Time for a Score

July 18, 2013

Photo of bleak church

Whenever I write a book, there comes a time when I start reading portions of the manuscript aloud to myself. It’s a sure-fire way to spot flaws in grammar, cadence, and voice. I’ve found that reading aloud also helps me to gauge, and adjust, the emotive power of individual passages, especially if I read them to music appropriate to the mood and setting of the narrative. For example, for my book The Devil in the White City, I played the George Winston album, Plains, over and over.

Now, even though I’m nowhere near done with my next book, I’m at a point where I need to start reading passages aloud, which means of course that I first need to build myself a soundtrack. So the other day I put the question out to my friends and fans on Twitter. I wanted gloom, melancholy, cello, viola. Did they have any suggestions?

They came through with excellent choices, some of which I’ve already acquired and started listening to–and reading to. Here are five, most of which were wholly new to me.

Glassworks by Philip Glass

Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Kabalevsky

Un Jour il Viendra, Sarah Brightman

Nessun Dorma, Andrea Bocelli

Gabriel’s Oboe, from The Mission

Throw in bits of the soundtracks from The English Patient and Atonement, and there it is: Gloom, melancholy, cello, viola, by the bucketload. Or something like that.

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Everyday Paris

March 25, 2013

View of bright buildings against dark sky

The view from our apartment in the 5th arrondissement

It’s hard to believe that in one week we’ll be on our way home, after six months here in Paris. I thought I’d share now some observations on the more subtle aspects of life in the city. There is, of course, the miraculous Paris of cliché–baguettes, cafés, the Eiffel Tower, and so forth–but there is also a quotidian Paris that reveals itself only over time, through an accumulation of small moments. Some things I’ve noticed:

–Parisians love to stop in front of store windows and examine the contents of the displays beyond. The store doesn’t have to be anything special. Parisians will stop in front of the windows of any kind of shop. They will stare at hand soap in a pharmacy window. It is really very charming, and is probably a product of a city culture that depends on foot travel.

Ugly scary dog in a shop window

This charming pooch stands in the display window of an antique doll shop.

–Perhaps as a consequence, Parisian shopkeepers take great pains with details. They keep their windows spotless, and frequently rearrange their window displays. They insure that the sidewalks in front of their shops are clean and free of cigarette butts and dog residue. On a frozen morning in March, after a night of snow, the proprietor of the corner pharmacy chipped away the ice on the sidewalk outside with a putty knife. Wine stores wrap your bottles in tissue paper; patisseries carefully tent your eclairs, so that the chocolate frosting doesn’t peel off on the paper; butchers pack the head of the rabbit carefully in with the carcass. Okay, maybe we could do without that last, but it’s a compelling detail all the same. I have learned, by the way, that my wife makes a mean rabbit stew.

Image of a rich, brown stew, made with rabbit.

My wife’s rabbit stew.

–Tennis players in the Jardin du Luxembourg play all winter long, even when the temperature dips into the low thirties. And they play with élan, like fencers. They add flourishes to their strokes, and keep up a running commentary on their own play and that of their opponents. They seem especially to enjoy playing when there’s a little rain, because the surface then becomes slippery and after hitting a ball they can slide a few feet just for the show of it. Benches surround the courts, and when the weather is nice people of all ages sit and watch the games, no matter how amateurish the level of play. One spectator complimented my wife on her forehand, and her derrière. The presence of spectators may account for the élan and the flourishes and the sliding.

–If I’m walking around Seattle, I never pop the collar of my jacket or coat. Here in Paris, I do it all the time. You have to pop your collar. I think it’s required by municipal ordinance. If you don’t, you look strange. And here no one wears fleece. Correction, the only people who wear fleece are Americans.

Gorgeous white clouds over Paris and Seine

Paris, on a sunny day in winter

–Paris remains a city of smoke. From the windows of our apartment, on what in America would be the fourth floor, we look out on apartments across the way and on a streetscape of small shops. Early in the morning I always open a window and stick my head out to gauge the weather, and often I see the concierge of the building across the way leaning out his ground-floor window and smoking, his face a pale moon in the light from the streetlamp. The young man in the apartment directly opposite ours often sits in a small folding chair on his balcony and smokes, gloomily, as if musing upon some recent tragedy. Several floors above him, in an adjacent building to the right, I’ll often catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and wrist, dangling from a casement window, cigarette between her fingers, as though all that resides in that apartment are a hand and wrist.

–There is a level of ambient courtesy in Paris that is really very appealing. Shopkeepers always greet you with a cheery “bonjour.” Upon exiting a store, you must always say, “au revoir.” And restaurants will never, or almost never, bring you a bill before you ask for it, unless you do something boorish or unkind.

–Paris is a city of murmurs. In restaurants, the French speak very quietly. Unruly children are rare, and when you encounter them, you will almost always find that their parents are American or German or Russian. My wife and I periodically have to remind ourselves to use our restaurant voices.

The lovely formal trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Fall, in the Jardin du Luxembourg

–French men seem to have a thing for red pants, in the way that certain prep-school types in America go for pink pants and cloth belts with ducks on them.

–When walking on the sidewalk, the French do not give way. Collisions are commonplace, and yet they do not lead to altercations. Bruises, yes. Fights, no.

–Panhandlers like to position themselves outside patisseries and boulangeries, apparently in the belief that the juxtaposition of their hardship against the pure joy of croissants, pain-au-chocolat, Paris-Brest cakes, and chocolate escargot is more likely to make people cough up their loose change. It was very effective with my wife, who recently came back to our apartment to drop off a new supply of baguettes and treats, then reached into our loose-change bowl and left again bearing a fistful of coins for the guy who was sitting against a lamppost outside the bakery. It was snowing at the time.

–Parisians seem to delight in the use of small overhead halogen spotlights, in bathrooms, bedrooms, wherever they can put them. Such lighting is fine if you are 20 years old and perfect; add a few years, however, and these overhead spots reveal their true power to highlight every single wrinkle, flaw, blemish, and patch of balding scalp. Restaurateurs have a particular passion for such lighting, perhaps to highlight the food, perhaps to insure that customers do not linger too long over coffee and creme brulée. Our apartment has 21 such overhead fixtures. We could do simultaneous police interrogations in almost every room. Finding replacement bulbs can be an adventure. The best place to look is the basement hardware depot in the BHV department store on the rue de Rivoli, but even there you’re on your own. You can ask a clerk, but all you’ll get are some Gallic gestures in the general direction of a vast array of shelves which display bulbs the way the Catacombs display bones.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene I, van, parked across the street from our apartment

–French parents dress their children with great panache, which probably explains why French adults, especially women, dress with such a casual sense of style. Children’s clothing stores are everywhere, with outfits that cost hundreds of euros and that the recipients will outgrow in a heartbeat.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene II, van maneuvering to get out of tight space

–Parisians have never heard of the concept of water conservation. They use water to clean their streets. The wife of the concierge in the building across the way scrubs the sidewalk out front with soap, water and a mop, and then rinses the walk free of all suds. Every now and then a small green vehicle with a large water tank goes past on the street below our apartment, and a man with a high-pressure hose sprays all the sidewalks clear of debris.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene III, success!

–Parisians like to be warm. In winter, stores are invariably overheated and women dress in so many layers of quilted down that I am reminded of the little boy in the film A Christmas Story who is forced to wear a giant snowsuit.

–Parisian bus drivers will kill you if you give them a chance.

Au revoir, Paris.


wide-angle shot of the jar din du luxembourg, under brilliant blue sky

The Jardin du Luxembourg, our favorite place in Paris.



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Christmas in Paris; And My Idea of Dessert

December 24, 2012

Lighted trees in lobby of Georges Cinq hotel

The interior courtyard of the Georges Cinq hotel

Unlike back home in America, where Thanksgiving serves as a kind of starting gun for the Christmas season, here Christmas advances more slowly, expressed as a gradual shift in mood and spirit. One day you walk down a street and there’s no sign of decoration. The next, there’s some subtle, pretty change in a display window. You walk along the same street a week later, and there are more small changes–maybe some evergreen branches over a doorway, or a special Christmas treat in the window of the patisserie on the corner, or a string of delicate white lights stretched along an awning.

We had lunch the other day at the Brasserie Lipp, one of Hemingway’s old places, and spent some moments staring out a side window, watching two people attempt to put up a Christmas garland over an adjacent shop door. It was not a complex task, but it did involve a lot of gesturing and stepping back to the curb to properly assess the progress being made, of which there was little, as best we could tell. Still, it was entertaining to watch. They were still at it when we left, standing at the curb, lips pursed in appraisal.

Front doors to Givenchy in Paris, with Christmas garlands

Givenchy, Paris

Posters go up for performances of Christmasy music. Two Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the American Cathedral here, and took part in the Messiah Sing, which was a lovely way to get ourselves fully into the Christmas spirit. We had done a very intensive course in Messiah singing when we were dating many eons back in San Francisco, and consider ourselves fairly expert, or at least my wife, an alto, considers herself to be. I’m a bass, and count myself lucky to be able to recognize which stanza I’m supposed to be singing. I stay as far away from the sopranos as possible. One does not ever ever ever want to come in early on a soprano.

Interior, American Cathedral in Paris, during Messiah Sing

Soprano at work, American Cathedral, Paris

Equally helpful in ratcheting up our sense of Christmas spirit was the bar at the Georges Cinq hotel, a block up the street, where we convened after the sing for a couple of well-made Manhattans. The hotel has been beautifully decorated, and the bar is terrific, but it is definitely a special occasion kind of place. The drinks are priced for the Maserati crowd. Still, it was great fun.

Last weekend we did some singing also, but this time we hit the bar first. We tried the Georges Cinq again, but, possibly because Christmas was so near, there was an hour-and-forty-minute wait. So, thinking fast, we walked about a mile, partly through teeming Christmas-shopping crowds on the Champs-Élysées, to the Bristol Hotel, which was one of the locales where Woody Allen did some filming for Midnight in Paris. This hotel is lovely as well, and happily the bar is larger and we reached it just at opening time. The bar also has a fireplace, a handy thing in Paris in winter. Unhappily, the drinks are just as expensive as at the Georges Cinq. But once again, great fun.

Paris streetscape, night, Christmas lights, crowds

The Right Bank at night, two Sundays before Christmas

We walked from there a few blocks south to the Seine, and headed back toward the Ponte d’Alma, with the Eiffel Tower across the river looking especially splendid. At intervals, now, it lights up like an immense jewel, with bursts of light that make it look very much like a Fourth of July sparkler. From the bridge, we again headed back to the cathedral, for an evening of “Songs and Lessons,” a service in which Christmas carols are spaced with brief readings, some in French, some English. The service ended with a rousing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which brought to mind the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life, and consequently of course brought tears to our eyes. I half expected a mob of Parisians to come charging into the church to drop off money to save George Bailey’s bank from the evil Monsieur Potter. That film, by the way, is one of the long list of Christmas movies that we and our kids will attempt to watch before The Day, after my wife and I return to Seattle for the holiday. Now, you may ask, why are we returning to Seattle just for Christmas, when we could experience Christmas in Paris? Three sentimental daughters, mainly. But Seattle’s a good Christmas town too, full of fireplaces and the smell of fir trees, the living kind.

Interior of cafe, with flowers, mirrors, warm festive feel

Le Grand Corona

After the service, we walked back toward the river and stopped in at a terrific, old cafe, Le Grand Corona, where we had a light dinner on the terrace, under heat lamps suspended overhead. The city’s big cafes are really quite amazing. In summer, you can sit outside at tables arrayed along the sidewalk, but come winter, many cafes put up protective glass and metal partitions which effectively contain the warmth, while still providing a nice view of the sidewalk and the endless current of people passing by.

The Corona doesn’t get the best reviews on TripAdvisor, but we found it charming and welcoming. I chose sautéed veal liver for dinner, one of my favorite Parisian meals; for dessert, half-a-dozen Breton oysters, the house specialty. I know, I know. I should have had a chocolate soufflé, or a mille-feuille, or creme brûlé with a flaming top. But I’m not a dessert guy, and the oysters that everyone else in the place was getting looked awfully good. Happily my wife doesn’t like oysters, so I had them all to myself, and they were so fresh it was as if I were devouring the sea itself. Hemingway got it right. The city really is a moveable feast.

Happy holidays, all, and may the best of new years lie ahead.

Floor of Bistro Lipp, with the name in brass letters

Brasserie Lipp


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