‘Les Misérables Curtain Up’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Fourteen

‘Les Misérables Curtain Up’

The flickering neon of adverts bouncing off the damp pavement illuminated the eager faces surging through Piccadilly Circus. In pairs and in groups large and small, the crowds were sucked through the beckoning doors of each successive theatre. Our destination on this wet but mild evening was the Queen’s Theatre and her marquee drew us ever closer, reeling in her patrons with the promise of a good time. Opened October 8th, 1907, she looked great for her age.

Row H in the Stalls, seats seventeen to nineteen were ours to claim. Excellent seats in plush red velvet close to the intimate stage, but far enough back to comfortably see all the action without straining your neck. My initial reaction was surprise at the small size of the stage. It seemed that the space would inhibit the production, but none of the audience seemed to be concerned. Ann did mention that before April 3rd, 2004 Les Mis had been showing at a much larger theatre, but she was willing to give this smaller venue the benefit of the doubt.

A fashionable throng dressed up for an event, unlike the half-naked young things shivering outside in the damp. For our hostess, these schoolgirls were nostalgic; the showing of vast areas of skin in all weathers a rite of passage for teens having a holiday night out on the town. It was ironic as well considering that yesterday we were in Paris and here we were back in London for a play about the French poor and the selling of one’s body and soul in order to survive. For most of the audience, and indeed for the fashionable girls outside, that desperate fight for survival was merely a play, a musical, and had no bearing on the comfortable life they lead.

We were virgins when it came to Les Misérables, unlike the majority of this evening’s clientele. Although we’d heard the music and had a basic idea of the story the emotions and expectations from the audience were palpable. Not excitement exactly, but more like the anticipation of meeting an old friend after an absence of years. When the lights went down and the pit orchestra began the prologue, all was hushed.

‘At The End Of The Day’ begins Act I and writing this reflection a day later in the comfort of Ann’s living room has given me a clearer perspective on what we saw. The play itself was good. The stage direction was excellent, making full use of the limited space available resulting in the production appearing larger than the area actually was. The set props were brilliant in the way they complemented and framed the ensemble allowing the characters space to breathe. The lighting was judicious and most effective in the pure white light utilized when death had claimed another victim. I did have a quibble with the musical score, which at various times overpowered the dialogue.

What of the cast then? I had no basis of comparison at that time, but overall the performers seemed flat and lifeless. Individually there were several outstanding performances. Drew Sarich, who played Jean Valjean, emoted well and gave me insight into the character’s growth as a representative of man’s ability to do good in the face of suffering. His voice was brilliant when he sang and it touched the audience deeply. Inspector Javert, portrayed capably by Hans Peter Janssens, was also well done and created a sense of sympathy for a man trapped by his perceived duty to the law. A harsh mistress is Justice and his suicide scene was cleverly staged and a highlight of the evening.

The rest of the players showed flashes of promise, but struggled at times with projection and passion. Eponine, played by the understudy Rachael Louise Miller, sang her solo ‘On My Own’ beautifully and with tender nuance befitting the moment. Of all the characters, she alone died with the sense of bewilderment and pathos that came the closest to Victor Hugo’s vision. The biggest disappointment for me was the performances of M. and Mme. Thénardier. Their introduction in the play as the guardians and abusers of Little Cosette was not at all brutal and chilling, but rather comic. The ensemble song ‘Master of the House’ lacked the depth of cynicism and greed that would have stood in stark contrast with the exploited and foolish tavern customers. Although the characters of the manipulative innkeeper and his suffering wife are supposed to be funny, it is not the fun of farce but rather the grim humor of the gallows that motivates their every dark action.

The majority of the thrilled audience clearly considered this number the highlight of the musical and reacted with enthusiastic delight. It seemed to detract from the overall play and none of the other players got through to me. The scene of the mass deaths of the students upon the barricades was anti-climatic and felt rushed and glossed-over. I am not sure if the audience empathized with Javert when he sat on the broken barricade amongst the dead, holding his anguished face in his hands. This scene and the next were the most moving and well done of the entire production.

For Javert to kill himself because he was unable to reconcile his perceived duty to the law instead of taking the path that Jean Valjean took; for me this is the choice we all face. To care about others and what is right and just or to blindly accept what is done to us in the name of corrupt laws and government lackeys. Javert is the moral compass of Les Misérables and he fails at the end of the day to do what is right.

“Wow Rose, this is a pretty harsh review. Did you not enjoy the play at all?”

“Honestly Dewy, I did enjoy the play. My thoughts are more in the vein that the sense of anticipation did not match the actual production. The audience seemed to have a set vision of Les Misérables before it started and were willing to overlook any flat spots in favor of the shared collective experience.”

“What about you Brian, did this evening meet with your expectations?”

“I have to disagree somewhat with my friend Rose here. I had a marvelous time and thoroughly enjoyed the actors and actresses. I thought the singing was very good and the chemistry between the leads was very evident. It had been a long time since I’d seen a live production and it was worth going.”

“Ann I’ll ask you to weigh in with your opinion here as you have seen Les Mis three times now?”

“Actually, Dewy this was my fourth time. How could Brian, Diane and Rose come to London and not see a West End production? I would be failing in my duty as a hostess. Anyway, apart from one or two other possibilities, I realized it simply had to be Les Mis, no real competition. It’s such a wonderful show. I just hoped they would enjoy it as much as I do.”

“In that case Ann, do you share Rose’s opinions as to the merits of the overall production?”

“Gosh Dewy, considering Rose had never seen the show before, her analysis is pretty accurate. I was a tad disappointed with certain aspects of the show too, but it’s the music I love and that was marvelous and the lead actors were excellent. I think it’s a shame the show had to move because no matter what anyone else thinks, I don’t believe a smaller stage did it any favors.”

“Diane what was your take on this subject? Did the experience of the play meet or exceed your expectations?”

“Oh I was very excited about the Les Mis outing Dewy. It exceeded my expectations in many ways, however the innkeeper’s scenes disappointed me. Overall though the lead characters impressed me very much and their performance was very impressive!”

“Did you have a favorite song or character after seeing them live?”

“I think my favorite character was Jean Valjean because he was so strong and portrayed the story so well. I understood everything that was going on and the emotional struggle he faced. The song I loved the most was ‘On My Own’.”

“Dewy I’d like to add that my main goal of the evening was to ensure my guests enjoyed the play, coming away with an appreciation of live theater and having a great night out. I hope I succeeded in that goal Rose.”

“Oh you did Ann. Despite my review, I would like to see Les Mis again some day with you. Maybe in New York or even someplace more exotic.”

‘Dogs and Guns’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Thirteen

‘Dogs and Guns’

Boats

Our overnight trip to Paris came to a rather abrupt end. We strolled along the Seine the length of the Île de la Cite to Pont Neuf; watching tour boats sparsely populated with bundled-up tourists cruise slowly upstream. On the other side of the narrow street was the imposing facade of le Palais de Justice. Part of the former royal palace which still houses Sainte Chapelle, today it is guarded by stern faced gendarmes in blue while rows and rows of police vehicles line the sides. Despite the presence of so much security, the streets and sidewalks were open to the public, although the unblinking stares of the corniced windows did hasten our steps somewhat. We had planned to keep walking until we reached the Tuileries Garden and then travel to see the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, but Diane could do no more.

A quick check of the map and we rode le Métro from Pont Neuf to le Musée du Louvre. There we saw the courtyard, took a picture of the glass pyramid and then decided it was too cold to go anywhere else. Back onto le Métro then transferred to the RER B line and rode one stop north to Gare de Nord. I must mention that the sprawling RER station at Châtelet-Les Halles was amazing with three different RER lines converging and trains in both directions on multiple platforms constantly. When combined with the two stations and the five lines of the connecting Métro it’s the world’s largest underground station in area with more than 750,000 passengers every day. The boys were in heaven.

At Gare de Nord we emerged from the train to find ourselves in a vast shopping arcade. We had taken le Métro only yesterday from here and had not seen this area because it was part of the RER station. It was a sprawling complex but the only restrooms we could find charged a euro to utilize. We were three hours early and could not check-in to the Eurostar terminal so we sat on our backpacks and waited an hour until they let us through. While we waited I looked around the terminal at all the frantic activities. Each platform was rarely empty, as soon as one train would depart, another TGV or a burgundy Thalys train would enter the station. (Thalys is a service provided jointly by the Belgian, French, Dutch and German railways and has replaced nearly all short-haul air travel.) There they would be cleaned and restocked and within the hour would depart once more filled with business travelers. All except the Eurostar trains, which were arriving twenty to fifty minutes late on their two segregated platforms. Departures were on time though so I could only assume that trains were being swapped assignments.

The other very noticeable presence was the gendarmes in large numbers, both singly and in groups. However, the active security provided by paratroopers bearing assault rifles was even more visible. A combat patrol went by while we sat against the wall. An officer was on point and two soldiers in a triangle formation followed behind with fingers near triggers slowly walking and scanning the area for hostiles. We merited but a brief sweeping glance, seen, analyzed and dismissed in a fraction of a second. Steady hand signals from the front directed the action. A short time later another soldier came by, followed by his handler; a free roaming German shepherd sniffing for foreign substances.

The security procedures were similar to yesterday’s at Waterloo, except here, the French Border Police stamped your passport upon exit and sent you round the corner to be processed through the United Kingdom immigration control. For a brief period of time, we were no longer in France, but not yet admitted to the U.K. We were in no man’s land and the feeling was distinctly unsettling. This was by far the most stringent checkpoint we encountered during the entire journey and we saw several passengers being interrogated quite strongly as to the reasons for wanting to enter Great Britain.

In the departure lounge, because we were so early, there were still two scheduled trains leaving before ours. We found seats and rested our weary feet for an hour and a half. In the far corner, with lots of boxes and luggage filled with purchases, there was a small group of Korean couples traveling together. They wound up sitting next to us on our coach and seemed to be having a grand time. As in Miami when we flew out, there were also lots of children toting Disney souvenirs. Eurostar runs one daily excursion train from London direct to Euro Disney, but with changing at various stations along the line including service on the RER A line to Marne-la-Vallée, there are numerous times and directions throughout the day that families can arrive at Disney.

It’s at night when a train journey most feels like flying. Except for distant lights and the ‘whump’ and rhythmic compression of an express scurrying by in the opposite direction, you are reduced to your seat and to surreptitiously studying your fellow passengers. I’m not one to romanticize anything, so the Eurostar service, while quick and efficient, showed the strain that marks shuttles the world over. Sacrificing luxury and leisure for speed and practicality, as the distances between place and destination continue to shrink, what is lost is the time spent relaxing and becoming. In fact, it was very jarring to enter in Paris and exit in London; somehow, it didn’t seem real.

The ride home on the Eurostar left on time although we were a few minutes late in arriving, primarily because north of Brixton we traveled a different inbound route. It must have been quite a sight to be waiting at a small urban station in the dark and see an express train sweep through instead. The Tube journey home was without incident although for ten o’clock at night the trains were still packed with passengers. Ann picked us up at the station and took us home. Home, our temporary home had become a welcome retreat.

So what were my overall feelings towards Paris? The average person in the street was always scurrying somewhere but the shopkeepers at least were eager to serve. Everyone, without exception, would say ‘bonjour’ and wish you ‘bonne journée’ when you left the store. There was though a weary sense of fatigue to the City of Lights. A perverse pride in the tight parking, the crowded boulevards, the extremely high prices, the swarms of tourists and the resultant dirt and trash that coated the sidewalks. Perhaps this patina is what marks all great cities, but here in Paris, it detracted from the beautiful history blossoming around every corner.

“Any comments anyone? Yes Diane?”

“Paris fell short of my expectations Dewy, but I did have prior illusions of grandeur. I was expecting a trophy city, pristine and welcoming. I thought it would be bigger than it was, but even being so compact, it was difficult to find your way around. I found Paris to be a very fast paced city; maybe the problem is they don’t have time for tourists. I guess I expected there to be more of an effort to guide visitors. Instead it seemed to be that you had to find it yourself. Is that how you felt Brian?”

“It’s interesting you remember the fast pace Diane because I compare Paris to New York City in the sense of purpose and culture. I enjoyed Paris for the history and would like to return someday to explore all the museums and monuments. My overwhelming impression was the sense of distrust and distance when around others in public. This contrasted with what Rose pointed out, that the service people were very pleasant and accommodating. An interesting contradiction and one I’m sure that has been noted before.”

‘God Is Hungry’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Twelve

‘God Is Hungry’

Passy

On our way to Notre Dame Cathedral, we bought one-day Mobilis passes at the Passy station and then transferred after traveling one stop to the RER C line that runs along the Seine. The RER (Réseau Express Régional) is a regional train system run in part by RATP – Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens – that since 1948 has also operated all Paris bus lines and le Métro as an integrated transit system for le Île-de-France. We found the signage even more confusing than le Métro and wound up on the wrong platform at Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel, (forgetting that the RER ran opposite side from le Métro) but the error was quickly realized and corrected. The view was stunning as this particular station is open to the Seine and there were many decorative house barges complete with requisite bicycles tied up along both stone banks. When our train pulled in on the left-side tracks headed east, the large double-decker coaches were clean inside although many had graffiti on the outside. Every tunnel and rail line we saw was covered with graffiti right up to the third rail.

Conceived as the link between the underground Métro of central Paris and the overcrowded main rail stations serving the greater Paris region, the first stages of the RER were constructed and opened in the years between 1962 and 1977. The first station opened on December 12, 1969 and the A and B lines began full service under the RER name on December 9th, 1977. The RER A line is in fact the most heavily used transit line outside of Japan and should be avoided whenever possible by using le Métro 14. To relieve the overcrowded original two lines, the ever-expanding service has now reached a total of 365-miles of track on a total of five separate lines. Lines C, D and E however, are actually operated by SNCF, since 1938 the national rail service of France. Over two billion passenger trips are taken yearly on the combined system of le Métro and the RER and this has allowed, for the first time, the integration of the capital with the dense population in the communities that encircle Paris.

As with the London Underground the Paris Metro offers a wide variety of payment options. The Paris Visite Card is a 1 to 5 day pass that covers all Metro lines, buses and the RER and some suburban SNCF rail lines. The single day is $27 up to the five day at $70. As a single one-way ticket – valid for up to 90 minutes – is 1.50 euros or about $2.25, you’d have to take between six to twelve trips a day to use up the pass versus only a trip a day in London. The daily Mobilis pass offers travel within various zones starting at 5.60 euros up to 9.30 for all zones. Again though, for traveling in central Paris you would need to take four separate trips before it would save money over buying single fare tickets each time. You can buy a packet of ten tickets called the Carnet for 11.10 euros or the equivalent of the Oyster Card called the Carte Orange for weekly and monthly travel. Both long-term passes do require an attached photo ID for all users.

We found that since we were arriving mid-afternoon and leaving the following evening that a single journey ticket the first day and a Mobilis pass the second day worked out the best economically. One caveat in this is the comfort of having a pass already in hand. Although the ticket booths in the international area stations may be used to dealing with foreigners, the same may not be true in other areas. The same can be said of course in London or in fact any country in the world where your particular language is not readily spoken. A smile, a bonjour and a merci go a long way in Paris.

The day was cold but with a brilliant blue sky, the sun was dazzling when we emerged onto the plaza to the west of Notre Dame de Paris. Having seen pictures many times before we were still moved by the way the cathedral is at once stunning yet quiet and dignified. Despite the brisk wind chill there were throngs of tourists entering and exiting the front doors and in the plaza, lots of beggars. On the trains, at the stations, here in front of Notre Dame as well we saw many beggars working the crowds. Some had children with them while others asked if anyone spoke English. If someone said yes, then an appeal for money was made based on the loss of a ticket or a valuable being stolen. The locals studiously ignored the begging and we took our turn to enter Notre Dame. The mid-day service was nearly over and we quietly joined in circling the nave counter clockwise.

Once inside the cathedral, at every section there where signs asking for donations. Two euros for a votive candle, one euro for a tea light candle, five euros for a tall glass votive with a picture and two euros for a devotion; two euros and up for anything and everything. The gift shop was doing a brisk business with the treasures of the Pope. I realize it takes vast sums of money to maintain a functioning church and certainly for all its grandeur and inspiring architecture, Notre Dame the religious church gets lost in the swarms of visitors. But where is the line between faith and commerce?

Last night on the walk after dinner we had encountered a homeless man and nearing the hotel Brian saw him again: bedded down upon cardboard on the cold concrete sidewalk with another man to spend the night outside. He gave them each two euros and they thanked him, but what for? A simple gesture but futile in the end. What then should we have done? Here were living examples of the boulders swept past by society’s river of prosperity yet all the money we had on us would not make a change in the lives of these two homeless men. So give two euros to the poor or light a candle in prayer? Which one is more effective? Which one means more to God?

I felt slightly overwhelmed by the masses of people inside the cathedral. The interior space is larger than it appears from the outside and a slight queasiness occurred when looking up. It’s apparent that the design was intended to create a sense of awe and humility in the worshippers, but I felt uneasy at the scale of construction. It didn’t feel warm, but rather distant and chilling. I was relieved when we left and felt that I could breathe again. From across the Seine, in many ways the exterior of Notre Dame is even more impressive. Certainly the stained glass windows are magnificent seen from the interior and the care and love shines through each panel. The stories they tell are a visual reminder of the faith in a higher power. For me, the towers, the flying buttresses, the gargoyles were more accessible; the entire history of France for the last 850 years is etched in the stone facade. Even though it is a large edifice, the view from the street seems to be more human scaled. Perhaps it was the hunger we were feeling, but the few hours we spent here left us slightly unsettled. Respect yes, but also the acknowledgment that Notre Dame de Paris represented an era when the Church was the State and for many, that was not something worth celebrating.

ND

By now lunch was badly needed after the croissant and raspberry tart consumed for breakfast. It’s been observed by friends that we are obsessed with food but that is incorrect. Both Brian and Diane suffer from medical conditions that require regular meals. Any outing of sustained length must have prior plans for food breaks. Waiting until hungry will cause impaired judgment and in some cases, medical intervention. We knew that a diner called ‘Breakfast In America’ was only a few blocks away at 17, rue des Écoles, so off we schlepped to partake in some home cooking. It’s a small storefront restaurant whose bright crimson awning can be seen from a fair distance away. Once inside, there were four red stools at a short laminate topped counter and a handful of red vinyl booths with room to accommodate four people. A few tables at the front and at the ends, it was an intimate space and every booth was occupied. We sat at the counter, which was fun. Memorabilia covered the walls and familiar American music played in the background while the metal utensils clanked out a loud tempo on the short order grill. The lone waitress was named Leslie and she had moved from Toronto, Canada, two and a half years earlier. She informed us in English, or Canadian – she spoke French away from work – that she was friendly and the food was reasonably priced for Paris plus the bonus of being very tasty.

The restaurant was busy and in America we would call this place the local hole-in-the-wall where town politics and Little League sports would be discussed over endless cups of coffee. A place that exists in the mind of many as the ‘real America’ but which is a place that has faded from most people’s view. It is still there. In every town, in every state, there exists a place like this that the locals call their own and where the waitress calls you ‘honey’. The food is old-fashioned, greasy and heavy and the way life never was, but should have been, becomes real once more. Here in Paris, many of the patrons spoke French – obviously – but even so, there was a sense of camaraderie and connection. Despite our differences we were welcomed and never more was a more sincere ‘bonne journée’ heard than when we left.

“Rose you raise some salient points in this chapter about the conflicts between religion and commerce.”

“Or when religion and commerce are the same Dewy. This was my impression of Notre Dame, not anyone else’s. I do feel that God is hungry and for much more than a devotion or a prayer in a resplendent building.”

“Yet you also include the conflict that having so many tourists creates. Aren’t you then part of the problem Rose?”

“I told you at the beginning Dewy that I hadn’t solved the ethical dilemma of travel. I loved the history and grandeur of Notre Dame and Paris in general, but I also understand the complex relationship between residents and visitors; and between religion and faith and wealth and poverty. The distance I felt from the city and its people did not diminish the accomplishments they’d achieved.”

“All right, fair enough, Rose. What about lunch? Diane the ‘American Diner’ sounds like a place you would enjoy.”

“Yes it was Dewy, I’m the kinda girl that enjoys a hearty meal and a juicy burger. I actually selected a fish sandwich with fries and a salad though. I wouldn’t recommend the iced tea in Paris; it was weakly brewed. I had read about the restaurant in our guidebook, ‘Paris for Dummies’. There are two locations, both within walking distance of Notre Dame.”

“Brian, as a vegetarian, would you say that your trip offered a greater variety of food than back home?”

“That’s a good question Dewy. I think ten years ago the answer would have been yes, however, in almost all American restaurants today, you can order at least one vegetarian entrée. There is also an increased selection of vegetarian products available in supermarkets, but I still think we lag behind Europe in that respect. Here I selected a veggie wrap that I could have eaten anywhere which came with a ton of fries. I also had a root beer, which brought back some good memories for the boys. Another thing I liked was the carafe of water available on the counter. I always dislike waiting for refills.”

“Rose you write above about the atmosphere in the restaurant. Did you feel at home?”

“Not as such Dewy. It was more the relaxed and comfortable feeling that the whole place generated. We felt like we were among friends and the familiar clinking sound of utensils on the grill was so soothing. Watching them eat, I was happy they were having a good time. You gave the food a thumbs up, right Diane?”

“Yes I did, especially the mountain of fries! Dewy it was like they gave us each a full meal of them. Real good though, long and thin and crunchy and slathered in ketchup, they were so good. Like I said, I enjoy comfort food.”

“What about the waitress Leslie? How did you know her name Rose?”

“While Brian was eating, I was busy writing in my notebook Dewy. I came out and asked her for her name and I explained that I was writing a book. I wanted to make sure she was ok with being in the finished result. I also wrote her a note, then signed it and planned to send her a copy.”

“Overall Diane, how were you faring with all the walking and sightseeing?”

“I was holding up Dewy, being stoic. So much to see; I didn’t want to stop. Notre Dame was beautiful, absolutely breathtaking. The windows? Indescribable and the atmosphere felt ancient. You could hear all the times gone past when you were staring at the stained glass.”

An interesting observation that I had in Paris was that most people assumed Brian was French. He’d say ‘bonjour’ and the person would smile and let loose a rapid-fire volley of Parisienne French to which Brian would be forced to shrug and resort to pantomime. Despite the language barrier though, most service people did speak some English and greeting them politely in the native tongue smoothed most transactions. “Deux croissants si’l vous plait” was the phrase of the visit. After our lunch we walked back towards Notre Dame and made several stops for provisions. Since we were headed home that evening, we wanted some food for the return train trip to London. A fruit store yielded a pear and an apple, while at a bakery nearby the choice was a loaf of fresh peasant bread. The pantomime came into play with the desire to have the loaf sliced. Some postcards and a liter of water completed the sum total of our Paris purchases. Not counting the hotel, we had spent 90 euros in 24 hours, a drop in the bucket.

Considering the compact size of Paris it does a tremendous volume of business. [All figures based on 2006 numbers.] Around 1.7 billion dollars is the size of the daily economic impact of the Paris metropolitan region. By comparison London’s daily economy yields 1.8 billion dollars. In the United States New York City generates a daily business of 2.7 billion dollars while the world leader is Tokyo at 5.4 billion dollars created every day. Just these four cities have a Gross Domestic Product of 11.6 billion dollars in one single day, day after day. Compare that to the Sudan, a country that has a yearly GDP of 98 billion dollars, mostly from oil. Residents in and visitors to London, Paris, New York and Tokyo generate in little over a week what a country of 40 million does in a year. Of course civil war and genocide in Darfur tend to put a damper on discretionary spending.

‘The Poet Laureate of Lesotho’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Eleven

‘The Poet Laureate of Lesotho’

One of the primary reasons I was looking forward to visiting Paris was to meet Rethabile Masilo. He is a writer and activist and his poetry reads like smoke. (He’s not the Poet Laureate, but he should be.) We made plans for dinner, but they fell through and we settled for a quick hour meeting the next morning at a cafe across the street from our hotel. We ordered tea and listened while he talked about his life.

Rethabile was born in Morija, Lesotho – a country entirely surrounded by South Africa – and his soul has never left home. He grew up in the capital of Maseru until he was eighteen years old when he fled as a refugee with his family. After short stays in South Africa and Kenya he left his family and washed ashore in Maryville, Tennessee as a student at Maryville College. Among his many achievements there, in 2006 he was named as a soccer player of the 1980’s Decade and was an All-South Region player in 1985. He’s most proud though of his wife whom he met in college and after graduation with a degree in biology, they moved to France because she is a French citizen.

He described that even though he’s lived in Paris for twenty years and has two children who are French by birth, he does not feel French. Nor does he feel American for as he described, going to college in Tennessee for a dark-skinned African was not comfortable. He mentioned feeling scared many times both by himself and when he was with his soon to be wife; his wife who is white. Missing family and home, he credits his time in Tennessee with the birth of his poetic life.

I was very moved by his quiet anger and frustration at the racism that has marked his entire life. His father Benjamin Masilo has been and is currently still deeply involved with politics in Lesotho and Rethabile expressed his desire to be more involved. I got the sense though that he is not like his father who he mentioned as being drawn to the ‘colonial’ way of living. Western suits and Western attitudes, a need to be better than and apart from the native culture. I told Rethabile that I did not see him as black, but as my friend. He seemed disturbed and replied that he was not black although African. We did not return to this subject but moved on to poetry.

Prior to our meeting I did quite a bit of research into Lesotho because I’ve always been drawn to the way Rethabile writes. Our discussion began when he mentioned how his poetry is constantly evolving and changing. I stated that a major difference between Brian and I was that he never edited his poetry and I did. Brian chisels his words in granite but I write poetry in the sand, letting the waves wash away my transient words. I told Rethabile that to me I perceived his poetry as springing from his core.

His core is Lesotho and it defines his life in a way that is poignant. To desire the place but not the government: to help the people, but not the politics. To live in exile yet with words live every day in his home half a world away.

Having spoken with him for a much too short half an hour, I was left with a sense of strength and determination to affect change. A quiet passion for justice, an unquenched thirst for the truth and beneath the guarded smile, a smoldering fire that creates the poetry that reads like smoke.

“To Khotsofalang, the face of the hills”

When gates open
that once were blocked,
the sky fills with
people longing to fly,
hearts that were dead
beat again and in the cracks
of the land I find your face,
the memory of our
days among the blackest
hills of Qoaling where
love was born, died, and lives
in dough-thump districts
that fill my head still.
I like when smoke spills
memories to the sky to
gather us for supper,
first on stump-stools for
a few rounds of morabaraba
in which you excelled, till
steam-bread gushes out of the pots,
tomato and lamb-chop bleeding
on embers, and we’re lulled
by the lamp that burns our midst,
moths once more to what brings
kin together like this, to eat, to
drink, to live the fray
of chasing odium away.

© Rethabile Masilo

“That’s a beautiful poem Rose. Rethabile sounds like a wonderful man.”

“He is Dewy and I am so grateful that we found the time to meet, albeit briefly. I am fascinated by his words, they speak to me in a way that I can’t readily explain.”

“It’s my understanding Rose, several months after returning home you had the opportunity to speak with Rethabile again.”

“Yes I did Dewy. He was gracious enough to take time out from his busy holiday schedule and answer some questions for me. This is part of what we discussed.”

In mid December 2007 as the snow and ice fell in northern climes and millions shivered without power or heat, the warm Florida sun continued to shine brightly. The soft blue was close, but not quite the glittering color of that Paris day in late October and it reminded me of my friend Rethabile. I had intended since the start to follow up on some of the topics we had discussed in that cafe and I was prodded into action at last.

“Dumela ka motsoalle, it’s been too long since last we spoke Rethabile.”

“Lumela, Rose. It’s been long, but the thought has stayed. Thanks for taking time to see me again.”

“You are most welcome. I’m glad we could make the time to continue our conversation. Rethabile, is there anything you would like to comment about based on the chapter above?”

“I think those are words that stand for many places one sees these days Rose, whether it be on this continent or on another, this country or another. It’s a touching account of the truth of our times.”

“It seems to be that way my friend in many places. You opened my eyes a bit with your passion for justice. Rethabile do you ever plan on returning to Lesotho and if so in what capacity do you envision?”

“That is a difficult question, Rose, because it encompasses so much, and because it is a potential emotion in itself. First off, I plan on returning to Lesotho. I cannot debate that even with myself. There’s a certain kind of pull that constantly reminds me of Lesotho and of its people. One might wonder how I can live abroad and profess to want to return to my country of origin. I live in France, which has become my second home, or my first, depending on the mood of the day. France has given me haven, and a family, and for that I’m grateful. I consider it my country.”

“Yet above you mentioned when we met that you don’t feel French. If France is your country, is it also really your first or second home?”

“Rose I consider Lesotho my home. Somewhere along the line they’re interwoven, France and Lesotho, but I still make the distinction. Lesotho gave me life and made me who I am today. I don’t know in what capacity I will be able to return to Lesotho, but it must be one that will enable me to help Basotho, one way or another. I’d love to teach creative writing and get in contact with the youth, have the opportunity to have an influence on their development. Or any other stead through which I may be able to have an opportunity for such influence.”

“I consider your poetry to be among the most powerful I’ve ever read and I’m sure that it provides you with influence. What prompted your memory that created the poem ‘To Khotsofalang, the face of the hills’? This is one of my favorite poems of yours Rethabile and I can smell the scents and smoke of this place in your heart.”

“Another hard one Rose. Well, Khotsofalang is the name of my elder brother who is late. He died for me and for his country, Lesotho, because he believed he could effect change. Other people didn’t want him to, so they killed him.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss Rethabile, I didn’t know.”

“Thank you Rose. The poem actually started with thoughts of birds flying about freely, after something has snapped. Freedom from something foreboding, and I wrote the first line in its cruder form. But the poem was born, and freedom to me means freedom to be with family, freedom not to have a sibling murdered for his beliefs, freedom to play morabaraba, ‘Basotho chess’ in which Khotsofalang was a master player, freedom to have enough to eat, freedom for mothers to pound dough in the way they used to. Khotsofalang is Sesotho for ‘be satisfied,’ but will I ever? I think I would, if the things he died for were given to our people by Lesotho’s politicians.”

“Is ‘The bonfire’ an anti-colonial poem Rethabile? Or is it simply a version of the truth in terms of politics and power that exist in Lesotho and the world?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t put a label on ‘The bonfire’ and make it stick. It is, as I see it, both a joyous and an unhappy gathering. It means too many things and evolved from its original bent into what it says today. I can remember that I wrote the poem, a happy thought in the beginning, but in the end wasn’t sure it wasn’t sad and angry.”

“You told me that your name, Rethabile, means ‘We’re happy’ in Sesotho. Do you feel your name fits you, or is it more an ironic name, given your life history?”

“I feel that my name fits my character. That’s my top-of-the-head answer. And I feel that way because I’ve always tried not to sadden up in my life, no matter what the situation may be. Remaining happy is different from remaining not sad, and much harder to achieve. After a bit of reflection, however, I’d say my name was a misnomer, given the experiences of my family, of the people who actually called me “We’re happy,” declaring in the process their state of mind at the beginning of the sixties. I like my name, however, and I hang onto that early sixties sentiment my folks had. In a dire context I’m the cheerer-up/cheer-upper, and I pronounce clichés like “it could have been worse” and “you didn’t win X but you gained Y” easily. I think there is nothing on earth to be unhappy for.”

“If you feel comfortable in answering this Rethabile, I would like to know what do you want your life to stand for?”

“Finally a question I can deal with Rose… several factors have faceted me and given me a certain consciousness. My religion (do as you would be done by) for one, my family, especially my mother (help the underdog): and the experiences of my life (if they’re out to get you, you’ve touched a nerve). I would like my life to reflect these influences and experiences.”

“Will you remain in France and work for change in the officially colorblind society? Does that even seem to be possible Rethabile?”

“I’d like to have the means to hop back and forth between the two countries. But wherever I am, I will always work toward a society where discrimination in all its possibilities is nil. France is officially colour-blind, but in reality it is assorted into different hues and religions and sexes that all enjoy different existences. Lesotho is a different case. In Lesotho, Caucasians are looked up to by a lot of people, no matter what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Basotho who speak good English are considered better and they consider themselves better than Basotho who may speak better Sesotho. That has got to change, too. And Rose, everything is possible.”

“Yes Rethabile, anything is possible. If such disparate persons as you and I can become good friends through our poetic voices, then others that work for peace and justice can become friends as well. I look forward with eagerness to our next meeting. Perhaps it will come in Lesotho and you can show me where the smoke that smells like poetry is born.”

“The bonfire”

They crossed all lands to reach us, to surround
with us the fagots and steeples, laughter
like relief telling who among our folk had
sent them to find our souls. The short one, who
talks little, knew something about what drives
men here, why a king might decree such a
thing out of fear. I stood to stretch my legs,
broke roots off the liana sagging from
the ceiling, threw them to the hiss of the
sizzling stem, and talked about the weather,
the snow that had surprised everyone and
covered cavern, lair – just talked, until I
found in mural dye your face, the fire
of sunrise in my cells, root-sent, entire.

© Rethabile Masilo

‘Walkabout dodging merde’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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Chapter Ten

‘Walkabout dodging merde’

It’s true that dogs go everywhere in Paris. I do mean go. It’s a puzzling dichotomy that an otherwise chic and pleasant people can allow such filth. Not picking up your dog’s waste is considered bad taste, if not a crime, in most places in America. Here and, to be fair, also in parts of London, merde was everywhere you stepped. Plotted from above our walkabout must have looked like we were drunk.

Walking in a large clockwise circle around the hotel, we discovered only one small market selling basic food and household goods. There were bread and pastry shops on every street offering fresh loaves and dinner items for the workers headed home. We also noticed that places called ‘Lunch ~ Brunch’ served until 7:30 P.M. while the restaurants serving dinner opened at 8:00 P.M. instead. I also noticed more lingerie shops than flower stores. Wonder if that means more to a man or a woman?

The icon that defines Paris for most visitors, la Tour Eiffel, by rights should not still be standing, but here it was seen from the wide plaza between the wings of le Musée de l’Homme. Originally conceived as a temporary twenty-year structure, la Tour was completed in time for the 1889 World’s Fair. Derided by the public when first opened and deemed an ‘eyesore’ by many, it has survived two World Wars and today is a stunning example of brute force engineering constructed in an age before computers. I say this because those of us living in the modern world have a difficult time appreciating the talent and intelligence of our ancestors. Engineering is a skill that is innate to many, but only a rare few can couple that with an aesthetic sense that transcends culture and place. Gustave Eiffel’s creation has stood firm for over a century in the face of criticism and scorn. To see this monument, this beautiful iron lattice lady in person gives you a deeper appreciation and respect for Gustave’s vision. La Tour Eiffel is one of the most amazing landmarks of the world.

Strolling along Avenue du President Kennedy near the Seine, we passed several foreign embassies and many bars then took a random right turn and headed back up the hill. We stumbled upon an enchanting oasis called le Parc de Passy that was surrounded by tall apartment buildings with balconies spilling over with foliage. Mothers and their children played in the park playground and a few walkers strolled the perimeter. The wide gravel path was highlighted by a delicate lattice metal gazebo and was framed overhead, at regular intervals, by wooden trellises. Leaving the park at the opposite corner, we climbed several more steep flights of stairs until we reached a more commercial district with multiple streets of shopping and dining establishments.

Parc

A delightful church called Notre Dame de Grâce de Passy was the cause of celebration because Tara had recommended a restaurant across the street. Exploring further along the narrow streets filled with rush hour traffic headed home, we made our way back to the hotel after a wonderful one and a half hour exploration of this charming part of Paris. We had a good laugh at the various real estate offices that offered several châteaux and other high priced dwellings for sale. Maybe when we sell millions of books, but for now Diane was happy to see us safely back and we made plans to go out to dinner and then to the Musée de l’Homme to show her the fantastic view of Paris we’d seen earlier.

Grace

“Did they remember to bring you back something to eat Diane?”

“Yes Dewy they did. They brought back two croissants and a chocolate brioche. He showed me all the pictures he’d taken on their excursion and mentioned all the various restaurants. He also insisted that I had to go see the Eiffel Tower from the place he’d found.”

“How about dinner Brian? Did you decide then on where to go?”

“Actually Dewy I wanted to show Diane the various choices I’d found, but neither of us wanted to wait until after eight o’clock to eat, so we went back out before six.”

“So Brian where did you decide to dine for your one night in Paris? What gastronomical treats did you consume in this culinary capital of the world?”

“It was difficult to choose Dewy, but after walking back along the busy streets, we wound up in front of a restaurant called ‘Julia Tarts’ which was around the corner from the church. Diane liked the offerings showcased, didn’t you?”

“Very much so, especially the desserts! The glass front case was filled with excellent looking tarts. When we went inside, it smelled even better than it looked. The tarts were what I would call a quiche.”

“Was it very busy at that time of night Rose? Was there a problem getting seated?”

“In fact Dewy it was empty and the sole woman there was busy cleaning up as they closed in an hour. She was very nice and the small restaurant was cozy and warm. She helped us select the menu by recommending several of the most popular tarts.”

“So what did you decide to eat Diane after reading all the choices?”

“Dewy, I had a beef moussaka tart with a side of potatoes and salad that was very good. It was mild with more meat than cheese and was a decent sized portion. It was different and not something I’d normally order but it was filling. The waitress worked with us on the language difference and was very obliging in helping us to choose an entrée we’d be pleased to eat. Brian had several vegetarian choices.”

“There were several choices Diane but the goat cheese and zucchini tart sounded tasty. It turned out to be rather on the sharp side, kind of like you Dewy, but with the side salad, I ate every bit and wanted more. So we ordered a raspberry and blackberry tart for dessert and washed it all down with hot tea.”

“It sounds very expensive Brian, I know that Paris has a reputation for expensive food.”

“Not at all Dewy, the bill came to less than thirty euros for both. Granted we don’t drink wine, but it was reasonable considering that could be the price per person at a full service restaurant. We have simple tastes in food and are more likely to dine at restaurants with good service and good food than worry about the latest culinary craze.”

Plaza

After dinner digestion, on this memorable occasion, was greatly aided by a brisk walk towards the museum plaza and the views of la Tour Eiffel at night. A three-quarter moon rose over the eastern skyline and seemed to balance next to the golden treasure that is la Tour. The plaza and terraces were filled with people despite the cold wind blowing hard. All seemed entranced by the soft glow of the Tower slowly brightening as the evening sky turned cobalt blue and then ebony black. As we walked back towards our hotel, side street after side street, revealed the softly glowing steel frame draped in the dark sky and caressed by the white light of the moon. Covered by trees, concealed by gargoyles, captured by balconies and framed by stones, la Tour watched over a neighborhood returning from work and planning a night out of relaxation. It was always there yet a constant surprise at each new vista exposed.

Brian and Diane strolled down a short dead end street that overlooked a set of stairs leading to another road below. A soft view towards la Tour was partially screened by trees. The pale green glow of the streetlamps cast quiet shadows on them as they leaned against a wall of stone and gazed at the sights. They held hands as only lovers do and talked quietly of things to come and of things past. The busy world swirled around them, but it was there in the cold night looking and listening to the Parisian soul that they first felt the romance that this city can offer.

‘On Meeting Our Waterloo’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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Chapter Nine

‘On Meeting Our Waterloo’

Fairlop

“Ode To The Underground”

‘Mind The Gap’ forces ears to contract,
open expectant eyes,
averted gazes,
privacy bubbles pressed,
squashed flat, mouths move
tasting aromas, heated
pheromones fantasies revealed.
Stranger’s touch,
stroking fingers,
matted hair snaps
lurching roar,
acrid stench below,
cool exhaust above
dark cables rushing by
bright tiles blurred,
fast forward, another stop
clicks into view,
rail above, rail below
standing still, passengers
moved from place
to home
as world races
past, enter, exit, only
the name has changed.

© Brian A. Fowler

Riding an hour on the Tube during the height of rush hour triggered this wonderful poem from Brian. Upon leaving the Tate Modern yesterday evening at five o’clock, we crossed the Millennium Bridge made slick by light mist and slogged slowly towards St. Paul’s Station and the ride home. We passed through the grounds of St. Paul’s, admiring the rose garden and statues before being funneled down the stairs and onto the crowded platform. Brian’s amazing poetry captured the time perfectly. We stood until the end, swaying like weightless sea grass in the surging outgoing tide. Fall colors now fading to somber winter drab broken only by flashes of bright scarves and glittering eyeliner. The behavior of work-time commuters is akin to the schooling of fish. Safety in numbers, orientating in the same directions, senses tuned to every unfamiliar noise and face. Huddled in the center of the writhing mass, slowly working your way to edge and then out into the night air, free to resume your solitary journey.

Speaking of that night, this was the sole occasion when PB made an appearance. All through the trip, Brian would walk ahead of Diane and Ann when in crowds or at the transit stations. Ann had chided him for running off ahead, but Brian explained that PB was taking point and making sure the going was safe. Since Ann had left her vehicle in a car park and it was now very dark, after we exited our final stop, PB was on high alert. He again took point and cleared the way to the dimly lit parking lot, but this time, he also took control of the body. When Ann and Diane entered the lot behind him, he noticed Ann carefully scanning the area. When he assured her it was safe she looked quizzically at him, so he formally introduced himself and shook her hand politely. He didn’t let Brian return until Ann had pulled out into traffic.

Now on this fifth morning of our journey and the ride to Waterloo, in order to connect with the Eurostar to Paris, only re-enforces my belief that mass transit exhibits quantum characteristics that fluctuate from time of day and station. Riding through cast-iron tunnels first bored in the 1890’s on a train equipped with modern maps of the entire 253-mile long system creates a sense of wonder. Since January 10th of 1863, passenger journeys numbering in the multiple tens of billions have rolled across these rails. You can hear the murmurs and whispers of patrons in decades past singing a haunting electric harmony. Although only 45% of the present day system is actually beneath the surface, ‘The Underground’ and ‘The Tube’ have entered into the modern lexicon as familiar terms throughout the world.

Check-in at Waterloo International was easy thanks to the keen recon the day before by the intrepid and world-renowned explorer Brian. Reported to Booth #3, no line and tickets validated. Security X-ray was no problem with food. Quickly through French passport control and we enter the terminal waiting area now for legal terms already in France. Board coach number seventeen, seats thirty-one and thirty-two: piece of cake. Depart precisely on time, slow, slow and slower ride out of London coming to a near halt at times, commuter trains passing us on adjacent tracks.

All Eurostar operations moved from Waterloo International to St. Pancras International on November 14th, 2007. Despite being further north in London, when the new twenty-four mile section of track opened all the way to St. Pancras, the travel time between London and Paris was reduced by an additional twenty minutes to two hours and fifteen minutes for non-stop service. The centerpiece of this rail link is a twelve-mile tunnel bored under east London until emerging about a mile short of the station.

The new quicker transit times contrasted sharply to the low speed exit out of London we took that morning. It wasn’t until we switched from third rail power to overhead gantries at Fawkham Junction upon entering the high-speed track opened in 2003 that the train began to reach the faster speeds needed to make the timetable. Racing towards the Chunnel at nearly 175 mph, the still verdant green countryside of Kent unrolled in a pleasing panorama of quiet villages, grazing cattle and bleating sheep. At least I assume they were bleating. What else do sheep do? Crossing the Medway Viaduct we raced through Ashford International on the flyover and began a gradual slowing to 100 mph and the descent for the twenty-minute ride under the English Channel.

Plunging at high-speed into the Chunnel may seem frightening, but the only thing scary about it is the massive amounts of debt leftover from the project. As far back as 1802 proposals had been made to dig under the Channel, but serious efforts were undertaken in the 1880’s, 1922 and the mid 1970’s. All of these attempts floundered for both monetary and political reasons and it wasn’t until 1987 when a joint Anglo-French consortium began digging from both sides of the English Channel. By 1994 the three 31.35 mile long tunnels were completed and service began late that year for passenger service by means of the Eurostar and via a shuttle service that carries automobiles. Freight service is marshaled around the scheduled passenger runs and includes trucks on shuttles as well. The Chunnel is the second longest rail tunnel in the world and the portion under the Channel is the longest undersea tunnel at 23.55 miles long. Eurostar train services have now grabbed over two-thirds of all passenger traffic regardless of type from London to Paris or Brussels.

Northern France was very flat and rural with small villages, dominated by a stone church in each, and surrounded by windbreaks of stubby trees. The fields were mostly bare earth with occasional winter crops sown and sheep here and there. The sparse landscape was only occasionally relieved by the view of a wind farm or an industrial park. Despite the better rail, the speed was no higher than in England, although sustained for longer periods of time. There was little in the way of urban sprawl and we maintained our schedule until traffic into Gare de Nord delayed our arrival by five minutes.

One thing I noticed on the run-in through the northern suburbs of Paris was the vast quantities of graffiti on the walls and buildings alongside the tracks. This continued on le Métro and on the RER both in the tunnels and on the exterior of the coaches. Compared to the London Underground, le Métro was far dirtier, the stations more confusing, the signage less clear and the trains smaller. It was quieter though as much of the rolling stock is on rubber tires. Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris was better known as the Métropolitain or le Métro – it’s now run by the RATP – but in contrast to the London Underground, it is far cheaper to use per single-trip ticket. Primarily running through compact neighborhoods, it is the most densely packed station wise of any transit system in the world and it carries the second most passengers in Europe behind only Moscow. The short distances between stations and the overall length of 133-miles can be explained in part by the resistance of many Paris residents throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to allow le Métro to reach into the inner suburbs. Their fear of crime and undesirables if non-Parisians were allowed free access into the city is also why the decision was made to run le Métro on the right hand tracks rather than on the left as the suburban trains were being operated. It was not until 1934 that the first line was extended beyond the city limits and this remained the case until the 1960’s. By then, lingering post World War II problems related to the many closed stations and the booming population growth, finally lead to the decision to construct an entirely new rail system. The RER linking the city of Paris to the ring of suburbs was the ultimate result.

Purchasing two tickets at the station was simple and we took the number 4 Métro line one stop from Gare de Nord and then rode the number 2 line to Charles de Gaulle Étoile. There we walked outside and up to an elevated platform to get on the number 6 line. It was interesting to be sure: different of course from London but not because of the language. Citizens of Paris are different. Way to go Rose! What a keen insight! No need for sarcasm here Dewy, I know that every writer since the time of the Romans has commented on Parisians, I was simply stating what I observed. You think it’s easy having Dewy around all the time? No she’s not real, not like I am, but that doesn’t stop her from poking her rounded assets into my life. Back to my observations please. As this was their first visit to France, Brian was being very cautious and triple checking the maps. He had a small folding map from a guidebook that he compared to the diagrams in the stations and on the carriages. The first transfer was easy since it was only one stop so they stood. The doors on the carriages are self-service and the pictogram instructions are not all that clear. Depending on the line, some have buttons, some have handles and they don’t all work the same. Since Brian wasn’t sure on how to work the doors, he made sure they were behind someone who did on every stop.

Which brings me to state my first observation that Parisians are impatient. The first person in line was trying to open the doors before the train came to a halt and if that person moved too slowly, someone else would reach around to do it quicker. On the second leg of the trip, they sat down next to an old woman. Brian smiled and said bonjour and she returned the salutation. The stops clicked off one by one and before we knew it, our next transfer station was at hand. Nothing any of us had ever read mentioned that some stations were elevated and when we followed the signs to Line 6, it lead out onto the sidewalk. To Brian’s surprise there was no exit ticket gate or an entrance ticket gate onto the next platform. There were however, several sets of steep stairs and Diane had to stop and rest. Which is my next observation. If you look confused while reading a map no one will break stride to offer advice. Not bashing Paris, but it was very noticeable though that few people in public would actually make eye contact.

At our final destination, the elevated Passy station, Brian was in a daze and got spun around and we descended the multiple flights of steps in the wrong direction. It turned out fine though because there it was! La Tour Eiffel. It was actually real and right across the Seine from us silhouetted against the crystal clear blue sky. What a glorious sight as we took pictures and it was only then that it sunk in that we were actually in Paris. Retracing our steps up the hill, a very steep hill – Paris is not flat – the hotel sign was visible from blocks away. The hotel Regina de Passy was recommended by our friend Tara and it was very nice and at 177 euros a night, considered to be moderately priced. We were on the third floor and had a room at the end of the hallway overlooking rue de la Tour. Featuring a large bedroom with two double beds, a television and desk the room was complemented by a walk-in closet with a generous bathroom. Despite the constant traffic, the room was quiet with no sounds from the hotel and only muffled noises from the street below the balcony. Diane was feeling very tired so she laid down for a nap and rested. Brian and I went for a walk to scope out the neighborhood and look for a place to eat dinner… we must get our priorities right!

Which brings me to another observation. The first thing I noticed when we got to the hotel was that the front desk help was smoking! That was a culture shock more than the fact that they spoke only French to us. That was expected at least and Brian simply bulled his way through the check-in procedure. You can’t intimidate him, he can out haughty the best of them. He’s far from an Ugly American but he demands respect and service in a civil manner. Diane was exhausted as it was decidedly more walking than she had planned on and Paris seemed to be all uphill. She was very hungry but too tired to go out exploring. After we had gotten to our room and unpacked Diane asked Brian to bring her back something to eat. Front desk aside, Brian was pleased with our accommodations. He’s stayed in hundreds of hotels through the years and this was a pleasant place. The lobby on the ground floor was flanked on one side by a room with a computer and opposite a breakfast room. The carpeted stairway to the back left curled in a circle from landing to landing around an open elevator shaft. It looked like an old movie set with the metal accordion door and tiny interior.

Paris was overwhelming to me. The short trip on le Métro, the walk to the hotel and the myriad narrow streets filled with traffic and people walking purposefully in every direction. This was a city that brooked no nonsense and expected visitors to keep up. It was already apparent that we would be unable to comply. It was time for a new strategy.

Tower

‘Dancing With Dali’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Eight

‘Dancing With Dali’

Monday dawned, if you can use that phrase, cold and gloomy. On the itinerary was a trip to the South Bank and the Dali Universe exhibit at County Hall. Once more on the Underground, where we started it’s aboveground, we rode the Central Line and then transferred to the Jubilee Line where it commences at Stratford. In all we would transfer at Stratford a total of six times during our stay and it was always fairly easy, except when using the Jubilee Line. Due to heavy usage and multiple platforms, trying to pick the right train can be an adventure. They have overhead electronic signs showing the next departure, but if it’s full, you have to walk back and around to another platform and wait for the next train. Stratford International will serve as a centerpiece in the Olympics Games in 2012, including the Eurostar; today it is a major junction for traffic entering east and south London. Our first stop today though on the Jubilee line was at Waterloo International to check on the status of the next day’s journey to Paris on the Eurostar Express. After trying to use the self-check kiosks and failing, we stood in line and asked the counter clerk for information. It worked out well although paying 20p for use of the Ladies was exacerbated by Ann’s lovely black suede fringed purse falling and smashing a bottle of perfume. The rest of the day she smelled like a bordello; a lovely bordello, but I felt people were wondering how much she charged.

We walked the rest of the way to County Hall after taking a detour to street level. It was still cold and windy and the large plazas surrounded by the modern concrete slabs posing as buildings caused it to be even colder. County Hall also houses the London Aquarium and the London Eye is right out front on the Thames. There were massive crowds on the embankment but none were entering the Dali exhibition. Once inside, there was a slight contretemps at the Dali ticket counter when the clerk refused to take sterling travelers cheques. Considering the admission price was twenty-seven dollars per person, it was rather upsetting. In fact, Brian had to cash all the cheques at Ann’s bank because no one would accept them as payment. Kind of defeats the purpose of having them in the first place. What’s the use of free replacement if lost or stolen when you can’t use them? You can use credit cards as most people do, but with the amount of credit and identity theft, many times the issuing company will block the card when they see it being used overseas. In fact, cloning of cards is such a huge problem that we used cash for everything. Diane had placed a usage request on their accounts before leaving to prevent the card issuer from suspending the credit cards. Despite their precautions, the one time Diane did use her credit card the number was immediately stolen. She found out after we got back home when someone tried to use it in Romania.

Quite frankly, call me shallow, but the Dali drawings left Diane and I cold. We did enjoy the sculptures much better, and I loved the ‘Venus With Drawers’ among others. After awhile and seeing how much Brian was enjoying the art I decided to withdraw and allow Ann and Brian to spend over an hour together viewing each and every piece of art and arguing their various merits. Downstairs there was a small display of ceramics and textiles by Pablo Picasso. By this time Ann had ditched her aromatic purse as the perfume had spread to her jeans as well. She got a plastic bag from the Dali gift shop to put all her bits and pieces; Diane was waiting there patiently for us, I wish I could have been as well.

“All right then Brian, it’s up to you and Ann to carry the day. It sounds like you both enjoyed the Dali show. What were some of the strongest impressions it left on you Brian?”

“First off Dewy I must say that the overall exhibition looked shopworn. More than a few displays were missing descriptions and I was disappointed with the lack of supporting materials and explanations. Having only a basic knowledge of Dali beforehand I was actually quite pleased with the wide variety of themes displayed.”

“And as for you Ann? What were your initial reactions?”

“Dewy it’s been my experience of Dali that people either love him or hate him. I find him fascinating. He was an out and out eccentric genius who made no bones about using any means to draw attention to himself and his art. I think his agenda was to be provocative. What about you Brian?”

“One thing I was unaware of beforehand Ann was his perverse nature. Perhaps it was because we were in England, but there was no mention of the sexual portion of the show until you were actually viewing the prints. In America this would have been very controversial and probably set aside in a back room lest ‘innocent’ children be corrupted. The very shocking nature of some of his explicit works was in stark contrast to the offhand way they were presented.”

“What I was thinking Brian when I viewed these drawings was that while they were obviously done to provoke, they were also stunning works of creativity. I would have loved to know what Dali’s mindset was when he conceptualized them. I was really pleased that I went and I enjoyed having someone like Brian to exchange views. It was also interesting how we both saw different things in the same drawing. Viewing the sculptures took merely minutes to absorb all the elements, but in studying the drawings, you needed much longer to see all the depth that Dali had created.”

“I agree Ann, I also enjoyed having someone to discuss various works and the relative merits of Dali’s themes. I remember having quite heated conversations over the reasons behind Dali’s frequent uses of religious icons mixed with some of his more shocking drawings. It seemed to me that his use of certain symbols meant more than the actual colors or topics portrayed. I also felt that his art was based on deep rooted neurosis, not necessarily his own and by mocking sacred traditions or the obsession with sex and genitalia he was able to move the topic beyond the earthy desires into the realm of the sublime mysteries.”

What next? The plan, as the clouds thickened and rain threatened, was to saunter up the Thames sidewalk as far as the Globe Theatre and then cross the Millennium footbridge to St. Paul’s and thus ride home. “Over the river and through the Tube to Annie’s house we go!” First on the agenda though was food… again! As this was a school holiday week, the queue for the London Eye ride was still quite long and along the embankment we spotted many of the same street performers I’d seen yesterday at Covent Garden. It seemed to me to be a tough way to make a living displaying yourself covered with paint or in a fancy costume hoping for some loose change. There were numerous restaurants to choose from and we finally settled on Eat to eat. ‘Eat’ is the name of a chain of self-serve delis where they make fresh sandwiches and salads. The food was good but expensive and the drinks in particular were twice as much or more than back home. I have to mention here that to us food is fuel and nothing more; however, the body needs regular feeding. Although Brian and some of the others eat vegetarian, I do not. I will eat chicken on occasion, but food is not a source of conflict amongst us. He picked out a nice vegetable wrap with a soy burger inside and found us a table to sit. Ann and Diane took more time, but when they joined us, it gave us a chance to sit and rest and chat some more.

Brian had only met Ann a year ago, in October of 2006, and they were good friends already through emails and phone calls before this trip was even planned. Diane spent hours as well talking with her and the three of them seemed to be good chums after a few days spent together at Ann’s house. With me, it was a little different. Ann and I had gotten off to a confusing start when the multiple personality business exploded in November of 2006. She had only begun to comment on Dewy’s blog and was concerned that Brian did not understand the impact of his announcement. The idea that one day I was a ‘character’ and the next day I was a real and separate individual within him made little sense at the time. In fact the first time we talked on the phone was when I came out and introduced myself in an effort to reach an understanding. I love Ann very much and respect all her achievements and wisdom. As with all friendships there are varying levels of communication and neither Ann nor I felt any pressure to be other than sassy sistahs who love shoes, clothes and the thought of a man of our own. This trip only strengthened the bond and our friendship is a close and loving one.

Thames

Continuing our ramble, promenade, walk, we strolled east along the Thames and marveled at all the sights and sounds on both banks of the water. It was low tide and the exposed mudflats were rocky and rank. I was drawn to the variety of buildings on the north bank. The mix of old and modern was actually very pleasing, as were the many decorated bridges. Scanning the calm surface and the various boats in motion gave a sense of the history that had flowed by in centuries past. It was easy to image the generations growing up with the city, year after year, living and working and dying along the banks of this great river.

Ann was constantly drawn to the railing and although it wasn’t the warmest or the brightest of days she still enjoyed the leisurely stroll along the South Bank. While Diane and Brian walked together ahead of her she just gazed at the river, aimlessly drifting along, wistfully reflecting on how like her life it was… going with the flow and not knowing what will be at the next turn. She told us that it was the dreamer in her and although that applies to everyone, not everyone necessarily thinks like her! Like I did, she wondered and imagined the stories that the water could tell. Always flowing, but who was actually moving: the Thames or us? For Diane she was struggling with the cold and her physical aliments. Her legs were badly swollen and the walk was tiring. We slowed down and admired the wide variety of architecture and the intriguing style of the lampposts and fences. It’s clearly a very popular walkway no matter the weather and the highlight for Brian was the skateboard park and the artistic graffiti that covered every concrete surface. The kids skating there were as much performers as the fancy dress ones working for tips.

The few retail stores along the way were closed on Mondays and we passed by all the other attractions until we got to the Millennium Bridge and the Globe Theatre. And then there it was. Dominating the surrounding landscape looms the imposing and hulking former Bankside Power Station that is now the Tate Modern museum. Clad in dark brown brick, the rectangular shape is broken in the middle by a slender tower that thrusts defiantly skywards yet draws the eye down to the seemingly tiny glass entrance. The Thames side stone plaza is separated by a series of white birch groves that successfully softens the overall industrial look. This was not on our trip agenda, but I loved this first visit to the Tate Modern so much that we returned the next Saturday to meet Jo and Drizel.

Opened on May 12th, 2000, the free-entry museum now attracts more than five million visitors annually. Walking into the Thames entrance, you arrive at an overlook of the subterranean floor and your first instinct is to look up into the vast empty space of the Turbine Hall soaring eight stories above. With only natural light floating through the windows high overhead, the interior seemed very dark compared to the exhibit halls. When you instead gaze downward, revealed to your disbelieving eyes is a large and jagged fracture in the concrete floor. Starting from the ramp at the west entrance and running a hundred yards all the way to the far eastern end of the building is a mesmerizing piece of modern art by Doris Salcedo. To the artist, “Shibboleth” represents the fracture in societies created by groups excluding others through customs or language. In particular she points towards colonial exploitation and repression.

I loved this piece as to me I saw it as a bolt of lightning on its side tearing through the gray clouds and causing the two halves of the building to separate and fall away. It was clearly the most popular exhibit and was particularly mesmerizing to delighted children who walked straddling the entire length. We also spent a little time as well in the ‘Poetry and Dream’ floor, but as we were returning the following Saturday for another visit, we’ll talk with Dewy then about what we all saw.

Crack

This was yet another day when I was in the background, but I didn’t feel left out. I have a much higher energy level than Brian does and when I’m the face, I’m still a little awkward in certain situations. It’s more efficient for us to have him do the heavy lifting so to speak and for me to observe whatever I like. In other words he walks and talks and I control what the head sees. When Brian wants to look one way and I the other it can look like a tennis match. It’s quite funny at times, especially when he’s admiring something and a hot guy walks by. Sharing works for us, most of the time we function quite well with me in the background. This way I can come and go as I please and I understand that Brian has the control right now.

There was so much to see along the path, not only the buildings and the attractions, but the walk itself was a destination. Beyond the fact it’s a river walk, beyond the fact that ‘History’ smacks you in the face, beyond the fact of the many places to visit, this walk brings you inside of yourself. When was the last time you went somewhere and walked without purpose? Walked without trying to get to the end as quickly as possible? The river walk along the South Bank of the Thames in London England should be a destination for everyone who visits. Not to go from one end to another, but to go from being a traveler to being part of the story.