Thursday, August 16, 2012


I was sneaky, I thought. I was going to find a way to get back into that hotel room. Days and weeks after I had checked out of my vacation lodgings, I would trick my senses with a bar of French soap. Rubbing it across a wet wash cloth back home in New England, I would be back again from a long day of sightseeing, ready to wash away traveler’s fatigue. I would recall the colors of the hotel bathroom, the feel of the tile floor under my feet, the point at the doorway where the vapors of a warm bath mixed with air-conditioning from the bedroom. Hotel living at its most compact and convenient!

I crossed the street corner after I walked out of my hotel that first afternoon. I found a pharmacie with just the thing: Roger & Gallet products in the display window and along the shelves of an étagère. Cédrat was the fragrance I selected, steering clear of soaps that looked too proudly colorful in their packaging. I trusted the images of yellow citrons hanging from their leafy branches. The cashier even nodded in approval of this American’s choice.

One used bar I left in the hotel bathroom after my Paris week. A freshly wrapped soap I packed in my luggage.

With tomorrow morning’s shower I will get to mimic yet again that resolve to make the most of the vacation day before me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Massachusetts

You want to write something.

Does it have a chance of being better written if you compose it at a desk in a beautiful room?

I just walked around my kitchen with a turkey sandwich in hand working on those opening sentences. I am still changing them.

Twenty-four hours ago, however, I was sitting in a beautiful room. Everything I had read about the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Massachusetts, was proving true. The photographs I had seen of it in books on the most beautiful libraries in the United States had not misled me. There was a reason I had held on so long to the goal of seeing this place for myself.

My hand kept going up cautiously and quietly with my iPhone camera. I tried to make some of my own images of these spaces that architect H.H. Richardson had created for readers and writers.

I always thought there must be life like this somewhere. Somewhere there should be a space as ambitious as this in acknowledging what happens when some people write and other people read.

I just had not expected it to be a mere forty-minute drive away.

I had to read something here as well, though. I wanted to respond to one particular corner where I leaned against red leather.

A volume containing poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins emerged from my book bag. I opened to lines from The Wreck of the Deutschland, composed in 1875-1876 – seven years before this library was opened:.

“I kiss my hands/To the stars…”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Poppy in the Valley of the Somme

It was early afternoon in Picardie two weeks ago, and the tour leader asked his group of six our preferences for lunch. Our van was parked in front of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in the town of Péronne. Nodding to his suggestion of sandwiches, we crossed the Place André Audinot and took our places at the sidewalk tables of the Castel Pic-Nic.

The sandwich offerings on the menu each had a creative name. I opted for Le Medievale -- a round sandwich of tuna and boiled egg with lettuce and tomato. To drink? I took a hint from a poster on display next to our tables and ordered a local beer called Poppy.

I had not expected the label on a beer bottle to mention the Battle of the Somme, but this one did, together with the year the battle had taken place: 1916. "Remember" and "Souvenez-vous" were both printed on the label, recognizing that visitors to the area were as likely to speak English as French.

At meal's end I asked the owner of the eatery whether I might take home the bottle with its distinctive label. She smiled and let me walk off with my souvenir.

Well cushioned, the bottle crossed the Atlantic in my luggage. The poppies will help me remember.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks

It was a reading day yesterday. Hours of reading.

A vacation day in summer like ones I had spent as a child. One book – and a library book at that! – through the afternoon and into the evening.

On a couch with a fan on low and windows open onto a sunny August neighborhood. A glass of water, refilled from time to time.

Walking shorts and t-shirt, sandals off, feet up.

The occasional doze, a makeshift bookmark keeping the spot.

A dinner break, lemon wedges in a white beer, carrots and celery and onion on the cutting board, seasoning for the simple fare easily heated and quickly eaten.

Dishwasher on.

A determination to get within a hundred pages of the end of the book by bedtime and lights out. Made it to only sixty pages left for today.

And I don’t want to start until lunch with a friend is over and the few necessary hours can roll by with little to distract me.

A book to hold at its conclusion and lay beside me on the sheets as another summer sleep comes on.

Farmstand and Garden Center

It is August in New England.

I stop weekly at a farmstand for fresh corn for dinner.

Then I walk back to the car through the hydrangea trees in the garden center.

Giddy abundance!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sounding All Right

An older woman was walking uphill in the Père Lachaise Cemetery this past Tuesday. There may have been a couple of people also part of her party, but they were not sticking with her. Nevertheless she was gently smiling as she put one step in front of the other. Her weight would not have made that any easier.

I was walking downhill on the same path, and I was working at equanimity. It had been a warm, humid afternoon, and I do not like the feeling when my clothes are not doing what they did at eight o’clock in the morning. I get distracted when I feel that my undershirt is moist with perspiration and the cuffs of my pants are lower on my shoes than I had planned.

I want to look all right.

I also want to know what I am about. A friend had accompanied me for his first visit to Père Lachaise, and I had thought I knew where to pick up the map to guide us to Maria Callas and Simone Signoret and Jim Morrison. Neither of us had brought a guidebook along or printed out an online map. We walked at times a little lost, a little disappointed that we were getting to Edith Piaf and Marcel Proust and, yes, even Jim Morrison but only because we watched where other visitors to the cemetery were collecting.

It was our last full day in Paris, and I would have liked fireworks.

Back in New England this Saturday morning, I decided I would visit an old favorite among cemeteries and see what felt different about Mount Auburn Cemetery after my recent visit to Père Lachaise. It was a relatively empty place through which I walked today, and the bench on which I eventually settled was in a quiet area with no statesmen or philanthropists or writers buried ostentatiously nearby.

It was warm. It was still. My shirt was moist in spots by the time I sat down, but I was fine. It was easy to remember the woman a few days earlier in Père Lachaise. I had sat down in Père Lachaise as well a little while after passing the woman and spoken to my friend about her.

I tried to explain to him how moving it had been to see this woman with every reason in the world to be out of sorts with the heat and the climb and the company and to find her smiling. It was as though she had been ready for all that a cemetery – and a cemetery like Père Lachaise – could bring to mind and was just happy that she could notice it. She was equal to this day. She was equal to the life that had brought her here and to the life that had ended here for so many people.

I tried to explain all this to my friend but halfway into the explanation I started crying. As he listened and rubbed my shoulder, I struggled for composure. I did not want him to think that I was crying about my own life and the way it might end one day. I did not want him to think I was offering anything but a reflection on the woman I had seen.

I wanted to look all right and sound all right. The more he listened, though, the more I knew I had never gotten to sound this way before. I was getting out into the afternoon air something in my heart, and a friend was ready to notice me as much as he noticed the great urban cemetery around us.

It was warm that afternoon in Père Lachaise. It eventually was still around our bench. My shirt was moist in spots by the time I got up, but I was fine.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Life Away from Home

You walk in your front door again.

It is a week since you last locked it, a taxi in front of the house idling, ready to take you to the airport. For the first ten minutes of that drive – while there was still time to turn around if you had to – you had mentally reviewed the rooms you just left. You had rested your hand on different places on your body where a wallet or a passport or an e-ticket was stored. Reassured, you had finally smiled and settled yourself into the upcoming stretch of life away from home.

This stretch of life away from home was what I had earned by working thirty years for the same non-profit institution. In recognition of the years I had aligned myself with the goals and mission of an organization, I was invited to stand at an annual gathering of hundreds of people a few months back. An announcement was made that I would be travelling to Paris this summer – a gesture of distinct but accustomed generosity on the part of supervisors and trustees.

For a week, then, I got a life away from home.

For months ahead of that week I had gotten to plan with others accommodations and meals and itineraries. I had even gotten to plan which parts of the week I might leave unplanned, which afternoons I could suddenly, almost capriciously take a place at a table on a sidewalk in Paris and order my refreshment of choice. And just sit.

Familiar with Paris, I had the opportunity to leave it one day during that week, take a train north and participate in a day-long tour of World War I battlefields in the Somme valley. From very urban Paris I switched to a very rural France. I took on a history that is now almost exactly a hundred years old. I listened to the silences that have settled over those locales.

Life away from home is – by definition – a kind of public life. You sleep in a place available at other times to other people. You eat in places available to the next guest who darkens the doorway after you leave. You travel with a subway ticket that could just as easily have ended up in someone else’s hand for the length of a trip beneath Paris neighborhoods.

In time you get through all these novelties and familiarities, though.

In time you pay another taxi driver and roll your luggage down the walk leading to your front door.

In time you face the home spaces you thought you knew.

You just need time to live there again.