March 25, 2012
I spent the first few months I lived in Paris—from 2003 to 2006—seeing almost every sight in the Blue Guide, but after a while I stopped running around and discovered that the true pleasure of living in the City of Light is having the luxury of taking it for granted. A good day started with un café at the bar on the corner, a little shopping and then an afternoon at the American Library in Paris.
On rue du Général Camou near the Eiffel Tower, the library is unknown to most tourists, but deeply embedded in the hearts of expats from dozens of countries, not just the United States, who sometimes need to read and think in English. A quarter of its 2,500 members are French, in fact, drawn to the library’s Anglophone-friendly 120,000-book collection. Compared with other libraries in Paris, it is a quiet, uncrowded oasis offering two to three special events every week, including children’s programs, book groups and author lectures.
With a constant stream of writers from the U.S. passing through Paris, the library serves as a literary center. “There is something about an expatriate library—a tentacle, an emissary, a piece of another civilization residing in an alien one—that is very moving,” says Adam Gopnik, author of the acclaimed essay collection Paris to the Moon.
The not-for-profit library was founded in 1920 as a home for 1.5 million books sent to soldiers in World War I trenches by the American War Service. Its motto reflected the origins: After the darkness, the light of books. American writers who began flocking to Paris after the war were frequent visitors. Young Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish spent time there in the 20s; Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were among its first trustees and both contributed to its still-published newsletter, Ex Libris. When an even deeper darkness fell over Paris during the World War II German occupation, the library managed to stay open and uncensored against all odds because the French director’s son was married to the daughter of Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. Unbeknown to the authorities, it lent books to Jews banned from other libraries, though a staff member was shot by the Gestapo.
After the war, a new generation of writers like James Jones, Mary McCarthy and Richard Wright could be found in the stacks and satellite branches opened around Paris. In the 1950s, when the library occupied quarters on the Champs-Elysées, it was the scene of a tense standoff between staff and anti-Communist censors sent by Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate Red books from American libraries in Europe.
Its current 7th Arrondissement home was renovated last summer, but still seems unprepossessing compared with nearby Belle Époque landmarks like Jules Lavirotte’s flamboyant Beaux-Arts apartment house at 29 Avenue Rapp. You have to go inside to appreciate its treasures: big biography and mystery collections, DVDs, 500 periodicals, a computerized catalog, books for teens and children. The stacks are open (though you have to be a member to check books out) and eccentrically arranged with secret nooks scattered throughout. Librarians often can be found reading to groups of children; habitués come in for their morning look at the International Herald Tribune; best-selling writers research works-in-progress, rarely recognized by people at the next carrel.
Anyone who grew up in an American town with a good public library will feel at home as soon as he or she walks in. “It feels like a little piece of the U.S.,” says director Charles Trueheart, who came to the library in 2007 after serving as Paris correspondent for The Washington Post.
American tourists, too, are welcome, Trueheart says. It’s a good place to check e-mail and research the next leg of a trip, surrounded by Anglophones and great books in the mother tongue.
February 10, 2012
Paris is for lovers.
Who came up with that? Possibly the unidentified Swiss collector who paid over $200,000 a few years ago for The Kiss at City Hall, a black-and-white photo shot in Paris by Robert Doisneau that has come to symbolize all things romantic. Or an Edith Piaf fan. Or some marketing whiz at the French Tourist Bureau. But whoever coined the phrase got it just right because people in love are truly drawn to the City of Light. Paris. I went there for the first time on my honeymoon some years ago, a visit soured by a crumby hotel, malicious waiters and romantic expectations no place on earth could fulfill.
The French capital’s reputation for romance persists, of course, fueled by travel magazines, books and films like Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris. Benches in the Tuileries are still occupied by people cemented together at the lips and couples have attached so many padlocks—cadenas d’amour—to railings on the Pont des Arts that the city recently announced its intention to remove the little love tokens in the interest of historic preservation.
I, too, love Paris, my honeymoon notwithstanding. But on later visits I learned to draw a distinction between romantic as in human relationships and the uppercase-r artistic style. Some people are immune to love-potion Paris, but no one can deny the city’s Belle Époque glories that speak of a time when emotion gushed after the cerebral Age of Enlightenment—the Paris of George Sand, Frédéric Chopin and the Impressionists.
If that sounds like putting too fine a point on it, consider a few singly unromantic facts gleaned from a three-year residence there.
- What, I ask, is so romantic about stepping in dog-doo, a common peril for flaneurs in a city where people flout pooper-scooper laws as strenuously as they uphold the Rights of Man?
- FWIW, not all buildings in Paris are beautiful. I once drove around town with a French friend of mine seeking out eyesores like the Jussieu Campus of Curie University, Quinze Vingts Eye Hospital in the 12th and infamous Tour Montparnasse.
- French distaste for the capital is seldom-discussed, though actress Julie Delpy let fly in 2 Days in Paris, her 2007 film about the city‘s nut-ball taxi drivers, predilection for animal entrails, bad plumbing and gnarly smells.
- The oldest profession was raised to a virtual art form by beautiful courtesans in 19th century Paris. Today, prostitution remains legal, though ancillary activities like soliciting, procuring and paying for sex with a partner under the age of 18 are against the law. It’s no Bangkok, to be sure, but the reality of the sex trade is just as disturbing there as it is anywhere and shockingly out-in-the-open along the Right Bank’s rue Blondel.
- By the way, shortly before his death in 1994, Doisneau admitted that The Kiss at City Hall was a set-up, featuring professional models, posed to look like a pair of the lovers whom Paris may or may not be for, depending on your point of view.
January 20, 2012
As the story of the January 13 Costa Concordia disaster unfolds, the spotlight has turned sharply on 52-year-old Captain Francesco Schettino who is said to have abandoned ship—or tripped and fallen into a lifeboat, as he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica—before all passengers and crew members were evacuated. Schettino has served as a Costa captain since 2006 and comes from a family of ship owners in the Bay of Naples area. People in his hometown Meta di Sorrento, where he was put under house arrest, have rallied around him, and 1,500 fans have supported him as friends on Facebook. The Concordia carried some 4,200 passengers; as of this writing, several have been confirmed dead and a score were reported missing.
The Genoa-based Costa Company was quick to blame him for deviating from authorized course while passing the islet of Giglio just off the Tuscan Coast. In a statement, the company pointed to possible human error on the part of the captain, unauthorized course deviation and mishandling of safety procedures. But questions remain about why standard on-board passenger security drills had not been conducted, and Lloyd’s List Intelligence reports that Concordia last August changed route to pass close by the island, a maneuver approved by the cruise line at the time, prompting editor Richard Meade to ask of the recent accident, “The company‘s account of what happened isn‘t quite as black and white as they presented originally.”
Costa disasters have made the line the butt of jokes about Italian navigation (never mind Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Cabot, a.k.a. John Cabot). In recent years these have included a botched attempt in 2008 to dock the Europa during high winds at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, killing three crew members, another docking accident involving the Concordia in Palermo the same year, and the collision of the Costa Classica with a cargo ship in China’s Yangtze River in 2010.
None of the earlier Costa accidents figures on anecdotal lists of history’s worst cruising disasters. Industry insurers and trade groups do not keep safety records, though a statement released on January 16 by the Florida-based Cruise Line International Organization calls cruising “one of the safest means of travel among all types of vacationing.” Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown and other industry observers agree about the rarity of accidents at sea but continue to ask questions about Costa’s safety procedures. “This is a wake-up call for Costa, most particularly, but also for any other line that has slacked off on the nautical rulebook.”
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the Concordia was a Costa vessel. In my family, at least, the line has long been synonymous with calamity because my brother was on Costa’s Angelina Lauro on March 30, 1979, when it caught fire at Charlotte Amalie on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He and his wife had gone to shore with most other passengers, rented a car and driven across the hills to the far side of the island. On the way back, they saw a header of smoke rising from a ship docked in the port—the Angelina Lauro, a 40-year old Dutch-made vessel that had been refitted for Costa. Stranded with nothing more than wallets, bathing suits, tee shirts and sneakers, completely unassisted by the cruise line, they checked into a hotel, then flew home. It made a good story, especially given that both of them were newspaper reporters. But after the ship was declared a total loss they spent years trying to get compensation for their belongings—they ended up being reimbursed for 50 percent of the value of their belongings—and ultimately cheered when the Angelina Lauro sank in the Pacific on its way to Taiwanese scrap yards.
Unlike the Angelina Lauro, the Concordia was a new, state-of-the-art cruise ship with no known defects. Which leaves two avenues for inquiry: the captain whose role in the disaster is already well-known, and Costa which has deflected heavy criticism, as yet.
January 6, 2012
There are few things as good on the green earth as first-press, extra-virgin olive oil from a little farm in the Italian countryside. It can‘t be found in American supermarkets and specialty stores where fancy-looking carafes of Italian extra-virgin abound, all too often mixed with chemically-rendered oil from someplace else.
The best Italian olive oil comes in hand-lettered, recycled bottles. It is way too perishable for export, produced in minuscule quantities chiefly for the grower’s family and friends. To get it you have to roam back roads in the Italian sticks.
That’s because, like wine, superior, extra virgin Italian oil tastes of the place it comes from—of the sunny hillside in Tuscany or Campania where the olives were grown, of the mill where they were pressed, maybe even of the sweat on the harvesters’ brows. But unlike most fine wines, which benefit from aging, olive oil is most flavorful when freshly pressed. How do I know?
Because a few years ago while I was living in Rome, my niece Sarah and her friend Phil came to Italy to pick olives. They‘d both just finished four years at New York University and wanted to take a break before joining what is known as the “real world.” Of course, they didn’t have much money, but it didn’t matter because an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms helped them find places to bring in the olive harvest in exchange for bed and board. Which is what I call clever.
They stayed at my apartment in Rome before taking the train to a farm west of Florence. Once they got there I phoned Sarah every other day to find out how two city kids who know more about iPods than olives were faring in the in the deep Italian countryside.
Just fine, it seemed. Sarah was climbing gnarled old trees like a monkey, shaking the fruit into nets spread around the trunks and taking the harvest to the local mill where she and Phil observed its miraculous conversion into the nectar of the gods.
After spending a week there, the kids came back to Rome with a sample of the farm’s first press in an old vinegar bottle with tape securing the top, a gift I‘ll never forget. Homemade olive oil such as this is like no other I’ve ever tasted—ripe, viscous, fruity and way too precious for cooking. I parsed it out on salads, knowing that my life would be emptier when the bottle was drained.
December 15, 2011
Any Tintin fans out there?
I’m pretty sure there will be once The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg with the assistance of motion-capture expert Peter Jackson, opens next week.
For many Americans—young and old—the appearance of the Belgian comic book hero on the silver screen will be a first encounter because Tintin never caught fire in the U.S. the way he did everywhere else. Since his adventures first appeared in a Belgian newspaper in 1929, books based on the strip have sold 250 million copies, translated into 100 languages (most recently, Yiddish). But America had its own indigenous cartoon tradition, featuring heroes like Superman and Catwoman, so when Tintin‘s creator Hergé approached Disney in 1948, he was turned down flat.
Enter Spielberg, who got to know Tintin in the early 1980s. It took 20 years for the movie project to find its perfect medium in motion-capture, a computer-assisted technique proved by Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The film opens with Hergé’s intrepid boy reporter at a flea market where he finds a model boat with a secret inside. Anyone who has been to Brussels will immediately recognize the setting: the Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles, where Belgians sell bric-a-brac from their attics. I’ve bought my share of precious junk there. When the sun occasionally shines on the Belgian capital, it’s one of my favorite haunts.
Hergé was scrupulous about verisimilitude, which is why travelers can’t crack open a Tintin album without recognizing real-life sites and scenes that, like the Place du Jeu de Balle, served as models for frames in the strip.
The Belgian Royal Palace on a hill above Brussels’ medieval Grand Place stands in for the Royal Place of Klow in King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939), capital of the Eastern European nation of Syldavia.
The Seven Crystal Balls (1948) features the Belle Époque Hotel Metropole, opened in 1895 on the downtown Place de Broukère.
Out in the suburb of Uccle the Belgian Royal Observatory gives frissons of deja-vue to fans who know Destination Moon (1953) and Explorers on the Moon (1954), in which Tintin completes a lunar landing 16 years before Apollo 11.
And here’s an extra-Belgian ringer. Marlinspike, ancestral home of Tintin’s Scotch-swilling buddy Captain Haddock, is the 17th century Chateau de Cheverny in the Loire Valley of France, without its two side wings. It’s not clear that Hergé ever went there because he wasn’t much of a traveler, poor soul. But Tintologists—a serious tribe of scholars who have investigated every aspect of the strip—found a tourist brochure for Cheverny among Hergé’s papers with a faint pencil drawing of Tintin and Haddock walking toward the chateau’s entrance.