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- July 30 – Rue des Rosiers – Evening
- August 10 – St-Saturnin-lès-Apt, Provence
- August 14 – Nolay, Burgundy
- August 15 – Troyes, Champagne
For the first time this morning, the knot in your viscera begins to slip a little.
Who knows – perhaps the beast that spends its time trying to chase you down has gone
on a little holiday himself?
Yesterday, Versailles – a suburb that’s really small city unto itself, with a
comfortable feel. Which is surprising, given the straight boulevards and gridded
streets. Many of the houses along the avenues are fronted by lushly planted, tranquil
yards. Proust and Wilde, apparently, found the atmosphere congenial enough.
For most of the day, you wandered in the gardens and found them so engaging
you never made it to the palace. Gwen will have to wait until next time you come to
Paris for her Hall of Mirrors experience.
But you did walk around the “hamlet” to which Marie Antoinette, when feeling
overwhelmed by court life, used to escape, assuming the role of an Arcadian
shepherdess. Utterly bizarre this potemkin village, surrounded by a moat and built just
a stone’s throw from the Grand Trianon, where the game of politics was played out in
earnest. It’s a design worthy of a modern-day Disney “imagineer” – the structures,
thatched cottages and farm buildings, scaled just a little smaller than life-sized,
endowed with the proportions of contrived innocence. Not actually inhabitable – all for
show – yet living within the hameau’s precincts, real cows, sheep, asses, ducks and
Wandering on her own, clearly mindblown by the dreamscape, Gwen snapped a
photo of the mill with its little waterwheel, then strolled across a patch of lawn and took
a deadfall straight into an overgrown, half-hidden stream. From a few yards away, you
watched as she disappeared completely, save for her arm in its purple cast, somehow
holding the camera aloft and clear of the drink. You ran toward her, but she’d already
emerged, completely soaked and weeping in shock. Sun hot enough that she soon
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 129
pictured them rolling on the floor with laughter.
announces her intention to become a psychotherapist. And why not? since she’ll have
had years of practice riding out the emotional whitewater you and Katie manage to
Getting on to dinner time, you wend downhill toward the Gare du Nord. On a
narrow street off the rue de la Goutte d’Or, you spot a promising Moroccan restaurant –
inexpensive menu, a couple of families with young kids among the patrons. You sit
down, order food and what comes is well-prepared and richly flavored. But subtly, as
the meal progresses, a growing sense that your presence is more tolerated than
welcome. Years ago, in East Jerusalem, you’d experienced something similar, though
more acutely and under riskier circumstances. During a late evening walk from the old
city toward your hotel, a little high on wine, you came to feel first one set of eyes boring
into you, then another and still more until you’d reaped the full, almost palpable
sensation of the quarter’s collective will that you disappear, preferably in a flash, as if
astride Mohammed’s horse. Vanish, or else. But you were earthbound and your feet of
clay had landed you in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing for it but to put left
in front of right – deliberately – not too eager, not too slow. Send out a vibe that says I
am leaving at the fastest pace my dignity will allow – in the same manner as you might wish to
leave if you were in my shoes.
What had you been thinking, or not thinking – taking a stroll down an avenue
named for Saladin as though it were Positively 4th Street in a sixties midsummer’s night
dream? Why now, in your presumably wiser middle age, had you gone and forgotten
that in some places you’re seriously Other.
Katie, who, from the get go had been skeptical about walking through, much less
having dinner in a North African neighborhood, picks up on the room tension, and
begins to chew more rapidly. Across the table, you telegraph slow down. Gwen
unfazed, finishes her lamb stew, pats her lips with her napkin and announces herself
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 130
the-wall pastry shop just down the block.
The shift in energy between one space and the next on the same street is like
night and day: the fellow from whom you order three beignets and an espresso à
emporter treats you with the open affect New York deli counterman. All to the good.
Onward then, toward the nearest Metro station where, in the quickening darkness, you
find yourself trying to plow through the single most dense and chaotic tide of urban
humanity you’ve experienced in lo these fifty years. Times Square in the bad old days
doesn’t hold a candle to the intersection of boulevards Barbès and Rochechouart.
Everything swirls through this crossroads – true obverse of the Louvre pyramid – the
only fixed points being three African women, zaftig and gorgeously attired, who stand
motionless at what seem to be strategic points only they can sense, hawking bottles of
mineral water immersed in ice-filled buckets at their feet. What are they thinking? At
five francs a hit – same price as at the tourist hotspots – they’re not pulling any
customers out of this crowd.
Around and about the water sellers, motile waves of people surge, some folks,
like you, aiming themselves at the staircase to the Metro, which is elevated here. You
go with, yet try to bend the flow, and without too much eddying round, wash up on
that shore. The steps lies half-obscured beneath a carpet of refuse so dense as to appear
nearly rococo in its effusion. Beneath this layering you can glimpse the extreme
corrosion of the staircase itself, such that it has become, literally, a lattice-work of metal.
Up you leap, Katie and Gwen close behind, finding your footing where you may,
weaving and dodging to avoid being knocked backward by those bounding downstairs.
You gain the landing, where the scene is no less frenzied. To either side, as you feed
your tickets into the turnstile, multitudes of people shoot past, many vaulting over the
barrier with easy grace, as though theirs is the standard mode of entry.
Once on the platform, you survey the streets below. When was the last time a
green-suited sanitation crew came through, scrubbing the sidewalk within an inch of its
life? From this vantage, it’s clear that the maintenance of a nearly Swiss standard of
cleanliness and order, so rigorously applied in central Paris, has here been utterly
abandoned. Yet this is central Paris. Nonetheless, the air feels differently charged
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 131
quarter possesses a micro-climate entirely unto itself.
By some miracle, the three of you find a tranquil spot on the platform, unwrap
and eat your still-hot beignets. Just as you’re licking the powdered sugar off your
fingers, by good fortune comes the train. Change at Pigalle for the number 12 to St-
After midnight now and you’re back in Asnières, buzzing with espresso and
adrenalin, scrawling away at the desk of the hotel room in your sleepy banlieue. Girls
out like lights.
What a difference an arrondissement makes. Tonight a dinner just as Semitic as
your last, but of another order entirely. Walking through the Marais, you spot
evermore frequent signs in shopwindows announcing the arrival of the putative
Mosiach – in the person of the late Menachem Schneerson, Grand Rebbe of the
Lubavitchers based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
From one of the restaurants, the smell of falafel entices your nostrils and you
enter through a restaurant doorway into a transplanted microcosm of Tel Aviv. Katie
and Gwen sit facing the street. Sitting across from them, your view is of a huge,
brightly colored mosaic that takes up the entire rear wall. It shows a bustling street
scene in what looks to be an East European ghetto, probably Lodz or Warsaw,
sometime around the turn of the last century.
The food arrives. Reasonably good, standard Mediterranean fare – no better nor
worse than what you could get for two thirds the price in New York. But the whole
meal, dessert included, takes less time than the entrée course at a typical Parisian
brasserie. Katie and Gwen head outside into the still-light evening while you double
back to get a closer look at the mosaic. It’s an ambitious piece of work, intricately
crafted, and it takes a moment for you to notice, hanging framed on the perpendicular
wall, a black and white photo that the mosaic artist used as a reference. It’s a view east,
of rue de Rosiers in 1890.
When you walk out and turn left, you recognize the street as if by déjà vu. But
you’re entirely disconcerted, momentarily unmoored in time. Midway between the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 132
the window of a kosher patisserie, there came an occupation, wherein most of the
people who were young in that photo disappeared for good.
Not improbable either that Meyer would have recognized some of them.
Yesterday, to Père Lachaise to visit Wilde, Colette, Wright and Michelet. This
afternoon, to complete your necropolitan tour, Les Catacombes. You venture down
solo. Katie professes disinterest, and in any case, someone has to stay with Gwen, who
won’t go anywhere near a cemetery – averts her eyes if she even passes one. Lately,
when you enter a church, she’ll ask, with considerable urgency, if anyone’s buried
beneath the flagstones. Notwithstanding, she’s put in a request for a souvenir – a coin
medallion to add to her collection of historic sites. “But,” you ask, “What’s the point of
having a memento of a place you haven’t been?” She shoots you back a look you’ve
seen before, the one that communicates, distilled to a quintessence, the pathos of your
attempts at logic. OK, d’accord – if they have ‘em for sale, you’ll buy her one.
Entry to the Catacombs lies beneath one of the few preserved outposts of the
Farmer General’s Wall, one of Ledoux’s follies, and descent is via a narrow spiral
staircase cut directly into the stone. It’s a long way down, a journey made all the more
unsettling by the absence of any sign indicating how much further you have to go. But
then, abruptly you’re there – the stairway gates onto a network of corridors,
underground streets marked Rue this and Boulevard that. Apart from you, no one
seems to have ventured down en seulle, and as you encounter groups of visitors, you
begin to imagine yourself a shade overhearing the strange chatter of the still-embodied.
You overtake a trio of middle-aged Brits, two men and a woman. They proceed
at a leisurely pace, their mood jocular, catacombing for a lark, and it soon becomes clear
they are completely innocent of this place’s history. Nor can they read French. One
fellow speculates that the bones belong to victims of successive plagues and tries to
reckon the dates by deciphering the Roman numerals on the wall-mounted plaques that
record each deposition.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 133
“Here now,” the woman says, “what do you suppose the job description was to
work down here?”
“‘Must be able to build a wall with human bones,’ I suppose,” replies the third.
Brit number one stops to calculate the age of a particularly artful interment.
“Ah!” he says triumphantly. “This one’s ninth century.” The shade passes by, says
Up ahead, four young American women trade remarks calculated to spook one
another, as if there’s an invisible camera rolling and this will all turn up in grainy, hand-
held glory on MTV. Three of them strike a mock-vampiristic pose before a chamber full
of bones that seems to extend into infinity, while the fourth steps back to take the
picture. As the flash pops, you try to glimpse the cavern’s far wall, but the black
continues on beyond the reach of light.
You press on along the path, wet with drippings from the tunnel ceiling, find a
spot where you can imagine for a moment that you’re the only one here. To say you’re
filled with wonderment at the scale of the project and its manifest weirdness is no
exaggeration. By turns utilitarian, æstheticized, sacred and promiscuous, the mix of
paradoxes renders you lightheaded, almost giddy. It is only when you turn a corner
and come upon group of fellow troglodytes speaking German that the chill produces an
involuntary shudder. Six million skeletons lie interred around you, and though you
know they were dug up from scores of church graveyards and moved to these ancient,
disused quarries two centuries ago, you can’t help but mentally blend this army of the
dead into your image of the six million. It was down here too, during the occupation,
that the Maquis established its headquarters in a warren of passageways the Gestapo
never managed to fully penetrate.
In some chambers, the bones piled helter-skelter extend at eye level even further
back than the dim light will allow you to peer, but facing onto the thoroughfare, the
depositions are always finished off with a patterned, often symmetrical masonry of
skulls juxtaposed with arm or leg bones, deliberately arranged, calculatedly decorative,
never capricious. Occasionally, a surface composed of the knob end of long bones will
seem to resemble a paving of rounded stones. It is in these surfaces that the workmen
who created these walls inlaid a row of skulls, or a pair of crossed humerus bones, to
make clear the singular nature of these materials so that one cannot reduce them – even
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 134
tantalus to the visual play. Just when you focus on an individual detail, you see it
within the mass. If you let your focus blur, a particularity forces the whole into
At times, as you walk, a calciferous rain falls from the mini-stalactites above and
your shoe tips become caked with a chalk-white slurry. You linger before a particularly
striking deposition and decide to take a photograph. But your light meter reads it as
way underexposed even when you set the f-stop all the way open for a fifteenth of a
second. No evidence of drippings on your camera, yet moisture must have worked its
way inside. The shutter works fine, you can see that by looking into the lens as you
rotate the ring, so you bracket as you shoot, hoping one of the exposures works. Even
so, the part of you that believes all matter is imbued with spirit taunts you with the
suspicion that perhaps this isn’t an electronic failure at all, rather the camera’s way of
saying “I’d prefer not to.” Or it could be that the machine is acting out your own
internal resistance to taking such a picture.
There’s more to this necropolis, a great deal more, but – to use Milos Foreman’s
phrase – you’ve enjoyed enough of this. Unlike the great spiral down, your ascent
seems to take hardly any time at all – suddenly you’re at street level, and on the line to
have your bag checked at the exit. A minor hubbub just ahead: a young fellow has
been discovered trying to carry off a fragment of some long-dead Parisian in his
backpack. The guard dismisses him with the gesture of someone shooing away
harmless but troublesome insect and places the relic on a counter where it joins a small
but significant pile of the day’s looted anatomy, similarly retrieved. Presumably to be
reinterred. But who knows which pile it came from? If no one were minding the store,
how long, at this rate, would it take for the ossuary to be cleaned out altogether? So
distracting has this micro-drama been that you nearly left without buying Gwen her
souvenir. There’s the kiosk. Into the slot goes a 10F piece and out comes the golden
coin. Monnaie de Paris stamped on one side. On the reverse Les Catacombes curves over
a symmetrical quartet of skulls, two up, two down, set in a field of elbow knobs that
look for all the world like little blossoms.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 135
“Paris weeps at your departure,” you joke with Gwen as you drive south
through an electrical storm that buffets your silly little green rented car. And in truth,
until now, it hasn’t rained once during daylight hours in the two weeks since you
arrived. But atmospherics aside, this morning the city seemed intent on holding you to
her bosom forever. First M. Claude, your venerable and genial, but technologically-
impaired hotelier, found it impossible to properly operate the machine that reads credit
cards, so you were forced to sprint among several ATMs in order to hustle together the
cash to pay for your room. Next, at the not-so-conveniently-located car rental office
you’d reserved from, you found they’d somehow managed to lock themselves out of
the safe where the keys are kept, hence a cab ride back to the hotel for your luggage,
thence a tour of Paris’s peripheral highways, all the way out to Orly to land up this
liliputian Citröen Saxo that drives as they say, comme le shit.
But, all’s well that ends well, and here you are, pedal to metal, south on the
payage in the general direction of Provence. Driving by Eric, navigation by Katie,
napping on and off by Gwen. You’re doing great, the three of you, under the
circonflexes. Vroooom! Au sud!
8 a.m. Thick gray skies. Your breath exhales in mist, yet you don’t feel a chill.
At the table to your right, outside the café-tabac across the intersection from La Poste,
two guys in casual clothes drink espresso, smoke and talk in Arabic. A young woman
walks toward you along the sidewalk, twin baguettes under her arm. From the
opposite direction, the buzz of an approaching car, a tiny Renault. The driver brakes
sharply, stops, rolls down her window and hails the young woman who strolls over for
an unhurried chat in the middle of the crossroads.
What time does the mist begin to lift? Should you order another espresso? The
young woman and her friend exchange pecks on both cheeks, the window rolls up. The
driver flashes her right turn signal and the car heads toward Roussillon. As the young
woman with the baguettes walks past you read the back of her teeshirt: I did it with the
Before stopping here for coffee, you rambled around town, discovered the
stairway that leads to the old mill. Bear left at the fountain with the goldfish, then
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 136
mills stood here once, the place being well exposed to the play of wind. One’s been
converted into living quarters for a family and you see evidence that the occupants are
at home. The ruined barrel of another mill stands nearby. If you searched for them,
you could probably find the foundations of the other two.
When you first gained the summit, the family Doberman bounded to within a
few yards of you, barking up a storm. But as you neither ran away, nor made an
attempt to cross the invisible perimeter around the house of its owners, it trotted off
aways, all the while keeping a watchful eye on your progress. Every so often, if you
seemed to be heading toward the house, it would approach, then halt, formally
reiterating its notion of the line of demarcation. Eventually, this turned into something
of a game, until you flummoxed the other player by walking away and not looping
back. Out on the promontory, you looked out over the valley shrouded in mist.
Assuming the sun fights its way through, you’ll bring Katie and Gwen up later – it
ought to be an incredible view.
The two men finish their coffees. One gets up and ambles across the intersection
with a rolling, shoulder-heavy gait that reminds you of Bassry. The other, smaller man
pays the tab and jogs after him. They climb into the cab of a white van and drive away
down the road to Apt. As soon as the van is out of sight, as if the cosmos were
exchanging the presence of one vehicle for another, the rumble of a big engine heralds
what turns out to be a huge garbage truck, entering from the perpendicular road. The
proportional disparity between truck and intersection obliges the driver to execute a
series of reverses and turns before he can head up toward the bluff along a street so
narrow it seems incapable of accommodating the truck’s width. It’s a path more than a
road, laid down in an age of mills, when Occitan was spoken here, long before anyone
but Roger Bacon could have dreamed of a metal machine that moved by combusting a
black and viscous fuel.
The chair you’re sitting in communicates to your ass that it’s time to get moving
and pick up bread. There’s a popular boulangerie on Place de la Fraternity, but the one
around the corner is better by far – in fact, they sell the best bread you’ve ever eaten. A
little bell over the doorway tinkles as you enter. The young woman behind the counter,
twenty-something, has eyes like a Byzantine icon’s, made larger still by rimless, ovoid
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 137
aside for him, then up to the counter. This morning, beneath her apron, she wears a
low-cut V-necked teeshirt. Along her pale forearms, a growth of fine black hair.
“Bonjour, monsieur.” Third morning in a row, so you’re good for a half-smile.
“Une fougasse, s’il vous plait.” She selects one from the bin, lays it on paper,
twists the ends tight, hands it to you across the marble counter. Still warm. You hand
her the coins.
She puts the change in a small brass dish atop the register.
“Merci à vous, monsieur. Au revoir – bonne journée.”
When you step outside, the clouds have transformed from gray to white and are
moving northward fast, opening up to reveal, every second, wider patches of blue. An
hour from now, it’ll be gorgeous weather, and by afternoon, hot enough to take Gwen
to the local piscine where she’ll ply the waterslide as long as she desires.
German couple whose house you’re renting, calls to invite the three of you over for a
swim. Charlotte is German, by birth at any rate. For twenty years she’s lived, sculpted
and made music in the upstairs suite of a vast and ancient manor house a few miles
west of St-Saturnin.
Qualitatively this pool is a bringdown for Gwen over the local piscine – no
waterslide – but she reposes on her blanket like a proper sunworshipper and when
bored with that, starts to read. The water’s relatively unchlorinated, silky-textured,
almost limpid, so papa and his host immerse themselves and swim many a languid lap,
conversing. The whole area, Charlotte says, is fast becoming a foreign colony. Peter
Mayles’s book primed the pump, then vacationers, especially Germans and Brits,
descended in droves. Finding it agreeable and cheap, they not-so-gradually bought the
place up. But it’s clear she loves the Luberon still – holiday crowds, Mistral and all –
having known it before it became a destination.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 138
Charlotte climbs out of the pool, dries off and sits down on the chaise next to
Katie. You float, gaze up into the sky and around at the countryside. Cezanne’s nailed
it in his landscapes. Only now, being here, can you see that his paintings weren’t
amplifications, rather distillations of what he sensed. And then you laugh out loud.
“What?” asks Gwen. Nothing really, just the image of yourself driving that ridiculous
little car through all those winding, sometimes downright scary roads to get here. Katie
clutching the doorhandle as you took the turns in the Ardèches gorges with some BMW
or Mercedes suddenly out of nowhere right on your tail, urging your tiny Saxo off the
cliff edge – not necessarily with malevolence, but as an impersonal function of its
greater mass and power. In any case, you’ve learned your lesson. Next time you drive
in France, it’s going to be in a real car.
Katie’s birthday – the big four five. Celebratory dinner in Villars. One thing you
love about France is their utterly literal brand of wysiwyg. If a place is called Le Vieux
Moulin, you can be sure there’s an ancient mill within spitting distance. Brasserie Le
Terminus, bet your bottom dollar on it, can be found next to the train station. This
restaurant, La Fontaine, sits on a tiny square whose center is, in fact, la fontaine. Your
table’s outside, only a few yards away – close enough to hear, in quiet moments, the
water rilling. That and a summer precursor of the season to come, stirring up the trees.
Last night in the south. Tomorrow, you begin the drive back toward Paree.
Stay one night, then home. How they gonna keep you back in New York now that
you’ve seen Provence? That first night on the way south, you stayed over at a château-
hotel Katie booked on the internet. Strange and silly how you anticipated dinner with
dread. In so posh a place, deep in the middle of nowhere, it’d have be a clip, right?
And of dubious quality too. But France plays by its own rules, not yours. Mind-
blowing: a gorgeous meal, well served, and finished with three cheeses, one of which –
though you can’t recall its name – you didn’t merely taste, you felt tingling in your
fingertips and toes. Washed down with the wine of the Loire in the Loire. After which
you took the spiral staircase to your room, lay on the bed and looked up, through a
circular window cut in the ceiling at the converging rafters of the turret above.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 139
Next morning, instead of the roar and honk of traffic on Eighth Avenue, or the
harsh cacophony of bottles being dumped from recycling bin into the garbage truck
outside your hotel in Asnières, you awoke to crows in the garden and a view out the
window of a dawnlit stand of pines.
Whenever you and Katie travel, the question comes up: Could we live here? The
spare fundamentals of Provence aren’t right for Katie. Her interior resonates to a lusher
palette of green. And apart from the question of how you’d make a living, there’s
winter to consider. Between the lack of urban life and the infamous wind that unhinges
the mind, you’d probably go barmy in a year or less.
Or would you? In a host of ways this surround, the pines and cypresses, the
ochre of the stone walls, the details of the buildings; the cheeses, breads, melons, even
the candied fruits and rosé wines that until now you’d no particular taste for – in truth
the flavor of the air itself – feeds your senses more abundantly than any place you’ve set
foot before. Surely the Mediterranean light counts for a lot given the SADD condition
of your gene pool, but that doesn’t explain the multi-tiered affinities you’ve developed
for this region – the few square kilometers of topography that lie between the Vaucluse
hills and the Luberon. It’s only been a week. Who knew one’s molecules could attune
so strongly and so rapidly? You’re going to have a hell of a time explaining to your
body why it left here.
Here your fountain pen came to life too, leapt up and plunged into your
notebook like Gwen into her swimming pool. Five fables written in as many days.
Your stories must have taken heart from her.
Breakfast in the open air near the hotel you stayed in last night. Behind you,
thataway, a hundred someodd kilometers south, lies the Vaucluse. But then, you are
where you are.
This square, with its church and Halle was once the heart of the town. Open on
the sides, the Halle’s thick timber pillars branch out into trusses, supporting a slate-
topped roof that runs parallel to the church’s nave and nearly touches its walls. With
only a narrow alleyway separating the two buildings, the pairing represents the purest
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 140
Occupying a niche in the church’s tower, two little painted wooden figures, a
man and woman in medieval costumes, strike the bell with hammers every quarter
hour. Somehow they manage to get the same bell to sound two different tones. The
woman, in her blue dress and white bonnet, pivots first, pealing a high note. The man,
dressed in brown breeches and a belted jerkin swivels an instant later, his hammer
producing a note about a third lower. Rung one right after the other, the carillon
sounds like the word “bonjour” as spoken by a bell. This morning, hanging in the sky
just to the right of the steeple’s peak, an early moon, waning to a thin slice of blanched
Your eye tracks lower, along the roofline of the buildings demarcating the square
and the chimney stacks made of ornamented terracotta and surmounted by finials that
look like overturned flower pots. A few pigeons roost atop them, but the main avian
action is generated by multitudes of starlings that periodically sweep overhead, then
Gwen’s playing in the fountain at the far end of the square. It’s a modern
addition to the medieval surround: a long marble slab laid flush with the pavement
and perforated so that ten jets of water, arranged in a row, can shoot straight up. The
jets are set just wide enough apart for a kid to slip sideways between them and not get
wet. The four centermost streams leap to a height of around five feet and the three on
each side to roughly half that. What makes the game a tricky one is that the timing of
the spouts keeps changing, controlled by a hidden mechanism that turns them off and
on in a seemingly random sequence. Here come a couple of local kids. Gwen stands
back, watches them play a kind of twister game. The idea is place your feet astride two
adjacent holes, then bend down and reach over to plug a third with your palm. Then,
when you’re about to fall over, scramble out of the way. Swoosh! Up comes the water
– but if you’re fast enough, you don’t get soaked.
On your table appears a basket of bread and croissants, accompanied by two jars
of confiture, strawberry and orange. You wave to get Gwen’s attention, point to the
tabletop: breakfast’s here. She waves back, then placing one elbow just above the reach
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 141
true slapstick form, the jet recedes and she is left leaning on air.
not used to seeing in France – you begin to get distinctly weirded-out. By the time you
find a parking space near the strangely grim Hôtel Arlequin and lug the suitcases
upstairs, your sense of disconcertion had intensified to the point where you feel like
you’re under the influence of a not very benign hallucinogen. Katie and Gwen, tired
from the drive want to take it easy, maybe have a nap, venture out in the evening.
Need to walk, want to map this place out. So you set off by yourself.
What a reversal of sensations from those of the past ten days! All the guidebooks
extol Troyes as a model of urban preservation. In the late-‘50s it was among the first
cities to be designated un secteur sauvegardé by then-Culture Minister André Malraux.
But right away it’s clear: Troyes belongs to the pigeons now, legions of ‘em – and to an
astonishing number of day-trippers who promenade the thoroughfares and amble
slowly and in close formation along its medieval streets and alleys.
Generally you love this kind of cityscape, even tricked up in postmodern
trappings, but Troyes has a nightmarish quality to it, a dimness in broad daylight which
feels all-encompassing – more Lovecraft than Kafka – as though some unknown agent
has compromised the very gene pool of the place. Venerable half-timbered buildings
line the streets of the old quarters, a good number of them painstakingly preserved,
either recently restored or currently undergoing renovation. But for each viable,
occupied building, there seems to be a derelict one, maybe two, and the contrast is
disturbing to say the least. Here and there, a wooden skeleton survives, shored up with
diagonal buttresses. Occasionally an old house has fallen in on itself, leaving a heap of
timbers, or else the woodwork’s been carted away leaving behind an empty, rubble-
Nor have you ever seen commercial signage so relentlessly ugly and battered-
looking. Even the usually slick corporate logos and plastic chain store signs appear
subtly out of whack. And you have to take particular care to watch where you put your
feet. A haphazard assortment of materials has been used for curbstones, sidewalk and
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 142
becomes a tactical awareness game.
It doesn’t take you long to realize that Troyes is an amazing place – different
from, say, Youngstown, OH, or a thousand other once-industrial towns now contracting
into shadows of their former selves. This place presents itself as a tourist destination, a
kind of medieval theme park. Yet the whole urban organism appears to be falling into
ruin just slightly faster than it’s getting fixed. And there’s an oddly energic quality to
this decay, like yeast germinating. It gives off a nearly palpable sense of heat. You’re
half-convinced that if you were to focus on a particular detail, shift your eyes away for
an instant, then look back again, you would catch it in the act of deteriorating.
Pull your focus back and it’s astonishing how much of the architectural
patrimony is simply trashed. You enter a chapel with gaping holes punched in the
stained-glass windows, blackened gargoyles and pigeon feathers littering the flagstones
to find yourself engulfed by an atmosphere straight out of Huysmans. Another church,
where Henry V married Catherine of France, looks very much as though Gargantua
passed through town and thrashed it with a ball and chain.
For the first time you begin to understand how, not so long ago, Gothic buildings
were widely regarded as eyesores – relics of an ignorant, primitive and thankfully
bygone age. Imagine Ste-Chapelle in such condition and one would be hard pressed to
see past the surface noise to appreciate its elegant lines. The first time you saw Notre
Dame, thirty-five years ago, its exterior was cloaked in the soot-streaked patina of
centuries. How different the building’s presence felt then. And then it hits you that
some of what you’re picking up on is the failure of globalization to impose its visual
language on this place. Despite obvious efforts, it just doesn’t seem to take.
Given the overall state of things, you’d think there’d be lots of graffiti – but block
for block there’s less than in Paris. Plentiful instances of vandalism though. Down one
respectable-looking street someone apparently used a blowtorch on the plastic entrance
buttons of an apartment house doorway, searing them into a weird, half melted, amber-
like mass. Against these sorts of depredations and all others, Troyes has fought back
with flowers. Windowboxes overflow with geraniums. Planters line the main
thoroughfares and well-tended floral displays frame every square. The foliage is real
enough, but these bursts of civic optimism come off as attempts to mask rather than
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 143
Surely, you think, it’s only a matter of time until Troyes delivers up some
unsullied image that will permit you, at least momentarily, to free yourself from this
undertow of decay and float off on a cloud of esthetic rapture. Isn’t that what France is
all about? Ah, here’s a park – spacious and clearly modeled on the garden of the Palais
Royale. At the center stands an imposing fountain, its central figures sculpted in
luminescent white marble. The theme is familiar though you don’t recall the particular
myth: a burly mer-man has seized a young woman who struggles voluptuously in his
grasp. Ringing the contending pair, four bronze frogs, mouths agape, shoot arcs of
water at their legs. But here once again, any attempt at idealization folds back on itself
as grotesquerie. So many pigeons perch on the couples’ heads and shoulders that these
are nearly obscured, and a streaked coating of guano accumulates on every surface that
the sluicing of the frogs fails to reach.
Caught somewhere between bemusement and horror, you loop back across town
toward the cathedral, with its one standing tower. The other either never got built, or
else it must have collapsed. In your distraction, you scarcely noticed evening coming
on, and you find the door’s locked – too late to go inside. But the exterior is gorgeously
sculpted, worth a full, slow circumnavigation. Finally, as you drink in the sinuous lines
of the flamboyant Gothic ornament, your sense of Troyes as a bad acid trip begins to
turn ecstatic. By the time you’ve made your way around to the apse, the window
tracery has started to shape-shift before your eyes as if the stone itself were a plastic,
self-animating thing. Radiating out from on high, where the walls meet the roof, a tribe
of gargoyles whose expressions you can’t help but read as a living index of the town’s
What ravaged Troyes? At the peak of its fortunes, when the great fairs of
Champagne emerged as major centers of medieval trade, the town boasted a flourishing
cloth industry, situated at the intersection of routes from the Mediterranean to Germany
and Flanders to central and eastern Europe. Once too, this was the power base of a
bizarrely modern, proto-anarchistic heresy known as the Free Spirit. So much material
feels palpably concealed here that half perversely, you’d love to dig deeper. No time
though. Tomorrow morning, move on. Let it go.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 144
But some of the more recent insults to the urban fabric stare you right in the face.
Not least that the Seine, which makes its iconic champagne-cork loop around the old
town center, was diverted into a canal in the nineteenth Century, then partly covered
over. Atop the canal, the city fathers – no doubt imagining their own version of the
Champs Elysée – laid down Quai Dampierre, the boulevard you’re walking along now.
In the process, they split the townscape into an uncenterable thing.
You scan the desolate stores lining both sides of the street. What you could use
is another suitcase for all the stuff you’ve accumulated these past weeks. Some clothes
for Gwen. But mostly books. And when you get to Paris you’ll probably buy the big
two-volume Robert for Katie. Ah, here’s a luggage shop with good prices. In you go,
then out again, wheeling a huge red valise. Trundle it back toward your hotel.
Somewhere your read that several big fires badly damaged Troyes, one not too
long past. Which may explain the concentration of modern housing estates built near
the ancient core. They’re awful buildings, even of their type – prison-like enclaves that
face inward, isolated from the surrounding city, and blockading integrative flow among
the adjacent neighborhoods. And then there’s Paris. What has it meant, in modern
times, for Troyes to be located only a couple of hours distant from such a powerful
cultural and economic center of gravity?
How would one approach the task of fixing so large and multiply wounded a
place? Or should it simply be abandoned? Jesus, could New York end up like this?
Even at your most pessimistic it’s hard to imagine, so long as the city keeps itself dialed
into the world’s flow of trade. Towns which, at their bedrock level, function as
entrepôts – that constantly draw fresh inhabitants and generate new energies – can take
a lot of hits and keep on ticking. Particularly if they’re seaports.
August 17 – Café Bonaparte
Last morning in Paris this go-round. À l’anée prochaine, enchallah.
Sky overcast. On your way out to the door, you whispered once again to a
torpid Gwen that Paris weeps when she leaves. Last night, as you were eating dinner
came really torrential rains, and thunder that shook the windows of the bistro. No sign
of it letting up, so there came a point when the three of you ran for it, splashing through
puddles, several blocks back to the hotel. You arrived soaked – might as well have
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 145
for her to wrap up in.
A light rain now, but you’re dry under the café’s green awning. In one of the
upstairs apartments Sartre and de Beauvoir once lived. So Levent told you when you
were having coffee with him here a couple of weeks ago. Levent’s a poet, and hearing
this, Gwen interjected that she was too. OK, said Levent, make up a poem.
Immediately she wrote some lines out on a napkin that utterly blew his mind. Yours
and Katie’s too. Wow, to be so tuned in and ready to engage. Were you like that?
Probably not at nine. If memory serves, seven was around when you began to lock up.
Today, you’ve gravitated to more or less the same table and sit facing a narrow
street on the other side of which, at the center of a tiny square, stands a trademark
Parisian green-painted cast-iron public fountain, its cupola supported by a quartet of
karyatids. Someone’s left a mineral water bottle upright beneath the spout and the
stream pours in from above overflowing it, a fountain within a fountain.
Mounted on a tall pole at the near edge of the square is a placard advertising an
exhibition at the Musée Nationale des Artes et Traditions Populaires. You’d hoped to
get there and see it, but time’s up. Che Guevara’s portrait dominates the poster – his
visage in its way as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s. Surrounding him, a constellation of
other timeless “Héros Populaires”: Napoleon, Harlequin, a cartoon farm girl in peasant
dress (Jean d’Arc?), Tupac Amaru and a lute-playing troubadour replete with
ballooning pantaloons, cape and hose, his feathered hat cocked rakishly to one side.
It begins to rain in earnest again. Your umbrella’s back at the hotel. Can’t go
upstairs and borrow one from Simone and Jean-Paul. An African woman passes,
wearing a gorgeously printed robe and shawl. A few steps behind her, a young white
woman in bell-bottoms ducks her head beneath a splashy floral umbrella. Most
passersby make a good faith effort to ignore the rain. Drops fall into the open bags of
bread being delivered to the brasseries.
To your left, diagonally across rue de Rennes stands St-Germain des Prés. In
front of the abbey, beneath a bus shelter, several people are gathered waiting for the
number 39 to Gare de l’Est: a resolute-looking black woman, hands thrust in her
pockets, three middle-aged white guys, and a white woman in a black mini-skirt, hair
the color of Stephanie Audran’s.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 146
Some time last night, person or persons unknown rifled the glove compartment
of your rental car and made an attempt to get the radio too. But they must’ve left in a
hurry. Lucky break. It’s possible that in your ecstasy at finding a parking spot so close
to the hotel, you forgot to lock the doors.
Check the clock in the abbey tower. A century or so ago, around the same time
as new buildings were sprouting on the just-Hausmannized Boulevard St- Germain,
some improving spirit punched a hole in the second register between the portico and
the louvers of the belfry and stuck the clock in. Despite its roman numerals, it still looks
By your calculation, the clock is running three minutes fast. A young white
woman sits reading on the bench in the shelter now. The 39 must’ve come and gone
without your noticing since she’s the only one there. Occasionally she looks up from
her book and chews a thumbnail. When she drops her head, her hair falls like curtains
around her cheeks. Now a young man and woman sit down to her right. He rests a
very thick book on his lap. Standing nearby, a woman in a blue and white striped shirt.
Every few moments she shifts her weight from one hip to the other.
Glance at the clock again. It is accurate. You see that now – the minute and hour
hands are so similar in length, you’d transposed them. It’s just past quarter to nine. A
stunning young woman in a chartreuse cardigan, blue jeans and a fire-engine red
backpack crosses rue G. Apollonaire heading north on rue Bonaparte. Not far behind
her, an ample African woman in a blue denim dress, golden sandals and wrist bracelets.
The 95 bound for Porte de Montmartre stops, whisks the people away. Before
long they’re replaced by a bearded man with white hair and thick glasses, who holds
the book he’s reading virtually in front of his face. He does not get on the 39 when it
arrives. Must be waiting for the next 95. Thirteen minutes to nine now. The abbey bell,
apparently, does not strike the quarter hour. A cry of gulls. Half a dozen or so wheel
about the tower, then glide out of sight behind the north side of the church. You keep
looking for them, but they don’t reappear. In New York, the gulls fly further inland on
overcast days than on clear ones. Sometimes they venture in as far east as Seventh
Avenue. A bit disconcerting to see them swoop by outside the living room window.
What can they be scouting for, a good half mile from the river?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 147
Three men occupy the bench in the bus shelter now: the myopic geezer, a guy
with his legs crossed, and a young fellow with a briefcase hugged between his calves.
You’re going to have to leave before the bus comes. Before you find out if the bell will
ring the hour. Or whether the chime is broken. Ah, the bus beat you to it. Writing,
however fast you manage it, is no match for real time. Two African men, one in a
dazzling print shirt, cross rue Bonaparte together, walk past the abbey, and make a left
on the boulevard. The white-haired man’s still sitting beneath the bus shelter. What is
he waiting for? Only two bus lines stop here and both have come and gone. He’s not
reading any more, rather examining something small he holds in his hands. Four
minutes to nine. A rag-tag procession of pigeons bustles by on the sidewalk, and one
breaks off from the line to peck so close to your toe it could easily miss the crumb and
The rain’s abated but the wind still gusts, sets the awning flapping overhead.
You bid farewell to the Pantheon yesterday. Saw a special exhibition there, a tribute to
Robert Desnos. Attempted to translate a few lines from one of his poems. Should’ve
jotted it down – the sense of it remains, but the words themselves vanished into the
realm of the tantalizingly forgotten.
A milkman delivers bottles to the Bonaparte out of the back of his little van. A
handsome, tall young man in a black suit has joined the old fellow on the bus shelter
bench. The newcomer reads, but every few minutes looks up expectantly for the bus.
In the square, the karyatids still hold up their end of the bargain, water pours over the
lip of the empty Vittel bottle propped inside the fountain. Rain mists under the awning
onto your pages and the ink begins to spider. Coffee’s drunk. There’s a regular crowd
forming in the bus shelter. One minute to nine. You’re outa here.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 148
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