May 28, 2006

The Croquet Player and I

from Run River

Maybe the most difficult, most important thing anyone could do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.

What had it all been about: all the manque promises, the failures of love and faith and honor...we were each other, not that it mattered much in the long run, but what else mattered as much.

--Joan Didion

from "At the End of the Affair"

...considering the hairsbreadth accident of touch
the nightcap leads to--how it protracts
the burst of colors, the sweetgrass of two tongues
...for such
a man and a woman--bearing in mind those facts,

better to break glass, sop with towels, tear
snapshots up, pour whiskey down the drain
than reach and tangle in the same old snare
saying the little lies again.

-- Maxine Kumin

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May 17, 2006

Reality Bites

Home again, home again, two weeks away and four weeks behind. If only work weren't so irritating -- it's not the work, exactly; it's more the failure to comprehend my clients experience when I show them that if they save 2 cents a year, they won't get to retire in the style to which they have become accustomed. Ever.

Then, the Tony award nominations: Rabbit Hole and Shining City, two of the three plays I have seen this season are up for "best play." If that's the best Broadway can do, I don't see much reason to renew my theater subscription.

The former is not at all evocative of what it purports to be; the latter uses "fuck" as its all-purpose adjective/adverb/noun as it comes out of the two main characters mouths. For dialogue like that, I could stub my foot at home and curse the furniture.

There is "our" government, so embarrassing and successful at reaching the lowest common denominator of our society that I wonder why I pay taxes.

In short, I do not return to this side of the pond a happy camper.

My friends and I all wonder: when was the last time we had mind-blowing sex? Is it too much to ask, for one's so-called romantic partners to make an effort in that department? Or have we been so mentally drunk on sex earlier in our lives that sobriety makes it all seem like been there, done that, discarded the condom and used up the batteries in our vibrators?

Where has the creativity gone? Has all of it been focused on unorthodox accounting and lies, damn lies and statistics? Or is it too much to ask, that some of it appear in English? Judging from the protests I saw taking place here on TV in Paris, that does seem to be the case.

I am a former editor. I would like the drugstore clerk in Wonderland to know the English word for "film." The store stocks it -- is it too much to ask the staff to name those objects in the language the clientele speaks in this neighborhood? Or has xenophobia crept into me while I wasn't looking, while I was studying the history of immigration in this country. Me, not the last of the great patriots by any means.

We have, it seems reached the era not of the accidental or armchair tourist, but the cyber tourist. You can sit in front of the computer and pretend you are anywhere.

It is only in the small town corners -- without video games, Internet cafes and other so-called modern conveniences that you can get a real sense of what it means to BE THERE NOW. And those are few and far between. There is one county in Connecticut with no cell phone access. Sign me up for the summer.

E-mail and blogging are the best technology has offered me in the past ten years or more. Show me different, show me better, inspire me to want to learn -- is that too much to ask? We have reached the era of 500 channels and nothing's on. Looking at reality head-on is overrated. It's on a collision course with sanity. Convince me otherwise -- I do remain open to suggestions.

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May 08, 2006

Paris is Paris is Paris

Thirty-two years ago, I first came to Paris with my family. Thirty-two years, it occurs to me, is longer than the time that my dad spent on earth with us. It is a strange sensation. Paris is, outside of Wonderland, the only city in which I have ever lived -- done the food shopping, seen the doctor, run all manner of mundane errands and learned a new language and an appreciation of a different culture in the process.

On the television in my hotel room, CNN International broadcast The Daily Show: Global Edition. Yes, Comedy Central has secured a place on a "real" news channel. That fine line between satire and reality? Gone forever. And Jon Stewart has a piece of that action. The mind boggles.

In Paris, I stay in a familiar quartier (I've lived in several), and visit family friends I've known since I was 12 or so. Jean-Pierre loved my father like a brother, or like the brother he never had and wished he did. We are still laughing at some of my dad's jokes from the mid-1980s. And he and Annie, his wife, tell me stories about my dad in Paris that no one else would know, much less share with me.

It is odd, to be reminiscing about my father, gone 15 years now, with people who loved him and are not related to him. (Being related in my family means we don't talk about the past, or no one wants to hear my memories.)

When I was a teenager, Jean-Pierre was my French father, the guardian angel my dad appointed for me. Now, we are much closer in years, emotionally, and we both miss the same man, how he made us laugh, how he brought us to tears, how much joie de vivre he had.

I travel to Normandy for the weekend, to see a friend from college and her family, who hightailed it out of the U.S. shortly after the first Gulf War. Her children are perfectly bilingual, very musical and creative, and don't watch television. Leisurely meals are built in to their days, and multitasking means going outside with hands wet from washing vegetables to tell the kids it's dinnertime.

It is enough to make me consider decamping from Wonderland, to live in the land of five-week summer vacations and many national holidays that are celebrated not by a retail sales extravaganza but by an actual commemoration of events that make the day special. Yet my ties to Wonderland are fierce, and, to rephase Gertrude Stein, there is a there here.

Paris is Paris is Paris. That it is -- my home away from home. There is a there there, too, but it is one bred of affection and familiarity, not the there to which I was born.

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May 06, 2006

Broke in Budapest

The welcome wagon when we arrived in Hungary wasn't singing "gypsies, tramps and thieves," but we did hear echoes of "you've got to pick a pocket or two."

That would be our pockets, to be precise, on the overnight train from Prague. Our wallets were cherry-picked: I had cash in three different currencies in three different locations in my wallet, and all of it vanished: my Euros, my Czech crowns, and my U.S. dollars, both in the main section and where I hide my $20 mad money in a different pocket.

Fortunately, our thieves left our wallets, tickets and passports with us. We wondered how they got into our compartment -- our handbags were at our feet, close to the window, and the compartment floor was filled with our suitcases, totebags, shoes and other sundry items to trip over.

We suspect it was an inside job. I did admire their finesse. I've never had my wallet disturbed in New York. For these people, it was an art form.

When we left the Czech Republic, someone stamped our passports out. The staff changed and new officials boarded in Bratslavia, where our passports were stamped again, in and out. When we crossed the Hungarian border, the train staff changed again. I can't remember if our passports were stamped again: after the third time someone has awakened you from a sound sleep between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., it is easy to lose track.

At that point, I would have handed my passport out the compartment window to anyone in a suit who asked for it.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "'Tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive." On the Prague-Budapest train, I would have to disagree. We arrived broke, found a cash machine (the global village writ large) and were met by our driver, who ushered us to the hotel, where the five-star suite featured a rubber duckie in the bathroom and two baby stuffed bears on our beds.

The walls have fallen in the global village: in my hotel room I saw a TV show created for an American audience, filmed in Canada, dubbed into German, and shown on Hungarian TV, along with the ubiquitous Law & Order, in French and in German. American jurisprudence has never gotten so much good P.R.

Budapest? A beautiful city, one that has been invaded and renovated more times than anyone can count. The citizens are resilient. This beautiful city is the Paris of Eastern Europe, on a much more human and smaller scale. Hungarian is a language one must learn at birth, but we managed, with our French, English and some German.

We saw cathedrals, plus the second biggest operating temple in the world (next to New York's Temple Emanuel, the suburban offspring of which was the house of worship, such as we did, of my childhood. Our Westchester outpost was nicknamed "Our Lady of 287," after the interstate that ran beside it. And yes, we were about as religious as all that.)

We went to ballet; we heard the Budapest Philharmonic; we saw another dance performance. Culture of any sort costs practically pennies compared with the same quality in my little town. There is a lot to be said for government subsidies, though I don't think this U.S. administration would recognize a culturally significant building, painting, or event if one smacked it in the face and strapped it down to appreciate it.

I explored the thermal baths: the Gellert are the most famous, with interior skylights and intricate tiling. I swan one afternoon at the Szechenyi baths and swimming pool, an outdoor extravaganza opened in 1938 with a full service spa and Art Deco buildings. Had we stayed longer, I would have made it a daily stop.

I want a branch of the Szechenyi -- its shared thermal fountains, jacuzzi and swimming pool -- down the block from me, one where everyone is clean and polite, and you can spend a relaxing afternoon under the Hungarian sun. In New York, I am unlikely to find the most remote replica, particularly not at a $10 entry fee. We don't have that form of relaxation built into our society. We are definitely missing a critical element of the Old World with its absence.

Sidewalk cafes, thermal baths, a stroll down Andrassy Boulevard just to view the architecture -- days spent like this may belong to the tourist, but they derive from the cultural history of people and their way of life. I could get used to it.