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: 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.

flickr 2

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.

097

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

conciergerie

Past the Louvre at minute eleven. . .

louvre early morning

Past the Hôtel de Ville at minute nineteen. . .

hotel de ville

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

austerlitz

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

monde arab

Notre Dame. . .

notre dame

Musee d’Orsay. . .

musee dorsay

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.

flickr

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

IMG_2529

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:

IMG_3578

IMG_3612

IMG_3584

IMG_3605

IMG_3622

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.

IMG_3067

IMG_3057

IMG_3076

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

IMG_2899

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.”

IMG_2880

IMG_2885

IMG_2890

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.

IMG_2887

IMG_2896

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.

IMG_2756

IMG_2787

IMG_2922

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.

IMG_2945

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.

IMG_2953

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.

IMG_2992

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.

IMG_2943

IMG_2933

IMG_2929

…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.

IMG_2908

IMG_2898

IMG_2893

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.

IMG_2888

IMG_2909

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.

IMG_2876

**

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.

Auschwitz: Images and Words

IMG_2720

"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

IMG_2797

IMG_2759

IMG_2753

Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

IMG_2738

IMG_2765

 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

IMG_2764

IMG_2763

IMG_2769

IMG_2772

Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

IMG_2773

IMG_2774

IMG_2775

IMG_2785

IMG_2786

IMG_2813

IMG_2790

IMG_2783

IMG_2784

IMG_2777

IMG_2776

IMG_2780

IMG_2778

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

IMG_2801

IMG_2802

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

IMG_2792

It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

IMG_2808

Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

IMG_2832

Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© 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.

Mortifigation

You didn’t notice, but throughout the last year and in probably more ways than one, the city of Nîmes touched your life.

This Provençal city, once known as a jewel of the Gallo-Roman empire (having already been a jewel among Celtic and Bronze Age settlements), enjoyed a long period of affluence and influence exemplified in the elegant  Maison Carrée,

The stunning and nearby Pont du Gard aqueduct,

And the Nîmes amphitheater.

All three landmarks still stand, and the arena is still in active use today.

And how does any of this touch your life, you wonder?  Maybe you attended a bullfight in the arena?

Or a rock concert? (Dire Straits? Björk, Justice, Elton John, Radiohead, Blink 182. . .?)  Bullfights and rock concerts are regulars on the Nîmes arena’s calendar of events.

You didn’t?

Still, Nîmes touched your life at least figuratively. I’ll explain: 

The amphitheatre, built between the 1st and 2nd centuries at the height of Roman opulence and power, was one of the original venues for spectacular shows of — how should I put this delicately? — systematized, government-endorsed, culturally-engrained, fabulously-popular blood sport.

When Nimes’ importance was at its apex, this place was a slaughterhouse. Make that a slaughterhouse for voyeurs.  Historians estimate that tens of thousands of animals and even more humans died cruel deaths in arenas like this one in Nimes, built expressly for gladiatorial gaming.

 As well as being a marvel of engineering, it became a famous gathering place for satisfying blood lust. Grisly but glamorized, the one-on-one combats drew crowds of 24,000 into its marble and gloriously ornamented 34 terraces.  Gladiators — both men and women, did you know that? You’ve heard of the Amazones? — spent their short lives in training, and though life expectancy was bleak (few lived past 30; most died in their early 20’s), it was considered an honor to fight in this arena.  It was in the fight to the death – and death was the one sure thing in the ring — that you attained some scrap of glory.  This, by proving your stoicism.

“He vows to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.” 

(The gladiator’s oath as cited by Petronius)

And from a scholar of Roman history:

The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti—in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: “Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls’ heart-throb” and “Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.” But, even in victory, gladiators were infamous. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions (cf. Tacitus,Annals, I.76, commenting on Drusus, who took pleasure in the shedding of blood “however vile”). And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, “Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection….The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace” (De Spectaculus, XXII).

(http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html)

Gladiators, in spite of the inevitably gruesome end to their careers, and although they didn’t quite enjoy the status of rock stars of their times, (they were, after all, mostly slaves, prisoners ,or criminals of war), did get to wear a fair share of bling : the pugnum, iaculum, verutum, and the occasional  martiobarbulli, shields and weapons and death accoutrement that weighed upwards of 20 kilograms.

And gladiators had the satisfaction of knowing they were at least honorable tributes to the Gods.

And they were given one last big meal before stumbling out into the scorching sun, the tumult of cheering crowds and the jaws, say, of a lion.

All putting the glad in gladiator.

I suppose.

Nîmes has touched you this year if you  heard of something called “The Hunger Games” — if you read the novel depicting a grim post-apocalyptic future where youths are forced to hunt down and kill one another for a leering public, or if you were one of the hundreds of thousands worldwide who spent over $214 million during the opening week to see the film. Chances are, you couldn’t escape Nîmes’ mortifying reach.

Here’s where Nîmes and its magnificent arena stand as a cautionary tale.  The amphitheater reminds of how a great world power, (here I’m talking about Rome’s), while spiraling into the heights of artistic and cultural and scientific splendor reaches a pitch where its desires-run-amok plummet into desires-run-aground.

But you were among the select few on the planet who’s never heard of “The Hunger Games”? You were ice fishing in Reykyavik, maybe? Or herding yaks in Bajanchongor? Maybe you were hunkering in a troglodyte abbey up on a mountaintop? Or you were into Downton Abbey?

Still, you were touched by Nîmes.

Right now, as a matter of fact, wherever you are reading this post, chances are you’re touched by Nimes.

At least your legs are.

And your seat.

Denim: de Nîmes. Literally:  from Nîmes.  The name is a shortened version of serge de Nîmes, “serge” being a kind of heavy cotton twill that came from Nîmes.

De Nîmes.

And “jeans”? From the French name for the Italian city Genoa, where the first “deNîmes” were manufactured for sailors.

And since we’re on the topic, Levi Strauss?

He was actually Löb Strauß, but changed to Levi when he, a German Jew, emigrated from Bavaria through New York City’s Ellis Island, then continued to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the late 1800’s.  It was there where Strauß partnered with a Latvian, Jacob Davis, to manufacture what both men hoped would be the sturdiest work pants ever.

How to make them rip-resistant? Plug in copper rivets at all the strategic points of stress, of course. Because unlike today, starched ripless denims, not saggy shredded ones, were the whole point.

Denims.  From Nîmes. From Italy.  From Bavaria.  From Latvia.  From San Fransisco.

Now you know how Nîmes touched you figuratively.

And, um,  figuratively.

A toreador from Nîmes who apparently — and mortifyingly — missed the denim trend

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.