Monday, November 30, 2015
Rainy weekday mornings, as far as they go, are never as good as they are in Paris.
As a kid, a rainy morning meant I would be walked to school instead of going there by myself. The seldom-washed windows of the école communale were streaked with the residue of too many coal-fired furnaces, and when it rained recess was held indoors instead of in the school’s courtyard. No big sacrifice there. The French educational system back then did not include phys ed, so time spent outdoors was mostly either standing around or chasing each other without much gusto in lackadaisical games of tag. The teachers supervising us smoked their Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes in a corner and tried to look properly angst-ridden (existentialism was very big), prompted to move only if a pupil’s fall included blood and sprains.
On rainy days recesses held inside, a mayhem of paper airplanes, spitballs, pushing, shoving and tripping reigned in class. The teacher left and would return a half-hour later to restore order by whacking a long, straight ebony ruler against the blackboard. I remember that my fingers were permanently ink-stained; each school desk had a built-in ink pot filled by the teacher in the morning. We learned cursive writing with ink spreading on skin, class apron and under fingernails. To this day, I recall the bitter taste of the dark liquid when I licked and tried to rub it off my hands.
At home it was different. My mother had an atelier, a dress-making shop that catered to the middle class and aped the fashions of better-known couturieres. I’d come home from school, shed my rain cape (a real woolen cape that would get sodden and smelly) and do my homework on the fabric-cutting table.
I loved it in the atelier. There were two part-time models—living mannequin—who to my delight walked around in a state of constant déshabillé. Neither had finished school, but they helped with my homework, doing multiplications and divisions that always came out wrong. I didn’t care. I was fascinated by barely concealed breasts and derrieres, the curve of a leg or a spine. The math was checked by the enterprise’s gay designer and chief tailor whose facility with numbers was more pronounced than those of the models. When the homework was finished, the models and I played cards—war, usually, which requires neither intellect nor knowledge of mathematics.
Rainy days kept everyone indoors. The sewing machines clattered, fabrics hissed while cut; the atelier smelled of café-au-lait, croissants, chalk dust, and garlic from the model’s saucissons sandwiches. I gathered remnants and made fringes for my pants so they’d look like cowboy chaps. Long strips of discarded fabrics became headbands, belts, sashes, bandannas and skinny neckties. Squares became parachutes attached to lead soldiers hurled towards the ceiling or out the windows, because on rainy days in the spring and summer, my mother would throw open the large windows to let in air and the wet sounds of the city.
If Proust had his madeleines, I had and still have the sensory memory of diesel fumes, wet cobblestones and smoldering anthracite. I remember tires on water, the rushing of storm sewers, the streams escaping from the mouths of the gargoyles. There were seas of black umbrellas, the soaked flooring of an adjacent café, the aroma of the local épicerie and the sweet and tart tang of the vintner’s shop.
And that’s a Paris no terrorism will ever touch.
Friday, November 27, 2015
It took my parents several years to get used to Thanksgiving.
Turkeys (the bird) didn’t exist in Paris when we lived there and neither, of course, did the celebration. So when we came to the United States and were invited to a Thanksgiving meal hosted by American friends, there were some surprises.
The first was grace, which my more-or-less agnostic family never recited, though we did have bouncy tune that went:
J’ai bien mangé (I’ve eaten well)
J’ai bien bu (I’ve drunk well)
J’ai la peau du ventre bien tendue (The skin on my stomach is nice and taut)
Merci, petit Jésus (Thank you baby Jesus).
My dad took one bite of a sweet potato with marshmallow and blanched. This, mind you, was a man who during World War II camped out with the Touareg tribes in North Africa, trying to persuade them to join the Allies and not the Axis. To prove his solidarity with them, he once ate the eye of a sheep.
My mother didn’t quite understand the role cranberry sauce played in the meal so the first time she encountered it, she put a bit on her plate and spooned it directly into her mouth, thinking it was a sort of American mid-meal desert. Me, I thought pumpkin pie was really disgusting and I didn’t much care for the sweet potatoes either.
The turkey was interesting, though dry. It was difficult to conceive such a large bird could fly,and my mother who had never cooked anything larger than a smallish chicken was certain the thing would be pink inside and inedible. She was wrong, of course, but talked about it the rest of the week. I also remember that we’d brought a rare treat to our hosts’ home, marons glacés, candied chestnuts flown in from France. The hostess gave them an odd, appraising look, smiled, and dumped them in a china bowl that she placed alongside the less popular victuals—squash, boiled cucumbers, celery sticks and stewed tomatoes. If my mother took umbrage at the slight, she didn’t show it. She had already accepted that Americans’ gustatory instincts were at best primitive. These people turned up their noses at good cheese, saucisson, blood sausage and kidneys, Beaujolais and calf’s brain. Their dislike of marons glacés was to be expected. I saved the day by eating most of them.
The hostess loaded us down with leftovers. When we got home, my father personally placed the marshmallow and yams at the base of the large tree in our backyard for the raccoons to find. My mother made a rather dry pâté from the turkey leavings, and croquettes from the mashed potatoes.
I got sick from all the marons glacés.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
For decades prior to his death Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post did not run it this year, so I will.
This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pélerins ) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pélerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.
Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :
"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilomètre? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun à son gout. )
And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Many years ago I was Senior Writer for the World Bank, an institution both respected and reviled worldwide. The Bank, formally known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), is located blocks from the White House in Washington, DC, and every few years undergoes what is called a reorganization, a restructuring, or a staff reappraisal, depending on who is in charge. These exercises are held to further streamline the system and make it easier to work with the Bank’s 188 member countries
I went through two of these upheavals when I worked there. The general idea was that every employee from vice president on down was essentially fired (but not really) and then had to write their own job description and be re-hired again. Now you must take this sort of corporate decision with a grain of salt. The vice presidents and the department directors’ chances of being let go were slim to none, but for the rank and file, of which I was one, this was a fairly serious exercise. Many were given the option of bowing out with a fairly adequate financial package. Those whom the institution wanted out, but who would not leave, would be reassigned to often menial jobs. My favorite example was an irrigation engineer who decided to hang on and was made Parking Superintendent, which title is exactly what the job entailed. He didn’t mind. The pay was the same with a lot fewer hassles.
I bring this up because I wonder if now is not the time to have a massive reorganization of our elected servants, particularly our largely useless corps of officials on Capitol Hill.
What I am suggesting is, basically, throw the idiots out. All of them.
Rarely in the history of this country has an elected body of public servants been so useless. Both the Senate and the House are mired in partisan issues and the overarching concern of the elected is to get re-elected. After all, this is a pretty good gravy train--long vacations, free travel, unaccountability, and a large staff to get things done. Or, actually, not get things done. Good work if you can get it, which is why so many candidates want in.
By now everyone knows the electoral process has become so flawed that any ass with enough money can get elected to one office or another. Once there, he or she will end up not so much representing the people as the corporations and lobbyist who kicked in to the election fund. This is why, for example, the National Rifle Association can prevent passage of more thorough background checks of people who buy firearms online or at gun shows. Fully 90 percent of the citizens in the country have no issue with this, but legislation is blocked by NRA threats to withhold campaign funds.
Or consider the pharmaceutical industry, which for decades has justified the high price of drugs by claiming that development costs are ruinous, which is nonsense. Research and development are mostly tax write-offs, and much of it is done by independent research labs. But the pharm people have clout, and when allied with insurance companies, doctors’ groups and hospital conglomerates, wield so much power in Congress that any effort to regulate costs is easily defeated.
So here’s a thought. Let’s do like the World Bank and fire all of those below the rank of Vice President. The country is strong enough and has enough momentum to survive a lengthy period during which no legislation is suggested. Let’s have a special election and replace all the useless elected toadies who people Capitol Hill. Let’s do it with campaigns limited to two weeks and one million dollars in spending.
And let’s change the rules, too. One term, six years for everybody from dog-catcher to president. As it stands, House members are elected every two years, so they spend the entirety of their terms working toward reelection. Senators have six years, but if both sides of Congress had roughly the same amount of time in office, something might get accomplished. What it comes down to is letting the citizen rule again and make public servants understand the true meaning word ‘servant.’ Servant does not mean ‘person who wallows in the public trough.’
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Yesterday before the start of the Redskins-Saints football game, the announcers called for a moment of silence for those who perished in Paris. It happened again later in the afternoon before another game, this one played, I believe, in Ohio. I can say without the least embarrassment that both instances brought tears to my eyes.
There‘s always been a special relationship between France and the US, one that can overlook moments of foolishness such a Freedom Fries (the French retaliated by calling American cheese ‘fromage idiot’) or Jeb Bush’s stupid reference to “a French work week.” (Way to go, Jeb! That’ll endear you to the French.) There is no doubt in my mind that the country of my birth would not be what it is today had Americans failed to intervene during both World Wars. Conversely, I’ve read that French assistance helped defeat the Brits during the American Revolution
I did notice a recent ad for razor blades where a crusty razor (one, I assume, that would painfully scrape an American cheek) was portrayed wearing a beret and speaking with a Pepe le Pew accent. It seemed sort of pointless and was not particularly funny and I suspect it’s been pulled by now.
So anyway, I’ll keep this short. Thanks for the outpouring of emotions, thanks to all the friendswho asked how I was doing (still furious, powerless, raging, and grateful I don’t have the powers to launch air strikes) and who understood that, even though I’ve been here in America a very long time, the assault on My Paris cut deeply.
Merci à tous!
Sunday, November 15, 2015
So after 36 hours of non-stop discussion, the commentators in Paris, New York, London, Bonn and Washington came up with an opinion: Terrorism is a complex problem and there is no easy solution.
Hmpf. I could’ve told them that.
So many varied issues are involved that it’s become what the French call un panier de crabe, a basket of crabs. The imagery is simple. Try to get a single crab out of the basket. You can’t. With claws and legs interlocked, the crustaceans defy separation. The same goes for terrorism.
France, for example, has had a serious issue with immigrants since the end of the Algerian War when tens of thousands of North Africans came to Europe. As a nation, France was never designed to take outsiders. Indeed, it is run as a highly structured system based not on inclusion but on exclusion. The nation’s basic philosophy is one of meritocracy. Success in France often depends on the grandes écoles, highly specialized schools that take you to careers in politics, engineering, the arts, and business. This is contest-based education, where class standing, (don’t be fooled, the nobility is still there) a pervasive old-boy network and cronyism still play paramount roles. The émigrés have not breached the wall. It’s designed to keep them out and does it very well.
The immigrants, not to be outdone, bring with them old-world values that are no longer relevant. They live in neighborhoods and virtual city-states—no-go zones—where French is not spoken, and a Francophone culture may be openly reviled; often the only native French presence is the detested police. The non-native born hardly participate in the political process and are economically and educationally marginalized. They are pissed off, and rightly so. It’s little wonder that some have espoused radicalism. It’s the second-class citizens that foment revolution, not the elite.
Other more recent developments have come into play. There are guns in France, now. A Kalakshnikov imported from Russia costs about $500 on the street. There’s drugs, crime, powerlessness and rage, often fed by religious leaders of doubtful provenance. There’s massive unemployment that reaches eighty percent in some neighborhoods. Social services have fallen away, and the physical infrastructure is no better there than here, which is to say failing. Nefarious foreign influences stress violence as a solution. This is not the France tourist see; it is the hidden France that most French have turned a blind eye to.
The immigrants are at fault as well. They too, are insular and distrustful; they often see themselves as powerless and victimized—not a good outlook for future success. In a country that reveres the comme il faut, the as-it-should-be, they make it a point to stand out…
The solution, if there is to be one, comes down to a radical reexamination of what is and what needs to be done.
The Islamic communities have to do their own house-cleaning, faire le ménage, the French call it. They have to police themselves and they should be allowed and encouraged to do so.
Those who have succeeded financially and socially, and there are many, particularly in the sports, entertainment and literary world (think Isabelle Adjani, Jacques Derrida, Zinedine Zidane) have to wield their large influences to encourage education and growth. They must also agitate to hold the government responsible for its shortcoming in regards to immigrant issues.
The French government, stodgy, slow, myopic, has to deal with the no-go zones. As early as 2002, the New York Times reported, “North African suburbs have become no-go zones at night, and the French continue to shrug their shoulders.” And Newsweek said in November, 2005, “According to research conducted by the government’s domestic intelligence network, the Renseignements Generaux, French police would not venture without major reinforcements into some 150 ‘no-go zones’ around the country.” In early January of this year, the New Republic wrote: “The word banlieue (‘suburb’) now connotes a no-go zone of high-rise slums, drug-fueled crime, failing schools and poor, largely Muslim immigrants and their angry offspring.”
These neighborhoods, if they are to stop breeding outlaws, need better schools, more investments, community centers, and employment opportunities. They need to be made safe not through the efforts of the French authorities, but through those of their own inhabitants. They need to elect intelligent representatives on a local, regional and national basis. They need to become part and parcel of the nation. That would be a start.
Because here is the simple truth: The Islamists aren’t going to go away. But then, neither are the French.
Saturday, November 14, 2015
After a while I couldn’t watch anymore, but is seemed wrong not to. Aching with powerlessness, glued to the screen like everyone else, information coming in tiny morsels, watching as the banner at the bottom of the broadcast changed to show an increasing number of dead.
I called my sister; her voice was funereal. Her family was okay, huddled in their apartment like most others in Paris. I wondered at the staggering cowardice involved in such acts, and how anyone, anyone at all, could be so morally backwards as to perpetuate and condone the murders. My only satisfaction was thinking, “Alright, you despicable sewer rats. You’ve just started a war. It’s on you.”
Now, the morning after, I’m no less furious. Yes, hurray for liberté, égalité, fraternité, but let’s remember as well the really chilling part of the Marseillaise, where the anthem speaks of enemy blood watering the country’s furrows.
Here is my fear: That the vengeance will be long and bloody, that far more innocent and law-abiding Muslims will suffer than anyone else, which is, of course, what the cowards want. Every alienated youth is a potential terrorist. And faced with such a dire reality, I’m afraid the French can be, and have been, quite uncivilized now and then, and this may be one of those times.
I believe it is up to the Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere to police themselves. It is inconceivable that such coordinated acts of violence could have occurred without—at worst—the tacit approval of many and, at best, a decision by some who could have prevented the carnage to stay silent.
Whether ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the St. Germain Sewing Club is responsible is not the issue, and I don’t know whether these pathetic criminals were French citizens or not. I do believe them to be deluded, taken in by the small amount of power they wield to disrupt the daily lives of innocence. I also believe it is time, as a friend once said, for the civilized world to grow a pair and do what is needed to eliminate those who threaten peace and make war on innocents.
One thought: Make it such that any European or Western volunteer who takes up arms against the rest of us becomes nationless. Let his or her passport immediately be revoked. Let it be known they will never go home again. Ever. We may be too enlightened to behead, crucify, stone, burn or flay, but we can make it so that those who do kill and torture with impunity will never live in peace. And your 72 virgins? May they all have the pox.
Friday, November 13, 2015
Amidst grain-filled pyramids, babies butchered (or not) by Planned Parenthood, giant retaining walls to keep out willing workers, and ill-informed presidential candidates thankfully bathed in the blood of the lamb, you may have missed an important passing. Carol Doda died four days ago in California at the age of 78, marking the end of an era.
Ms. Doda was the country’s first (public) topless dancer. (I add the word public because I suspect that even before her performances, somewhere, sometimes, someone danced topless for someone else.)
She was a waitress at the Condor nightclub, a faceless place on Broadway in San Francisco, and she wanted to be in show business. She had a good smile and pouty lips, a sort of Americanized very blond Brigitte Bardot, and she could sing a little and dance a little. The mid-60s were heady times on the West Coast, so when the Condor’s owner suggested she model designer Rudy Gernreich’s monokiny bathing suit, she did just that, and the world was never the same again. In time, she decided that her poitrinne did not adequately represent her ambitions, so she became another pioneer. Her breasts were surgically augmented to a generous 44-DD. Playboy magazine did a photospread of her ample figure, and soon she was a household name.
My mother, who found my copy of Playboy as she was searching my room for God knows what, was amazed. “I would fall over,” she said. “How can she stand up straight?” My father, ever the realist, inspected the photo for a good five minutes before saying, “She must have a very strong back.”
Ms. Doda was now a world-wide celebrity, and the Condor put a twenty-foot-tall sign of her likeness on its roof. Tourists from Europe and Asia flocked to the club. Tom Wolfe discovered her and wrote, in the introduction of The Pump House Gang, “I met Carol Doda. She blew up her breasts with emulsified silicone, the main ingredient in Silly Putty, and became the greatest resource of the San Francisco tourist industry.” And indeed, she played Sally Silicone opposite the Monkees in the movie Head. She recorded a not-very-good ten-song album that today is a collectible. Then she went bottomless as well as topless, which led to a state suit prohibiting nude dancing at places that served liquor. There was a never-confirmed rumor that she might start dancing at a Dairy Queen.
In time her ample chest began to sag. There were more operations. She retired from her dancing platform in 1985. She opened up a gift shop, sang with a rock band, and, one last time, was a pioneer of what has become a staple of the adult industry. She ran Carol Doda’s Pleasure Palace, one of the country’s first fantasy sex phone lines.
Ms. Doda never married. Her life was strangely free of the scandals permeating the lives of more modern celebrities. There was no substance abuse or addiction, no seven-foot-tall drug-addled basketball players, no illicit affairs, no sex changes, no shoplifting or drunken driving charges. Instead, she nurtured the fantasies of a generation of adolescents and, in a strange way, weas at the forefront of the movement that stated women’s bodies were their own.
Critics might say she opened the floodgates of sexual permissiveness. I prefer to think of her as a revolutionary feminist.
Rest in peace, Carol Ann Doda.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Recently, a friend reading my blogs asked me if I thought my mother had been a good parent.
I’ve been writing a lot about my mother, lately, as the 24th anniversary of her death in Paris approaches. I’ve been trying to depict the complexities of a woman whom I loved, who raised me during unforgiving times, and whose life saw war, peace, divorce, and estrangement from her daughters, genteel poverty, migration, settlement abroad, and a return to the country of her birth. All of this was marked by anxiety, passion and obsession.
The question—was she a good parent?—took me aback.
I thought about it for a day or two, weighing pros and cons and throwing in the importance of thing’s I could not know and never will, and now I have an answer. She, like most everyone else in the world, did the best she could.
She was never a helicopter mother, and parents nowadays, obsessed as they are with the safety and every-moment whereabouts of their sons and daughters, would undoubtedly say my mother afforded me far too much freedom. When I was seven years old, I walked to school, a good ten blocks, crossing the Boulevard Malsherbe and skirting the Parc Monceau. I walked home for lunch, and back to school for the afternoon session. I did this six days a week—Thursdays and Saturdays were half-days back then.
At home on the third floor of the apartment building on Rue de la Terrasse, I entertained myself. We had no television, of course, and the radio was turned on only during the evening. I was rarely supervised. My parents both worked and the aged maid, Louise, had better things to do than oversee my actions. I knew not to be underfoot, and spent hours assembling and re-assembling a tabletop diorama of cowboys and Indians with here and there an Eskimo and a Roman legionnaire. I remember that there was also a triceratops in the mix, and oversized farm animals. I read compulsively: Tintin, Spirou, Paris Match, and an amazing illustrated book of world history, festooned with photos of pyramids, Asian people in conical hats worshipping at pagodas, and Genghis Khan’s invading hordes.
There was also a book I discovered hidden behind the collected works of Rousseau—naked ladies from the thirties, buxom and round and smiling, posed against backgrounds of vineyards, Pompeiian ruins, and rococo beds draped in shiny sheets. I could only access that particular book when my parents were out and Louise was doing that day’s shopping. To get to it, I stood on a chair, and shoved Monsieur Rousseau’s oeuvre aside. I snuck quick peeks in the privacy of my tiny bedroom. I’d replace the book after a few minutes, heart beating hard and fast by the daring of it all. Things are less naïve today. Sex and naked ladies are not mysterious anymore. Children are not allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied.
It was actually rare for either parent to engage with me in any way. We each had separate lives and knew what our responsibilities were. Mine was to eat all the food in my plate and not put my elbows on the table. I was to do my homework quietly and ask for help only when I truly stymied, or when the task at hand was beyond my capabilities. I couldn’t draw, for example, whereas my mother, a trained artist, could sketch a map of France free-hand, which she did for me once or twice a year. I don’t think she ever gave such assistance a second thought.
To the best of my recollection, neither parent ever went to school to talk with my teachers. Communications were established through the carnet scholaire. What the teacher wrote there concerning my disposition, my behavior, and my intelligence, was gospel.
Nor was I involved in family decisions. The very idea that a child should have a voice in such matters was plainly ridiculous; I learned of our move to America when large, muscled men came to pack up the furniture.
When I visited my great aunt in St. Germain outside of Paris, I immediately took off to wander the thirty-three acre estate surrounding the local chateau. I made friends as I went, got beaten up a time or two, and had my entire collection of glass marbles taken from me by a much bigger kid. When I complained about the unfairness of this, my great aunt walked me to the local toy store, bought an assortment of incredibly dull-looking clay marbles, and told me about her travails during World War II.
The adults in my childhood were deeply involved in their own lives We, their children, were to be polite and respectful. Well into my teens, I knew sons and daughters who, when talking with their parents, addressed them with the formal ‘vous,’ rather than the familiar ‘tu.’
We were expected to be well-informed and not offer opinions based on anything but knowledge. I remember, as a nine- or ten-year-old, getting into an argument with one of my parents’ friends over the difficulties of communicating by radio with submarines. It’s easy, said the friend. Not so, said I, having that very morning read a lengthy article about this very subject in Science et Vie. My father retrieved the article. The friend was dismayed. I was never feted for this important achievement, but my mother glowed with pride.
Monday, November 2, 2015
By the time I got to France, my mom was already in a coma from which she wouldn’t awaken. There was no opportunity for last words. She had a private room at the American Hospital in Paris on the Boulevard Victor Hugo. Forty-six years earlier and almost to the day, in a rare Parisian snow storm, she’d given birth to me in the very same hospital. Now, the cancer that slowly destroyed her had progressed too far for another operation. When it became obvious that there was no chance of survival, her oncologist increased her morphine drip and she passed away quietly.
I arrived at the hospital hours after she died. She looked incredibly small under the white sheet that was pulled up to her chin; her room smelled of flowers and disinfectant, and a light Parisian rain streaked the windows. I didn’t have any great, illuminating thoughts save the hackneyed one that, finally, she was at peace. She had always been terrified that my father would die before her; that worry was now at rest.
I remembered that the last time she’d been hospitalized, about a month earlier, I’d spoken with her on the phone and all she could talk about was how she had received more, and bigger, bouquets than a patient down the hall, a famous French singer called Serge Gainsbourg. “Qu’est ce que tu penses de ça,” she asked. “What do you think of that?” It reminded me of the time, decades earlier, when the impossibly French Maurice Chevalier came to our American home for dinner. My mother had met him shortly after the war and he was touring the States one final time, still garnering recognition and accolades for his role in the movie, Gigi. He was very old and frail by then, but could still command the attention of all the other guests. Getting him to come to our house was one of my mother’s major social a coup, but he failed to impress her. “Hmm,” said she after the star had left. “His table manners are terrible. If I were on tour, I wouldn’t eat salad with the desert fork.”
Before being hospitalized for the last time, she spent her last days at home in her Paris apartment being the perfect hostess, playing bridge with her friends, serving hors d’oeuvres and refusing to accept the inevitability of her own death. She had told no one about the severity of her illness but my sister, Isa, knew. She had summoned me from Washington with a late-night phone call. “Viens vite. C’est sérieux,” she said, and Isa was never one for exaggerations.
My father may have also known—how could he not—but he so feared the awareness that he simply refused to accept it. The Alzheimer’s that would kill him a few years later had already taken hold. It worsened immediately. He was confused, alternately laughing, then in tears, her disappearance too much for him to comprehend. When he finally did, a light in his eyes faded and never returned.
There was a flurry of activity. Even in death she was a center stage and this would have pleased her. Some four hundred friends, acquaintances and, I suspect, a nemesis or two, attended her funeral service. My father shook hands woodenly, accepting condolences with the nod of his head but never entirely there. I stood next to him in a suit that was too thin for the weather and held on to his right arm. He too, seemed smaller.
Her ashes were spread at the Père Lachaise Cemetery on Rue du Repos, and she was well surrounded by famous people. Guillaume Apollinaire, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau and yes, Jim Morrison, whom she’d never heard of but probably would have liked.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
So since they’ve gotten a good reception, one more blog about my mother...
She was a supreme and wily entertainer who hosted large dinners at our home at least once a month, bridge games twice weekly, and cocktail parties whenever the urge hit her. She had a large contingent of friends, almost all of whom were Europeans, and freely admitted that she always invited the people she distrusted most because she thought it wise to keep the pyromaniac in the firehouse. She routinely made couscous for fifty people and strangely, considering her abhorrence of anything German (the war never completely left her), sauerkraut and sausages for a multitude.
My mom was a versatile cook but not always a good one. She authored lamb burgers from the leftovers of a leg of mutton, and the odor was so pungent I could smell it from the street. On lamb burger day, I’d bicycle past the house, and go to the local luncheon counter to have a grilled cheese sandwich. She also made poached eggs in aspic, a dish so repulsive I hid in my room whenever she prepared them for her guests, who pretended delight but left most of the treat in their plates. I remember the soft yellow yolk, once pierced, spreading through the aspic like gangrene. You had to be there.
Once or twice a year, my parents would host a costume party and the cream of the Washington francophone society would show up with the women in some sort of déshabillé featuring deep cleavages, mesh stockings and split skirts. The men were less original, coming as tired pirates or soldiers. One time, a visiting French consul came as an American, wearing a cheap suit from Sears and size fourteen shoes.
Then there was a party with a French Revolution theme, and one handy man built and brought over a working guillotine. There were no safety mechanisms whatsoever; you pulled the lever and a ten-pound metal blade, sharp as a razor, came crashing down on the cutout for the victim’s neck. The partygoers used it to slice the baguettes.
The guests always drank prodigiously, and the day before a large party my father would go to Paul’s Liquors and buy cases of booze The invited generally arrived already tipsy from a cocktail party or two, and a dozen couples, in one evening’s time, would go through two cases of wine and one of hard liquor, as well as a bottle or two of after-dinner liqueurs. One of my mother’s better tricks was to serve a few bottles of good French wine at the start of the dinner, and then switch to cheap Gallo poured from crystal carafes for the main course. No one noticed the difference and if they did, they didn’t care.
My parents were not heavy drinkers but in retrospect it seems drunkenness and alcoholism were simply part of the environment.
On any given evening, the guests might include the French parish priest, a severe looking heavy drinker with wandering hands and a penchant for dirty jokes, and the head of the French news service, Agence France Presse, and his wife. The two detested each other and would get increasingly vituperative as the evening and drinking went on. I remember that one night, the man’s wife, tired of the abuse, stormed out of our house after dinner, climbed into their car, and drove it into a telephone pole. She was too drunk to be injured but the arrival and departure of the ambulance taking her to the hospital added a surreal element to the gathering. I was often drafted to prepare and serve drinks, and got pretty good at knowing who drank what, and when to water down the liquor…
The after-party discussions focused heavily on who was sleeping with whom. Was the French wife of a CIA officer really having trysts with the correspondent for Le Monde? And what about the pretty blonde teacher at the French lycée whom everyone knew was conducting a passionate affair with the owner of a local French restaurant? Strange, considering everyone thought he was a homosexual…
As in any society, information in this small circle of friends and acquaintances was a commodity, and my mother was an artful gossip. She loved nothing more than getting the goods on someone and parlaying her knowledge into negotiable form. When the gossip was about her, which happened from time to time, she operated on the principle that there was no such thing as bad publicity. This philosophy never seemed to harm the doyenne of the French community.