Sunday, August 29, 2010

Diary of a senior Paris tourist

I've just spent a week in Paris, alone.

It's always felt kind of weird, being a tourist.
I'm not against tourism, but prefer having some sort of mission or role or work when travelling.

Being a tourist makes you almost automatically a skimmer and scanner and dilettante. In general, I have never liked that state of mind. Hard to believe, but I prefer focusing, going deep rather than wide.

My only mission, such as it was, was to examine the workings of my own brain in this unusual-for-me situation.

So this time around, aged 70, how bad was my tourist-brain? If bad, how much was ditzimush brain due to age, tourism, internet habits and other factors respectively?

Answer: Despite being a tourist and despite 15 years as an internet junkie, I'm satisfied with the way my brain has behaved. It's been in calm control most of the time.

Are you familiar with that mildly frantic feeling when you confuse something — was that Monet or Manet — north or south — left or right — L'Orangerie or Orsay?*##! This week, I haven't experienced any of that mild but awkward tourist panic.

Firstly, I reckon I'm reaping the rewards of meditating twice a day. This I began last January to counteract high blood pressure. At the time, a friend explained that meditating twice a day has an effect much more profound than meditating once a day. And it's true, I find my state of mind is exponentially different, as if I can hold on to the benchmark of a still, clear mind for 24 hours. So I'm calmer, hard to fluster than I was even last year.

Secondly, I believe my age has been an advantage. I am who I am. Will I ever improve (as in become a more efficient tourist)? Unlikely! And every now and then I think about being dead. Sure puts things in perspective.

Physically, being older meant one day one of my hips protested. Then it stopped. I walked everywhere. Heaps. I've got incipient cataracts which probably mean I don't see Paris quite as brilliantly as other people do — but how would I know? It still looks great to me. Perhaps with better hearing my understanding of French would improve, but I'm more than satisfied with my progress.

Overall, I've enjoyed being a senior tourist just as much as being a junior tourist. Maybe more.

Boring diary follows
Do not read the following. It's boring. But if I don't write this down, will I remember? Regardless, does it matter if I don't remember?

Monday. Arrived Gare de Lyon on the fast train from Geneva. Did not lug my serious suitcase up stairs to Le train bleu restaurant. Ate downstairs and got oriented. Bought redundant carnet of metro tickets. Took taxi to the Villa Mazarin: 5.6 euro, tres simple. Walked the quays. Icecream, spicy hot chocolate.

Museums shut: wandered around churches. Notre Dame, S. Germain des Pres, S. Severin, S. Etienne du Mont... Many dark pictures of people in agony rolling their eyes. Devout woman prostrate on the floor. Brain teeming, need not share. Ate at Les Deux Magots, did not eat snails but watched rich people. Bought silly gifts for family. Wandered happily through Jardins du Palais Luxembourg. Stumbled across free concert of Spanish choral music by Spanish (Madruda?) university choir in S. Nicholas church: such a treat.

Wednesday. Serious day at the Louvre. Slept in but still got there by 10. Skipped queue by entering through the Lion gate. Guiltily acknowledge my naive preference for portraits and simplicity and mediaeval paintings. Enjoyed the other tourists. Strolled through Tuileries gardens. Think I'm starting to understand the Paris garden philosophy. L'Orangerie for the big Monet garden paintings. Great lunch place, a tea and coffee specialist, #24 in The Book (Pauline Frommer's Paris.) Dinner l'As au Falafel, great, cheap falafels. Sore hip! Did clam exercise assiduously and took a pill.

Thursday. Decided to forgo camera for the day. Went to Carcaret Museum: shut for the day, 'technical reason'. Picasso Museum: shut for August. Much strolling. For lunch, I ordered 3 os a moelle - three marrow bones. Literally: no meat, no veg, just 3 bones. Never had marrow as a meal before. Soooo rich and fatty! No veges. One bone had no marrow and patron replaced it with very good will. Went to Centre Pompidou. Full of young people, yay!! Exhibition of femmes @ pompidou, plenty to inspire and remind me of the wild women of the 70s and 80s. (I was one too.) Bought buttons "La Corbusier" and "Annie Warhol". Totally enjoyed the modern art (up to 1960: they rotate the exhibitions) but in my mind cannot separate the works from those in the Musee d'Orsay. Dinner at tiny eccentric mom-and-pop Felteu not far away. Patron is boss, one must obey! Chatted with French couple. Am getting fat I think. Oh well, sort it later.

Friday. Hip feels fine again now: Louvre day was just too much for the senior bones. Camera-free day. Walked to Musee d'Orsay, Orsum. Lunch, La Palette, arty area, just fine. Then what did I do? I have no idea. Oh yes I do: the Cluny museum (national museum of middle ages). Easy to see why it's everyone's favourite. There I found the perfect souvenirs, but I wasn't allowed to take one away. What I really wanted was almost any small mediaeval statue of Mary.

Later I bought a compromise Paris souvenir: a ridiculous pair of shoes. Dinner, La Tartine, salad. Evening, went looking for Paris Danse en Seine. Couldn't find these freewheeling groups of dancers. Probably didn't walk far enough. Or they stop in August. Or a little rain cancelled. Did see a crazy poet-performer singing his heart out on one of the bridges, and a student band on the banks of the Seine. Plenty going on.

Saturday. Camera free day. Morning, did some work in hotel. Finally checked out the theatres, too late for cheap tickets though. Tons going on: if I'd got my act together I could have gone to a play every night. Tant pis. Walked to Grand Mosque, further than I expected. 1920s, tiles, arches, brass tables in the restaurant. Ate lamb tagine with olives and pickled lemons: must do this with lamb necks! Sweet mint tea.

Then hammam: lounging around in the fabulous old steam baths, a labyrinth of room after room, women being massaged on marble tables, taps and buckets same as Japanese baths, shared a marble cubicle with a pyramid-shaped old lady who was doing a very thorough job on every part of her amazing anatomy. Woman exfoliated her at one stage. Then ate a sweet almond and coconut cookie in the special waiting room, and viewed the mosque itself. It's lovely, not too severe. Walked to Rue des Ecoles area, took another look at St Etienne, a joyous, sunny, extravagant church near the Pantheon, had coffee. 5.30, 26-yr-old star musician Timothee who? played Bach cello suites 1, 3 and 4 in the tiny, quaint Syrian church S. Ephre (?) on Rue des Carmes. Great!

Hurried to Cafe de la Gare in Rue du Temple, very near my hotel. Signs said clearly house full, no tickets for that night's performance of Un Tour de Monde en 80 Jours. But the boss gave me one anyway: being alone can be an advantage. Back to hotel, dumped bags, put on glad rags just for fun including new shoes, and joined the queue for the play. It was great fun and I understood enough to laugh plenty.

Sunday. Gregorian mass at Notre Dame. Amazingly undisturbed by tourists, very smooth and swift. Four young women's voices filled this enormous space (with mikes I presume but didn't see any) and we joined in, following the Gregorian musical annotation: kind of pixillated, sequence sometimes vertical. Horrible silly expensive lunch at the wrong place. Strolled around some more, the last time. Ever? Gave my metro tickets to a young deaf-mute girl working a petition outside Pompidou Centre.

Now it's 4 pm and I'm writing this diary in the hotel courtyard. It was already hard to recall what I did this week, so good job Rachel. Gotta go. Planes to catch, home is calling. Goodbye Paris and thanks for all the fish.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Walkers in the night

Actual water in actual Lac Leman.

Oldladylaughing is not a tourist blog. But exotic Lavigny is where I happen to be, and there's a lot of laughing.

The countryside here (just inland from Morges, near Lausanne) is laced with excellent paths that meander from village to village through vineyards, sunflowers, orchards, woods and meadows. It's hugely friendly for walkers and cyclists.

Last night three of us pushed it some by walking all the way to the lake. It only took an hour each way, but I felt quite bold because it was dark and a tad rainy, and we had no idea what route to take, no map no money no torch. But how hard could it be, we figured, if you just wander downhill towards the lake?

It's true. We really did it. Don't believe me? Check the indisputable archival evidence. Top photo: actual water in actual Lac Leman. Photo below: the three intrepid midnight walkers. Not?

Young food, new food

Goats' cheese quiche.

Several wonderful cooks compete for first place in our bellies here at Lavigny. Every meal so far has been delicious -- including raclette one night -- but on Sunday I was moved to photograph a couple of these masterpieces.

Missed the entree: it got scoffed before I could focus. Sliced smoked salmon with toast, butter, lemon, pepper and capers. Mmmm.

Every mouthful of quiche was a Eureka! for me. Short version: sliced goats' cheese (melting, creamy), courgettes (crunchy) and tomatoes (juicy, sharp, yummy) with herbs.

Then what? Chestnut vermicelli with cream and icecream. Champion gourmande on this occasion, I was the only one who could finish this rich and royal dessert.

I've been in training for this all my life.

Marron vermicelli dessert.

Aubonne streets: where front is back

Street in Aubonne

We walked over to Aubonne the other day. This part of Switzerland seems virtually unchanged since 1964. A sweeping statement, I know, but compared with almost any other place I'm familiar with, the villages around here seem set in aspic. Chunky streets with historic authenticity present a rather stolid face to visitors. And so incredibly quiet! But around the back, or in the next street, real life happens after all. Kids chattering. Allotments. People making pots or sunning themselves in the garden.

Some old people are like these old streets. Formally dressed and ultra-conservative at first sight. But if you can just get into the back yard of their mind, you might discover a very human being, pulling out weeds and enjoying the sunshine.

Garden allotments in Aubonne.

Uche drinks from a fountain.

A privilege of age eludes me

I forgot to state my age in my Chateau de Lavigny application form. I wasn't being coy, but perhaps I just didn't see the question.

Now, if the committee had known of my advanced age, I would be sleeping in a formidable four-poster bed. It's the privilege of the oldest woman writer in each group, it seems.

Instead I was given a delightful room with a more modest sized bed. My room has the same old chintzy fabric on the walls, doors, chairs, and curtains. It's like sleeping in a doll's house. I imagine each night a giant security officer lifts off the ceiling and checks that I'm safely sleeping.

Swaddled as I am, I feel secure and coddled. I'm glad the usual hierarchy broke, because I've got comfort instead of opulence, domesticity instead of grandeur.

Self portrait in bedroom mirror.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Chateau Lavigny: perfect writers' residence

Read all about the Chateau de Lavigny in the village of Lavigny, near Morges, in Suisse Romande. The Fondation Ledig-Rowohlt is a memorial to the extraordinary German publisher Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rohwohlt, established by his equally extraordinary wife Jane. Since 1996, their home has been a writers' residence each summer.

The reality? I'm in bliss as a guest writer in this idyllic spot right now. 'Idyllic' hints, I hope, at the fact that this is almost too good (pretty, congenial, tranquil) to be true. I certainly haven't been saintly enough in this life to deserve it. Must have had a previous life as a goddess.

Classic writers-around-the-table photo, 7 pm get-together. Meet Paul La Farge, Uche Umezurike, Maud Casey, Sunny Singh, and Tatania, Sophie Kandaouroff and Martin Eriksen. Sophie, actor and film director, is also our on-the-spot manager and hostess. (I'm there too, honestly.)

View from the garden, across the Lac Leman to France, Mont Blanc, and Geneva.

Speaking of goddesses, the Goddess of Books is secreted in a mirrored cubby-hole along with LP records, romantic blurred and fading pictures of the great Jane Ledig-Rohwohlt, and a state-of-the-art 1960s record player. The external aesthetic serenity of the chateau and the entire village is one thing. Inside, extreme artefacts erupt, reflecting imagination and feverish fertility. Figures, for the man who published Albert Camus, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gunther Grass, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Harold Pinter, Jean-Paul Sartre and the rest.

Since the theme of this blog is growing older, I hope you deduce that writers never stop writing. Perhaps we never die.