculate on land acquisition to maximize profit. All of these buildings are protected, and changes are supervised by the French administration. But if you are walking in it, shopping in it, rushing home in it, sitting in a café or on a bench, or watching people in the street, it feels immensely urbane and human. I have not yet found out where Bordeaux houses its high tech or aeronautics facilities, perhaps outside of the city center (a later topic), but I saw discreet signs for law offices and banks, and less discreet windows for neighborhood real estate agencies, restaurants, confectioners and pastry shops (so many of them), grocers and cafes everywhere. The center remains active, much more than a tourist destination, although there were many of us, filled with people going about their business. This is not at all how I remember the centers of Lyons or Toulouse, and that is not my first impression of Montpellier, but that will be checked on my visits to those cities.
In much wealthier New York, we house the poor in 19th century brick walk-ups, with some limestone trim (Why we preserve these, I have no idea.) or in faceless brick high rises, which also house the rich and the middle class. Glass elegance we have, but limestone is mostly limited to the first two floors, even on very good Manhattan buildings. (There are of course a few exceptions such as 740 Park or 19 East 72nd Street.) When a highrise condominium, 15 Central Park West, was built and clad in limestone, its use was a social and architectural tool, and a marketing statement that attracted significant press attention.
So in Bordeaux, a much poorer place than New York, I walked a huge UNESCO heritage site and a city of seemingly endless, modest, luxury. To what can I compare this in the United States? And I do not mean the age, rather the feel. To a significant degree, we mistreat our older cities, either overbuilding and overpricing them to ruin, or destroying them through neglect. Privileged Americans, we travel here to admire what we refuse to preserve or create at home.
I had a wonderful afternoon in the center of old Bordeaux: a meeting at the Grand Hotel, facing the Grand Theatre, chocolates in an elaborately old-fashioned shop around the corner, coffee at the attractive and hip Alchemist, food shopping at the round and covered marketplace Grands Hommes, and tea, from Mariage Freres (founded in 1854). Then peeks into a couple of hotel lobbies that were a lot nicer than mine—to one of which I eventually moved. And of course, a renaissance church and a lot of cleaned up, beautifully maintained, limestone buildings. Then a swim in that Olympic-sized pool on the rue Judaique, and a long pleasant walk past crowded trams, to my hotel, interrupted by a brief unplanned stop into an organ recital at the Cathedrale St. Andre. And then a nap and bread and cheese and fruit from the nearby Capucins market.
On another afternoon, I strolled through old residential neighborhoods in Saint Michel, Saint Paul and Saint Pierre, where tightly woven streets alternate with open squares and some wider avenues. The buildings, still limestone, are alternately tired and redone. The population looks settled and local, immigrants and young, somewhat multiracial, North African and French, a comfortable place for me. I found a classic, charming bistro facing the St. Michel basilica, and returned that evening for a classic, although mediocre, meal.
Have I mentioned the wine culture in Bordeaux? I had only a small taste of it, but as a northern Californian, and former San Francisco resident, I could not help reacting to the similarities and to the differences. San Francisco is to Napa and Sonoma as Bordeaux is to, well Bordeaux wines. San Francisco is a stunningly beautiful city, and it has the considerable advantage of extraordinary geography, but it has the considerable disadvantage of being hugely expensive. Bordeaux offers the refinements of its classical design and its history, in a less dramatic geographical setting, and its ancient wine culture struck me, ironically given its US reputation, as more affordable and accessible. I took a very good, short wine tasting class at the striking new wine museum, the Cite des Vins. The teacher’s detailed knowledge was impressive and without any of the ordinary and usual references to the important celebrities who consume or made them. It was just about the wine. Then I visited a second museum in the Chatrons district, which examines the history of the wine trade. And on my last evening, a visit to the Bar a Vin, a wine café, in an eclectically redesigned classical interior. Operated by the Bordeaux Wine Council, and crowded in the evenings, I waited my turn to try interesting, if not the very best wines, at 3 or 4 euros a glass (with cheese or charcuterie).
On an earlier morning, I returned to the Capucins market for a coffee, and entered into a long conversation, with a friendly, chic, Parisian woman, who followed a man to Bordeaux four years ago. The man did not work out, she said, but she has kept her small rental house, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small potager, or vegetable garden. The house is large enough for her work studio, where she restores and resells mid-century furniture. Her income is a bit less than it was in Paris, but her expenses much less. The native bordelais are not terribly friendly she told me, so her friends are others who have moved in, also from Paris. I was made to understand, by her and others, that Bordeaux is conservative, and not terribly open to outsiders and immigrants. But with a couple of exceptions, I found everyone to be friendly and helpful, despite my accent and occasional word trouble.
Bordeaux, July 21, 2018
My trip began sixty years ago, in a very different generation and place, when my mother found me a French tutor in Los Gatos, the northern California town where I grew up. (I don’t know why she did this, but in 1960’s America, French was still considered the language of high culture, and perhaps she had already divined my slim chances as an athlete.)
Mlle. Simenon was from Lille, a sweet older woman, and she taught me a few songs and a few words, in brief sessions at the table of her dark, curtain-drawn, 19th century Victorian apartment. Then there was Mme. Small, at the Singapore American School in the late 1960’s, who mimicked a monkey to teach us the correct pronunciation of the difficult letter “u” and later, Mr. Keplinger, another fabulous and serious teacher at the Los Gatos High School. (Some years later, at a party in Marin County, I told a woman that she reminded me of my former teacher. “I am Mme. Small”, she replied. In writing this, I am thanking her again for everything. . . )
The big launch was at age 19, my sophomore year in college (1972-73?), when I took/audited courses at the famous Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris and lived with a family in their large apartment in the Auteuil section of the 16th arrondissement. That family, the Marions, (and very especially Francois and Claude) became very good friends, as did their neighbors downstairs, the Duclerts (esp. Catherine), and a number of other people whom I now view as old and close friends.
I have returned to France this year, at nearly age 65, purportedly for some research and some time off, but also to see my friends. This started with a 100th birthday for Andree Marion on July 8. Almost her entire family was present, her five children, and grandchildren from France, Belgium, Taiwan and Bangkok. They all gathered for a mass at her church in Auteuil, a large modernist space facing a garden, and then for lunch facing another garden, at a restaurant somewhere near Versailles. She looked absolutely, almost unchangingly, fine, with the same warm, but self-contained, bearing that I remember. Her younger daughter, now leading a religious order, gave a fine speech about her independence. And indeed, Andree Marion has been a very strong and thoughtful Catholic, living through the war in Lyons, widowed in her 40’s, completing the support and education of five children on her own, and introducing young Americans, like me into the difficult mysteries of French discipline and manners. I should add that for an American from northern California, with demonstrative, liberal, Jewish parents, and a Viennese-born mother (with an aversion to Europe) who had escaped the Holocaust, my introduction to French bourgeois education was somewhat difficult, vaguely familiar, and very satisfying.
I had forgotten how beautiful Paris can be, the five and six story apartment buildings, the gardens, the walkable, relatively uncrowded streets, the refinements in so many people, in every meal and on nearly every corner. One of the wonders of leaving New York is not having to avoid people to get anywhere. I often wonder why some New Yorkers (and the city’s planning staff) think that New York’s ever-increasing density is so great. Cities are great places, but good stores do not thrive on astronomical rents and civilized living is not about infinite height and crowding.
Catherine Duclert (now Yokoyama) had invited me to her family’s house at Pyla-sur-mer, a beach town on the Atlantic coast’s Arcachon Bay. We took the high-speed TGV, through Bordeaux, to Archachon, with Emilie, her daughter who now lives in Tokyo, her sister-in-law, and two mostly-adorable granddaughters, where we joined two of her brothers who share the house or rent nearby.
Pyla-sur-mer and Arcachon, just next to it, are beach towns, colonized by the rich in the late 19th century and continually expanded by the similarly affluent since. The beaches are open to the public, and accessible every few blocks, with beautiful, stone free, white sand. The water is cool, and superbly swimmable (for those with the courage to swim where they cannot see). The bay is full of boats, and the houses range from huge 19th century confections to simpler, but still valuable, villas or bungalows, many in an exurban “basque” style. A few blocks away, there was a nice grocer, with morning croissants and pain au chocolat, a reasonable wine selection and other basics, and a café that managed to give me “take-out” coffee.
The highlights, of course, were the conversations (arguments) and the food–on euthanasia for example while eating magret de canard, or chez Hortense, the famous mussel and oyster restaurant, on Cap Ferret, after a taxi-boat ride across the Arcachon Bay. (and before the others watched and celebrated France’s win of the World Cup) Or at the marketplace in Teste de Buch, where we gathered wonderful vegetables and spent a small fortune at the charcutier, on magret, a ham, saucissons and other delights. Every day, so far, has been about eating something exceptional, no more than a monthly occurrence in New York (and only when either Stefani or Suzanne is cooking).