I’d long read about but never experience the high that comes with exercise until I started biking. What got me started was a stay at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire a few years ago. There the studios are scattered about the woods, and for some of them a bike is useful. Mine was a good hike from the main lodge, so I adopted one of the colony’s bikes, and when I got back to Palo Alto I got (a gift from the family) a campus bike. Just a couple weeks ago I bought a good road bike which makes climbing much easier.

Yesterday I reached the top of Alpine Road (‘the green gate’) without stopping and much faster than I used to do on my clunky campus bike. The best part is after the Portola Valley turnoff, when the little road twists and turns along a gorge with a creek in the bottom. It’s wonderful when the commuter traffic quiets and you can hear the wind and the birds and especially the sound of the water bubbling down the creek over stones and moss and fallen tree trunks. It’s shady at the end of the day when I go, usually with my husband, and the banks of the creek are littered with yellow leaves and green ferns; and I’m keeping my eyes off the road, just getting up inch by inch, until the road stops.

On shopping in small shops

One of the pleasures of city life? Surely connected to being able to do most everything on foot. In the western suburbs of Paris, where we used to live, every neighbourhood had a grocery story, a bakery and a pharmacy. No need for a car, no need to plan meals a week ahead, so you didn’t find you were missing some essential ingredient at the last minute. Living in the centre of Paris is the same, only more so: more pastries and bakeries (of a quality undreamed of even in upmarket Palo Alto, more markets, butchers, fresh vegetables and fruit.

Why was I thinking about this? It’s because I had to pick something up at a ‘pharmacy’ and so dropped into CVS on my way home from campus. A big, bland supermarket of stuff from notions to toothpaste, virtually no staff in the aisles, no life, just products. Sure, it’s efficient, but is efficiency what I want? Well, maybe, if I have a job and three kids to look after: my time is rationed and I try to do all the shopping in one 2-hour spree, or maybe, these days, online. I don’t have time to be waited on, to chat with other customers or the, say, pharmacist.

But there is a lot to be said for the small shop: the sense of neighbourhood for one, the civility, the give and take.

My new bike

I have a new bike, carbon-fibre frame, blue with orange accents, brand new unlike my campus bike which was pre-owned, as the car ads now say. Two gears in front, lots more in back. I got it a week ago and have been up Alpine to the green gate, where the road stops, three times now, once without stopping. Like the best hikes and rides, the green gate is downhill all the way home. Takes me now an hour and a quarter up and maybe half an hour back, though I wasn’t keeping close track, because mainly I’m happy just to reach the top (though actually there is a hiking trail further up, to Skyline from the green gate. I think, however, that I’ve shaved about ten minutes off my campus-bike time. I do feel sleeker, with my thinner tires and no bike basket jingling.

The bottom part of the ride is on a commuter road up (down) the Sandhill of the venture capitalists, Stanford campus and shopping centre with its not-quite plastic plantings and fancy shops. The top part of the ride is beautiful, along a gorge with a creek bubbling in the bottom, madrone, redwoods, oak, bay laurels, deer…the top part is the reward.

I sent my Baudelaire translation, Invitation to the Voyage, to the publisher yesterday. Sorry to see it go, I could tinker forever and never arrive at perfection. It is scheduled to be out mid-November. It will be followed, also from Seagull, by a translation of Hélène Cixous’s wonderful book We Defy Augury, of which PN Review has just published a chapter.

Madame L's House, the poem

I am tinkering with a poem this morning, one that I wrote a couple years ago, and have been tinkering with off and on. It helps to forget about it for a while. It’s coming along, but still needs work.

I’m looking at the first line (‘Madame L. is selling the house’) right now, and wondering if there’s a better word than ‘house.’ ‘Farmhouse’ maybe?

This leads me to think that a ‘farmhouse’ in North America and maybe in the UK and Ireland (I’m not sure about this) suggests a house that is outside the village, in the middle of the farmer’s land. But in France, at least in the South, though there are farms surround by land, most farmers, or peasants live in villages where the houses are pressed together, perhaps for safety and sociability. Farm implements and machines, say tractors, are kept in a ‘remise’ (no real word for this in English; ‘barn’ and ‘garage’ don’t really fit) in the village too.

Madame L’s house is such a village house; but a big one, with some land attached. It sits on the side of a hill leading up the castle; once it was the schoolhouse. We went to visit it when it was for sale, because my husband’s family house was losing its view to new construction. But her house was too big and needed too much work for us.

So I guess, to stay close to the truth, ‘farmhouse’ won’t do. In French it’s a ‘maison de village’ with all that suggests, of village life after the day’s work on the farm, which can be and often is, land without a house, or only a one-room stone hut, without a door, to keep the horse in, if necessary, maybe a place to shelter from the weather, if necessary.

Wednesday 26 June

The temperature is down to 80 degree fahrenheit this morning, by the thermostat out the kitchen, but the sun is shining on it, so it is probably cooler. There is a breeze and the air feels cooler.

School is out, the bac is over, only middle schoolers need to hang around for their exams, which were put off till next week, because of the heat wave. Parents complained, of course, they were planning to go places, but the National Education Authority said school didn’t officially end in any case until July 5 and then relented and said those who had tickets (a privileged group of course) could take the exams in September’s catch-up session. The neigbourhood teens were skateboarding in the street last night.

We leave tomorrow.

Too hot

to sleep. We really do need a fan, but everywhere everything is sold out. I’m not sure what the temperature is here this morning because we have draped sheets over the outside of the kitchen windows, hiding the thermometer. Definitely hotter than yesterday. I’m going to stay in my little red cotton nightie all day. It is sleeveless, it stops above the knees and it doesn’t touch my skin anywhere. It could be a dress. Exactly the same cut in an African print would be lovely.

Last night I dreamed the city spontaneously combusted.

Paris is a very mineral city. Not many green areas. The sun from all directions reverberates off buildings, reflecting light into windows even in the absence of direct sun.

Heat Wave

Everywhere we turn we are warned about this week’s heat wave, and how to survive it. So when the sun hit the kitchen windows this morning we hung sheets, from my pile of torn sheets, over them, on the outside, naturally. Now, mid-afternoon by Anglo-Saxon standards, and early afternoon by French calculation, the sun has clouded over and the sun does not appear, but it is hot and muggy and we have drawn the shutters and closed the windows like good Mediterraneans (in my husband’s case) and are keeping the house as cool as we can for tonight. Unlike in the Bay Area, when night brings cool air, the temperature in Paris doesn’t drop much. Still, we will open the windows wide and let somewhat cooler air in. We need fans but we leave in two days, so perhaps we can get by.

I am reading Virginia Woolf’s Second Common Reader, which I stumbled on in a second-hand bookstore a few months ago. It is brilliant. I don’t need to be passionate about Gissing to love her writing. And now, soon, I must find the first Common Reader, which her friend Lytton Strachey liked better than Mrs Dalloway (they were both published at about the same time), because he found Clarissa Dalloway trivial or perhaps shallow and not very likable. I know what he meant, but I’m still very fond of the book. I reread the last scenes of the party again last week, to think again about the old woman whom Clarissa sees, as if she had caught sight of another self in a mirror, walking through the house next door, doing this and that. Does the woman see her? It seems not. It is a tiny but fascinating scene en abyme, that seems divorced from the book, but isn’t, any more than the parallel suicide plot is.

I have just looked at the thermometer outside the kitchen. It says 90 degrees Fahrenheit (it comes from my grandparents’ house is Saskatoon, and has a photograph of the house and my mother and her sister as young girls on it). Too hot for serious reading. And I want to go to the gym, but the AC there is broken.

Alice Oswald elected Oxford Professor of Poetry

This is very good news, and overdue, because Oswald would have been an excellent candidate already the last time round (but maybe she wasn’t ready at the time for more responsibility), and also, of course, because she will be the first woman elected to this position in the 300 years of its existence. I have just finished rereading Seamus Heaney’s Oxford lectures in The Redress of Poetry; I’m looking forward to reading, possibly hearing as podcasts each of Oswald’s 12 lectures, and eventually having them in book form. And to reading and rereading her poems. She is a funny, moving, original poet—intelligent in every sense of the word.