The Soup Kitchen

Back in Paris after a month in the country—beautiful weather, almond trees in bloom, scented, and covered with bees, humming with bees.

Not sure whether I’m happy to be back in the city. I liked our small country routine: work, biking or walking, running the odd errand to surrounding villages for food, or up to the village store. We bought me a new, much lighter bike, and explored longer roads than I was able to on my heavy, clunky ordinary bike. I experienced excercisers’ euphoria, loved climbing hills, stopping in a town for a pain au chocolat…like it best when the reward is a downhill glide at the end, which is hard when your village is perched on the top of a hill.

One of the things I missed was the soup kitchen gang: cooks, volunteers, eaters: 35 per serving, so usually about 150 a day, a majority of them, at the moment, eastern Europeans, Polish, Rumanian, the odd Russian, plus occasional others. Very few women and mostly they keep their heads down, though there are exceptions. Afterwards the volunteers eat while the cooks chat and clean up the kitchen. It’s a lovely place to volunteer, where the occasional fight breaks out, but not often, and a lot of laughing goes on. I’ve been in twice this week, replacing regulars and will be in again the week after next (next week I’m going to Edinburgh for a few days, for a reading at the Scottish Poetry Library).

Trains etc

Back last night from London and Oxford, where I read at Blackwells Books, along with Alison Brackenbury and Nina Bogin, and moderated by Bernard O’Donoghue, another wonderful poet. A terrific audience, that included old and new friends.

I’ve only ever been to Oxford once before, though I have been to Cambridge on several occasions: high, old stone walls with gardens, lakes, and chapels hidden behind them, crocuses poking up through the grass, and gardeners trundling wheelbarrows. After lunch on Friday with Jenny Lewis and Jennie Feldman, Alison and Nina, Stephen Romer took us on an insider’s tour of Worcester College where he teaches at the moment . It was hard to leave.

Back to Paris on the Eurostar, and this morning we leave for the Vaucluse for a month. It is pouring rain and blowing hard. I’m not looking forward to the trek to the bus stop, but I am looking forward to seeing family and our next door neighbour, Paul, and doing some biking in the hills around the Mont Ventoux. No internet, except for the village hotspot.

Wet, grey with occasional sun

Yesterday the sun came out—went in—came out—and we took a walk through the Luxembourg Garden, with our mittened hands stuffed deep in our pockets, and scarves wound tight around our necks. The Garden was full of strollers, kids playing soccer, chess players, boule players, and the sunny parts were full of people talking and reading, chairs backed up against sun-trapping walls, especially the wall of the Orangerie, where all the chairs were full, a single line of them so that the people were lined up like pigeons along a branch or wire, heads tipped to catch the sun, eyes closed. Not many chairs in the shadier parts, up around the orchard, for instance. We did one ‘turn’, extending it into the avenue de l’Observatoire, which smelled strongly of resin from the shredded Christmas trees—big piles of them! Close your eyes and you feel like you are in a forest, say in British Columbia.

Wednesday I’m going to London and Oxford for four days, and then, as soon as I return, we go to the Vaucluse for a month. No internet there—yet—which we have always enjoyed, though we’ve never been there for this long, I mean, in years, in internet years, and I think we may need to get internet this time round.

Snow Day

Snowing this morning in Paris. Thick white flakes falling, snow piling up on the ledges and zinc roofs of the church opposite, though not so much on the sidewalks and streets, yet. Hoping to go over to the Marais later for lunch with a friend. I was planning to take the bus, but if there are snow-related traffic snarls, perhaps I’ll take the Metro instead. Paris isn’t really prepared for snow—I mean there’s a tendency to let it fall and see what happens, unlike, say, Montreal (Boston, New York?), where people plan ahead so the economy doesn’t come to a halt. Here, it will be another drop added to the demonstrations that kept shops from selling stuff around Christmas, shops that seem mostly empty to me, as the January sales go on.

Still it is pretty, especially when it falls straight down, without gusts of wind pushing it, making you reluctant to go out. I wonder where the homeless man, who now comes late to curl up on the sidewalk and leaves early, is. In the fall, he took socks, money, tangerines, rice—anything that fit in his pockets or stomach—but didn’t want anything more encumbering like an isothermic blanket or a backpack: ‘Don’t need that, don’t need that.”

Clouds giving way to sunshine...

Weather, weather, weather…is it a Canadian thing? If I lived in a tropical paradise would I still think to lead with the weather?

Off to Paris tomorrow morning, so I expect I’ll have some new things to say—always the result of a change in vantage point—from the bed cum writing spot in the bay area to the bed cum writing spot in Paris. Here my lookout is into live oak trees and an Ikea-blue but ugly house, that apparently belongs to a Swedish woman but is inhabited by tenants, apparently male apparently single each with a mid-sized (for California—in Paris these cars would be BIG! and right now, if you lived in certain neighbourhoods I presume you wouldn’t be parking them in the street for fear they would be targets for burning as symbols of privilege.

No suitcases out yet. Not much to park. We have pjs and toothbrushes in Paris. Also cold-weather clothing (have I seen forecasts of snow in northern Europe?). We’ll be in France until June. Then no doubt we’ll be itching to get back to California.

Overcast with mild showers

Grey day, second one, but yesterday I went out for a bike ride, up Alpine , over to the Portola Valley Farmer’s Market, where I stopped to chat with my bread baker, who makes better bread than Poilane in Paris, which is saying something, plus she delivers it warm to my doorstep, and no one has stolen it yet (though if they knew…), then back down Sand Hill Road to Palo Alto. It was cold! Fortunately I had a warm jacket, which I kept on even during the uphill parts on the way down (if you see what I mean). Felt good.

Meeting old friends who now live in Minnesota for dinner downtown tonight. Tomorrow, another bike ride, perhaps. Monday we are off to Utah for three days.

Still reading the Levi-Strauss biography, plus a poet, Nick Laird, plus Tabucchi, the Italian, plus a little Borges, plus…lots of news—so much it’s hard to keep up with. Thank heaven for Tian’s bread and broccoli soup and the red tree whose name I don’t know, still clinging to its leaves outside the window.

Thumbs etc.


Beautiful weather, leaves red outside the window, far hills clear—great day for a bike ride, though I’ve had my thumbs in splints for a week and I’ll need to treat my thumbs well, now that the splints are off.

I never realized how useful thumbs are, though I’ve got quite proficient at using pointer and tall man to do the fine motor stuff, like inserting the key in the car lock (yes, I have a real key) and the ignition and turning the motor on, which requires not just a turn, but a push. Still a little pain, but better. Was trying the other day to think how far down the food chain opposable thumbs go, a question that Google no doubt has a quick answer to, but haven’t been there yet.

Reading? Nick Laird’s latest book of poetry, Feel Free, extremely well written and intelligent, good, in short, but not entirely my thing, because long on line and short on colour. Witty and cynical, a student of Paul Muldoon, though less extravagant. Also a biography of Claude Levi-Strauss by Emmanuelle Loyer that has, I read in the TLS Christmas books, just been translated into English. I’m about halfway through: have reached the third wife and Tristes Tropiques, which I will reread when we return to Paris. I’m also interested in what it says about British Columbia native peoples and their art, of which the University of B.C., where I went, has a superb collection, which I believe I first saw in Montreal at Expo 67 (?)

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Also the Italian writer, Antonio Tabucchi, whom I discovered thanks to my Italian bookseller in the Marais, Tour de Babel, rue des rois de Sicile. Oh, and…too many things, but let me mention Apollinaire’s wonderful Letters to Lou, in preparation for reviewing Lou’s Letters to Apollinaire, just published by Gallimard.

'Yellow Vests'

Reading the French news, over the past couple of weeks I find myself wondering about the out-datedness of our socio-economic words:

‘Working Class’ is an industrial age term. Who in a service economy is ‘working class.’? Is there still a ‘proletariat’? Why would no one in America call themselves ‘working class,’ but rather ‘middle class’ and would they distinguish between ‘lower,’ ‘middle’ and ‘upper’? Where do the boundaries fall? What about property ownership? In the USA it has long been considered socially and politically propitious to help everyone become a property owner, I suppose, so they have a stake in their village, town, city and are less apt to go after other people’s property. In France probably more people are renters? The ‘bourgeoisie” are property owners in towns. The nobility own property but also hereditary titles. They scorn the bourgeoisie, historically, who kick the dog one rung lower on the social ladder. Who are the people in the streets of Paris and other French cities (but which you sometimes see in Quebec, though it is embedded in Canada’s rather placid society)? Do they own property? Not the ones breaking things, presumably, but the others? The ordinary folk manning and womanning the barricades? Why does France break out in this rash of anger, a phenomenon foreign to Anglo-Saxon culture by and large? Is it the repressiveness, say, of the education system, the institutionalized top-down practices, the engrained hierarchies?

Those yellow vests are a potent signal, one that could be very quickly globalised.