memories: a visit to Baton Rouge.

then there was the year we decided we should really see more of Louisiana than a few food-and-music-filled days in New Orleans. This was before the Hurricane, before the Flood...

Anyway the plan was to drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, taking in sights and scenery along the way, hit at least one crawfish boil and get us some Cajun music in or near Baton Rouge, and return to New Orleans for a flight North.

First stop: a former sugar cane plantation, now re-decorated as a stately home, with parking and costumed docents. Um, not really my thing.

Next stop: a small dock from which one could board a small boat and have a Swamp Tour and observe the presence of alligators, muskrats, nutria. It is sometimes said of the Cantonese that they can season up and cook anything and make it really delicious, and that attitude toward Nature's Bounty seems to be part of the Cajun tradition as well. I sympathize with the history of persecution, with the loss of language and homeland, with the need to make the best of whatever you can pick, shoot or trap, but I seriously don't recommend Nutria Etouffé. Nutria is a webfooted rat.

Next stop: by the side of the road arguing about why the map that came with the rental car didn't show which of the roads to Baton Rouge were paved. Our conclusion: the money for paving had run out or otherwise disappeared. The map didn't need to distinguish.

Next stop: a chain motel with a paved parking lot. We heard a lot of French (French French) spoken in the lobby, apparently the place was very popular with tourists from France, many of whom seemed surprised to learn that Louisiana no longer belongs to France and hasn't for a long time.

(Here I digress, to note that long after French colonial rulers departed Haiti, the beginning history textbook that was still used in the few remaining Haitian schools kicked off with these immortal words: Nos ancêtres les Gaulois étaient grands et robustes, avec une peau blanche comme du lait, des yeux bleus et de longs cheveux blonds ou roux qu'ils laissaient flotter sur les épaules. I translate: our ancestors, the Gauls, were tall and strong, with milk-white skin, blue eyes and blond or red hair that fell to their shoulders in soft waves. One wonders what the little Haitian children concluded from that.) 

Meanwhile back in Louisiana - we checked in, we followed a few small trucks to a large barn-like structure, parked and sat down to tubs of boiled crayfish and pitchers of beer. Heaven. Lots of Tabasco, lots of other hot seasonings, bib, hands, paper towels... Finally, stuffed, we decided to wash up and get back in the car and explore a little. Himself headed for the Men's, and I dealt with the bill. A few minutes later, I saw him tottering across the dining room, he looked like he'd seen a really nasty ghost and he could barely walk. 

It seems that on his way to the sink, he decided to, um, spend a penny, forgetting that he was in the men's room in the first place because both his hands were covered with hot red pepper sauce. We headed right back to the motel where he stood under the shower for a really long time.

The next day we decided to do something blander. We visited a recreation of a small Cajun settlement, where costumed volunteers demonstrated the trades and crafts of times gone by. Loom, spinning wheel, sheep, wash tubs. Axes, shovels, scythes. Woodwork. Kitchen gardens, tomatoes, green peppers, green onions, celery. Berries. Further out from the cabins, cash crops. Subsistence farming, hunting, trapping. Blacksmith. Gunsmith. Knife sharpening. Herbal remedies, herbal dyes. 

Our fellow visitors trudged beside as we searched hopefully for barrels or a cooper or other indicia of how the hunters and craftsmen dealt with thirst. Our guide caught up with us and asked if anyone had questions. One lady beat us to the punch. Her question: with all these hobbies and activities, when did the settlers find time to go to work?

Goodnight Irene, the stores are closed

Sometimes I shopped in the country

Sometimes I shopped in the town

Sometimes I fed the kids at the mall

When the sitter let me down.

Santa’s on a beer break, 

The parking lot’s empty and cold

The mall is draped in tacky, 

I’m feeling tired and old.

So home we go in traffic

No TV or X-box tonight

We’ll make Christmas lists together

And bring to our dark moods some light.

I’ve mixed a lovely eggnog (mine is stronger than the kids’)

I’ve set fire to a Yule Log and stopped the “I didn’t, he dids!”

Pencils out, paper ready, we sit down by the fire

For the kids and I and the catalogs with Santa to conspire.

           (dainty sip of eggnog)

Their lists are long

But mine is longer

Their eggnog’s sweet

But mine is stronger.

            (sips again)

Dear Santa, you and I have had

A long and close relation,

So if you go out shoppin’ for me,

Follow instructions without variation.

             (another sip of eggnog)

One:  no blended yarns from livestock that feel suspiciously like cat 

Two:  no flimsy silk-ish tops that need camis, ‘cause they make me itch.

Three: no mini skirts, no leather shorts (the public will thank you for that).

Four: no falling hems, no slipping cuffs, even just by a stitch

           (mmm eggnog)

No splitting seams, no fraying edges, no plastic threads -- 

And please oh please not one thing that sheds!

Oh, festive spirits, joyful smiles,

No, the kids are laughing at the website styles

          (shlllurrps eggnog)

Santa, dear, when I’m dressed up in finest holiday fettle

Don’t spoil my ensemble with mystery metal

           (pours more eggnog)

Gosh, this was going to be such a sweet little list

And look at me now, I am totally p----d.

            (chugs eggnog)

 And NO you may NOT taste my eggnog.

Give me back that iPad, you little wretch, or I will tie a knot in the top of your stocking

And what I will tell Santa about you and your brothers will be totally shocking.    (urrpppp)

you can never step twice into the same river

a girl I used to be

slipped into tiny spaces

dodged between cars

got places early

was never tired

a girl I used to be

wore jodhpurs in the street

and tight jeans when she wasn't working

at a traffic light a nun said to her

what a beautiful face you have

I will pray for you

and she replied

and I for you, Sister

she never paid for a drink

she never waited on line

she never packed

there were clean panties and a lipstick in her purse

she was ready for anything

gods and spirits watched over her

trees sheltered her

the Norse god of mischief

the Greek god of music

the Celtic god of wild things

the One True God smiled at their silliness and held her in His hand

sometimes I think I've seen her

reflected in a mirror, a store window

and I look around

but of course

that girl never stopped to look

that girl never looked back

I thought I wouldn’t wait for the D-Day anniversary to re-post

adieu, not au revoir - random reminiscences on the 70th anniversary of a day that changed the world

This is a repost of a post from, yes, June 2014. It is meant to be an antidote to the garbled ranting of a jerk from Texas who suggested that letting people die of the Mysterious Virus would advance the regrowth of capitalism, while simultaneously removing an expensive $$ burden on taxpayers. - 

If this looks like too long a read, tune in to the daily reports of the Governor of the State of New York, Andrew Cuomo. He makes me feel better about - well, everything. and sorry, Texans, we have jerks up here as well - but this creep got my attention at the wrong time.

Now begins the (only slightly edited) repost:

Several old friends of the family belong to the greatest generation, they're still with us, frail, weary, proud. Early in my working days, my boss had actually been one of those who went ashore on D-Day. Immature and curious, I tried to reconcile this quiet man, his stooped shoulders, his little twitch, the tiniest hint of a limp, with the gallant boys of the documentaries. "We were all very ordinary," he said. Well, that's the point, no? Ordinary people becoming extraordinary...

It's been said that the Parisian craze for thinness derives from the influence of Coco Chanel. Being thin, like being tan from the sun, so the story goes, was for years a mark of poverty. The idle rich, the nobles, the aristos, stayed inside, didn't work, ate well and grew fat. This is nonsense, since rich people kept dogs and horses and had gardens and tennis courts, but Chanel never denied having been the one who was sleek in her scandalously comfortable clothes, which hung perfectly on her slender frame and set off her golden tan as she strolled the boardwalks in Normandy and on the Riviera - the girl everyone wanted to copy.

One of my old (really really old) French teachers had a different explanation, which had nothing to do with Chanel. France, she said, has a history of being invaded and occupied, then recovering and moving on. War and occupation meant, among other things, scarcity of food, rationing... and thus respectable law-abiding women - patriots! - were thin. Only if there was an enemy "friend" or a black-marketeer on the scene, would a young woman appear plump and blooming. After many wars, the idea that a young woman of good character should be thin just stuck. Chanel never lost an ounce during the Occupation. Femme honnête, femme maigre.

As I wrestle to reconcile my waist with buttons and zippers, I wonder if this is so. And the wondering made me think back to Mademoiselle herself, her large hands that never made the chalk squeak, her skirts that never hung evenly, her knurly sweaters, and her passion for France and all things French.

Mademoiselle taught French for years. People's parents had been in her classes. Her tenure seemed like centuries to us, probably seemed like an eternity to her and like aeons to her sworn enemy, the principal, whom she considered a Yahoo (that we even knew this!). Her dreams for us were modest, influenced by the years she had spent studying and writing in a France that was very different from the one I came to know years after our paths crossed in her classroom. She didn't want us to save the world, because she'd been there, tried that, and she didn't want to believe that the world might need saving again.

Rather, she wanted all of her students to find joy in thinking and reading and speaking in a language other than English. Doing so, she said, would stretch our minds as well as our embouchures. She led us on unauthorized "field trips" - someone's mother was dragooned into driving us to meet an old friend of Mademoiselle's who had married a diplomat now stationed in New York. We were to listen to the latest French popular music, thumb through French magazines, have a lovely dessert, and under Mademoiselle's supervision, while she and our hostess chatted away in French for our benefit, we were to help unpack, wash, dry and put away an enormous quantity of china and pottery. This would increase our vocabularies. "Limoges," we said. "Quimper, Moustiers, Gien. Haviland." It seemed that everywhere these people had been assigned in France, they bought plates, bowls and cups. And serving pieces and cream pitchers.

I knew my parents would be furious if they learned I'd gone out and washed dishes in the home of a stranger - I could barely be made to do it in my own home. So when asked what we had done all day, I truthfully said "They've worked in a lot of different towns in France, and they showed us a lot of their souvenirs. Souvenir means to remember with thought."

The Cloisters, the Met, movies with subtitles in little theaters that served coffee in tiny cups, and a few restaurants where elderly waiters or waitresses knew her and elderly owners knew that it was good business to give us a warm welcome that we'd remember down the years... the French bookstore at Rockefeller Center where old colleagues of Mademoiselle’s had left messages for other old colleagues of Mademoiselle’s.

Rumors circulated about her adventures, the whispered possibility that she had done secret work for the government, well, for government, that she'd had a fiancé who didn't come back from the war, which war, look how old she is, it could be any war, anywhere - nothing stopped her. She mentioned that the only time she’d ever cried was when her father gave her older brother the sword and pistols an ancestor had carried in the Civil War, she cried so much the poor man went out and bought her her first gun (her first? there were others?).

School may not have been in session on July 14, but she saw to it that her classes paraded, chanting, through the halls on other French holidays. May, which has three, was particularly trying for self-conscious adolescents.

She was no Miss Brodie, let me be clear: she wasn't vain, she wasn't self-involved, she wasn't manipulative. She was tough, generous of spirit, intolerant of laziness and its ugly twin, conformity. "I hope that at least some of you will have put aside some money from your holiday bounty. I will accompany a small group to the Museum of Modern Art and then to a restaurant for a civilized lunch on Saturday. I will be at the station at 9 Saturday morning." Inevitably, by Saturday, those who might have signed up but couldn't find the money would have won a prize for memorizing the most verbs ending in ir, or for listing the most words relating to weather... and would be at the station, holding prepaid tickets.

And ultimately, finally, she retired. The principal claimed to be shocked when it turned out she was at least fifteen years older than she'd allowed as how... A small group of us gathered, not for a reunion, but to help her clear out her classroom. We unpinned posters, unhooked framed maps, rolled up pictures and phonetic charts. She stopped to read a poem aloud, we finished it with her.

Adieu la peine et le plaisir. Adieu les roses
Adieu la vie. Adieu la lumière et le vent
Marie-toi, sois heureuse et pense à moi souvent
Toi qui vas demeurer dans la beauté des choses
Quand tout sera fini plus tard en Erevan.

A replica of the white silk banner of Joan of Arc still hung in the place of honor, to the right of the Tricolore of France. We thought it would be difficult to get the banner down, but all those years it had been fixed so that only one strategic pull would loosen it and it fell into her waiting arms. We stood, waiting for her to underline the lesson, but this time she only smiled. We were on our own.

I learned later that she had returned to her home state, a place of bluegrass and country music, small farms and sorrowful family burying grounds, and of all things, took a teaching job at a local military academy. I told this to my mother, who was delighted and said to Grandma, "See? that woman is even older than you are and she doesn't sit around complaining, she went out and got herself a paying job."

Older than Grandma? was that even possible? Who could be older than Grandma?

I sent her Christmas cards, and ultimately, birth announcements, at the military academy. She sent Christmas cards in return, "hand drawn" by an artist I'd never heard of but locally considered a Fine Example For Young People. She called me after the first birth announcement, and told me that young people had less trouble learning the phonetics of foreign languages if they had become familiar with the sounds of foreign languages before they could speak or walk. "Bonjour, bébé," I murmured over the crib. "Tout va bien? C'est du gaz, ça?" I pictured my infant crawling through brush, radio wire clenched in her little gums, by her tiny example bringing hope to villagers...

I asked Mademoiselle what subject she was teaching, and she said: "French, of course, and military strategy."

My first computer search was for her, and yes, she was way, way older than Grandma.

When she left the academy, I couldn't get a forwarding address, the academy was wrestling with the idea of co-education, the cadets were wrestling with the co-ed’s, and noone was giving out any information about anything. 

Years later, on the way south to a wedding, I insisted we get off the highway and find the little town and its military academy. I wanted to be sure that there was a military academy, Mademoiselle having by then become a legendary creature.

There was. There was also a cemetery, where her remaining family had buried her. I was aghast - even the 9th graders knew that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered from a cliff in Normandy. Adieu la lumière et le vent...

Of course I wasn't a teacher's pet nor even a perfect student. The reason I can recite so much French poetry is because if you talked or ate or daydreamed in her class, you Got A Poem to memorize. If you caused real trouble, you got pages of proverbs and lists of historical dates and facts. That stuff sticks, trust me. She would never send anyone to the principal's office, to her that was the equivalent of informing. But I excelled in learning to love France and my embouchure has been widely praised.

History is written by the winners, they say. A spinster schoolteacher of ordinary appearance, who drilled self-centered kids in phonetics as if their lives depended on it, may have been one of those ordinary winners. Or not.

An old attorney, a cherished friend, long retired, today (edit: 6 June 2004) lies in a hospital bed, waiting for the oldest enemy of all. He's not expected to come home. He's familiar with that, he's defied it before. He learned how to defy death in France, seventy years ago today. 

'Twas the night, 'twas the night

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the flat
Not a creature was stirring, not a bug, not a rat.
Himself in some sweatpants that had seen better days
and I still bone-weary from shopping malaise
Were snacking while sitting in front of the tree,
watching the Yule Log flicker on the TV
When outside the window there arose such a clatter
We grabbed for our Go-Bags then checked what was the matter.
In New York we've have had Go-Bags for many a year;
The office provides them in profit-centered fear
that in a crisis we'd rush home without that tiny ration
of band-aid, tinfoil blanket, power bar and Dasani hydration.

At home I'm better ready, I grew up as a Scout.
I'm Prepared for emergencies and won't be without
a bottle of cognac, a warm cashmere throw
and some Drake's Yankee Doodles, they're what I know
will get us through trouble by night or day -
those chemical cakes are indestructible
cognac's medicinal, that's ineluctable -
even though cashmere's somewhat of a cliché.

But out on the terrace – a real jaw-dropper:
a visit from Santa and his new lead reindeer Shopper!

“Where's Rudolf?” I cried, “and his nose of Bright Flame?”
“It's called Maraschino, so he stayed home in shame,”
Santa sighed, as he called to the team
Of reindeer that worked on a measly per diem.
“On Clearance, on Killer, on Twofer and Blitzen,
on Markdown, on Promo, on Goner and Sitzen!”

“But aren't you meant to be up in the sky?”
“Not so much,” replied Santa, with a tear in his eye.
“The prices were falling so early this year,
everyone bought her own gifts, which is why I am here.
The reindeer walked out in a regular snit,
So I took on these new guys who just can't commit.
I'm just riding around out of habit, I guess.”
We gave him some Doodles and some cognac no less.
And we heard him exclaim as he rose out of sight
Merry Christmas to All and To All a Good Night!

my annual PSA: ‘tis the season - welcome to New York. Watch your back.

Welcome to New York City. Stay awake.

This discussion touches on a few dull and depressing topics - crime, taxes, and public transportation - but skim through if your holiday travel plans include New York City.

First, know that stores, street and sidewalks get very crowded during holiday season. In addition to the expected public attractions, some people’s homes or offices attract crowds, and for purposes of your visit it doesn’t matter if the crowd is of curious people, annoyed and tired people, protesting people... crowds to you or me are hunting grounds to pickpockets.

As the wife of a guy who has had his wallet removed from his trousers almost every time we visit a major city abroad, and who still thinks he shouldn’t have to take sensible precautions because he has always kept his wallet in his back pocket and people should recognize and respect this - let me offer some of the good advice to which Himself is impervious.

the Artful Dodger - a tradition continues

Men. Your back pocket is easy pickings. If you must carry a loaded wallet, carry it in a front or side pocket. If someone’s sticky fingers grope the front of you, you will notice, and you can step on the perpetrator’s foot or grab his wrist, say something like NOW CUT THAT OUT, step back, and you will still have your wallet and not have to miss dinner or theater because your tickets or credit cards were in your wallet. Just because you CAN freeze or unfreeze your phone or credit card, doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy being in a situation where you’ll have to.

Busses. By and large, I’m in favor of busses, mainly because you can see where you are and figure out very quickly whether or not you are going in the right direction. Also because the drivers have to take a special test that checks their knowledge of the city, at least of their very own route.

At present bus and/or subway fare is paid with a Metrocard. You can buy Metrocards in varying denominations at Metrocard machines, which live in subway and railroad stations. Also, the MTA’s website will find neighborhood stores that carry Metrocards - here’s a link .

At present you can also pay regular bus (but not subway) fare with coins (but not pennies) (and not bills) as you board the bus. The bus driver can not make change.

All of this is going to be “improved” - Heaven help us - municipal planning is underfoot - so here is a link to the MTA’s very own website.

Sales tax. I wanted to pick up a little souvenir Statue of Liberty for a stocking stuffer and popped in to one of those souvenir/antique/going out of business shops on Fifth Avenue.  A crime was in process. The sales clerk (owner?) was explaining to a puzzled young couple that there was a rather hefty sales tax on tee shirts, but that they could collect it back at the airport.

OK, this is where you should pay attention. The United States does not have a national sales tax or Value Added Tax. Really. New York State has its very own sales tax, as does the City of New York. If a merchant tells you that you can collect back the New York taxes, or the non-existent national tax, at the airport as you are leaving, he is lying.There is no such facility. I wouldn’t buy anything from someone who tried to tell me that, because if he’s that kind of liar, the goods could turn out to be fake or counterfeit or damaged or worse. Walk away.

As to the state and city sales taxes - you also need to know this: items of “clothing” that cost $109.99 or less are not subject to NY state or NY city sales tax. Items of clothing that cost $110.00 or more are taxable. For NY sales tax purposes, “clothing” is defined here.  By the way, I have filed with the State a Complaint and Request for Refund against Ann Taylor because they insisted on collecting sales tax on 2 scarves and a belt (all considered clothing). The amount of money was not enormous, but the staff were rude and condescending when I pointed out the error. I could have just walked out, but c’mon, I was not the one committing tax fraud.

Looking Back - Anniversary - dinner and a show. Or two.

Today is close to but not exactly our anniversary. We were married on a cold miserable rainy sleety foggy windy night in November. The rain and wind started as I left the hairdresser’s. My hair melted. My makeup melted. I had organized a car and driver - no show. I got home to learn that my dress had been delivered. But not the sleeves. When I start reciting the litany of Things That Went Wrong At The Wedding, people first cluck in sympathy, then start to laugh, and then as the list goes ON-AND-ON-AND-ON they try to look at phones or watches without me noticing.

I understand that recently pictures of soaking wet brides in full wedding regalia have become a Thing, and there are photographers who specialize in immortalizing the magic moment. This had not become a trend, or even a whispered nightmare when we got married. So I'll just say that once I learned that Himself had in fact shown up, I tried to go with the flow and get it over with.

There were pictures taken, but I'm not in most of them. The so-called society photographer who had insisted that he be allowed to do my father a favor ultimately didn't show up in person. He sent a terrified non-English-speaking assistant, and it's possible that the exact details of the event (Wedding. Bride. White dress. Cake.) had not been made clear to the kid with the camera and the shaky hands (Remove lens cap. Focus.) Mom put the proofs into a folder and for our fifth anniversary transferred them to a loose leaf binder which she gave to us. We never did purchase the album. Most of the pictures include all or parts of a cousin that my sister and I couldn't stand. The "photographer" was entranced by her upper body. There is also a picture of me adjusting a bra strap, which I think was meant to be the clichéd picture of Bride Adjusting Veil. Also it seems that the substitute photographer had grown up under communism in a country where domestic comforts were scarce and so the Done Thing was for the wedding pictures to include boastful shots of the family’s larger material possessions. Like the furnace. And the toilets. I showed the binder to my sister, and put it away.

We've been married a VERY VERY long time, and given the sheer awfulness of the wedding (example: his mother started crying when she arrived and was still in tears when we left), we usually acknowledge the day by getting out of town with no set agenda. This is appropriate because other than his relatives’ odd behaviors, the main topic of conversation was Traffic.

What's been happening lately to commemorate the event is something along the lines of "Oh.You're still here. Good."

However a few years ago we decided to try doing dinner and theater. We'd both read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and had both noticed that the National Theatre (London) production of both works had gotten great reviews, and both plays were about to close their West End runs.

Good seats were available, we had mileage, a few phone calls took care of the dinner part, and we were good to go.

Um, perhaps not quite. With the same expansive outlook that has inflated plans for a weekend out of town into a 3-weeks road trip, or dinner at his cousin’s in South Jersey to two weeks in Key West (since we'd be heading south anyway), we found another show, a few more meals...

So: London. We arrived the day before our theater date, and had dinner at Gordon Ramsay's little gem of a flagship. We always make room for at least one meal here when in London - because notwithstanding their financial issues and personnel matters, dammit the food is good! and after all this time they almost always find a table for us. I don't have food pics, but for some reason, possibly  related to the champagne, I only took a picture of my belt bag reclining in splendor on its very own petite chaise. In keeping with the wedding theme, the zipper had burst, putting on display some used tissues and a bottle of nose drops. Toujours exquise.

The shows were terrific, one in the afternoon, the second in the evening, with a non-memorable supper at Balthasar in-between. We plan to remain married forever, or at least until the final parent of the trilogy is published, Kindle’d, turned into a play by the RSC, and re-adapted for public television if such a thing still exists at that point in the world’s dubious future.

We also found time for tea at Brown's again, where I tried to overdose on scones with clotted cream. If you haven't had clotted cream,  you can make a very close approximation if you can get your hands on NON-ultra-pasteurized, NON-homogenized heavy cream, give the little bottle a good shake, and refrigerate it for a few days. Clotted cream is a delicious detour on the way to butter. When it thickens, get out the thick-cut toast (I'm assuming noone wants to cook scones), spread, add some tart red jelly or preserves, and enjoy. Crème fraîche is sold in many supermarkets, it’s close...

We also saw a play called Great Britain, a rapid-fire depiction of the staff of a gamy tabloid caught in a tacky and dangerous phone-hacking scandal. Hysterically funny, politically incorrect, sharp-edged and sad: people do want to hear about this stuff. Just turn on your television.

Fittingly, the weather was chilly, damp and misty.

By the way, there is a Facebook page called Trash the Dress. I just checked.