'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.

Rivers of water

The rain is coming down on the roof like a solid river of water. This is not very promising for my bike ride later. On Tuesday I biked up Alpine past the turn-off to Portola Valley Road, up the steep hill, telling myself I only had to get to the school crosswalk, then when I was there, telling myself I was almost at the top now, so I might as well continue, which I did, then downhill, past houses with horse barns, where it was starting to drizzle, then up again to the first green gate where the rain was falling pretty hard, though the creek in the gully wasn’t much fuller than it had been in September when I last biked up there. Two guys in a pick-up truck were discussing something I didn’t get. I put my quilted jacket on, pulled the hood over my bike helmet and turned around. It’s all downhill, so faster than going up, but I still got pretty wet. Now the rain is falling less hard.


The sound of rain was never so welcome, as two days ago, a day after my return to the Bay Area, where even in the airport terminal, waiting in line to go through Customs and Immigration, the smell of smoke was everywhere, and people were staying inside with towels at the base of their doors and windows (unless they had modern ones, closed to drafts). But rain was expected, and materialised right on schedule, plopping softly on the bathroom skylight, hissing under tires, gleaming on the parking pad. We threw open the doors, and watched the sky line clarify until we could again see the hills in the distance, the ones we bike up (all the way for my husband, half way for me).

When I was growing up in Vancouver I really didn’t like rain at all, because it turned my hair into a ball of frizz. But here, in this dry climate, it is welcome—for a while, even if it keeps me off my bike for the ride to town or the campus. Of course, the grey skies (and short daylight hours, at this time of year) are dispiriting if they go on, and on. But after long days of good dry weather I love the sound of the first drops hitting the roof, especially at night.

The Guardian Poem of the Week

One of the many moons in my new collection:


Off to San Francisco tomorrow morning. From all reports I won’t be able to breathe when I get off the plane. My son says the quality of the air is the worst on planet earth at the moment. But this is a lesser evil than all the people caught in the fires, that just get worse and worse.

In Paris the temperatures have dropped to close to freezing. I worked at the Soupe Populaire at lunchtime and came home to pack my bags (done, except for the last minute things). Last night I went to the poetry group that meets each Sunday at The Red Wheelbarrow English Book Shop Berkeley Books, where I’ll be reading with Nina Bogin in early March, both in the 6th arrondissement. It’s a good group of readers and writers.


And today the sun is shining and the temperature has shot up to 60° F. I went across the Ile de la Cité to meet my niece for a quick lunch after she arrived from the South and went to work. She commutes to Paris a couple days every couple of weeks. We exchanged family news—how her boys enjoyed their stays (to learn English) in Canada and England, respectively, last summer, her no longer so-new job.

Taking it easy today: the phone rang after I fell asleep, around midnight (?) and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the possible catastrophes someone was calling me in the middle of the night about. “Midnight Phone Call’—a good poem title? I didn’t feel better until I checked my email this morning and discovered no middle-of-the-night emergencies and nothing on the answering machine, which I barely know how to use—well, I did find some old messages, but from people I’ve talked to since they left their messages.


While I ate supper I read (something I was always, as a child, forbidden, no doubt wisely, to do, even if I was alone—but did I eat alone as a teenager?—but which has since become a perverse pleasure) an article in the New Yorker by George Packer about the US Republican Party, which concludes with a reference to Arthur Koestler’s novel about the 30s Moscow Show Trials, Darkness at Noon. I’d like to read that, I thought, and I thought I’d just peek on the bookshelves and see if there was a copy. Indeed—several books by Koestler, in French and English—including a Penguin Darkness at Noon, with my maiden name in block letters in red ink on the title page. So, presumably, I’ve read it? Well, I guess that’s why it’s good to have bookshelves. I’m glad I thought to look before I went to the secondhand bookshop on rue Monsieur le Prince and bought someone else’s old copy.

The Back Door and the Front Door

I remember my granddad saying he could never live in a place with only one door to go out—he meant an apartment. I used to quote that a lot, and then one day we moved from a house in the suburbs of Paris to an apartment in the city. I was thinking about this last night.

We have a front door and a back door, and at one time, before we lived here, there was also a side door on the wall to the right of the front door, for the maid, I suppose. It’s a little strange, because the back door, which gives on a ‘porch’ outside the kitchen, has yet another door into a service stairwell that no one uses any more. The porch, I guess, was where you left your mops and brooms and wet rags and bucket, but now it is half filled with plants and half of the other half has a chair from Ikea to sit on, while you wait for something to boil, if the weather is warm, and spy on the people down in the street.

The side door was eliminated—when?—there’s no trace it ever existed at our level, though one of the other apartments still has it. The front door is routinely locked, but the back door is often open and the last thing I do before bed is peek out—someone with a wheely bag on their way to the Metro or the hotel, there’s a guy sleeping in the door to a shop—traffic noise one block over—then I close and lock my back door and go to bed. My neighbours must be out of town this week—school holidays—all their lights are already off.

Same thing on the other side—no one home this weekend, though the parents were there during the week—were the children in the country with their grandparents? This is what upper middle class parents who both work tend to do over school holidays. But the young family on the back have all apparently left town.

Friday evening

A nice day. Worked in the morning, met a friend for lunch, talked for a couple of hours about houses, books, translation, planned to meeting again for lunch soon. Ran a couple of errands (baby clothes, a bottle of vinegar…) came home, went to the storage room in the cellar to rummage through a trunk that said ‘baby clothes’ on the top, which meant moving a bunch of boxes around (children’s books, pottery), found what I was looking for and a couple of things I wasn’t, came back upstairs. There’s a tunnel from our cellar under the street to the church (6:30 pm, right now all the church bells are ringing), but apparently it stops. At one time apparently many of the cellars in the neighbourhood buildings were linked by such tunnels, all the way to the Seine. A bit creepy, a bit fascinating. I’m always afraid of getting locked down there with the rats and the cockroaches.

Ironed a sheet and a pillowcase, made some applesauce for supper. Going to warm up the broccoli soup I made last night. A head of broccoli goes a long way, especially if one feasts on chocolate in the afternoon.

I’ve been reading Knausgaard’s (sp?) latest. Find it fascinating. So far, don’t agree at all with the critics.

London, Monday morning

I’m sitting in the pocket garden of a maisonette in Hackney. It feels like a Mediterranean village. Laundry is strung across balconies; the sun is out and so are the children, who are on holiday this week. They are playing outside, boys and girls of primary school age, I would guess, different colours and languages, which stands out when their parents or older brothers and sisters call down from balconies or across to friends on other balconies. The soundscape remind me of a village we stayed in in Crete some years ago, up in the hills above Knossos. The house, in the middle of the village, check by jowl with other houses and walled courtyard belonged to the family of friends of friends—but they had built themselves a new house outside the town, where they grew olive trees. In the streets children played, we heard their voices, but couldn’t see them and at night older folks argued in their courtyards until late.

Here the weather is different, but right now, with the kids out of school and the sun shining, and the apartments pressed together, windows and doors open, it feels like that.