Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Tonight I witnessed a blatant display of hero worship directed towards Norwegian literary sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. And I shamelessly admit that I was one of the disciples. Well, sort of. When I learned that he was giving a reading tonight at the English-language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, I jumped on the metro after work and headed over. The crowd was large.

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The gatekeepers at the door (below) told me it was standing room only. Seeing as how it was only 6:20 pm and Knausgard wouldn’t be appearing until 7, I chose to wait outside. I’m too restless to stand in a crowd for 40 minutes. I must say that the staff at Shakespeare and Company are very professional and courteous. It’s an old, atmospheric, cozy bookstore oozing with history … and books!  Everyone was reading, it was great to see.

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Chairs and an audio system had been set up outside.

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With 40 minutes to kill, I walked around the block and took some photographs. When I came back to the bookstore it was 7 pm. We waited and waited, and then at 7:10 pm I looked up and saw our literary hero standing at the window on the second floor. He was smoking and talking with someone. Knausgard is a chain-smoker and, evidently, not a punctual man. He seemed to be oblivious to the crowd below.

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Impatient now, I felt like standing under the window and shouting up “Hey! We’ve been waiting for you for hours … it’s time to come down now.”

And finally he did come down to begin reading from his newest, yet-to-be-published book. Here he is, blurry, in the background. The outdoor crowd stood motionless while listening to his voice over the speaker system.

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I felt like I had stumbled across a cult gathering or a group of followers devoted to a preacher, a prophet or spiritual leader. Or a Norse mythic hero.

As I walked back to the metro station, I thought to myself – Is it any wonder we need our heros today more than ever?

I recommend these articles that I really enjoyed. They’re called Passage through America

Montpellier, France

Here’s a small extract from my book (memoir), due out the end of this year. I lived in Montpellier for two years, way back in the 1980s. I was a student at Paul Valéry University.

“At twenty-two, I moved to Vancouver and worked two jobs – by day a secretary at The Bayshore Inn, by night a cocktail waitress in a nightclub. I saved all my money for airfare and tuition to study French in France. But where in France? I purchased a large map of the country, stuck it to my bedroom wall and spent hours pondering the coastlines and tracing the rivers: the Rhone, the Loire, the Garonne. Landscape and climate were my primary considerations. Where did I think I’d like to live for a year: Grenoble at the foothills of the Alps? Bordeaux with its outlying vineyards? The seaside city of Marseilles? Lyon, the city between two rivers? Or perhaps back to lovely Aix-en-Provence, the city of fountains and plane trees, where I had spent my seventeenth summer.

A year later found me sitting in a sunwashed square in Montpellier, a city in the Languedoc region of south-west France, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the foothills of the Cevennes mountains to the north. I was twenty-three and enrolled in a French program for foreign students at Paul Valery University. My first week was both exhilarating and exhausting. Every morning I’d leave the hotel near the train station and make my way to the student housing office to receive a fresh list of addresses. Student accommodation was tight. I tirelessly trudged the streets, map in hand, and visited a dizzying array of lodgings, all unacceptable for varying reasons. My biggest challenge was the language. To articulate my thoughts into French, let alone understand what people were saying to me, was a mentally arduous undertaking. Every evening I’d return to my modest hotel room and collapse, exhausted, onto the bed.

And then I struck gold. I was given the address of a certain Madame Fauchère, widow and retired concert pianist, who lived in a honey-hued Belle Epoque building in the center of town. I was instructed to show up at her apartment on the rue Saint Firmin, a narrow sidestreet leading off the main rue Foch. Arriving one sunny morning at the designated hour, I pushed open the exterior door and found myself in a foyer with a black and white marble tile floor. To my left was a curving staircase with an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade. I walked up its steps, and as I did so I rehearsed the line I would use to introduce myself. High above, an ornate chandelier hung from the ceiling. I reached the third floor and, breathing heavily, stood on the landing and composed myself. There was one apartment to each floor. Beside the double doors of the apartment was a polished brass button which could only be a bell. I pressed it and waited.

The door swung open and in its frame stood a woman who looked to be in her late sixties. She was tall and soignée, with upswept hair and bluish-gray eyes that glinted at me from behind her glasses. She wore a crisp white blouse underneath a cardigan that looked like it was cashmere, a classic calf-length skirt and sensible but stylish low-heeled pumps. Nesting under the silk scarf at her neck, I caught sight of a gold chain hung with a small religious pendant. Her wrists were also ornamented with gold jewelry. In later years I would know this to be the uniform of the Roman Catholic bourgeoisie in France.

Bonjour, Madame,” I said politely. I was so nervous I forgot my name and the one line I had carefully prepared.

The setting was so formal and she so distinguished-looking that for an instant I felt I should curtsy or respectfully incline my head. I regretted not bringing some sort of offering – a floral bouquet or a ribboned box of chocolates from the best chocolatier in town. Despite my unfamiliarity with this mannered world, I did know one rule in France: never shake a woman’s hand unless she offers it, so I stood, deferential and demure, on the landing.

Bonjour, bonjour, Mademoiselle!” she trilled in a high-pitched, fluty voice. “Entrez! Entrez!” She held open the door and gestured me in. I stepped into an airy, high-ceilinged apartment whose interior belonged to another age. There was a faint smell of fresh linen and lavender. Across the entrance hall with its creamy marble flooring was the living room, or what the French call le salon, flooded with sunshine and crowded with antique furniture. I imagined long-skirted ladies gathering for needlepoint, sipping tea from Limoges teacups and perhaps nibbling on petit fours served to them by a dutiful domestique.

Floor to ceiling windows extended the width of one wall and opened onto a balcony that overlooked the street below. There were glass-fronted cabinets, plump armchairs scattered with small embroidered cushions, a chaise longue upholstered in blue velvet and beside it a dainty side table upon which a folded newspaper and reading glasses lay. A massive armoire dominated one end of the room and at the other end, a shining black piano. I wondered if she still played. 

Suivez-moi!” she chirruped and headed down a hallway, “Je vous montrerai la chambre.” (Follow me, I’ll show you the room.) I obediently trailed after her and then, suddenly aware of being in the private residence of a total stranger far-away from home, I felt shy like a young girl again. I wished that my mother were at my side. How she would have been fascinated by this grand lady and her sumptuous surroundings.

We stood in the student bedroom, which was as plush and inviting as the living room, and Madame questioned me in that curious piping voice – where in Canada was I from? What did my parents do? How long would I stay in Montpellier? Once I was sure I had fully understood the questions, I labored to reply as articulately as possible. She looked intently at my mouth as I spoke, almost as if she were lip-reading. And then a woman silently appeared from a back room – a daughter? an employee or personal secretary? – and, addressing herself to me, stated plainly “Madame est sourde.”

Sourde. I knew that word. With lightening speed I mentally riffled through my store of new vocabulary. Sourde is the feminine of sourd which means … dumb? blind? No … deaf.  “Complètement sourde …” the other woman was saying.

Madame Fauchère, like Beethoven, was stone deaf.”

Copyrighted Material

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I think it’s time to make a return trip there. Here’s what people are saying about this southern, cosmopolitan city –

Located six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, France’s fastest-growing and now seventh-largest city is graceful and easy-going. Students make up over a third of the population, giving it a spirited vibe. Montpellier is a stylish metropolis with elegant buildings, grand hôtels particuliers (private mansions), stately boulevards and shady backstreets, and gorgeous white-sand beaches on its doorstep.

Here are two links about the city. The Lonely Planet and last week’s “Cities in the spotlight” published by The Guardian newspaper –

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/france/languedoc-roussillon/montpellier

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/13/montpellier-spotlight-development-mania-france-fastest-growing-city

 

my mother’s necklace

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Last weekend, while rummaging through some drawers in search of my passport, I came across a keepsake box. Opening it, I saw one of my mother’s necklaces nestled inside. My mother died in 1997, may she rest in peace and be reunited with my loving father.

Holding the necklace by its chain, I pulled it out and held it up in the light. And with a flash, I had a memory of my mother wearing it throughout the 1980s, during the dinner parties that she threw and loved so much.

“This will look great against a black dress,” I said to myself. “I’ll wear it to work on Monday.”

Just to be clear and in the interest of avoiding a Kardashian-style copycat heist in Paris, this is costume jewelry. The stones are synthetic and the chain is metal, not silver.

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And then a startling thought occurred to me. Can I wear this necklace wherever I want? I had an inkling that I couldn’t. On the heels of the recent ruling of the European Union’s highest court that now allows companies (if they so choose) to prohibit staff from wearing visible religious symbols, I paused to reflect. Then I fired up the internet to get more information. 

Enshrined in a landmark 1905 law that prohibits the state from recognizing, funding or favoring any religion, secularism is taken seriously in France. State schools are strictly non-faith and all public bodies must be free of religious influence.

In March 2004, thirteen years ago and under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, French legislators felt the need to refresh and reinforce this 1905 law. And so they dusted it off and passed a new law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state (public) schools. These symbols include Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, Muslim headscarves and large Christian crosses. As a secular country, we were told, the ban was designed to maintain France’s tradition of strictly separating state and religion; it was also an attempt to enforce “religious neutrality” or “a neutral space.”

OK. My initial reaction to this ban, I remember, was negative. Born and brought up in Canada (True North, strong and free), I believed it to be a violation of religious freedom and civil liberties. I didn’t like the idea of a government telling me what I could or could not wear.

Outside of schools, the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is also banned in public buildings in France (courts and police stations, public hospitals and all government buildings).

Enter President Nicolas Sarkozy and yet another ban, this time prohibiting the concealment of the face in a public space. The law was passed in September 2010. Even though this face-covering ban includes all headgear – masks, helmets and balaclavas, we all know that the garments in question are the Islamic niqab and burka. A year earlier, Sarkozy defended France’s “secularism” to attack full Islamic veils in a speech. 

As a side note: never before had we heard the words ‘secular’ (laïque), ‘secularism’ (laïcité) and ‘secularization’ (la laïcisation) mentioned so often. They are the new buzzwords that perfectly depict the zeitgeist of this era.

“The problem of the burka,” Sarkozy intoned, “is not a religious problem, it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to solemnly say that the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we cannot accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom.”

“We must not be ashamed of our values,” he added. “We must not be afraid of defending them.”

By 2010, my feelings about government telling us what or what not to wear were becoming more elastic. I view the niqab (black full-face veil where only the eyes are seen through a slit) as a relic of medieval times. I also see it as a suffocating sack imposed on women in Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, women are forced to wear the burqa by the Taliban. If they refuse, they are stoned to death. So what place do these godawful garments have on the streets of Paris in the 21st century??? Saudi Arabian values are not our values; Iranian or Yemenite customs are not our customs. France is not an Islamic country. Those garments do not belong here, nor anywhere else in the Western world.

Thank you, Monsieur Sarkozy, for having the balls to enforce this ruling.

So where does my mother’s necklace fit into this story? I was considering wearing it to work. At the office there is one hijabi, a French-Moroccan woman who wears the hijab (headscarf). If she can wear the hijab, then surely I can wear my mother’s necklace.

So on Monday I discussed the matter with a colleague of mine. She’s French-Lebanese of Christian faith.

“The wearing of a Christian crucifix will be interpreted as a provocation,” she said. “Personally, I wouldn’t wear it in the office. I wouldn’t even wear it walking around outside.”

A provocation? A Christian crucifix? My mother’s dinner party necklace was taking on alpine and ominous proportions.

“But we weren’t religious,” I bleated, “My mother wore the necklace purely as a fashion accessory.”

“Well, we don’t know that.” said my colleague.

Oh, for heck’s sake.

When I was growing up in Canada, religion was not an issue. Now it’s a huge one. Why is that?

Sighing, I put the necklace back in its box and placed the box back in my drawer. If my mother had known, way back in the 1980s, that her necklace would end up in Paris and become such an object of controversy in 2017, she would have been surprised.

Read this article, published yesterday in the British Spectator entitled “As a Muslim, I strongly support the right to ban the veil. At last, the European Court of Justice has made a stand for European values.

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/03/the-right-to-ban-the-veil-is-good-news-for-everybody-including-muslims/#

London calling … and some new hotels

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Today I finalized my train and hotel reservations for London. I’m not going until June, but you need to book several months in advance, especially to get the lowest rate on the Eurostar. For a one-way ticket from Paris to London, I paid 67 Euros. And for a return ticket from London to Lille, I paid 50 euros.

People who know me know that I LOVE LONDON. I can’t get enough of it. And every year I say to myself (and to others) – this year I’m going to visit Lisbon or Stockholm or go back to Amsterdam or maybe to Copenhagen or Berlin (I’ve heard amazing things about Berlin). But London keeps drawing me back, it’s crazy.

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I usually stay at The Penn Club then move over to South Kensington. But this year I’ve decided to try two different hotels, one in the East End near the Docklands, the other in the heart of Bloomsbury. I’ve heard good things about both of them, so if you’re looking for a different kind of accommodation that’s reasonably priced, here are my recommendations:

In the East End –

http://rfsk.org.uk/

This second one I stumbled across last year while wandering around Bloomsbury. It’s in a perfect location right beside a big park, the British Museum, the Charles Dickens museum, my favorite bookstore/tea shop, St. Pancras train station where the Eurostar arrives from Paris (within walking distance), and a hundred other wonderful places.

http://club.goodenough.ac.uk/

For budget travel, Hostel World offers a stunning array of award-winning accommodation, some in listed historical buildings.

http://www.hostelworld.com/

Below is a former blog post of mine about Bloomsbury, The Penn Club, and my favorite small bookstore/tea shop with seriously good cakes, steps away from The British Museum.

tea and cakecake

https://julietinparis.net/2014/08/27/my-london-bloomsbury/