Reading, How to

After food, and sex, and occasionally, sleep, the deepest and most sustaining pleasure of my life has been reading, reading stories.

For the past few years, since chemotherapy and radiation treatment for Stage 3 endometrial cancer, I have read very little. Oh, I read online, in short bursts of 20 minutes or so, and most days I read the NYTimes in paper form, but my Goodreads page is looking pretty thin these days. I am wrestling with why.

My hands hurt. I have peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet from chemo. They are tingly all the time, and sometimes I get sharp, shooting pains in my hands that startle me. I also have arthritis in several fingers, and those joints are swollen and often painful. It can be hard to hold a book, and sometimes even holding Teacup, my trusty iPad Mini, hurts my hands. The touch of plastic or metal feels unpleasant against my skin. Teacup has a beautiful leather cover, but that makes it heavy to hold.

My eyes hurt. I have macular edema in one eye, and many floaters like a spiderweb across my vision. I have had cataract surgery and have reading glasses, but my eyes give me a hard time anyway. Sometimes my shoulders ache from the tension that builds up around my eyes from watching or sitting too long. What constitutes too long varies widely.

I have very little concentration. That started with the infamous “chemo brain” and continued with the beta blockers I take for high blood pressure. Since my dosage has been reduced I feel once again like I might be able to focus on a whole story, but while it’s better it isn’t good.

I confess I loathe audiobooks. The sensation of being read to is a sweet one, but I can’t do anything else while I am listening. I get antsy (and uncomfortable) sitting still. It’s hard to concentrate on them, too.

There is so little energy. I have to carefully distribute what I have each day, and reading takes a chunk out of it as does pretty much every single daily activity. I miss the stories. I miss the books I continue to buy but have not started yet, and the books I have started and haven’t gotten past a chapter or two.

I don’t feel cozy anywhere. The easiest place to read a print book is at the dining room table, which is not where I want to be unless I am eating. My rocking chairs are as comfy as I can get sitting down, but it’s hard to hold a book in any format for a sustained period.

Then, sometimes I think it’s just wrestling with the idea of it. I have been reading and teaching and reviewing all of my adult life. Books were my jam, as the younger folk say. The person who did all of that, who had long hair and could walk for miles and navigated her city as if it were her private domain no longer exists. The person who is now, who moves with a cane and has a cloud of short silver hair, that person misses stories. I have not yet wrestled my way back to them.


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Hair story the last, probably

Since I was 14 years old, I had long hair, often nearly to my waist. I loved it. I was vain about it. It was lush and wavy and deep chestnut brown. I thought it was my best feature. In my late 50s and 60s, it turned grey, then silver. I liked that, too. I loved being a woman of a certain age with long silver hair.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, I had to have my hair cut. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Cancer breaks you. How you heal at the broken places is different for everyone. In my case, every single activity, every single thing I was and did, changed utterly. However, I thought I would grow my hair back. I knew it might not work, but I thought it was worth a try. So I did.
What grew back, however, was not my old, cherished hair. It was thin, and brittle, and didn’t wave or curl much once it was past my shoulders. It wouldn’t stay pinned up, and it hurt when I tried.
Last week, I accepted that I was no longer that woman with long hair. The wonderful hairdresser who cut my hair before chemo cut it today. Now it’s fluffy and I think it will curl more. It is, as Howl said of Sophie, the color of starlight.
I am not the person I was. But here I am.

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HAIR: A Story

This is a series of short entries about my relationship to my hair. They take place over several years, so there is some repetition. They include a bit about cancer treatment.

25 March 2009 “Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair…”

The last time I had short hair I was ten years old. I hated it. I vowed I would grow my hair long, and I did. I had, for a few years, the longest hair in my high school.
I was a blonde child, but my hair was chestnut brown by then, fairly thick and somewhat wavy. I loved having long hair. It not only seemed a badge of the 1960s (as indeed it was) but part of my whole and entire self.
People told me I would need to cut it, once I had a child (no, I didn’t). I did wear it up, in many guises, most of the time, through my professional career. I found a NYC hairdresser, George Michael/Madora, that knew how to cut and to treat long hair. I bought lovely hair pins whenever I could.
My hair is no longer chestnut, it’s silvery. I like to think of it as Howl said to Sophie in the film Howl’s Moving Castle as “the color of starlight” but the truth is, it’s grey. It is not so thick as it was, nor as wavy, and it does not behave as it used to. A family member used to say, “your hair can only be mentored, it can’t be managed” and that is more true than ever. Yesterday I went out with two pretty silver combs in my hair and a small rhinestone rose barrette. By the time I came out of MetroNorth and walked six blocks, both combs and barrette had completely fallen out of my hair (but I retrieved them).
I met TheInfomancer for dinner and music and couldn’t decide if I looked like a spirited sixty-something year old with long shining hair or a sloppy 61-year old with no grooming or style.
I love my hair. I wish I could make it do what I want, or understand what it wants. I can’t imagine cutting it though. It would be like severing a piece of my own self.

6 May 2015 A Year Ago

The first week of May 2014 saw me having my long hair cut for the first time in about 50 years, and my first round of chemotherapy. It’s a year later. My hands and feet still suffer the after-effects of that first chemo drug (which was changed as soon as the symptoms appeared). I had several haircuts since that first one. I never quite lost all my hair during chemo, and it started to grow back with gusto around Thanksgiving.
I long for my hair to grow back. It is the only part of me that might possibly be restored to what it was before cancer.
This was a scary anniversary, but also a hopeful one. One month from today I will be 68 years old. I want to have energy and clarity of thought, and they are slow to return. Those things do appear some mornings, and I greet them with joy. I want them to stay.

Hair: an obsession, part 3a

I can feel the hair on the back of my neck.
This is amazing. From the time I was fourteen (over 50 years ago) I have had hair to the middle of my back and longer. I could always feel the hair on the back of my neck. I had my hair cut short, and shorter, and shortest last year, and lost most of it during chemotherapy, but now it is growing back vigorously, and I can feel it on the back of my neck.
This is weird, and strange, and wonderful.
Cancer, chemotherapy, radiation do things to one. What those things did in the most basic way is change or alter every single daily activity and habit. Every. single. one. When and how I shower, how I walk, using the toilet, intimacy, reading, getting dressed, preparing a meal. Things will not go back to the way they were. But it is possible, just possible, that I will have my long silver hair back again, the way it was. (It is growing back even whiter, and somewhat curlier, but the small bald spot I had before cancer is still there. That’s amazing in its way, too.)
This fills me with the possibility of joy.

15 October 2016 Hair Again

From the time I was 14 until May of 2014, I had long hair, nearly to my waist. It was my signature, the way I described myself to people who had not seen me: “small, round, pink, long hair.” In May 2014, just before I started chemotherapy, I had my hair cut short. (I had it cut three more times. The last time it was about an inch long all over.) I saved the hair is a silk bag and I put my many (many!) hairpins and ornaments in two boxes at the very back of my closet.

About six months ago I pulled out a few barrettes that I thought I might be able to wear now. A few silk scrunchies. A clip or two. That was ok. I could cope. I could use them.

Today my hair reaches my shoulders. Growing my hair back is a mission, a goal, a deep-seated desire. It is the only part of my pre-cancer life that I can actually get back. Everything else has changed. Everything.

I tried going back in that box at the back of my closet this afternoon. I took out a few more hair ornaments and then I had to stop. I was so shaken by this. All those pretty things were part of a life I can barely imagine any more. But. However. I am going to reclaim each of those pins and barrettes and clips. Those I can get back. And I will. An awful lot is lost, but some things can be found again.

2 February 2017 Hair again and again

My hair had been long since I was about fourteen. Then I got cancer, and had it all cut off before I lost it. I did lose most of it.
Cancer takes a lot out of you, changes your body and your spirit. Almost three years after my first surgery, I know that nothing will be the same ever again. Except, I thought, my hair. I could grow my hair back.
When my hair first came back, it was white, and curly. That was fun. It has been growing pretty fast. That was fun too. I had a bald spot even before cancer treatment, and I still do. Now it’s bigger. As my hair get longer, it gets straighter, still with a wave, but not the curls of before. That’s only to be expected. But unfortunately it is also thinner and more fragile: no doubt partly due to age, but certainly due in part to what it, and I, have been through.
So now my hair is silver rather than snowy white, kind of stringy and flyaway. It does not behave very well, and it strongly resists being pinned up or tied back in any way.
Damn. I want to have long hair again. I want it to be pretty.

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a joy from Twitter


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A Rose No More

GirasoleAzzurra/The LadyHawk
16 June 2013 @ 03:34 pm
We moved to the house I grew up in when I was six and my twin brothers were three, in the autumn of  1953, I think. One wall of our property was the double apartment building next door, upon which grew a large climbing rose. It bloomed only once each year, in early June, in time for my birthday.

How I loved that rose. It was strong and tenacious and had huge wicked thorns. The flowers were pale pink in bud and almost white when fully opened, and they smelled like heaven: a very light, pure rose scent that no soap or cologne ever matched. It was my rose.

We moved back into the house I grew up in three weeks before my father’s death, and the rose flourished. Every so often it would bloom early if we had a warm spring, or late if we didn’t, but generally it was as regular as the date of my birth. Twenty years and more ago, when we moved to our current house, I took two cuttings from that rose, and willed them to grow.

And they did. Our home had a small arbor, just made for the rose, I thought, and I anxiously waited several years while the rose established itself and began climbing. I also planted a cutting by the front door, with a small trellis for it. After awhile, it grew, too, both blooming in sync with my birthday and each other.

The arbor rose is a wild thing. It grows like mad, blooms profusely, and has twined itself in and around the arbor. The front door rose, however, while it grew in much the same pattern, tended to reach out to grab the delivery folk, or our hair, or to whack us across the cheek at odd moments.

It was time for it to go. The gardener of our household, who will do most anything I ask, would not touch the rose. It attacks him mercilessly. So I did it. I covered my hair and wore long sleeves and my leather work gloves, which are tiny because my hands are tiny. I spoke to the rose respectfully with each branch I cut away. I thanked the rose for being with me, I blessed it root and branch and thorn and flower, and reminded it that its greater sister still lived on in gay profusion. It was the work of an hour, until I had cut it down to the ground and made a box of cuttings that would not injure the garbage haulers who would take it away. Only one thorn penetrated those work gloves, when I grabbed at a thick branch that was falling out of reach.

I have a thing for roses. I tend to gravitate to rose patterns in fabric and leather and art. I call my iPad Rose. I love the word, noun and verb. I am grateful for this essay, the last gift of the front door rose.

I offer you a picture of the rose arbor today, and one of the front door rose taken a few years ago before it began menacing passersby.

Happy Fathers Day to all.


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Georgia O’Keeffe

GirasoleAzzurra/The LadyHawk
07 September 2013 @ 10:42 am
We took two days to go upstate, to see a collection of 32 paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe in a small museum in Glens Falls, NY. The family of Alfred Steiglitz, whom O’Keeffe married, had an estate near Lake George, and they spent summers there for a time. Georgia painted there, some small, abstract, exquisite canvases, many of which I had not seen before. The Hyde Collection gathered them from many places, and it was truly wonderful to see rooms full of them.

She is one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century. Her work is extraordinarily controlled, the nuances of color minute and perfect. Her paintings of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, seen side by side, are monumental and almost hypnotic. I can look at her paintings for a very long time. They are intellectually engaging and emotionally soothing (most of the time). The blue Lake George on the exhibition poster is beautiful: small (most of these paintings are small), full of light that one can almost swear keeps changing, like sunlight on water.

I had never seen Lake George before, nor been to Saratoga Springs, where we spent a few happy hours walking around. But it was O’Keeffe I wanted, and it was a great gift.

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Farewell, my linen

23 August 2014 @ 06:55 pm
I wrote this in October 2012, and unaccountably did not post it.

Farewell, my linen
In the late 1980’s, I was a senior/executive editor at a professional/trade magazine. A friend and I were known by our family as “the fashion group.” I had achieved a personal goal of owning enough silk blouses to wear a different one to work every day for two weeks.
I also loved linen. I bought a luscious linen shirt from the elegant Paul Stuart. It was simply tailored, a heavyweight Irish linen the rich color of double cream. It fit me perfectly. It did have to be ironed, but I sent it out for a time. A long time.
Time passed. I moved on to an editorship. It was the best job, ever. The magazine closed, and in 1997 I began working from home. A lot of the silk blouses found other venues.
The linen, however, I discovered looked just as good and felt just as comfortable with jeans. I also discovered that if washed in cold water and hung in the sun to dry, it was not terribly wrinkly. In fact, with jeans, it made quite a nice hipster look. It was one of my favorite things to wear. For years. Even after a spot or two of tea took up residence below a button and would not come out.
Before Hurricane Sandy, I did laundry. When I went to hang up the linen, I discovered that blouse had begun to shred, all at once and nothing first, not along its solid seams but in the middle of the fabric.
Reader, I cut off the back panel and am thinking of turning it into a handkerchief. It is still a beautiful weave and a beautiful color. I have loved it now for nearly twenty years. There is just enough of it to make a story.

Postscript: Via Etsy, I had a craftsperson make me a case for TwinkleTwinkle, my iPad Mini. I sent her some Liberty Tana Lawn, and a piece of that linen to line it with. Here it is: TwinkeTwinklecase

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Milk tea

19 February 2015 @ 02:50 pm

Put as many mugs of whole milk into a pot as you are making. Bring the milk to a full, rolling boil. Add two heaping teaspoons of your favorite strong black tea (Assam, etc) per serving and keep it boiling for three to five minutes. Add a rounded teaspoon of sugar per serving about halfway through. Keep a close eye on it because it overflows easily, but you want to keep it fully boiling, not simmering. Strain into mugs when it is the color and strength you like. I love it, to me it tastes like “tea pudding.” I learned it from Bill Waddington of TeaSource, who learned it in India. of course.

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Paris May 2006

 May 10, 2006 11:36 am: The Infomancer and Girasole in Paris
A long, uncomfortable but uneventful flight, except for the fact that we had a female pilot, a first for me after decades of flying. [Girasole was so stunned by this that she actually ate some of the airline dinner—another first, sez The Infomancer.] Paris is cool and grey, even as New York was when we left, and full of flowers. Our hotel is indeed a gorgeous art deco wonder, and our room, which was ready and smoke-free even as we had booked the day before to ensure same, is small, neat, and has internet access. And glory, all the toiletries are my favorite Annick Goutal, the Sicilian lemon L’eau Hadrien.

The neighborhood is like upper Madison Avenue in NYC, many shops, many restaurants, lots of lovely buildings with scrollwork balconies and stonecarving. Our first meal was in a tiny, raucous tea room where we had raspberry crepes and a cheese-sauce-slathered salad with lovely cucumbers and tomatoes. It had a no-smoking section. It turns out several places we have checked do, but it scarce matters as the smell of the ominpresent cigarette is deep in the fibers of pretty much everything Parisian.

We had a young and adorable concierge who answered all our questions and gave us guidance. We have A Plan. I even got to talk on the phone to Malcolm Miller himself (more on Chartres anon. Probably Monday).

Tonight we eat at the lesser of the hotel restaurants and, I hope, sleep deeply.

That’s a hot pink cow and a centaur, down the street from our hotel. There was a cow parade in London when we were there in 2002; now cows in Paris?


03:26 pm: Later on May 10
We visited St Germain des Près (big, dark, shabby, old, beautiful, Descartes is buried there) and St Sulpice (much bigger and darker, Baroque, and the setting for a significant scene in The Da Vinci Code, not that you do or should care), and I have to have a clearer head to make sense. But at St Germain I lit a candle as is done in my culture for parents gone and for the grandbaby of a friend, in front of a 14th century madonna. The age of these things comforts and terrifies. All around St. Sulpice are religious knicknack stores, and here’s a picture of a sidewalk café where all the chairs are turned to face the church.

We had dinner in the hotel’s Brasserie Lutetia. Wine, red for The Infomancer (beaujolais) and white for me (chablis). Lovely herbed olives, peanuts and raisins. He had duck with green peppercorns, mushrooms, and haricots; I had chicken and roasted thyme and garlic on a bed of mashed potatoes. They were incredibly potato-y, but they were also full with butter and chicken jus, but not so rich you couldn’t finish every bite. Then a chocolate wonder for him that made me wish I could eat chocolate, and raspberry/vanilla/caramel ice cream of incredibly rich intensities. He promises not to forget to bring his camera to future meals.

Must sleep.


May 11 04:53 pm:

The food is lovely at our breakfast buffet, even to a choice of teas in a Japanese iron pot. I had yogurt and tea and fruit and croissant; The Infomancer, as you might imagine, went from bacon and ham and cheese to eggs and strawberries and bacon and pain au chocolat and bacon and then he lost track.

We took a taxi to the Eiffel Tower.

Despite a bazillion pictures, they never seem to capture its lovely, lacy ironwork or how friggin’ huge it is. So we took pictures of the crowds, and of the long rows of large trees that have been clipped into geometric shapes. Then to a Seine boat (Bateau Parisienne) for a tour of the highlights and a twee but delightful narrative. From there by taxi to Sainte Chapelle. (As a nondriver, may I say that Parisian drivers terrify me. I know they know what they are doing, but it makes me quite, quite nervous to be in a car they are driving.)

Grotesques along the Pont Neuf

Nothing can capture the magic of the first sight of that stained glass jewel case, but to see it a second time, and to know that now The Infomancer has seen it, is wonderful. It is small and blue and red and gold, and the light completely is at play. We had to go through airport type security this time at Sainte Chapelle, and the winding stone staircase was even more difficult than I remembered. I am also glad I saw it again because I am not sure I could do those stairs in another ten years. Or another five.

Some fallen stonework at Sainte Chapelle

We wandered around Notre Dame on the inside before lunch, and the outside after. It was full of people, but it was also full of those serene windows and sculpture that have seen so much, and gaze out at the crowds with the same serenity. The rose windows astonish, but the flying buttresses, with their solid winged grace, enchant me.

We had lunch on Ile Sant Louis at Le Flore en L’ile, where we could gaze upon Notre Dame with our salad and frites and onion soup. [Actually, with our eyes, which worked better] They made really good tea and The Infomancer loved the beer, a Belgian blonde called Abbaye de Abdij van Leffe. And we found Berthillon ice cream again, where I had the fresh mint with crème chantilly and he had walnut. Another memory undimmed after twenty years.

After lunch we also visited the archaeological crypt under the plaza in front of Notre Dame, which was fascinating, layer upon layer of stone foundations going back from the mid-18th century to Gallo-Roman times.

Then we walked back to our hotel. It was a long walk, but it was a soft, warm day, and we bought postcards. We also bought cherry tomatoes, a perfectly ripe avocado, a baguette, and raspberries from the Loire valley, along with a Domain Meunier St-Louis merlot (6.90 €) and M. Kieffer riesling, vin d’Alsace (7.50 €). I chose badly with the riesling, which is a little too astringent, but The Infomancer loved the red. And so we had dinner in our room. It lacked only cheese, but we did not find the right place to buy any.
Tonight we heard Mozart Divertimenti and Quatuors Milanais (KV 136, 137, 138, 156, 157 for those keeping score at home) at St Germain de Près. The church is famed for its acoustics (though not its state of preservation), and it was quite glorious. The un-augmented sound filled the huge church and washed over us. The French Chamber Orchestra directed by André Rebacz played with joy, and we listened with same. We emerged about 10 p.m., and it was not yet full dark.


May 12 03:50 pm: The Louvre
Today went to the Louvre. It is indeed the world’s largest museum, and we limited ourselves to high points, both ours and famous ones, and were still there all day. Art is necessary and needful to me. Paintings and sculpture and drawings feed me and console me. I love the mystery of visiting a favorite painting and seeing it anew every time, learning a different shape or form. I love trying to figure out what the artist was trying to say, and whether she said it to me. All art is a window, and a mirror, and a language if only we can take the time to listen and perhaps understand.

The glass pyramid at the Louvre serves as the center, and while it is a bit difficult to navigate easily it is possible to find what you are looking for. The Infomancer notes it is hard to imagine any other museum that could rival this one for sheer acreage of painted canvas; the Renaissance and Baroque Painting halls recede into the distance, looking as if their walls were lined with hundreds of dark bed sheets. The ones you pause in front of, though, are the smaller ones, done by the likes of Fra Angelico, Arcimboldo, and Da Vinci. Speaking of this last, readers of That Certain Recent Bestseller will recall that the denoument takes place here, under a big reverse pyramid that hangs from the ceiling of the attached underground shopping center. Let it be clearly stated, however, that the little pyramid beneath its point definitely rests on the floor (to say any more would be a spoiler). Saint Sulpice, by the way, has a very snarky but dignified rebuttal near its obelisk.

I love the Winged Victory, with her beautiful wings and torso turning to the wind. I love the Mona Lisa. It is really difficult to look at her freshly (especially after reading That Certain Recent, etc), but it is a beautiful painting: the placement of her hands, the richness of her clothing, the wisdom of her mouth.

We also spent some wondrous time in the Medieval Galleries. St Catherine, with her sword and her book, was my favorite: ivory, about 1400 in France. The Infomancer found many Annunciations, and as is his wont, photographed them all.

We are in the 6me Arrondissement, and the walk/don’t walk signs look like this here. We love the impatient don’t walk guy, with his hands on his hips, who only seems to exist here and not in other parts of the city,

I am going to be fifty-nine years old in a few weeks. I have never travelled well, I hate flying and there are the damned allergies. But there is so much I want to see, so I and my creaky knees and hips and ankles are in Paris, today with a cold that has hit with a great resounding thud. I am pathetic, with my red nose and my sore throat and my handkerchief clutched to me. This is going to slow us down some, but I will try not to let it do so too much. We so very much want to be here.

By dinnertime I was really miserable. Time for comfort food, which we found at Casa Bini, a lovely, cheerful Italian restaurant. What you see is rocket and parmesan salad for me, cheese for The Infomancer; linguini with basil and tomato for me, green casareccie pasta with sausage and mushroom for him; a magnificent tarte with fraises de bois and mascarpone for him, panna cotta and camomile for me.

May 13 04:26 pm: Le Moyen Age
Today was about as perfect a one as can be had, despite the fact that I am full of cold and have a heated towel rack full of handkerchiefs washed by hand in the hotel bathroom.

We got a late start as I needed to sleep, but went off to the Musee de Moyen Age de Cluny. It’s an ancient building with Roman baths in the cellar and a gorgeous collection of medieval art, including the beauteous Lady with the Unicorn tapestries. We also discovered that the museum has a medieval music group in residence and they were giving a free concert this afternoon. The auditorium’s chief decorations are a forest of large stone bodies of the Kings of the Old Testament — which originally adorned Notre Dame, but were torn down and decapitated by Revolutionaries who thought they were Kings of France — and their heads, which were secretly buried at the time, and only rediscovered in 1977.

I love this museum, which is full of exquisite things that have managed to survive lo these hundreds of years, and a zillion annunications for The Infomancer to photograph. There’s also a lovely medieval garden.

In between communing with the art and going to the concert, we did a little shopping.  I may have found a birthday present, but if I do I have to give it to you right away when we get home.

The musical group is called Ultréa, and they did a program of songs from the Carmina Burana – not the Carl Orff melodrama that we all know and adore, but songs from the original manuscripts with harp, rebec, recorder and other wind instruments (including several made from actual animal horns), singers, and a remarkable percussionist. These are fascinating songs of lust, lessons, morals, and mores, and the leader of the group gave a small lecture before each. They were, of course, in French, but I usually managed to give The Infomancer a one-phrase summary: “Nightingales. Springtime. Everyone has a bad and a good side and it is hard to separate them.”

The performers had vivid personalities and no small talents. kradical you would have loved the percussionist. He played bells, something like a zither, a large drum, a smaller, brightly painted one like a bongo, and two tambours like bodhrans, one using a handful of shells as a means to play against it.

No lunch today – first time I have missed lunch in decades. We had a late breakfast, and I was too sick to care. But we did buy dinner: bread and camembert, a lovely casserole of zucchini in bechamel, blackberries, apple tart (a divine thing, intensely tasting of apples and not much else) and red wine. Alas, no wine is agreeing with me these days, and I am not sure what to do about that. I am in France, it seems a sin not to drink it.

We had a professional experience par excellence tonight, when a fairly well-known author/illustrator pair appeared to sign their beloved works in a local children’s bookstore. The Infomancer bought autographed copies for all his staff, and they are lucky puppies indeed.

We have seen a lot more cows.



May 14 03:31 pm:

Today we went to the Musée d’Orsay, and we bless and praise the several friends who told us to get a Paris Museum Pass. We got them for six days, and they cover just about every admission we need, but the best part is you don’t have to stand in line. And the lines are huge. Every other tourist was going to the Cezanne/Picasso show, but we wanted to see art nouveau and impressionism, and we did. Art nouveau with its curvilinear eroticism still thrills me, always. The Infomancer wrote much of what follows, and you can amuse yourselves by trying to figure out which sentences are his.

When I was in college I loved the Impressionists, and as I got older I got pretty snide about them, thinking they were merely pretty. Now that I am older still, I love them again. I never tire of seeing Monet turn flicks of paint into light and cathedrals (the Rouen sequence is here) or Renoir paint pretty women in pretty dresses with sweet, sorrowful thoughts behind their pretty eyes.

Whistler’s Mom is generally in residence here, but she’s out traveling for the next year or two—to Boston this Fall!—and among the lesser wonders both a cutaway, fully detailed scale model of the Paris Opera, and a big diorama of Paris as it was a couple of hundred years ago but with dino-sized plush woodland animals running through its streets (you’ll have to visualize this without aids; it was set beneath glass bricks on the floor, and the reflections were too bright to take a decent photo) stand out.

The building is an old railway station, and it has been brilliantly transformed into a marvelous space for art without losing any of its huge vistas or spaces.

We had lunch in its wondrous golden hall, and a wondrous lunch it was. The tarte de framboises for dessert was classic: fresh raspberries layered with their own juices and then a layer of blackcurrant jam, then a cake crumb and the crust – all intensely what they were and utterly delicious.

I am still sick, now in the coughing and hacking and sore throat stage. I wish I felt better. But we had two Parisian moments worth recounting. It turned out to be hard to get a taxi on a Sunday from d’Orsay to the Pantheon, so we ended up sharing a cab with a Parisian couple. She once lived a year in New York and had cousins in North Tarrytown. Our voluble driver, racing to get home to Sunday dinner, regaled us with his English and his love the U S A. He was pretty funny.

The second moment came in the Pantheon, where a tiny blonde and pink child, barely toddling, wandered up to me and held her arms out to be held when I smiled at her. I wanted to scoop her up indeed, but instead greeted her (my French can handle, hello, how are you?) and was totally enchanted. What a mother’s day gift when I am away from my own grown-up little one.

The Pantheon is an enormous space, begun as a church but ending up, as our Access Guide puts it, “a necropolis for the distinguished atheists of France,” and including Foucault’s actual pendulum in the middle plus huge murals of French history – the ones of Jeanne d’Arc were very familiar indeed—along with a spooky, labyrinthine crypt where everyone from Voltaire and Rousseau to the Curies are buried. Behind the Pantheon is St Etienne du Mont, an exquisite church despite or perhaps because of its wild mix of architectural styles, and the tomb of Sixth Century Ste Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, enclosed in a lacy gold framework like a reliquary. While we wandered about, a small service that involved sung calls and responses was going on in the apse, filling the high, sunlit spaces with appropriately ethereal sounds.

We walked back to the hotel through the Luxembourg gardens, discovering that even as all the the tourists congregate in the museums and churches, the Parisians spend Sundays in the park: old folks in wheelchairs and children in carriages; families and lovers; two brass bands; kids playing soccer; smaller kids atop strings of ponies and donkeys. In truth, even a small pony is bigger than some of the cars we’ve been seeing. The Infomancer saw a Hello Kitty car helgabee, a little two-seater.

Dinner at the Brasserie Lutetia: how do we count the joys. Steak and frites and bearnaise and a luscious beaujolais for him; a kir, escallope of veal (the very best veal I have ever ever eaten) fried delicately in butter, with a side salad that tasted like a kitchen garden: mint, chives, parsley, rocket in a sharp mustard vinaigrette. I had caramel ice cream again, and camomile with honey. The Infomancer ate every last bit of a rhubarb crumble with a verbena cream on top, more like crème fraiche. I am feeling ancient and sick, but I am full and warm and happy.


May 15 02:51 pm:

I slept long and deeply, and then awoke to much coughing. I was also really exhausted, so with great regret I sent The Infomancer off to St Denis alone. I sat quietly and walked around the block and tried not to be cold or cough my brains out. I also bought a tee shirt and a summer jacket, and both are beautiful and pink and white and blue. He came back in a few hours with lots of pictures, and he will tell you all about it:

Ahem. Though our TimeOut Paris guide intimated that St. Denis currently lay amidst slums, in fact it turned out to have a quaint and quiet setting, surrounded by buildings made of new concrete and old stones. The basilica includes parts of a 5th century structure and is renowned for being, a) the first Gothic cathedral (ie, with rose windows, pointy arches, flying buttresses and suchlike), and b) where most of the kings of France, along with selected sisters, cousins and aunts, are buried. That latter is a bit problematic as a number of the original burials were actually elsewhere, and during the Revolution all the bones were dug up and thrown into a mass grave. Supposedly, they’ve all been reassembled and gathered beneath the one roof (sure)—but even so, the church features a separate ossuary along with scads of tombstones, funerary monuments and memorials, some of which are for the same people. So just where the bodies are is anyone’s guess. It’s still a drop-dead gorgeous setting, as you can see.

It’s reached via the Métro, which differs from other subways in that, except on a couple of lines, one must flip a switch to open the doors when one wishes to exit. As this can be done before the train actually stops moving, there is potential for Excitement.

When he returned, we had lunch at the wine bar across the street. It specialized in paté and smoked salmon, so we had bread and cheese and tea and coffee. Go figure.

Shopping usually revives me. This afternoon I bought small gifts and large, and even a little thing for darth_libris. By the way, Darth, we visited your literary bar but it was closed! Although the web says it is open noon to midnight, it closes for several hours in the afternoon. We took pictures in front of the place to prove that we were there. And on the way, we fell over St. Thomas Aquinas—not the gent himself, but a 17th century Dominican chapel of the same name (and, reportedly, size). There was an organist playing on his, er, organ inside. We doubled the audience.

I spent not enough time in Au Bon Marché. The Infomancer prefers consuming food to looking at it, so I didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked. But lordy was it fun. I may have to go back to visit the Dom Perignon bar where I could have a glass of “drinking stars” for 15€ . We visited the department store, too, but the food halls were better.

Ah dinner. Au Bon Marché takeout and the rest of the Domain Meunier St-Louis merlot. Tabouli with lemon and raisins and fennel and mint; haricots verts with herbs, cherry tomatoes, feta, a bit of chicken, and raisins (raisins turn up everywhere: a standard placement on a restaurant table is a small double bowl of olives and mixed peanuts and raisins). The Infomancer’s salad came with lardons and a poached egg. There was a little container of shaved bits of parmesan, a brioche, and the cutest “brochette” of five tiny loaves of bread, each different.

Then there was dessert: a local apple, a box of blackberries, acacia honey, and crème fraiche. Oh. My. Goddess.

I think The Infomancer is getting my cold. Tomorrow we adjourn to Chartres—yet another dank, chilly church—in expectation of two miracle cures. Stay tuned.


May 16 04:50 pm: Chartres
Once you get past the (for me) confusion of finding the station and where to get the tickets and which is the right train, the hour ride from Paris to Chartres on the commuter train is quite pleasant. It is an amazing sight, when you pull up to the train station, to see those beautiful mismatched towers right there. So we made our way on this cool grey morning down to the cathedral and Malcolm Miller, who for fifty years has lectured in English about this sacred space.

He is very funny and knows everything. He talked for about an hour and a half about several windows and an outdoor portal. As he notes carefully, Chartres is a book of many chapters, but they all tell the same story of creation and salvation. One of the rose windows and the portal we looked at have been cleaned since I saw them last in 1985, and they change is astonishing. Even on this rainy, opalescent day, the glass shone with fiery radiance. And the portal carvings, stripped of centuries of grime, now are the butter color of their underpainting and even a bit of the color shows. Here is the dragon at the feet of St John the Baptist, and you can see he is a little green.

Twenty years ago I had one of those meals that lives in memory in a Chartres restaurant called Henry IV. Alas, it closed soon after. Our concierge Xavier had recommended another place, and we did find it, after walking down many terraced stairs to the river and asking directions of a schoolteacher and her class. It was very pretty, Le Moulin de Ponceau, but it closed at 2pm no exceptions, so we climbed back up the hill, very hungry, in the rain. But we ended up at a pretty bistro right across from the cathedral and had lovely cheese and bread and a lovely sauvignon blanc, pale and light and just the faintest hint of flowers (Caves de Haut Poitou AO VDQSN 2004).

There is a little garden, now of violet and purple flowers, behind the cathedral, and a beggar or two, including a guy who sings, on the steps. The labyrinth, barely visible beneath all the chairs, can only be walked on Fridays. Mr Miller’s book about the cathedral has an excellent explanation of the labyrinth and its place in Christian symbolism.

Once again, it is the faces of the sculpture that I love best. Kings and queens, saints and prophets, I love their ancient gentleness and their welcoming gestures. It is almost inexpressible how much it meant to me to have The Infomancer see this.

We came back, passed a small carousel in front of the train station (it has motorcycles and a rocket ship as well as horses), and went back to the Casa Bini for dinner. How delicious it was. Three kinds of asparagus: green, white, and some tiny stuff that I guess was baby asparagus and a plate of delicately poached vegetables. He had tagliarini with sheaves of truffle flakes, and I had pasta in the loveliest of light veal sauces with rosemary and zucchini. Dessert was a wonder, as we shared lemon verbena and vanilla gelato and a glass of golden rather than amber vin santo. The lemon verbena was a shade of green as intense and glorious as its herbal flavor – I adored it.

Tomorrow is our last day in Paris, so just for a change of pace, we’ll go see a church…and maybe Beaubourg too. It will be very fine, and then it will be fine to go home.


May 17 03:54 pm: Our last day in Paris
I don’t know if I have done sufficient praise of our hotel.

Breakfast is full of things I never heard of: a plain raisin bread with a very thin layer of custard in the middle; roasted pears with pignoli (The Infomancer loves these); mango and raspberry salad, which is a terrific combination. Oh, and the very best raspberry jam I have ever had, pure intense flavor and not overly sweet. It is beautifully coordinated art deco, and the room is not only comfortable, but is made up twice a day, which means you never run out of towels or anything else. The striking lobby is alas off limits, as the cigarette smoke could be cut with a knife, always. And we have had an excellent concierge in Xavier, who made up for the one who is snide and the one who simply doesn’t want to help us at all.

Centre George Pompidou/Beaubourg – I do love this structure. The art is not the kind that moves me – video and pattern and people like Hans Bellmer whose art I find repulsive. But the building! I love the colors and the skylights and even the amazing exterior escalator. Now, for a person who has vertigo in the upper deck or balcony and who has problems with heights and enclosed spaces, you would think I would hate it. And it was a little complicated. But the view is so fabulous! The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, are all visible, and we got to gaze upon them during lunch.

We ate at Georges, one of the most gorgeous and most designed eating places I have ever been in. It is a sea of glass: all glass walls, glass tables, each with a tall glass vase and a single red rose in it. The effect is breathtaking. So’s the food. While The Infomancer’s was called a club sandwich, its ingredients were prime, the chips were handmade, and the bread was fried in butter. I had what was called a salad of vegetables. OhMyGoddess. Everything was warm, and perfectly cooked: peas and peapods, fat asparagus and tiny haricots verts, baby zucchini, pattypan squash, scallions – oh and a bit of lettuce, too.

We turned to dessert, and had lemon sorbet, vanilla and caramel ice cream . Now I have been making a study of caramel ice cream here in Paris, and this was the best, not only deep and intense in flavor but with a bit of gooey caramel spun through it. The tea was Mariage Frères Earl Grey. Bliss.

The center is flanked, on one side by Brancusi’s sculpture studio, willed by the artist to the institution,

and on the other by the “Stravinsky fountain,” the playful movement and colorful silliness of which no photo of ours could capture. This page gives you some idea

We walked over to St Eustache (hey, another church!) to see the Rubens and the graves of Colbert and JP Rameau, and found a Keith Haring in that ancient, shabby space. The Infomancer longed to go back to the nearby Louvre, and we did, but I was both brain-dead and exhausted. We were revived by the unrestrained glamor of Napoleon III’s apartments, all shiny and carefully preserved, plus a cab drive back to the hotel that can only be described as “stimulating.” Never, never try to drive a car in Paris. Or, for that matter, climb on a bicycle.

Paris is absolutely full of soccer guys. The big Arsenal/Barcelona match is tonight, and all museums, restaurants, and streets are full of fans. Even Georges (supra) had its tables of increasingly loud sorts in “Arsene Knows” shirts (presumably a joke comprehensible to fans). Should be interesting…we’ll just lay low.

For dinner, we once again raided the food halls at Au Bon Marché. Greek salad (included mustard seed), spanokopita, salami for him, tabouli, cheese, those cute little breads on brochette. A half-bottle of Rully Varot Vin de Bourgogne 2002. Blackberries, a different kind of crème fraiche, and a brownie for him. I had begun dinner by having a glass of Dom Perignon (15€ at an elegante, lit-from-below champagne bar at the store, and worth every cent). I enjoyed every pale golden bubble. The presence of a huge department store of food just a block away was completely fortuitous, but definitely added a nice dimension to this entire stay.

Tonight we are pulling things together and packing, as we leave early tomorrow. I have another file of random musings about Paris, France, and travel, but I will post that after we get home. We will also post all of our pictures on Flickr, and I will let you know when.

Au revoir, mes amis chers. A bientôt.

May 19 08:55 am: This and that, seen in Paris
We are back home in New York City, still jet-lagged and a little snurfly, but still gobsmacked over the glories of our vacation.

No Frenchwoman over the age of about 28 wears jeans or sneakers in public. Casual clothes, surely, cropped pants and amazing footwear, but jeans and sneakers are clearly for the very young.

Frenchwomen of all ages are extremely stylish and always put together. I remember one woman, of about 35, wearing a white cotton tailored shirt and a full green skirt. Her crimson cardigan sweater perfectly matched her leather ballet slipper shoes, and her small leather purse perfectly matched her skirt. Colors – often bright, tropical ones – were very evident this spring.

Not only are they all stylish, but they wear great perfume. Really. It always smells good and not overpowering.

Parisians walk really fast, like New Yorkers.

The streets are very clean, except for the dog poop, which is everywhere.

This is such a lovely city, so very pretty in nearly all its aspects.

It is quite startling to hear a person with Asian or African features speaking perfect French. I find it utterly adorable to hear small children speaking French.

Many restaurants and virtually all the stores are closed on Sundays. It really is a family day. Many stores often close Monday mornings also, reopening at 2 in the afternoon.

I have seen at least two women who looked like the Triplets of Belleville.

The food is soooo good. We bought a lot of food at upscale markets and ate in our room, but that is because waiting till eight, when most French people seem to eat, was just too hard, and after long days on our feet we only wanted to sit. Even pre-made sandwiches at the Louvre had fresh herbs and were wonderfully prepared.

The tea has been surprisingly good. It is mostly bagged tea, but of decent quality. It is always the lighter teas, Ceylan, Darjeeling, Earl Gray – and never served with milk or lemon. In general, you get better tea than at most American restaurants of any quality.

People always greet you, “Bon Jour!” when you walk into a shop or restaurant; and say “Au revoir” when you leave. And “S’il vous plait.” And “Merci.” Most people spoke at least some English, way better than my French. I was OK most of the time with understanding, but I have lost vocabulary, so explaining anything complicated was way beyond me. It was fun, though. Some French folk responded by speaking French very slowly to me, which actually helped. French is spoken much more crisply and faster than English, and is even so not mumbled or slurred.

London, even after only two trips, feels like home to me. Paris will never feel that way, but I loved visiting, and was totally ensorceled by its myriad charms.
If you want to see every single one of our pictures, go here. They did not seem to carry over to this blog post.


GraceAnne A. DeCandido and John Edward Peters © 2006

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Pastina & Sciapito

GirasoleAzzurra/The LadyHawk
23 April 2016 @ 06:49 pm
My mother died last week, peacefully and surrounded by much of her family, at the age of 93. We lost her rather earlier than that. She had dementia for the past seven years or so, and for the last few months had often not even known my sister, who worked across the street and visited her every day.
I spent 2014 with endometrial cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation. My mother never knew, of course, that I was sick. But she was with me in one particular way. What she always made for us when we were sick was pastina, tiny little star-shaped pasta, with lots of butter and salt. I made that a lot during cancer treatment. I could always eat it, and it didn’t take much effort. It always made me feel taken care of.
My mother made the most excellent salad dressing ever. She used olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, and salt. I have tried for forty years to reproduce it, but it was never as good, or as right, as hers. Several of us were talking about that online after her funeral. What was it that made her salad so good? She would mix it, and taste it, and then murmur “sciapito” and add a little more salt. My mother was born in this country, and her Italian was the Abruzzese/Neapolitan dialect of her parents. The word sounded like “sha – beet” with the emphasis on the second syllable and a hint of a vowel at the end.
Food and family, family and food. It’s what we know, and what we are.
Rest in peace, Mom.

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