Global Mom: Toot-a-Loo!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part II”)

etsy.com

etsy.com

It was late April. The whole world descends on Paris in April. Throngs walk the wrong way up the wrong roads on the banks of the Seine, missing the Musée d’Orsay entirely. They walk with maps flapping out of their back pockets or unfolded and held so high they miss steps and fall over poles or into potholes and get injured. They maneuver through the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, dodging other visitors who, on tippy toe and with upstretched arms, point their camera periscopes over the shuffling masses. They get pushed in the crowd past the Winged Victory and practically into the Mona Lisa and always seem to lean a few inches too close to the Delacroix or the Ingres or the Corot so the guards, hot and bothered with swollen ankles, have to lunge from their seats and bark a reprimand.

And who can blame a single soul for wanting to be a tourist? Paris, from April through September, is magnificent beyond what you’d ever imagine. It is because it is magnificent, and because everyone (including myself) is telling you it is, that everyone comes to Paris right then. And all of this can make this magnificent town miserable.

You can count on Paris being like this except in August, (again, a forewarning) when the residents of Paris go on vacation. Restaurants are closed, the cousin from Basel has stepped in to man the carousel in the Luxembourg gardens, the only good meal is at a tired fast food chain with lethargic-eyed, part-time fill-ins and napkins made of recycled mothballs. Streets are almost quiet compared to their September crush, which is called la rentrée—the school re-entry—and that school restart means the business restart which means the traffic restart when means the stress restart.

The sogginess of early April has evaporated, leaving the trees in front of the Église Americaine fluffy and bright, with splotches of sunlight dancing on the cobblestones upon which I am strolling. I’m strolling in head-to-toe seafoam green—heels and a linen suit—as an exception to my normal wardrobe, (jeans and ballet flats or black Converses) because I’ve just come home from an important appointment. It is barely chilly enough to wear a silk scarf. I’m in this linen outfit with its matching shoes and matching scarf, and I am strolling. Strolling our doggy Josephine, strolling la-dee-dah-dee-dahing je ne sais quoi-ing in full sun-speckled springtime ease along the Parisian sidewalks of my neighborhood.

condenaststore

condenaststore

This is one of those harmonious moments when I ache to grab those few people who hate Paris (or hate the French or French politics or what those folks claim is “snooty” politeness or “snotty” elegance or “pungent” crudeness) and, with my arms stretched wide above my head, say, “See? This is what we mean! Enraptured. Don’t tell me you’re not.”

Next thing, I hear voices. Loud voices. Voices speaking English. Fog-horning English.

The voices belong to two grown women. I see them approaching me. As I hear them and watch them, I keep walking my pooch and prancing delicately in my green heels, if you remember. And oh, did I forget to mention the large black sunglasses? While I promenade keeping a low sunglassed profile, I hear the amplified ladies coming closer. My breathing quickens. I zoom in on a particular cobblestone and whisper to Joey, “C’mon girl, do your business and let’s split.” Joey, though, has leisurely bowels. I turn my back to them as their voices approach. And when I do, I feel an essential part of me start to shift. But before things shift completely, I listen.

“Chill out! You never did get to reading maps right. Now look right here. Look! You listening? Look: this right here says Ei. Fel. Tow. Er. Eiffel Tower. Now I’m telling you, it’s somewhere close. Real close.” This woman yanks the map from the other woman, muttering just loudly enough for me to hear, “Should have never let you hold this thing in the first place.”

I focus on Joey, my canine distraction, twirling her leash around one hand, and put my cell phone to my ear pretending to be engrossed in the most important call of my life. They come closer. I’m lipping a fake conversation, trying to avoid that uncomfortable moment of being witness to fraternal street violence. I’m just not dressed for breaking up an assault.

“What you mean should have never let me hold this thing? I swear you’re the one got us all lost up in those streets by Noter Damn. Think I’m going leave it up to you this time getting us to the Eiffel Tower? No way, girl. No. Way.

They are acting like sisters. Or at least they’re dressed as such: both in tennis shorts in a pale color, and both in T-shirts with capped sleeves. Neon colored fanny packs. White, terry-cloth lined visors. The last three items listed, all with American flags that glittered. One of the sisters, the one who has spoken first, has nails I can see from this distance. A huge part of me wants to swoop in and strut with them arm-in-arm right down the street and to the Champs de Mars. But their anger at Paris seems beyond repair. Anything I might say will be rebuffed, useless.

I’d like to write that I considered a few approaches; “Hiya. You two look lost. Can I help?” or, “Hey, ladies, if you’re looking for the Eiffel Tower, I’d be happy—”

Those don’t enter my mind.

I straighten my shoulders, adjust my scarf, loosen my clench on Joey’s leash, drop my fake phone call into my handbag.

“’Ello?” I make my voice small and perfumy. The two stop bickering into their map and look up. “I am zo zorree,” I sing, “but I am zeeing you are een. . . trubbéll? I may ’elp you, non?”

“You. . .you from here? You French?” one woman asks, quieted.

“But oui!”, answers la Parisienne, who, smiling, extends her hand, stepping lightly in heels and pulling her Cockér with her. “Juste ovair zair! Zees ees my, ’ow you say?, neighbor-’ood? I zink? We are veree, veree luckee, are we not? We find each uzair?”

I smile. One of them smiles. Joey tilts her head. Seriously?

You see, I had this French thing down pat. I’d practiced this accent every time I’d found myself at a dinner table where language acquisition came up in the conversation (which happened in every single multicultural gathering), and friends occasionally gave their light jabs at the typical, broad, American accent with its cardboard corners and vowels as vast as the prairie. I just loved it when, at about the moment things got sufficiently mockful with people mimicking the wrooowerly broahwerly American accent, I could slip into the conversation in an English with the thickest Inspector Clouseau accent. Hardly comprehensible for all its curlicues deep in the throat, the impossible “th” sound, zee veree, veree, veree tight, uh, ’ow you say? wowel sounds, non? And I would then explain that I had yet to come across a full-blooded Frenchman, even among my friends who are ridiculously gifted linguists, who spoke English absolutely sans trace—without a trace—of a French accent.

So I am perfectly rehearsed for this street performer moment. In less time than it takes to spread a crêpe, I’ve made the fatal shift, consciously positioning myself to do one thing and one thing only: make these two fellow Americans fall desperately in love with this city, this country, with all things French. Even, if necessary, with moi.

“And-uh,” la Parisienne asks, escorting them to a bench, “Where-uh eez eet zat you bose leev? Amaireeca, I ’ope?”

We sit down together. I ’elp zem fold zeir map. Joey whimpers. “We’re from Detroit. Michigan. Know it? Here just a couple of days, you know, doing all of Europe in three—”

“Meecheegan? Detwah? But zees eez a veree, veree wondairful place. But, zut!, I do not know eet. I ’ave only been to, oh, ’ow you call eet? Zee Floreed? To Miameeee.” I slap both hands on my lap hoping they love Florida.

They nod, looking me a bit up and down. “We go to Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale, mostly.”

“Ah, yes, zee Floreed. I love your countree, love zee peepel. Zo wondairful, zo friendlee”

The woman closest to me has fingernails, I can now see, with miniature frescoes painted on them, each an emblem of the U.S.A.: the Statute of Liberty; the Liberty Bell; the Flag; The first line of the constitution, “We the People. . .”

“Hiya, poochie,” she says, “you only speak French huh, sweets?” and she reaches down to Joey, petting her head, which makes my heart trill a bit. The other woman is retying her Reeboks.

“Oh, yes, yes, oui, oui, I weel show you zee Tour Eefell. Eet eez veree close,” and I walk them to the corner, right under the windows of our apartment, down to the intersection of Rue de l’Universtié, then point. Joey drags her hind legs.

“You go-uh, ’ow you say een Eengleesh? straight on an zen, at zee end of zees road, you turn zee right. Voilà! You weel zee your Tour Eefell.”

By now both women are cooing at Joey while barraging me with questions about what the French think of America, Do they all hate us, they ask, is French food really so good, have I tasted snails, where can one get a good milkshake? Which questioning is just as well with me, since I am trying to keep my side of the conversation really low, knowing that at any moment a neighbor, Monsieur B. for instance, might walk out on the street for his afternoon promenade and bump right into me, la Poseur Parisienne.

Sweating under my scarf, I’m feeling duplicitous and conniving on one level, but patriotic and conniving on another. I know, as I walk these two endearing women to the corner, that I am doing my two countries, the U.S. of A. and la France, a magnanimous service.

“Ladeez, wen you come to zee end of zee road, I weel teach you zum zeeng I learned in Miamee. You know zees zeeng you zay een Engleesh, ‘toot-a-loo’?”

They nod, “Toot-a-loo, yeah.”

“Eet eez from zee Frensh! Een Frensh wee zay, ‘À tout à l’heure,’ weech eez to zay, ‘Zee you een zee ’our.’”

“No kidding! Ha! Toot-a-loo comes from France?”

“Now. Leesen: Wen you are to turn zee right-uh, you weel zay to me, “‘A tout a l’heure’.  An zen I weel zay to you, ‘toot-a-loo.’ Good?”

I watch, nauseated and nervous with glee-guilt, as the two women saunter down Jean Nicot. There they go: fanny packs, Reeboks, visors, right past our boulangerie, past Luc’s best friend’s apartment across the street, all the way down to Rue St. Dominique.

All anyone can hear as they walk down the street bumping each other and laughing is the two of them hollering, “À tout à l’heure! À tout à l’heure!”

When they turn the corner, I am still standing there as I promised, my Joséphine on the leash, my scarf draped just so, my heels nipped neatly together, my arm waving and waving. “Toot-a-loo!” I sing to the women of Detroit. “Toooooot-a-looooooo!”

letthedogsseetherabbit

letthedogsseetherabbit

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part II

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part I”)

. . .[Monsieur B.] heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

**

credit: parisperfect

credit: parisperfect

. . .We returned to our apartments Monsieur B. and Madame B., those parallel universes split by a sliver of flooring. Against a backdrop of the Monsieur’s serenity, my native country’s vibrating map of red and blue “moral values” throbbed a garish neon nuisance across my mind—a mind already fuzzy from weeks of breath- holding over teetering politics, months of being on the global political alert.

That night in the Bradford’s cosmos, life felt so slightly perilous and slap-dash, with our six jostling bodies whirring like asteroids, weaving and whipping through what should have been a bedtime routine – our night time orbit — but which felt to me, at least, more like an enactment of chaos theory. Certainly the galaxy was off kilter, the Milky Way curdling, I thought, with our earth stuck in a hiccup rather than expelling her usual steady breaths. How could Monsieur B. just shrug off the recent events as “mere politics” when, as I was convinced, the whole globe was convulsing and reeling toward ruin?

credit: retinacandy

credit: retinacandy

Then, at nine on the dot, the Monsieur’s street shutters rattled their regular racket. Our Grandfather Clock incarnate chimed. A wad of laundry in my arms, I stopped for an instant to absorb the ritual beneath my feet, that common constancy like so many other banal patterns in a day, which, when noted anew, pin infinity in place and set fretting aright. In his cozy retreat from the world, Monsieur must have at least believed he was invulnerable to it, I reflected. And at his age, I thought, what else? Lining the level above his, all our shutters were agape as they always were, allowing our garrulous glow to flood the streets, whatever part of our private lives was not under wraps.

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

He’d watched foreigners come and go, Monsieur B. He’d seen the old open market that was once supplied by the boatmen delivering goods on the banks of the Seine one block northward razed to make way for the Senegalese Embassy and the Erik Satie music conservatory. He’d watched an adjacent villa converted into the bland headquarters of the American University in Paris and had heard the choir rehearsals, aerobic classes and karaoke nights through the wide-open stained glass windows of the American Church across the street. He’d heard more and more English-speakers just outside his windows asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower, (two blocks that way) or Napoleons’ tomb (two blocks the other way). He’d witnessed the high-pitched spectacle of four sweat-slippery men cursing in chorus at each other and at their weave of pulleys and cables holding our dangling long table which was to be hoisted through our windows. He’d quietly tolerated restrained ruckus, my occasional high-heeled prancing and Parker’s gym-shoed thudding overhead, and had graciously avoided even the most subtly judgmental political commentary as Franco-American tensions simmered and at times passed the boiling-over point. And he didn’t grow the least bit hysterical when his own French presidential elections kicked up dust in our own neighborhood, where camera crews interviewed candidates, pundits, the local political in crowd. There I was, practically salivating with curiosity at the whole scene, and there was Monsieur B. watching silently from his window, his ascot tucked in his camel blazer, a cup of coffee held in the right hand, the saucer in his left.

Stalking our flat that late autumn night, tidying room after room, I was ashamed that our comparatively super-sized portion of dwelling space was super-imposed, squat, right over the head of this frugal Frenchman. I cringed, feeling personally responsible for the astronomical U.S. deficit. Then I also thought of the thriving terrorist cell, which French intelligence had just exposed and exploded in a northeastern sector of Paris, eight Metro stops from our door.

To what end, shutters? To what end, self-imposed blinds? Was this gracious neighbor, this truly gentle man, what U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had in mind with his pejorative, “Old Europe”? And did French foreign minister, Michel Barnier have a chance at realizing a “New Day” in Franco-American relations, where an alliance wasn’t always tantamount to absolute allegiance, but where mutual respect reigns, and where, as Monsieur B. once said, “we value one another in a community?”

credit: parisiensalon

credit: parisiensalon

To be sure, in a few hours some version of the next day would break, and I’d be counting on the 8:00 a.m. downbeat from Monsieur B.

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part I

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Doggy Crêpe”) :

. . .We were reminded every day in the papers that life, as the planet itself, is a fragile and tenuous place. But in the immediate cycle of our family’s life, in its rhythms and patterns, things were briskly routinized, colorfully calm. Camelot. . .

**

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

Each new day in our village en ville  broke when Monsieur B. slapped open his metal shutters beneath us in his ground floor apartment. Our friend and neighbor lived the life of a well-mannered metronome. At 8:00 a.m., the ten shutters of his five windows clanked and clapped. At 9:00 p.m. a repeat of the same percussion, closing out the day’s pulsating hum of traffic, stiletto-clips on concrete and staccato street conversations. For almost fifty years he’d lived here on the corner of Jean Nicot and Colonel Combes—enough time, I imagine, to have watched things evolve a lot and to have gotten the shutter habit down to a reflex.

We, the American family of six, lived directly above him, and so he heard, no doubt, the muffled soundtrack of every detail, mundane or intimate, of the life of la famille Bradford. I begged him to forgive us for the bass pedal thumping of Parker’s electric drum set. I apologized for Luc’s night terrors and shrieking around 4:00 a.m. I’d thought of explaining why the toilet above his bedroom flushed thirty-three times during the night, but stopped short of describing the flavorful details of a whole family whopped by the flu bug. We just hoped he was a deep sleeper. I clasped his hand, pumping his arm in mortification while explaining why there had been a girl’s chorus howling, “You Ain’t Nothing’ But A Hound Dog” with a Cocker Spaniel yelping in syncopation, directly above his dining room table at what must have been aperitif time.

credit: formerdays

credit: formerdays

That was the hour when on Thursdays I always saw Monsieur B. sitting at a small square table next to his window there at street level, Monsiuer B. and three men friends sitting in their suits and ties, one always with a cigar in his lips, another always with a cigarette, all sitting at there respective (and I noted, fixed) corners of that table, lit by two old brass standing lamps pulled up just for the occasion, playing a soundless game of cards. Models for a Cézanne painting.

But Monsieur B. never once complained of the percussion and repercussions of our herd above his head. In fact, he never once hinted at irritation. When we greeted each other he was consistently radiant and gracious. At one of my fits of self-deprecation, he once smiled, saying in unmistakably elegant French, “We live in a community, Madame. We must value each other in such a community,” his sincere blue eyes reflecting the color of his trademark azure shirt.

I’d only seen him once without one of those brilliant blue shirts when, earlier than usual, I was leaving the building. He was at his door receiving a small wicker basket from Madame P., the gardienne who took in a little laundry money from this widower. That morning, he was wearing his camel robe and a bright blue ascot, which, even at 7:00 a.m., made his eyes shine and his thick shock of silky white hair glow like a million watts. My own private Maurice Chevalier.

filmjournal

credit: filmjournal

What I knew of Monsieur B. I learned by close observation and by stitching together scraps he volunteered during our neighborly encounters. Twenty years earlier after forty years of marriage and four children (all raised on this corner in the apartment less than half the size of ours), his wife passed away. The four children went on to have their own children (totaling well over a dozen in number), and on the evening of the highly-charge U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, his long-awaited first great-grandchild came into the world a week overdue.

This man, like our family, was sleep-deprived after the string of nights awaiting what was momentous news; Monsieur B.’s new generation and what we were convinced was our nation’s new generation.

When I took him congratulatory flowers late one evening, he and I chatted briefly, comparing notes on paternity and politics and what kind of future world would greet his newest offshoot. “Capucine,” Monsieur B. confided, “will be the little cabbage’s Christian name.” (Calling an infant a cabbage and a cabbage a Christian might strike one as odd, but the French logic works well from many angels. Capucine. Very crisp. Very Catholic.)

Proud of his baby’s first snapshot, the Monsieur was all gleam and beam while I was all gloom and doom, disoriented in a stupor from an election process that had appeared to have been slippery, questionable, un-American. Maybe I might have seemed, in the face of his measured manner, too oozing of pessimism, too panicky and reactionary. And maybe he was simply pleased about Capucine, this fresh validation of life, to take my anxiety too seriously. Whatever the case, he didn’t grieve with me. Instead, he heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

credit: toutlecine

credit: toutlecine

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Doggy Crêpe

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Wednesdays With The Louvre”):

. . .I saw to it that a woman in a Louvre children’s bookstore hung my boys’ two best completed works on the official corkboard. We laughed in the van that their artwork now hangs in the Louvre. . .

**

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

We were loaded in that same van in late December. “Just a few minutes more and we’ll be there, guys.” The ruse was that we were on our way to pick up an English exchange student stranded in a village. She was, I told the family, homesick over Christmas. I’d gotten the call just yesterday. We had room. We could invite her to our place and make her at home. Not exactly what the boys had had in mind for the holidays, but they were used to having houseguests and were actually curious since Claire was especially excited.

“She’s sharing your room, right Claire?” Dalton asked, since he and Luc already shared and sharing with Parker wasn’t an option.

“Yeah, that’s the plan.” Claire threw me a glance in my rear view mirror.

“She’s adorable, I think, from what Claire and I could tell in the pictures I got on line.”

Parker perked up from the half-doze his earphones were lulling him into. “Cute?”

“Really petite. Curly reddish hair. Her name is. . .What was her name again, Claire?”

“Josephine. I’m sure you’ll love having her for the holidays.”

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

The skies were that typical grisailles gray of Parisian winters when we pulled up to a farm, its old stone wall crumbling in large chunks, its pastures muddy. Claire and I said we’d run inside to get Josephine, no problem, you guys just wait here and we’ll be right back out.

“Wait! Where’s she even going to sit?” Luc was worried.

“Don’t worry!” Claire called back over her shoulder, hopping from dry spot to dry spot on the stone walkway leading her way to the front door of the old dog breeder’s home. “I’ll have her sit on my lap!”

That was the way we introduced Josephine the English Cocker Spaniel to our family. She was the size and color of powdered cinnamon when Claire, cupping the ball of fur in her two hands, brought her promised puppy out to where she held her up to show her brothers through the van window. Only a few weeks old, we could have wrapped her in a crêpe.

Claire finally gets her puppy

Claire finally gets her puppy

And that was the way we were introduced to le monde du chien à Paris, a world that rivals the world of Parisian fashion, politics or gastronomy. Josephine was Joey to the kids. On the paper to register her for the French authorities, however, she was Velvet Josephine Dalton Bradford, “Velvet” because this was dog year “V” in France, (the last year was “U”, the next would be “W”, and so on), so any dog born, named and implanted with a state-prescribed chip in that year had to be given, by law, a name beginning with “V”.

(There was a moment when I wondered if Norway’s Name List office had alerted France to the arrival of a certain Bradford family, a bunch of name renegades, who might try to slip in an unacceptable first letter. A holdover vowel from last year, or worse, a preemptive consonant from the next year.)

Puppy Josephine waddling the sidewalks on her leash incited more conversations than had Luc William Bradford as an infant in his mammoth Norwegian perambulator cruising the ancient Marché in the heart of Versailles.

“But Madame,” the lady at the produce line in Rue Cler leaned over her artichokes, “Has she had her second round of vaccines yet?”
“Madame, you must dress your dog properly for this cold weather.” I listened patiently to the woman I’d crossed as she walked her well-dressed Shitzu around the Esplanade des Invalides. “Here, the business card for my own designer. All natural fabrics, no polyester, colors to flatter your little one’s eye coloring.”

The lady at the bus stop with a nervous Yorkshire Terrier on her lap had been watching me with Joey for a few minutes. “I must give you the name,” she whispered, “of our therapist who treats our Goliath with massage, lymphatic drainage and reflexology.”

And to think: no one had proposed cranial manipulation to help newborn Luc potty train.

042

“Oh-la-la-la-la, Madame Bradford,” my veterinarian said, his bushy brows twitching. I had brought Joey to this practice in the Avenue de la Bourdonnais adjacent to an entrance to the Champs de Mars, which spreads its 60 lovely acres from the Eiffel Tower to the École Militaire. “This,” the doctor said, “is a hunting dog.” He struck both his hands on his boney knees for emphasis. “And this,” he stretched his arms in a wide arc above and behind his head, “is a city. A hunting dog and a city are not an easy combination. But you are in the seventh arrondissement. This is your village en ville. So run her, Madame,” he said, pointing toward the window that looked out onto the Champs du Mars. “Run her here as often as you possibly can.”

Every other morning, Claire and I ran (or stumbled all over the leash) with Joey through our village in the city, just like the doc said. This meant jogging from our apartment, up Cognac Jay, across the top of Avenues Rapp and Bourdonnais, down Rue de l’Univérsité behind the Musée du Quai Branly and around the circumference of the Champs.

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This Monsieur le Docteur R. was someone straight out of a movie. I wanted to visit him not only for my dog, but to take notes on his hand gestures, his swift gait, his flamboyant bedside manner. Take the eyes, hair and enthusiasm of Christopher Lloyd from “Back to the Future”, mix that with the height, lankiness and intensity of Jeff Goldblum from “Jurassic Park,” and swirl in Einstein. You have our dog’s doc.

“Alors, ma p’tite,” le Docteur spoke to our hound in a disciplined French, bending low to look her straight in the eyes, “I do not know what you are eating, but you must now keep a close eye on your ligne.” I had to check right and left to make sure he wasn’t talking to me, since there was this certain history of French doctors patrolling my waistline. But no, he was off-siding to me only because I was my pet’s food-dispenser, and Joey was going to be spayed, which operation would change her metabolism. A chubby Cocker, I was advised, is (gulp) an ugly Cocker. “If she puts on weight,” he whispered so as to not upset Joey, “her mental health will suffer more than her physical health does.” A week later he performed the operation, and as if to make sure she wouldn’t suffer post-op spread, he put Joey in a turn-of-the-century canine corset for a month.

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After her bandages were removed, we tried our best to run her and keep her out of the cookie jar. But Joey was domestic. She spread. And she became, as domesticated dogs can, quasi-human, sleeping right where Claire felt any pure bred hunting dog would be most useful, most at home in Claire’s arms where both got used to their three hundred thread count element.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that we were all in our element. Our mini solar system’s orbit was aligned; everyone was whirring in his or her deep groove, with life unfolding in a peaceful, predictable pace although the universe itself showed intermittent signs of mounting devastation. There were louder and louder anti-American and anti-French sentiments being lobbed back and forth, acts of terrorism, and escalating tensions between races and religions in Paris herself, which led to acts of arson and threats of a worse kind in the periphery of the city. We were reminded every day in the papers that life, as the planet itself, is a fragile and tenuous place. But in the immediate cycle of our family’s life, in its rhythms and patterns, things were briskly routinized, colorfully calm. Camelot.

162

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Wednesdays With the Louvre

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post: “French School, A Scream”)

**

children louvre

At least as French, but more exquisite to me than sword fighting, was our Wednesday afternoon ritual. In fewer than ten minutes, even with traffic, we could drive from Parc Monceau to the Louvre, park, dart right in, take our lunch at one of the cafés near the glass pyramid (wherever there were the fewest tour groups), wipe our mouths, and, sketchbooks and pencils in hand, make our way to the Richelieu wing.  That is where we found our private sanctuary, the Cour Puget.

cour puget

The Cour Puget is a three-story tiered hall flooded with natural light. Its ceiling is a variation on the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. . .

cour puget ceiling. . .Its walls and statues nearly all bone-colored marble.  Entering, you might feel you’re walking into the reception hall of heaven. At least we did. At nine and five years old, our two youngest were normally kinetic experiments gone awry, but when we entered heaven. . .

cour puget 1. . .We all settled into a new rhythm that stirred our creative juices into a mellow foam. This is the setting that made the three of us feel we were artists. More important than becoming artists, though, we became each other’s intimates.

Once – and only once – we thought we’d wander over to the Cour Marly just across the corridor, check out what the Renaissance statutes there were up to; but it didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like our place. “Our place” was the Cour Puget, up on the top tier on a marble bench against the wall.  After a few minutes, one of us would be sprawled or curled up at the foot of the statue we were sketching.  The guards who rotated daily came to expect the three of us there at about the same hour every Wednesday afternoon. A nod, a reciprocated “Bonjour les enfants”, and we knew we were in our element.

“So, who do you think this guy is?” I asked, Dalton on one side, Luc on the left. We were staring up into the piercing eyes of Caton d’Utique.

caton dutique 2

“And check out the serpent,” Dalton said, turning to see a Mr. Universe Spartacus wrestling the beast to the ground.

images

“But why’ve they got this statue of John Kerry?” Luc asked, walking over to a bust of the French scientist, Cuvier.

cuvier

We would go home and Google the background of our favorite statues, then go back the next Wednesday to make up stories, stories we wove into a screenplay, we three floor-squatters.  Ours was an elaborate screenplay about the Louvre and its statues and all the lives embedded in stone. Dalton cast his imagined movie, role-for- role as we three sat with our sketchpads on our laps, capturing a young Joan of Arc or a dying marathon runner in the gentle brilliance of the Cour Puget.

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In every way those Wednesdays were a delight to me. The light, no matter what the weather outside, was always brighter during those hours than anywhere else in the world.  I was with my children, we had baguette crumbs on our sweaters, the sky was warm, we were surrounded by history and beauty and tourists, tourists we realized we were not.   We basked in great art and created mediocre art ourselves, but more importantly, we created a moment that defined the three of us as part of this place, part of each other. I saw to it that a woman in a Louvre children’s bookstore hung my boys’ two best completed works on the official corkboard. We laughed in the van that their artwork now hangs in the Louvre.
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**
(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: French School, A Scream

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Scooting Through Paris”)

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Sometimes, Randall took the Vespa to the office because his work was just across the street from Dalton’s school. The two would head off together, helmeted and wearing biking gear, Dalton holding around his Dad from the back. They could drive right up to the gilded gates of the Parc Monceau where inside was the splendid converted mansion that housed l’École Active Bilingue. Here, Dalton spent his days and earned his French stripes.

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The Parc Monceau is about as far from Norwegian barnepark as you can get. In fact, it’s much closer to a Japanese Zen garden, only without bonsai trees, a stone replica of Mount Fuji, and bamboo rakes for everyone to comb the sand. And because it’s French, it is sumptuous but just about as ornamental. This elegant park is where Dalton, and then Luc when he joined the same school a year later, spent their recré, or recess periods every day. Dressed in navy and white uniforms, they stood in packs – boys here, girls there – for their thimble-full of outdoor time. Half an hour of a nine-hour day.

Parc Monceau through the eye of Claude Monet

Parc Monceau through the eyes of Claude Monet

Under the shade of huge old sycamores, the children huddled to play a rousing set of billes, marbles.  They sometimes drummed up a modest round of tag or ran after one another’s Yugio cards, very popular that year.  But that was the extent of their movement for the day. “Your boys should participate in one or two sports outside of class,” the diréctrice of the school had advised me in our first private consultation. “Swimming, soccer, tennis, anything you can find to energize them will help them metabolize all they’re learning.” She was a small boned woman with a strong brow and imposing presence, flawless Parisian French, and always a gold insignia ring on her left pinkie finger.  For someone so no-nonsense, she sure wore delicious perfume.

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

“This is why we have the open Wednesday afternoons,” she continued. “The children are encouraged to do all their sport then. I suggest you sign them up. Vite, vite!”

After the requisite bureaucracy for which I was braced this time around, we did sign them up: swimming, chess, choir, tae kwan do and then finally because we were in France, we of course signed up both boys for escrime.

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That’s pronounced  eh-scream, which should have made me nervous, but somehow didn’t.  That is until I saw that the boys’ fencing instructor had no right ear. It was a detail that inspired in me both confidence (hey, this guy really fences!) and worry (hey, but, uh. . . .?) The gymnasium full of twenty young fencers in tight white unitards and mesh-fronted helmets looked like an audition hall for Star Wars Stormtroopers wielding swords instead of lasers. For months and months they swung fearlessly, my two youngest did, while mincing and shuffling back and forth, arms raised just so, feet poised just so, an exhausting and beautiful discipline cum sport cum art. Fully French.

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Global Mom: Scooting Through Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Sitting In A Franco-American Political Hot Seat”)

**

 

Randall bought a Vespa.

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

 

Creamy lacquer paint job, classic lines, toffee colored leather seat deep enough to take a passenger on the back. With it, he could whip out to Versailles to pick up Parker late at night when weekly youth church activities were moved from Paris to our chapel in that ancient suburb. And the two also sliced through the common knots of Parisian traffic to visit and help young families and widows from our church congregation. At every opportunity, Randall was out scooting and scouting the roads, weaving through stalled traffic, sailing past the honking horns and fists flying out windows.

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l'Alma

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l’Alma

When he didn’t take the Vespa, he could easily walk to work, either over the Pont de l’Alma past the golden torch that stands as an unofficial memorial to the car accident that occurred there and took Princess Diana’s life, and up Avenue George V. . .

Monument known popularly known s Diana's Torch

Monument known popularly known s Diana’s Torch

Or around l’Étoile of the Arc de Triomphe and down Avenue Hoche. . .

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation.

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation. Inching. . .

View up the clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées

Clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées. Why Parisians love scooters

Or over the Pont Alexandre III, across the Champs Élysées, and then winding his way to the office. . .

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

These streets also became our morning jogging routes.

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We’d leave before morning traffic at 6:00 from our place near Pont de l’Alma and run along the Seine passing drunks stumbling out of the Metro but also centuries of architecture, political intrigue, artistic ingenuity, religious devotion and as much variety as one can get in an hour.

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We chugged past ancient citadel prisons and gothic chapels and the hidden apartments of international legends. . .

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Past the Louvre at minute eleven. . .

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Past the Hôtel de Ville at minute nineteen. . .

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Over the Pont d’Austerlitz at minute twenty-nine. . .

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And so on for another half hour past the Institut du Monde Arab. . .

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Notre Dame. . .

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Musee d’Orsay. . .

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Trotting at stop lights where guillotines once stood, where revolutions began and ended, over stones where American soldiers and German tanks and English carriages and Italian horses and white-coated monks and destitute writers and hailed composers and defected ballerinas and ermine-cloaked despots passed.

credit: 7eme aup

credit: 7eme aup

That’s some dense history to cut a 15k through.

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Global Mom: Sitting in a Franco-American Political Hot Seat

After a week of real time traveling with Global Mom on the road through Poland (thanks so much for coming along, by the way), we’re back to our excerpts of Global Mom: A Memoir.

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Should I refresh everyone on where we’ve been here at the blog?  Last series of excerpts, we’d just finished a dense three years of moving home and/or country every few months.  We’d been in Versailles, had moved to a village called Croissy-sur-Seine, Randall had promptly moved to the US to commence work at company HQs in New Jersey,  I had followed over half a year later with the four children, we had reentered The Homeland (which entailed buying our first – and only – home, refurbishing it for what we thought would be the rest of our  mortality in that place), then, eight months into that life and two weeks after the grout had dried on the tiles in a new kitchen, we were offered a position in Paris.

We took it.

Another international move.

(I’m counting, but I believe that’s three major moves, including two international ones, in fewer than three years.)

This move was from the sprawling space, ease, convenience and  homogeneity of The American Dream to the heart of Paris and a sweltering Europe-wide heatwave, in the middle of which I stood while our waterlogged transoceanic container drained sea silt, a jelly fish or two, and most of our destroyed belongings out onto Rue du Colonel Combes. Our new “chez nous.”

It took several months to get our footing in Paris. By that, I mean that I hit a reinforced concrete wall of overwhelmdom.  Knocked flat for a spell and sinking a bit every day, I sought help (Mr. Psy and a week of teeny blue pills), circled Les Wagons, and steadied myself.  In the nick of time.  The last excerpt you read promised we were galloping  right into”Camelot.”

And so, voilà!  Part of “Village en Ville”, Chapter 16 from Global Mom: A Memoir. . .

**

New Year's Eve, Parker and friends, on the Quai D'Orsay.

New Year’s Eve, Parker, his  brothers and friends, on the Quai D’Orsay.

The Quai D’Orsay runs right along the left bank of the Seine and is roughly the French political equivalent of America’s Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s where one finds France’s primary governing body, l’Assemblée Nationale, housed in a grand neoclassical building that stands right at the mouth of the Pont de la Concorde, close to where the seventh arrondissement, or district, eases into the sixth. By partial accident and tremendous providence, we’d landed one street south of Quai D’Orsay. We were in a political hot seat.

To our left was the Eiffel Tower, icon of audacious French inventiveness and skyscraping pride. Surrounding us were the Senegalese, Austrian, Romanian, Finnish, South African, Swedish and Georgian embassies. Our apartment shared a wall with the central offices of the American University of Paris, two streets away in one direction was the American Library of Paris, and farther in the other direction, Napoleon’s tomb and the Musée D’Orsay. Immediately to our right was the American Church of Paris, seat of the Societé Franco-Américane, and that just about sums up our part of Paris.

In spite of Jacques Chirac’s touching expressions of support after the World Trade Center attacks, (“Nous sommes tous les Américains”, “We are all Americans”) Franco-American relations were tense following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a move the French (and most Europeans) found unsubstantiated and rash. I tell you all this to underline how we’d literally landed not only in the center of a politically stimulating neighborhood, but had done so in a moment in history when being an American in Paris was loaded with consequence.

Church friends making music

Church friends making music

As had always been the case everywhere we moved, we eventually eased into serving and worshipping in our church community. The congregation we attended met in a small rented meetinghouse in the narrow Rue St. Merri between Notre Dame and the Pompidou Center, and proved to be a cultural mix like we’d never know before and have never known since. There were as many non-French members as there are native French. Once I actually took count: among the one hundred fifty members there were seventeen native tongues. French with every accent you can think of or make up.

Our bishop, or pastor, who was married to a German, was born in former Serbo-Croatia to a French mother. His Italian, Russian and English were as solid as his German, Serbian, Croatian and French. His assistants were two men from Madagascar and the U.S. The presidencies of the women’s and youth organizations were composed of a Malagasy, an Ethiopian, a Romanian, an Iranian who’d converted from Islam, members from the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the Congo, Angola, South Africa, Ghana and California. Working in the nursery with the youngest children were a Finn who spoke French, Swedish and English, a Swede who spoke Croatian, German, French and English, and myself, an American, who spoke French, German and Norwegian. We were overseeing children who spoke Spanish, French, English and Croatian. And the missionaries, young men and women from America, mostly, but also from France or other western countries, were bringing more and more Mandarin-speaking investigators of the church, students from mainland China and Taiwan, to meetings. When, on top of all these visitors, tourists also flooded our congregation, (which was a regular thing from April to October), everyone fought over the earphones through which we members would give simultaneous translation from French, the lingua franca of our congregation, into whatever language was required. That was primarily English but sometimes was another European tongue. French to German. French to Russian. French to Spanish. When enough Chinese members began attending, special rites like the sacrament (similar to taking the Eucharist) were performed both in French as well as in Mandarin.

The effect of all these cultures crowding into one cramped place made the overflowing facilities look like a general meeting for the U.N. Or, given the microphone head sets, a rehearsal for a Madonna concert tour.

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

At home, Claire’s flute teacher spoke French with a Mexican accent. Our temporary live-in student spoke French with a Colombian accent. And Parker’s petite amie (or crush), was native Peruvian, but had lived most her life in Paris and thus spoke French with no accent whatsoever and spoke no English at all. Parker, like the rest of us, was at home in all this, as comfortable as a you’ve ever seen a teenager, back in his circle at the American School of Paris (ASP) playing the drums in three ensembles (jazz, rock and orchestra) and on the weekends with his friends at impromptu percussion gatherings at le Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or on le Pont des Arts overlooking the Seine.

Parker and school friends

Parker and school friends

He also played basketball in the pick-up basketball games with the local guys (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Lebanese) who gathered on Saturday mornings at the Champs de Mars, and with one of his best friends from school, (the captain of the basketball and volleyballs teams for which Parker became co-captain), he set up a volleyball sand pit near the Eiffel Tower. He was our resident PPE, or Paris Public Expert, who could shepherd brothers, sister, friends, and strangers on the street and befuddled tourists to whatever place they needed to reach via public transportation.  Paris quickly became his town, the place to which he swore he’d one day return as an adult to live out the rest of his life.

I

I

(To be continued. . .)

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Poland (March 2013) 048

Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Birkenau: Metropolis of Death

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Today’s post title comes from Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, written by Otto Dov Kulka, 80-year-old professor emeritus of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Kulka spent his childhood imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

From Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night: "And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.   We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”   We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau."

From Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night:
“And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.
We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

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Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz II, a 171-hectare sister camp to 20-hectare Auschwitz I), was overwhelming to me not only in its grisly outfittings and haunting stories, but in its sheer vastness. Otto Dov Kulka’s choice of the word “Metropolis” is clear and precise, clean of melodrama or exaggeration. Horizon-pushing is the impression, and bone-numbingly bleak.

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The day our family visited, the ice-snow was scratching laterally, metallically, across our faces.  We clutched our down-filled coats to our chests, stamped our lined boots, and tugged down on our thermal hats while our guide explained that prisoners, dressed in thin cotton shifts, crude wooden clogs, and weary from exposure, malnourishment, the 12-hours days of forced heavy labor and from perpetual beatings, died mostly at this time of year.

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Had our family been deported to Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive.  We parents are too close to age 50, considered too lod for productive labor, and Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for "best workers."

Had the members of our family who were with us on this visit actually been imprisoned at Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive. We parents are too close to age 50, considered old for productive labor. We would have been gassed or killed on the spot.  Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for “best workers.” He would have probably been disposed of, too.

The following are excerpts from Thomas W. Laqueur’s review of Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir.

Kulka and his parents came to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Theresienstadt [a smaller camp close to Prague] in September 1943, and he left the camp, by then a strange ghost town, in the infamous death march of 18 January 1945. He and his mother were spared the wholesale annihilation of the first 5,000 in March 1944 because he was in the Birkenau hospital recovering from diphtheria and she was nursing him. A hospital was only metres from where thousands were murdered every day; surreal. He was sure that he would die that June when he was stopped at the gate by an SS guard – “Bulldog” (we see his picture) – and prevented from joining a group of men who had been selected for labour.

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Upper bunk. As few as five, as many as ten bodies slept stacked chest to back on one level.  Sleeping on one's dies, one could not turn in the night without all the other bodies turning with you.

Upper bunk. As few as four, but more often as many as ten bodies slept stacked on their sides, chest to back on each bunk level. One could not turn in the night without requiring all the other bodies to turn at the same time. Sometimes there was a thin layer of straw. More commonly, prisoners slept on the bare planks.

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But as his group of boys was marched back they were not directed toward the gas chamber but to another part of the camp to pull carts. Boys were cheaper than donkeys. Again, he survived. The child was spared the depths of torment felt by adults in the murderous Auschwitz universe because, the historian tells us, there was less dignity and autonomy to strip away.

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The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. The "toilets" were a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath was an open trough.  This ran down the middle fo the bunk house.

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to run down and drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. In some barracks,  “toilets” were no more than a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath the plank was an open trough that ran down the middle of the barrack.

The flames of the ovens rose several meters high above the chimneys, but he lived a life in which the world of European high culture still mattered. An older boy, with whom he shared a hospital bunk, gave him a secreted copy of Crime and Punishment; a conductor organised a children’s choir that sang Beethoven/Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. Did he choose this music as an absurd, purposeless protest, meant to hold on to values that Auschwitz radically denied, or was it an act of sarcasm, “the outermost limit of self-amusement,” Kulka asks.

"Sei Ruhig!"  Be quiet!   A barrack warning.

“Sei ruhig!”
Be quiet!
A warning stenciled on a barrack wall.

"Eine Laus ist dein Tod" A louse means your death.  Another ironic barrack warning.

“Eine Laus ist dein Tod”
A louse : your death.
Ironic warning on barrack wall.

As a boy he did not know; he sang. And as a man he says that he has lived by the first explanation, an illusion perhaps “greater than the fierceness of sarcasm”. Having sung Beethoven opposite the Auschwitz crematorium is, perhaps, part of Kulka’s “private mythology”, but is also, as readers know from the ending, evidence of the continuity of culture in hopeless circumstances.

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…Why, after … any illusion of escaping death had gone, did Jewish communal life, and indeed cultural life more generally, persist? There were efforts to save the sick; there were concerts, theatrical performances and schools. In a world in which death was a certainty, people acted as if there was a future. Men thought about going to their deaths bravely, as if it mattered to posterity, as if there would be a posterity.

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From the depths of the gas chambers they sang the confessions of “three secular movements of political messianism” – the Czech national anthem, the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, and the International. A 20-year-old girl wrote poetry in the shadow of the crematoria that demonstrated her “abiding commitment to humanism” and to a moral ideal that rejected all violence and bloodshed. It survived; she was gassed and burned to cinders. We do not know her name.

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The boy [Kulka] grows up and becomes a historian. As an adult, he and his father visit the site of the Stutthof concentration camp, now a featureless field at the estuary of the Vistula. He includes a picture of them in front of a map of the camp that attempts to evoke what had once stood on these empty fields. What now remains is only meaningless landscape. The author’s mother had arrived there in September 1944 after a deadly march from Auschwitz; she worked at searching shoes, sent there from other camps, for valuables and then repairing them before they were forwarded to Germany. The men – father and son – had learned from a survivor the circumstances under which their wife and mother had died. Arriving pregnant with a child conceived in Auschwitz, she gave birth to a healthy baby that her attendant women then strangled to avoid detection; she used a hidden diamond that her husband had given her to buy food for a critically sick comrade; the comrade lived; she then became ill; she did not live. Kulka says Kadish near where she was buried. He had seen his mother last when she marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate and, unlike Orpheus, she did not look back at him.

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**

Nearly all of these images courtesy of Dalton Bradford. Thank you, son.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.