Mattress as metaphor

I had had my mattress for more than ten years. I was still sleeping fine, and there was nothing grievously wrong with it, but it could not be denied that there was a gully. A smallish me-shaped gully that became particularly pronounced during occasions of duet sleeping, which can be complicated enough without spending the whole of the night scrabbling toward the high ground.

As my body betrays me in ever new and more interesting ways, I wondered too if the gully was doing my back--still holding a grudge after a bad fall years ago-- any favors. Probably not. 

It was fine. But was it good?

Une petite pensée

This particular corner of the sky is the one I could see an hour ago from my reclining position in the shade of a tree beside a week-old swimming pool in Provence.  It is, therefore, one of my favorite corners of sky.

Tomorrow, as it happens, is my birthday. I find myself a little astonished that on that annual opportunity to take stock of one's life, I will wake up in the south of France in the new [old] house of someone I love who, rather unexpectedly, has been my friend for nearly 20 years.

On the downside, yes,  I have been bitten by several mysterious insects who speak only French with an indecipherable southern accent and thus cannot be reasoned with. But I've also had ice cream (deux boules: framboise pêche) in the plaza in La Garde-Adhémar, a town that, before today,  I did not know existed. It is so hot in the afternoon that the ice cream begins to melt the second it hits the bowl, but it is no less delicious for that and you are rich in the knowledge that the pool is waiting at home.

Now, looking out my bedroom window, I see one tanned foot protruding from the hammock that my friend has only just succeeded in hanging (challenging stone wall) and into which he has promptly installed himself in the welcome evening breeze. There is music playing. There is always music playing and it is unfailingly beautiful.  On est bien, là.

In short, on this birthday eve, I'm going on record to say: I am awash with good fortune. And unutterably grateful.

Bonjour, Paris!

The thing about being in Paris is that when you wake up in the morning, you're in Paris, which looks like Paris.  And then it just continues being Paris all day.  I'm sure there are situations in which this is not at all desirable, but I am not experiencing any of those situations and, as such, I am ridiculously happy.

Place des Voges

Place des Voges

For several weeks, I have been in places where I do not speak the language, where people--seemingly all people--speak excellent to flawless English, and have been nothing but helpful, but where, nonetheless, bus stops are unpronouncable and I was obliged to meet all conversational openings with a vaguely apologetic smile.  Then--poof--as though the window through which I was viewing the world was no longer tinted, that was no longer true.

It is relaxing to understand.  Not only what is being said, but what is going on. To know already how to use the metro; or that to get into the building, you need to enter the code, but to get out , you need to push a button to release the door; to be able to distinguish among the 10,000 kinds of yogurt available in any grocery store; or, once I've made my way to the Seine, to be able to walk without a map to a bar I once liked. To be able, occasionally, to jay walk.  This is not to say that I don't get completely turned around every time I step out of the metro or, true to form, instinctively walk in the wrong direction, but of everywhere I've been, I still feel most at home in Paris.

In the spirit of honestly, I feel I should admit that currently, I am prisoner of both torpor and the accursed washing machine, so it's not all rose-colored glasses.  It is nearly 7pm and still about 90 degrees out, which makes me far more interested in going to sleep than A) writing this B) taking a shower C) going out to Participate.  Additionally, I don't feel I ought to go until this stupid duvet cover has made it successfully through the wash cycle and is recuperating on the drying rack, but, though I pressed the button that should have shortened the wash cycle by an hour, it appears to have doubled it at the very least.  As of this moment, this one article of bedding has been in the washing machine for 2 hours and 16 minutes.  (I know because having learned a thing or two about washing machines in Amsterdam, I decided to time it.) Why is that even a possible setting?  What in the world could be that dirty?  Tomorrow, I suppose I'll need to get up at 6am so I can wash the towels before I go and still make my 11:30am train.  [It clocked in at 2 hours and 28 minutes.  I don't even know what to say about that.]

I arrived on Bastille Day, which, strangely, I think I've never been here for before. I nearly missed the fireworks, still finishing dinner at 11pm, when they started, but hastening Seine-ward in a happy glow primarily induced by hastily quaffed Sancerre, I came upon a group of people standing more or less single file in a diagonal line across a courtyard.  I realized that by orienting oneself just so, la Tour Eiffel was visible between some trees and the corner of the large building right in front of us.  Not perhaps ideal, but since the large building in this case was the Louvre, I thought it was fair enough.  My camera is in no way capable of capturing a rather distant firework display, but you can believe me when I tell you that it was magnificent--sparkling showers shooting out from and spiraling around the tower, which itself glittered as though diamond encrusted.  Vive la France.

Oh man, this building's in the way

Oh man, this building's in the way


From there I went to the Bal des Pompiers, which is an annual celebration hosted for the public in firehouses all around the city.  Basically, imagine a nightclub, only it's a firehouse courtyard and only five out of 500 people are not smoking.  This, unsuprisingly, is another atmosphere beyond the scope of my camera to capture.  Generally: crowded, jubilant, loud, smoky.

Actual, bona fide pompiers, aka, very young Frenchmen who are trained to save your life.

Actual, bona fide pompiers, aka, very young Frenchmen who are trained to save your life.

I was excited to be there in that it is both quite a famous thing and also not a thing that I'd be likely to attend, but after an hour or so, I had to admit that it was not a thing I'd be likely to attend because I don't really like that sort of thing all that much. There's only so much dancing alone with other people's cigarettes in your face that is strictly required to say you've done a thing.  So I left.

When I got back to the apartment about 2am, I heard about Nice.  I will touch on this very briefly as respect would dictate, but there is nothing I could possibly say about this that you wouldn't imagine I would say.  Horrifying.  Yesterday, I went to a photo exhibition of Syrian refugees at the Institut du Monde Arabe, which left me feeling similarly helpless.  We are in a mess the world over.

At the Pantheon, the flags are banded with black and cannot fly, except the one at the top, which is at half mast.

The Pantheon in mourning after attacks in Nice, 14 Juillet 2016.

The Pantheon in mourning after attacks in Nice, 14 Juillet 2016.

There is no good segue from tragedy to frivolity, so please enjoy this flower shop. I did.

The next day, I made my usual pilgrimage to Mariage Frères, which is the best-smelling place in the world.  I go to the ruinously expensive tea room because I am a grown up lady now and I can. I ask the waiter's advice and he guides me though a labyrinth of Choose Your Own Adventure style questions.  Black, white, or green?  Flavored or natural?  Spice, fruit or flowers? Red, orange or exotic?  I no longer remember the name of the tea we arrived at, but it was delicious. I also ordered the two most expensive madeleines in history, one fruit and one rose, topped by a tiny flake of gold leaf.  I ate these with a knife and fork though I have never in my life eaten a madeliene with a knife and fork.  There is an atmosphere in Mariage Frères that demands one's best behavior.  Had Christoph, my beloved post-colonial historian, been there he would have had some other reactions to this atmosphere, which could also be described as one of truly indefensible colonial nostalgia.  I laughed actually, to think how much he'd hate it.  And then, in a state approaching bliss, finished my tea.

The sales are on in Paris and this has awakened in me a fiendish desire to purchase things. This is not new.  I always have a romantic idea that I will buy some perfect dress and then be able to say quite casually, "This?  Oh, I got it in Paris." because I am not at all above that sort of thing.  The problem is that not only are things still very, very expensive even on sale, they are also, for the most part, very odd. When I see women walking around Paris, they look perfectly normal, if not indeed, gorgeous, but I don't know where they are finding these clothes.  I have now personally touched hundreds of Parisian garments (in stores, not, like, on the metro) and many of them are difficult to even identify and the rest made of disturbing fabrics. Today I did try on a thing that was definitely a dress and definitely made of cotton, but it was ill fitting and 300 euros. And so another dream dies.

I did however muster up my courage and go into a very tiny lingerie shop where I bought a designer bra. No, you may not see it and yes, it is perfect. Only later, browsing the internet, did I discover that I had purchased this bra directly from the person who had made it. I had taken her for a salesgirl, when in fact she is the artiste.  Would that I had behaved in a slightly more elegant manner and said fewer things about how the knickers were a little grandma-esque on my current pastry-feuled lower half.  Merci, Odile de Chancy. I will not be able to say "This? Oh, I got this in Paris." to so many people as I would with a dress, but perhaps I'll get to say it to someone.  If not, I'll still know and that will be enough.

Beyond that it's a little flurry of sidewalk cafés, kirs cassis, perfect buildings, and walking, walking, walking, toute contente, apart from my right ankle which has had ENOUGH of this vacation.

Tomorrow, I leave for Provence where it will be 100 degrees every day and I will first become very red and then, in all likelihood, spontaneously combust. That will be a pity, of course, particularly so close to my birthday, but, on the bright side, my ankle will stop hurting.

ich bin ein Berliner

Reichstag Building

Reichstag Building

Look.  I am not days, or weeks, so much as countries behind at this point. It's daunting, not to say actually paralyzing.  And I'll be honest; I'd like to go to sleep right now, but a certain local has made--well, I don't like to call it a demand exactly; let's say a highly authoritative request--that I write about Berlin while I am in Berlin. And so I am complying because I feel I owe him that much.  He did make fish for me the night of the Euro Cup final, and who has the requisite concentration for fish on such an occasion?

When I arrived, I was filled with stories of Copenhagen and the almost unimaginable niceness of nearly everyone I encountered there (there was one bus driver who wasn't so great, but exception rule, etc.). Christoph forewarned me that that would not be my experience in Berlin, that, in fact, I should be prepared for the opposite. Well, I'm pleased to report that so far no one has been mean to me in Berlin. Maybe they're saving it up for the last day or something. If so, tomorrow is going to be lousy. Eek.

It has been notable that everyone I've talked to about Berlin since I've been here (except Christoph. Ahem.) loves Berlin.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are in love with Berlin. There is a certain starry-eyed quality to their praise of their adopted home. (I don't think I've talked to anyone who hails from here originally.) I imagine that I might come to love it too, but I don't think I'll be here long enough to be in its thrall. It is an enormous city where I have yet to even explore the neighborhood immediately outside my front door and whenever I try to go somewhere specific, I unfailingly set off in the wrong direction.  As a noted technology hrumpher, I would like to publicly state that were it not for the offline maps app/little "you are here" GPS dot, I would probably still be wandering in circles in Amsterdam to this day. I think that when you are still unable to tell East Berlin from West, you haven't graduated to smitten.  I wish I had time to get there, though. I think I would.

So far, I have been a mediocre tourist, but a pretty good visitor. In terms of Important Things One Ought to See, I can claim the Reichstadt Building (and could possibly cheat a claim a lot more since you can see quite a lot from the dome, but I won't),


Also, the Memorial to Murdered Jews, the Jewish Museum, the installation about the wall at Bernauer Strasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt which provides three impressive buildings all at once, including this one which was my favorite, generally preferring as I do theatres to churches.

Thanks to Christoph, I've also seen in passing the Brandenburg Gate, the Chancellor's residence, some pleasingly geometric parliament buildings, the famous radio tower,  a very old church, a castle that once existed and is being rebuilt, and the Haus de Kulturen de Welt, which is a dramatic structure that reminds me a bit of the Marin Civic Center, of all things. It was closed, alas, so we have had to improvise on the world cultures front (and I think we've done admirably), but we did go to a café behind the building where we had some unpleasant soggy salad with a nice view of the river. There's probably some world culture in that somewhere.

Haus de Kulturen de Welt

Haus de Kulturen de Welt

Put all together like that, perhaps it isn't such a shabby showing after all. That is because you don't know that after I saw the deeply moving WWII section of the Jewish Museum I was alarmed to discover that the rest of it addresses nothing less than the ENTIRE HISTORY OF JUDAISM.  To sum up: Judaism is not new and it really hard to find the first floor of that museum from the top floor of that museum.

It is not that I did not enjoy seeing the Important Sites, I did.  It's just that I didn't enjoy it quite as much as not seeing them.  I've been busy doing other things like talking to an Icelander in an American-run brewery, or expounding on the douleur de l'amour in French over lunchtime pizza in the kitchen, or meeting a charming Norwegian over hummus, or being really proud having ordered a glass of wine in Italian, only to realize hours later that I had totally made up the word I thought meant glass.  I like talking to people. And, apparently, consuming things at ever possible opportunity.  But wait. There's more.

Berlin began, unexpectedly, with a battle of the swing bands.  Christoph had high hopes when he put on his dancing shoes--alas, it really was too crowded for dancing. But the music!  Oh my.

Berlin locals The Dizzy Birds faced off against the even appallingly badly-named California Feetwarmers who'd come all the way from L.A, The contest aspect was arbitrary and included such things as which band had the shiniest shoes and worst haircut, but the music!  They played separately; they played together. They played and played. There was a tuba and a mirror ball and an androgynous judge in shorts and a lab coat. At one point, a guy dressed as a banana peeled himself. I was as happy as I could have been.  Had I not also only just arrived from another country by bus, train, boat, and tram, I probably could have held out to see who won, but I couldn't make it. If anyone ever did win (about which I am extremely dubious), I congratulate them.

The next day I was taken to a secret garden (which wasn't secret to anyone but me). I just assumed when I was told we were going to Pierre's garden, that it would be in the back of Pierre's house. Nope. Pierre's garden is a garden among many other gardens in a lot devoted only to being an urban oasis. His is the best one.  It just is. It had a hammock and a flamingo and several very nice people who all spoke English for my benefit even though it was their lovely Sunday afternoon and they didn't have to.

As if things weren't international enough at that point, we then watched the proud nation of Portugal beat [the equally proud nation of] France in the Euro Cup finals with commentary in German. In case you missed it, there was also a bonus French moth who was very quiet, but made its presence known by landing on Ronaldo's face at a critical time for maximum media exposure. I'll bet that moth's agent is thrilled.

Then, as one often does when visiting a foreign city for the first time, I went to a graduation ceremony for a Global History Master's program. I recommend it. It was good fun.  Among the graduates was an affable young Englishman who suggested that I visit the brewery where he works and swim in the lake nearby. When I mentioned this to my Airbnb host he upped the ante, suggesting that if I liked getting this insider view of the city so much and wanted to be really German about the whole thing, that I ought to go to the nude side of the beach. And so I did. And now am a bit sunburned in places I don't entirely understand. But diving unashamedly naked into a lake, despite one's Cake of Many Lands summer vacation belly, proves to be one of life's great pleasures. And, honestly, the sunburn could have been much, much worse.

Berlin, I feel we've barely gotten started. I'd have liked us to reach that important stage in the relationship where I can read a German menu and take the correct exit from the U-bahn station, but it is not to be.  Not this time anyway.  I'll be back.  Meanwhile, if you're looking for me, tomorrow I will be walking out of the all wrong exits in the Paris metro.

Auf Wiedersehen.

insider tip: if you try to do something outrageous like bring water to a swing dance club, you will be thwarted and forced to stash it in the antler shed.  Bright side: it will still be there when it's time to go home.

insider tip: if you try to do something outrageous like bring water to a swing dance club, you will be thwarted and forced to stash it in the antler shed.  Bright side: it will still be there when it's time to go home.

Green light, red light

one of innumerable hideous views

I have developed a theory that you really can call a place home when you are comfortable jay walking there. If that's true, I could not be more decidedly a visitor. It's a little better here than in London and Glasgow, in that I mostly know what direction the traffic will be coming from, but they've gone and added hundreds of bicycles to the mix.  It's like the next level of a video game.  Mastered traffic on the right?  Move on to bicycle level.  I'm sure there are clear bicycle right-of-way rules, but I certainly don't know what they are. Instead, on small streets, I swivel my head around wildly as though the Tour de France may come barrelling around any corner at all. On more trafficked streets,  I perch on the curb waiting and waiting for the little green walk man to appear, knowing that it he will only do so in two different stages (a thing I do not understand at all), so that even after I make it safely to the middle of the road, I will only reprise my wait until I am cleared to get all the way to the other side. It takes quite a lot of time, and I do feel silly, but, on the bright side, I've not yet been run over.


When I was in Scotland (about which I have much more to say, but if I try to go in order at this point, I fear I'll only fall further behind), Jenny shared this bit of restaurant-choosing wisdom: if it makes claims to have "world-famous" anything, avoid it like the plague.  I would like to add to that: do not dine at a Dutch restaurant that gives you a souvenir wooden shoe key chain with your receipt.  Unless you really wanted one, of course.  I'm just saying that it's a good bet the locals aren't flocking to the joint.  Sometimes, though, in an unknown city, it can be motivating to go out looking for something rather than just looking at everything.  Even if that place turns out to be a touristy pancake restaurant frequented by very young American backpackers, there can still be a sense of accomplishment in having found it. Um...eventually.  While the center of Amsterdam is really quite small, it is not all that self evident from a navigational standpoint. The street names change with a frequency that suggests a a greater commitment to fairness (surely everyone should get to have a street named after them, even if for only one block?) than to city planning.

The nice thing is that being lost in the center of Amsterdam is no great hardship (unless you are very, very hungry and stubbornly devoted to some particular pancakes you've never even met), There seems to be nothing that isn't beautiful. Within an hour of leaving the house, I was ready to move here.  All I need is a work visa and enough money for a canal house.  Easy peasy.

After the silly pancake quest had ended, I decided to do some reconnaissance about the place I intend to have dinner (it's taco Tuesday at J.D. Williams Whiskey Bar, don't you know. And who doesn't want Asian fusion tacos with whiskey cocktails?  It sounds like I'm making that up, but it is a real thing.  It sounds uniquely terrible, which makes me believe it might be surprisingly great.  If I lose courage, there's a gin joint only a few impossibly named streets away).  As I was swivel-head-ing and oh-my-god-it's-so-beautiful-ing my way through cobbled streets, I passed on my left what looked like it might be a perfect bar/cafe to wait out the threatening rain. I made a note to retreat to it swiftly when I felt the first drop, but thought I'd explore just a little further, which is how I ended up in the Red Light District entirely by accident.

I was startled by how completely quotidian it was. Not ten steps beyond the perfect cafe on the left, was a fifty-something blonde in a pink neon bra in a window on the right. I suppose I imagined a more cordoned-off, seedy atmosphere. I did not expect to see women on display right round the corner from a butcher shop and a corner grocery. Possibly, it seems different at night. On a Tuesday afternoon, however, what it mostly seems is boring.  Not for me, of course, the unsuspecting wanderer, but for the women in the windows. They look no different from sales clerks behind the counters of empty shops, gazing vacantly toward the open door, other than that they are wearing a lot less and none of it comfortable. 

Here's hoping Tuesday night is more profitable than Tuesday afternoon, ladies, and that you have to deal with the bare minimum of idiotic French teenagers like those I passed minutes later practicing "Tu es une pute?  Combien?" and then falling about laughing.  Looks like a tough gig.