Given that we are still in a global pandemic, I didn’t think I would get to visit Isabelle this year, but then the stars aligned, and I spent last week with Isabelle, Olivier, and my godcat Æncre in Meudon, France. It was a pretty quiet trip, but here are a few highlights:
Here’s Volume 2 of the zine about my experience going through security at Charles de Gaulle last June! In case you missed it, here’s the beginning of the story.
It’s been ages since I’ve made a new zine! This one is about an amusing (after the fact) incident that took place nearly a year ago now, when I was returning from my soujourn in France at the beginning of the pandemic. It ends on a cliffhanger; the rest will be told in a future volume.
I returned to Minnesota this week after spending nearly 90 days in France. If you’d asked me in the winter how I thought my spring was going to go, I could not have envisioned what actually came to pass! But I feel very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire French confinement, as well as the first phase and a bit of the déconfinement, with Isabelle and Olivier outside of Paris.
Writing-wise, I ultimately had a very good confinement. (This is not to promote any kind of if you haven’t learned a new language or launched an online business during quarantine you’ve failed at the pandemic sentiment. No one needs to do anything more than do their best to make it through.) I sank back into drafting what I hope will be my next book, and when it looked like the finish line might actually be in sight, I strove to cross it. I finished the rough draft (emphasis on rough) on my last full day in France. Toward the very end of my stay, I also made two short story sales within a week; I hope to have more to say about those stories soon.
I have returned, of course, to a country still grappling with COVID-19 and lit by a renewed uprising against violent racism and police brutality. I have returned to the city that sparked the latest protests. Like I said at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t already saying better. But we must all be doing the work. Here’s something I wrote almost exactly three years ago when the police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I think we need to be thinking seriously about what role, if any, police forces should have in our cities. What would it take to abolish the police? In the meantime, take care of yourselves, your family, your friends, and your communities.
In which I conclude the chronicle of my travels in southern France (you can also read the first part).
After sending my brother on his way back to the U.S., we visited the village of La Louvière-Lauragais, which has a population of around 50. There is an old church with an unusual belltower and apparently a Black Virgin, though we didn’t get to see it. I marveled again at the ornate interiors of tiny village churches tucked away in the countryside.
We stopped by Molandier, another village, to check out its three-pointed bell-gable (clocher-mur), which had fifteen bells of different sizes hanging in its eleven arches. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear them ring at noon because we had to make our lunch reservation at Le Paradis du Pape, a restaurant with erratic hours and extensive gardens.
After lunch, we bid our friends in Mazères goodbye and drove southeast. There was a good view of Carcassonne from the highway. We stopped in Nîmes to visit the Roman arena. It’s cool how 2,000-year-old ruins built by another civilization are still used today for shows and concerts, though the modern equipment does kind of mar the original.
From Nîmes, we drove to Arles. After checking into our hotel, we walked past the Roman arena and had dinner at a crêperie. I had a crêpe with Corsican sausage and cheese. Afterwards, we walked around Arles some more, passing the Roman theater, the impressive doorway of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, and the café famously painted by Vincent Van Gogh.
We left Arles and drove to the Pont du Gard, the Roman aquaduct spanning the Gardon river. We arrived right around noon. The sun was beating down mercilessly on aquaduct, tourists, and olive trees. We clambered up and down scrubby hillsides, seeking views of the bridge and occasionally glimpsing a town farther off in the distance. We picnicked under one of the massive arches and then walked across the bridge to climb the trail on the other bank. The aquaduct was certainly impressive; I just wish we could’ve gone swimming in the river.
From the Pont du Gard, we drove to Lyon to stay with other family friends. I’d last been in Lyon when I was studying abroad in Grenoble, not too far away. We ate dinner outside, and then we all went to the circus. I’ve seen some circus arts performances before, but this was my first time (that I can remember) going to an old-school circus complete with big tent and ring. There were no elephants, lions, or trapezes, however. There were some strange storytelling episodes and some okay juggling. My favorite acts were the Russian acrobats on the flexible beam and the man who rode standing on the back of a running horse. Towards the end of the show, a thunderstorm rolled in, and rain pounded on the tent. Lightning flashed in the dark sky as we walked across the field back to the car.
This was my one full day in Lyon. In the morning, we walked by the Gallo-Roman ruins and the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, taking in the view of Lyon spread out below the basilica plaza. Then we took switchbacks and stairs down into the city. We had lunch at the rooftop café of the Musée Gadagne and then walked to the fontaine Bartholdi by the Hôtel de Ville. Eventually we crossed a bridge over the Saône and took the funicular back up the hill to visit the Gallo-Roman museum (now called Lugdunum). I looked at a lot of carved rocks. There were also some lovely mosaics. I particularly liked the remains of a Gaulish calendar, with Gaulish inscribed on bronze.
In the morning, our host François drove me to the train station to catch a 6:30am TGV for Paris. I was a little worried about making my 11:30am flight to Los Angeles because I didn’t have much wiggle room, and although the SNCF strike had ended with the month of June, I was traveling on the day of a “mouvement social,” whatever that meant. My train was a little late getting into the Gare de Lyon, but I transferred right away to the RER. That train was stuffed to the gills, in part with cosplayers headed to the Japan Expo one stop before the airport. I made it to Charles de Gaulle, checked my bag at about the last possible minute, and dashed off to the security checkpoint. When I reached my gate, my flight was boarding, but I’d made it. The Air Tahiti Nui flight crew thoughtfully gave us World Cup match updates (in French only) as we flew over the Atlantic; the passengers cheered for both France and Belgium. I was pleased when France won the World Cup a little over a week later.
On the last Friday in June, I flew from Paris to Toulouse, where I met up with my parents and brother. We visited the Basilique Saint-Sernin, which has an impressive belltower and, inside, a lot of banners about the wonders of pilgrimage. Then we walked around a bit–Toulouse is quite pretty, and it has street signs in Occitan!–and ate dinner at a restaurant where I tried skate for the first time. I was curious after all the rays I’d seen at aquariums lately. We then drove to Mazères, where the American friends who were hosting us live.
We went to Foix, a town apparently known to all French schoolchildren because of a rhyme that incorporates four French homophones (foie, Foix, foi, fois). Foix has a very well-preserved castle with three towers, which we visited. I saw the bed of Henri IV, who I learned was the last count of Foix (I thought he was from Navarre, which in fact he is–nobility is complicated).
This region of France is Cathar country, and now that Cathar heretics are not an issue (because they got wiped out), there seems to be some Cathar pride. Most of what I knew about the Cathars came from one of my favorite book series, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan Chronicles (seriously, go read them). Specifically the second book, Pagan in Exile, in which the knight Pagan serves, Lord Roland, falls in love with a Cathar woman. It ends badly.
We came down from the castle and walked by the abbey church of St. Volusien as a newlywed couple was coming out into a crowd of well-wishers. The church bells rang. The France-Argentina World Cup match was also going on.
Back in Mazères, we had a leisurely French dinner in the backyard. The neighbor cats came by for morsels of sausage.
We went to Albi, a city whose name was a revelation to me because I had no idea that the term Albigensians referred to a place. Albi has a fortress-like cathedral built to underscore the power, might, and righteousness of the Church of Rome. The outside has a sort of unusual, scalloped perimeter and very tall, imposing brick walls with rows of svelte gargoyles up high.
Based on the exterior, I wasn’t expecting the extravagance of the interior. The sectioned ceiling was painted with portraits of saints (including many women!) and biblical scenes on a brilliant blue background. The colors are still jewel-bright even though the paintings, completed in the early 1500s, have never been restored.
There was also a pipe organ, a painting of the torments of hell, relics of St. Cecilia (for whom the cathedral is named), and the Gothic rood screen, so intricately carved it kind of looks like it’s…dripping. This is one impressive cathedral.
We also passed through the courtyard of the Toulouse-Lautrec museum (who knew Toulouse-Lautrec was from Albi!) onto a walkway overlooking a manicured garden and the Tarn river. The palais de la Berbie, the former bishop’s palace that now houses the museum, rose behind us. We stopped by a cloister and a very old house and then headed back to Mazères.
We visited Carcassonne, a walled medieval city I’ve known about since I was probably ten or so and had never seen. Inside the church of Saint-Nazaire, we heard the Russian men’s choir (quartet, perhaps) that seems to be in residence there singing. We walked around the cité and made sure to go see the Roman towers on our way out. Crossing the bridge over the Aude on our way back to the car, we saw a furry creature swimming in the green water. I’d like to think it was an otter, but I’m pretty sure it was a muskrat.
We drove to the village of Fanjeaux, former haunt of St. Dominic, and enjoyed a late lunch at La Table Cathare, where I had confit de canard and my brother had cassoulet. It was generally hot during our trip, so it was usually more tempting to order salads, but in Fanjeaux we got in our heavy southern food. Then we wandered up through the village, finally arriving at the church, which was open. It seemed we were lucky to have found it unlocked. There was an elderly local woman inside who knew everything about the church and was eager to share her knowledge with Francophone American tourists. She knew the names and origins of the artists who had done the paintings, she had herself restored the vestments that were going on display the following week, and she told us that it was possible St. Dominic had prayed in front of a particular statue since it was from the 13th century, but we didn’t really know and one had to be honest about these things. Our host in Mazères had told us a story about an argument between St. Dominic and some Cathars during which the gospel flung into the fire did not burn but flew up and imprinted its letters on a wooden beam. The beam was on display in the church in Fanjeaux, though it had come from elsewhere. Also, in Fanjeaux and elsewhere, I was a little stunned by how much literal treasure a little village church could have just on display near the altar. Traveling in Europe really reminds you how much longer Christianity has been rooted there than in North America.
Leaving the church, we walked to a vantage point from which there were spectacular views of the nearby countryside and the towns, cities, and mountains beyond. It was a little hazy or we might’ve made out the mountains better.
Back in Mazères, I visited the church just to see what it looked like. There was an extremely amusing sign on the door informing visitors that while you might hear the call of the Lord upon entering this place, it would be really surprising if He were to call you on your cellphone, so… In the evening, we had another leisurely dinner outside and watched the hoopoes flying to and from their nest in the wall in the backyard.
After the conference in Lisbon, I spent most of the last week of June with Isabelle in Paris. I hadn’t been to Paris, or to France, since 2011, when I studied abroad in Grenoble, and it was wonderful to be back. We stayed with Isabelle’s parents in their apartment in the 16e arrondissement. Forthwith, the highlights:
With Isabelle’s partner Olivier, we went to visit our old haunts in the Latin Quarter. First we got off at my old metro stop, and I successfully led us to the apartment building on rue des Écoles where my family lived in the fall of 2004 during my father’s first sabbatical. Then we went to Henri IV, the celebrated school where Isabelle did her prépa. (In 2004, we tried to enroll me in Henri IV’s middle school, since I lived in the neighborhood, but they didn’t have room for me.) There was a little book festival happening in the courtyard, so the school was open to the public. We checked out the books and then wandered all over the school.
We tromped through more of the 5e arrondissement (I was impressed by how many things remained unchanged) and wound up near the Seine. We abandonned the idea of visiting Shakespeare & Co. when we saw the hordes outside and instead got gelato at Amorino and walked along the river down by the water. We had dinner at the Paradis du Fruit and returned to Passy near 10:00pm. We stopped on the bridge in hopes of watching the Eiffel Tower light up, but 10:00pm came, and…nothing! Because it was still day. The evening light in Paris was wonderful; it’s the farthest north I’ve been around the summer solstice in years, and it was glorious.
Isabelle and I walked the promenade plantée and then went to the Canal Saint-Martin, both places that were new to me. Standing on a bridge over the canal, we saw a boat approaching the lock underneath us and decided to watch it go through. There was an automobile bridge that had to move to let the boat pass, but it wasn’t a lift bridge. Instead, the part of the bridge over the canal swung around on a pivot to open a passageway. A trio of shirtless young men were frolicking in the space into which the bridge had to swing, and then one of them took a ride on the moving bridge until a testy voice amplified from somewhere asked him to please get off. While the boat waited in the lock for the water to rise, a duck and her ducklings swam about in agitation.
We explored Passy, including the cemetery, where we found the grave of a Georgian prince and princess. We found a stand inside an indoor market that sold pasteís de nata, and they were as tasty as the ones we’d eaten in Lisbon! Then we went to the Maison de Balzac, even though I am Team Zola (Isabelle is Team Balzac). The house Balzac lived in is now a museum. We visited the room with the desk where he wrote something like 18 hours a day, fueled by coffee. Not quite the lifestyle I aspire to. We also pored over the Généalogie des Personnages de la Comédie Humaine. For dinner, we went to a crêperie in the neighborhood.
My parents and brother flew into Paris and came to Isabelle’s parents’ apartment for a grand meeting of families and lunch. My family went on to southern France, and Isabelle and I met up with her friend Alice. We walked along the quais and ate shengjianbao.
Then Isabelle and I went on the Louvre, open late on Wednesdays, and wandered through a lot of galleries of European art, eventually getting to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, before the museum guards started herding us all toward the exits. We sat on the grass outside and watched the full moon rise over the Louvre, then walked to the Pont de la Concorde to catch the Eiffel Tower lighting up at 11:00pm.
Isabelle and I went to the 13e arrondissement to visit some more of our old haunts, including Collège Rodin, where I went to middle school in 2004, and her old apartment, kindergarten, and elementary school. We had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and then came back to the 16e to visit the Musée Guimet, the Asian art museum. I felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of the collection before the museum announced they were closing early due to the metro strikes. We ambled over to the terrace of the Musée de l’Homme to share a glace à l’italienne and take in an iconic view of the Eiffel Tower. After stopping to look inside Notre-Dame de Grâce de Passy, the church next to Isabelle’s parents’ place, we went home and helped wrap wontons for dinner.
On Friday morning, I flew to Toulouse to join my family.