I recently returned from our divine 2012 Zona Rosa retreat in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, and then three perfect, enchanted days (and evenings) in Paris. Needless to say, I’m still resonating — indeed, glowing — with all things French and the beautiful times, food, friendship, inspiration and good talk about writing I enjoyed there.
First, we convened in Aix – Pat, from Atlanta and Madison, Georgia; Debbie, from the Florida keys; Sandra, also a Floridian; Connie, from San Francisco; Stephanie, an American who lives in Brussels; Nancy, from upper state New York, and Suzan, Zona Rosa emeritus of our Atlanta Alpha Babes group who now lives in Aix and makes all this possible – a diverse, intelligent and talented group of women.
For the next six days, we did nothing but read from our writing, talk about writing, and eat oh-so-yummy food – all in beautiful settings, from sidewalk cafes and book shops (our favorite is Book in Bar, where Pat, Debbie, Sandra, Stephanie and I read poems) – to the exquisitely appointed flat Debbie had rented, to expat Barbara’s gorgeous chateau, full of art by such famous artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat (I was stunned, never having been in the presence of one of his works before), and expat and old friend Liz’s homey, inviting villa. For several of our meetings, as well as a gala party, we were joined by English-speaking literati – among them, Greg, from Great Britain, Sheighle and Sandy from Ireland, Shelley, a London fashionista now living in Aix with her charming husband, Michael: Nancy, originally from Washington, D.C., and Barbara and Jules, who now live in that beautiful chateau, via New York and Amsterdam.
And I mustn’t leave out Marcus of London, along with his wife, Cora; eyes sparkling, he regaled me with stories of his spiritual quests in India, and handed me a copy of The Battersea Road Path to Enlightenment by his friend the British writer Isabel Losada about her own inner journeys – a witty book which would come to mean much to me over the coming days, especially during my train trip to Paris the day after our reluctant goodbyes. I had bought a baguette filled with chicken, cheese and tomato and a luscious lemon tart in Aix for my journey, and with Isabel’s book in tow, I looked forward to the perfect train trip. (Also, this was a book I might never have heard of in the U.S.: as always, in France I learn about new British authors who are only published there, though they are available to us through Amazon and other sources).
Once in Paris, I checked into the Hotel St Paul near the Odeon and Boulevard Saint-Germain. This was the hotel where I had stayed years before, when I first traveled alone to Paris, and it was as sweet – complete with cat lounging on the reception desk – as I remembered it.
I had an adventure planned for that evening and I was looking forward to it. A couple of months before, in the travel section of the NYT, I read of Jim Haynes (www.Jim-Haynes.com) from Arkansas who hosts supper parties for all who apply in time every Sunday evening in his atelier in the 14th arrondissement, one of the 20 sections into which Paris is divided. I wrote to Jim immediately, and while I didn’t’ know where the 14th was, but I knew I could get a cab. When I arrived, buzzing myself in with the code Jim had given me, I came upon over 50 people from all over the world, talking to one another at top speed, while standing in Jim’s garden and kitchen amid his great photography collection (why had I hesitated about putting my own beautiful nude photos by a famous artist of my daughter and me up in my dining room?) and where Jim stood, a burly guy in an apron, directing the serving of the food and wine. Within moments, I was deep in conversation with a woman who, after her divorce, her children grown, had moved to Prague, and then Victoria, formerly of New York, where she’d been in TV and who had now been ten years in Paris, and Pamela, from London, a poet who had worked in publishing there. Our conversation was scintillating and I immediately knew I wanted to stay in touch with these two unusual women who spoke so frankly about their lives and adventures. When then it was time to go, I mentioned to Pamela that I didn’t know where I was, nor how to get back to my hotel, and she walked with me to a main street, where we found a cab and shared it back to the Odeon, all the while having more great conversation. And though the next day, I realized, had I known the area better, I could have found the metro – learning to negotiate it was one of my goals – I was happy that Pamela and I had had the chance to get to know one another further.
Once back near my hotel, I was still hungry – I had been too excited to eat much of Jim’s excellent food – I magically found the little café where, for reasonable prices, I would enjoy three meals over the next two days, each time sitting at a little round table at facing the street – preferred seating in France, for there one can watch the passersby – each dish more exquisite than the last. And better yet, the café was called Les Editeurs, and the waiter handed me a charming bookmark with my check after each lip-smacking repast. Also, as the finishing touch, I loved looking up into the tree on an island in the street before me: open books and their pages hung from its limbs.
The next day, I sat in the beautiful garden before the Musée du Moyen Age, or Museum of the Middle Ages, the perfect spot for reading or meditation – doing what some would call nothing is apparently popular there – and watching the French, from white haired grandmothers to tattooed young men with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths to chicly dressed women bicycling fearlessly in and out of city traffic.
Then I walked up the Boulevard Saint-Germain to my favorite English-language bookstore in all of Paris, the Village Voice Book Shop on the Rue de Princesse. As I walked I came upon two homeless people within a block, one a woman, the other a man, sitting on the sidewalk with their dogs; the woman had a cardboard box of frisky puppies not more than four inches long that made me laugh. Even without speaking French, I was able to let them know that I admired their pets, and I gave them the euros I’d set aside for that purpose.
And who should I see, leaving as I walked into the book shop but Jim Haynes — which gave me a chance to thank him for the party at his house the night before, and to give him a kiss on the cheek. There I happily perused the books, some not yet available in the U.S., and made the hard decisions about which ones I could fit into my luggage. Among the ones I bought – two copies in fact — one for myself, and another for Zona Rosan Connie, who I knew would love it – was a limited edition of Anais Nin’s Paris Revisited, with insightful text by Karl Orend, and full of rare photos of authors I loved, such as Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller (including one of the two naked – Miller was tres skinny!) Only 150 copies had been printed of this edition and the book shop was the only place where they were available. The proprietor, Michael, who I had met on previous visits, and who seemed to sense my taste, took down a copy of Henry Miller’s original manuscript of Tropic Of Capricorn, typed on a manual typewriter and complete with Miller’s corrections. Needless to say, I was thrilled. But then I was saddened when Michael also told me that the famous shop would be closing in July due to financial pressures, but that I should email him in Oct and that he would send me “a special surprise.”
That night, I took a cab to the 20th arrondissement to meet Caroline, my almost-80 friend who lives in the area, and who was both going through chemo for lung cancer and moving her studio that week. Caroline, an American who has lived in Paris since 1955, is a sculptor who is famous in both France and the U.S. (www.carolineleescupture.com), and an evening spent with her is always filled with wit and wisdom. I was also delighted to see that, despite all, she was filled with her usual exuberance and joie de vivre, and as she told me about her treatment via the French medical system, I saw why so many consider better it than ours.
The next day – my last day in Paris — I rode the bus to the Musée de Orsay. The bus was a new experience and I wasn’t sure where to get off, despite having the name of the stop. When I spoke to my seat mate, first apologizing for not being able to speak in French, then asking her if she would kindly tell me when my stop came up, I had yet another serendipitous experience: Kleo it turned out, was a Greek who had been in Paris for ten years, and an architect turned writer. Indeed, Kleo not only insisted on getting off at my stop with me but that we sit down together at the bus stop so we talk about writing and we could exchange addresses. We said goodbye, promising to be in touch. Then, when I had walked in the direction in which I thought Kleo had pointed me, she suddenly appeared at my side again, having gotten off her bus once more: “I saw that you had missed the turn to the Musée, so I got off to show you.” As she walked with me the block and a half toward the Musée, I – not for the first time — marveled at how anyone could possibly call the French unfriendly.
At the Museé, after first scoping out the cafes and restrooms for future reference, I found myself in the trance – almost a state of ecstasy – I often find myself in when wandering among works of art. Surrounded by people speaking many different languages, I felt almost as though I was in a dream – especially as I perused the show Caroline had recommended – a retrospective of hundreds of studies and paintings Edgar Degas had done of the female body during the 19th and early 20th century. As I perused his work, I noted the pieces — as I had in looking at Manet’s and Courbet’s works — in which fully clothed men were often portrayed along with almost always nude women; the book I later purchased in the gallery shop explained how at the time, women had come to delegated to this position – a woman who was not married or under the protection of a man had few choices but to become a servant, actress, dancer, prostitute, or artist’s model.
There I also bought a coffee cup featuring a Monet painting and several beautiful cards and prints, which I planned to laminate to put in my Savannah kitchen to remind myself of the day when I got home. One of the cards was of Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, or Origin of Man, a bold painting – controversial in its day – of a nude woman’s pubic area, a painting I’d become especially interested in while wandering the rooms featuring his work. And I once again I was enchanted when I saw tired museum visitors reclining, some even sleeping, on a vast round Turkish ottoman apparently put there for that purpose; lying back in its comfy arms, I joined them there for a few minutes.
That evening I went once more – this time a little sadly — to the Café Les Editeurs, and then to bed, anticipating my flight home, and to reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, the hard cover memoir of her 1000-mile trek of the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, undertaken to heal herself after her mother’s death, a divorce and a bout with heroin. I had brought it all this way, inspired by Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, in which she read a book a day, and it was a treat I was looking forward to, as in Savannah, between my own writing and reading for others I often must read the books I yearn to get to in smaller hunks of time.
The next morning when I went downstairs – trying once more to pet the elusive hotel cat which, until now, had evaded my camera and my fingertips – I asked for the reception desk to call a cab, only to learn that the drive to the airport was not a half hour, as I’d supposed, but a full hour. Would I make it? The British couple awaiting their own cab insisted I take theirs, which was already on the way, and a little more than an hour later, I was ensconced, Wild in my lap. And that day, for the first time. I had the delicious satisfaction over the Atlantic of succeeding in my goal of reading a book in one day.
In Cincinnati, awaiting my connecting flight to Atlanta, I got out my marbled green journal to jot down in more detail the images that were still flooding me, as well as a list of the things I planned to do when I arrived home. Soon, back in the US, still having to stop myself from saying merci instead of thank you, I was happy to be back in beautiful Savannah, in my husband Zane’s arms, and then in our favorite Italian restaurant, where over more great food, and still glowing, I regaled him with my journey.
The next morning, as, the sun streamed through my bedroom windows, and I searched in my luggage for my journal to take it out to the front porch to write in it as I listened to the birds sing, I discovered that, for the first time in 50 years, I had lost a journal. But I wasn’t even upset. I simply sat down with a new, identical one – this time putting my name and contact info on the first page – and for the next two hours – wondering what the person who found it may have thought about my weird musings, the remnants of my unconscious – I recapitulated everything I could remember of the old journal, entering it into the new one.
For the next few days, I continued to walk around as if in a dream, feeling as though I was still in two places at once, and floating in that delicious sense of dislocation good travel can give. All that, before my journey, had been familiar to me, seemed strange and new, even the super market. I kept wanting to say merci to everyone for at least a week – and to hold on as long as possible to the memories I had created during my dreamy sojourn in France.