by Evelyn McDonnell, July 26, 2013 10:15 AM
People talk about the French malaise
. But in Spain, there's a full-on crisis. My family and I spent three weeks there in June, traveling from Madrid to Granada, then driving up the coast to Tarragona and Barcelona. It's a beautiful country — very different from France
, where we are now: dry and earth-colored, not humid and green; mountainous, not rolling; spotted with castles, not chateaus; strongly connected to Mediterranean and Arabic cultures. It reminded us of California rather than Wisconsin. In LA, we're used to people speaking Spanish.
In the medieval streets of Tarragona, with Roman ruins for a backdrop and a full moon overhead, we celebrated the festival of Saint John. Folks dressed like fish carried giant tridents loaded with firecrackers down the narrow streets, dancing wildly as sparks flew and drums pounded. The party continued all night at the beach, with more fireworks and bacchanal. In Granada the intricate, geometric decorations of the Alhambra palace offered opulent respite from cathedrals and museums full of bloody pictures of martyrs. In Barcelona's brilliant Sagrada Familía, the multihued stone columns rose like trees in a forest, demonstrating that churches can inspire, not oppress. Tapas were tasty and bite-sized, not overpriced and oversauced.
And everywhere we went, there were signs of deep distress. On a regular street on the way back from Gaudi's Park Güell, the shattered windows of a bank were covered in tape, like a duct-tape spiderweb. In the central square of Barcelona, protesters with Occupy-style signage picketed another bank. A restaurant sign advertised its "Anti-Crisis Menu" in Toledo: more beef for your buck. Everywhere, flyers denounced the government and the financial institutions, and called for uprising, or for a return to regional Catalan values, or for socialism.
There's a rot in Spain. The corruption between the government and the banks becomes more evident with each news story, and the people, being asked to weather austerity cutbacks while the fat cats purr, are pushing back. There's a feeling the country could be the next Greece, or Turkey. Sadly, the stench can be literal. The smell of sewage in every city we went was a pungent reminder of the failure of public works to keep up with modern conditions.
The French are feeling the economic pinch too. But it's more a worry of things to come than a crisis set in. The restauranteur downstairs wants to open a second dinery, but the bank won't give out loans anymore. Instead, for the first time in 18 years, they're charging him a membership fee.
As I mentioned during my first guest blog, the French still shop in small, artisanal stores and markets, rather than big-block groceries. There's an emphasis on local goods, on paying for quality, not getting off cheap. But that's changing. The Monoprix, the French Target, is omnipresent. Outside of the center of Paris, people lug their goods made in China in plastic bags, because that's what they can afford.
It's a vicious circle: if you only pay people Walmart wages, then they can only afford to shop at Walmart. People who don't have jobs, because companies do all their manufacturing overseas, can only afford to buy goods made overseas.
This is my last day blogging for Powell's Books. It's been an honor to work with this amazing store; support independent bookstores! If you like what you've been reading, please follow my blog at www.populismblog.wordpress.com.
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by Evelyn McDonnell, July 25, 2013 10:42 AM
The fishing village of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue perches on a peninsula on the northeast corner of the Normandy coast. Just a kilometer off the shore lies Ile Tatihou, 28 hectares of sheep fields and rocky beaches. In fact, when it's low tide, you can drive to the island
. A hydraulic-powered amphibious vehicle carries visitors to the 17th-century fort, bird sanctuary, and maritime museum without ever leaving land. Or you could jump aboard one of the tractors that magically appear where hours before boats sailed. The farmers tend the oyster beds: rows upon rows of mollusks in black plastic-mesh pillows held a foot off the ocean floor by stakes. The tourist duck rolls down the lanes between what must be tens of thousands of coveted shellfish. Then the English Channel returns, the sailboats and windsurfers and fishing boats come back or go out, the teenagers jump off the docks into the steel-blue water, and agriculture becomes aqua culture again.
Last weekend, we got smart like the Parisians and fled to the coast. We spent two nights right on the water, in an apartment above a seafood store and restaurant, and one night at an old farmhouse in Brittany. After weeks spent visiting cities in Spain and France, the ocean wind and country silence cooled and soothed our overheated and overstimulated souls. For me, the voyage was also a chance to relive my childhood visit to the French coast and countryside — with my own 10-year-old at my side.
Once we spun ourselves off the peripheral road that rings Paris, it didn't take long to lose the crowds. We opted for blue highways over toll roads, not just because we're cheap but because you see the country that way. Cows grazed in undulating fields of green. In fact, we felt like we could be in our usual summer haunt of the Midwest — except instead of big, old 19th-century red barns, 14th-century stone farmhouses pimpled the landscape.
The excursion was a trip down memory lane for me in general. When I was about my son's age, my parents brought my brother and me to Europe. All summer, I've been reliving that transformative experience — as the parent this time. In Normandy, the feeling was especially acute. Thirty-eight years ago, my family also wearied of the tourist treadmill and took time out for some beach relaxation here. I remember vividly those epic tides — the ocean disappearing into the distance — and the pools of marine life they left behind.
I also remember the bunkers in the dunes. Out of all the provinces in France, my husband picked my childhood haunt because of D-Day. He's fascinated by the horror and heroism of war.
Now I'm not one for nostalgia — for my own past or anyone else's. But history hangs heavy in Europe, in a way that's both tangible and ghostly. Almost 70 years since the Allied troops landed here, you can still see the Atlantic wall that the Germans built and the tanks with which the Americans breached it. The countryside is beatific and beautiful, but once you've visited one of the several museums dedicated to the events that began June 6, 1944, you can just imagine what it was like for dazed paratroopers, or shell-shocked infantrymen, as they fought their way through the old farms that had survived so many centuries — and would mostly weather this firestorm too.
I came away from the exhibits and memorials with new respect for the soldiers who turned the tide against Hitler. Still, the images most burned in my mind are the photos of the small cities and towns that were destroyed, their historic buildings reduced to jagged, shattered, pockmarked ruins — mini Dresdens. People lived here. What happened to them?
Sobered, we made our way past Omaha and Utah beaches to Saint-Vaast. We didn't have the address for our lodging, so we just drove to the end of the road — and there was La Criée du Tomahawk, named after the fishing boat that every day provides its fresh, delicious wares. Halyards clanged against masts as a strong wind blew across the then-high waters. By Friday night, as Cole chowed down a huge lobster he had picked out from the living pile that morning, we were actually cold even in our jeans and hoodies — blessedly so, after the heat of Paris.
The strangest thing for me about this journey has been realizing that I have become my parents. As my father was, I have been sent to Europe by my university to work. Like my mother, I struggle to remember the French I learned so many years ago and be the spokesperson for the family. As I was, my son seems both confused by and, possibly, proud of my mangled communication skills. I remember how moved my parents were by the rows upon rows of white crosses at the American cemetery, how my mom loved the fresh flowers of the Paris markets, how I loved to drink the chocolat, how my dad loved the wine. In some way, I think I'm here to claim a powerful, happy moment of a past that eventually broke.
I'm clutching a security blanket. All those years ago, Mom bought us a colorful striped beach spread that lasted forever. In fact, I may still have it somewhere, soiled but intact. It followed me to beaches in Rhode Island, New York, Michigan, Florida. I had forgotten where it came from — until I saw its brethren for sale at a shop in Saint-Vaast. They were not cheap. But all trip, we'd been needing linen for picnics. And the memories that could and would be woven into that cloth... Cole picked the color. I hope it lasts him as long as its predecessor did me.
For company and for the class I'm teaching, I've been reading M. F. K. Fisher's memoir The Gastronomical Me. It's a coming-of-age story about an American woman who sails back and forth between California and France, finding her self, independence, freedom, love, and, most of all, appetite. Fisher, who also wrote a book called Consider the Oyster, is the godmother of foodies, a woman who had a deep appreciation for the origins of ingredients and a zest for experimentation. Fisher made cooking an adventure, not a domestic chore. She served the antithesis of comfort food: "My meals shake them
by Evelyn McDonnell, July 24, 2013 9:47 AM
I've discovered the secret of French living: they don't need oxygen. Gallic bodies have some sort of internal cooling system whereby they can sit in a 100-degree room with the windows closed and no fans, let alone AC, in a grand edifice into which apparently no new air has been introduced since Baron Haussmann rebuilt the town 140 years ago, and they can remain as cool and collected as if it were just another cold, rainy day in Paris — of which there have been none, by the way, in almost a month. French people never break a sweat. Maybe, on the fifth day of weather more befitting Miami than Mont St. Michel, their opalescent skin gets a little shinier as they sit at their café tables — where the chairs always face outward — watching bemusedly the American tourists mopping their brows as they march, moaning, from one crowded sight to another.
The French have a lot of theories (a.k.a. myths), and one of them holds that the old stone walls retain the coldness of winter for weeks after summer has arrived. My theory is that they are projecting. It's the French people who can keep the cool in their own skins. They do it by speaking softly. By making small, exact gestures rather than waving their arms about. By producing gentle exhaling noises that not only add commentary to conversations but act like the release valves on steam radiators. By sitting at those tables, under awnings, not rushing about, in the hottest season. And by not needing to breathe.
Also, the French are smart. When the going gets sweltering, they get out of town. France has a humane socioeconomic culture that allows residents to take month-long vacations to the cool ocean breezes of the coasts. Restaurants and stores close for business for stretches of time that would be considered suicidal or socialistic or anti-American in the States.
As you've no doubt deduced, it's a blistering-hot summer in France. I understand that the French are fine with this; they have evolved sophisticated pulmonary systems, on top of their impeccable style and palates for processed animal organs. But for us hapless foreigners, here are a few simple modern inventions I highly recommend to our hosts:
- Air conditioners. Very few buildings have them, and if they do, they lazily puff out a bit of slightly cooler air before getting bored and looking the other way. If you have no choice but to come to Paris in the summer, make sure your hotel has AC. Or do what we do: hang out in a Picard frozen-goods store, leaning over the immaculate freezers and staring at ice cream.
- Fans. Okay, they just move the hot air around, but at least the air is then moving.
- Screens. France may not have mosquitoes like Michigan has, but if global warming keeps creating weather this hot and sticky, they're going to have swarms. And it only takes one critter to keep you awake at night, doing that spastic hand batting of the pillow every time the skeeter buzzes near your ears. Natives just close their windows because, well, they don't need air. Ah, what a little bit of steel mesh would do for the rest of us.
- Top sheets. The only way to keep that one mosquito from turning your body into a Braille essay is a nice, cool, cotton sheet covering his midnight snack. They don't have them here. (I noticed this in Spain too.)
Other than that, very nice civilization you've got here, France. Love the croissants.
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by Evelyn McDonnell, July 23, 2013 10:05 AM
I've been digging Paris. I mean digging for vinyl. You can find records here you can't find in the States, partly because different performers were popular in France (the Jerry Lewis syndrome), partly because collectors here aren't sifting for the same nuggets. I'm extremely selective; after all, the empty bag I brought is already half filled with shoes and clothes. Mostly, I'm looking for cool girl artists.
One music shop revealed a 1989 album by the Cookie Crew, called, er, Born This Way. The Crew were an all-female English hip-hop act I don't even remember. Rappers Remedee and Suzi Q have got a Native Tongues vibe in the cover shot, but I'll have to wait until I'm home with my turntable for the aural review. Speaking of Suzi Q, American daughter Suzi Quatro was more popular in France (and England and Japan and most of the world) than she ever was in her native land. I've seen two copies of her first album for sale here. I let them go since I have it, but I did snatch up a French release of her hit single "48 Crash" (a song allegedly about male menopause, of all things).
My favorite find came while combing through a box of vinyl at an antiques market. There, staring up at me with a revolver in one hand and a flashlight in the other, was Kim Fowley. Visions of the Future was released in 1978, during the Queens of Noise's brief reign, perhaps as his and Capitol Records' attempt to cash in on the fame he got for his work with the teenage girls who by then had fired him. On the inner sleeve, the Legendary Prick (as he titled an early version of his memoirs) clutches the gun and a teddy bear. The pistol-packing overgrown kid plays a sort of Eastwood-esque antihero in my book Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.
Visions of the Future by Kim Fowley
People ask me why I wrote a book about the Runaways. There were many times in the four-year journey to the publication of Queens of Noise that I questioned the choice as well. It's the sixth book I've written or coedited, and it was by far the hardest. Damaged: I've never interviewed so many people who had been harmed in some way — physically, emotionally, mentally — by what they went through at a vulnerable age, in an experimental time (ah, the '70s). Subjects were reluctant to go there, to those dark memories, if they could remember at all. Drugs, suppression, denial, mythologies: it was often hard to figure out what the fuck happened. Some people were generous with their time yet still guarded, suspicious, careful of themselves or of others. Others refused or never responded to my interview requests. I tried to tread carefully. I did not want to add injury to persons who had already clearly been hurt. But I also felt there were some deep truths in the story of these girls becoming women in such extreme, tough, and exhilarating circumstances. Queens is a coming-of-age story — except not all of these women came out the other side of the adventure.
And then, the Runaways were so inspiring. Sometimes, I watch videos of them in their Ciri-designed jumpsuits and boots, rocking out on some Japanese soundstage, and I wish they'd had the success stateside that they deserved, so I could have known about them when I was a pubescent girl in the American heartland, looking for posters to hang next to Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. Jenny Lens snapped a photo of Joan Jett and Lita Ford on stage at the Whisky a Go Go in 1977; taut, muscular bodies poured into black spandex, they're both low to the ground as they sling their guitars toward each other, gazes intent on their instruments and hair wet with sweat. (Donna Santisi has similar images from the same show.) It was the Runaways' first gig after the departures of Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie. But this is an image of strength and passion, not loss and challenge. It hangs in my living room, so my son can grow up taking this vision of empowered women for granted, and I can thank them every day.
Joan Jett and Lita Ford at the Whisky a Go Go / Photo by Jenny Lens
It wasn't easy, but I'm so glad I wrote this book. I love rock 'n' roll (to borrow a phrase), and I have an abiding interest in championing and documenting women who rock. (My first book, 1995's Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, coedited with Ann Powers, included an excerpt from the first version of Currie's memoir, Neon Angel, as well as Lisa Fancher's frontier report on the Runaways for Who Put the Bomp.) What better story to tell than that of the Fabulous Five who traveled from LA to Cleveland to London to Tokyo at an age when most girls were primping for proms, who showed that Valley girls could be not the vapid, looks-obsessed consumerists of pop song, but guitar (and drums) heroes.
I'll be reading from Queens at the MEOW Conference in Austin in October. Quatro is keynoting this women-powered event, and it looks like a couple of the Runaways may be there too. I'll also be hosting a Free Pussy Riot panel there, with (fingers crossed) a member or two of the collective at least Skyping in. The Russian girls have a tremendous new song and video. More than three decades after the Runaways, girls + guitars are still making noise — and still getting shit for it.
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by Evelyn McDonnell, July 22, 2013 10:01 AM
At night, when we lie in the back bedroom and the sound of traffic on busy Boulevard Voltaire fades, we can hear the metro beneath us. The subterranean thunder is distant but impressively insistent. You rarely have to wait more than five minutes for a train in Paris, until after the last one leaves its first station at 1 a.m. and goes to bed at its final destinations of either (in the case of the rail that winds beneath us, number 9
) Montreuil or Pont de Sèvres. I guess the sound keeps me up; I usually don't fall asleep until the final underground rumble. Then again, who can surrender consciousness early when you're in Paris in the summer, and it doesn't get dark until after 11, and there's so much still to do, so many pastries to eat and wine to drink and art to imbibe and landmarks to ogle, that a month isn't barely enough time — you're just getting started, just beginning to feel comfortable in your high school French and to know which cheese is from what hoofed animal, and then it's over, and you're going to miss the sound of those trains.
I got a great gig: I'm teaching arts journalism to Loyola Marymount University students on a summer study abroad program. (I also teach them during the school year.) I'm NOT on vacation, as I'm quick to point out to jealous inquirers — but I am getting paid to live in Paris for five delicious weeks and being housed in a surprisingly spacious apartment in the 11th arrondissement, with a brasserie downstairs, a fleuriste across the street, two boulangeries and a charcuterie on the corner, two wine shops within half a block, and a fromagerie, a fruit stand, and an Italian specialty shop around the bend.
In other words, no need to get in the car and drive miles to the closest bland supermarket to buy processed, packaged "goods." So when I'm not grading students' blogs or trying to prepare a lesson plan for the four-hour (!!!) class sessions, I eat really well.
And then there's a book to promote. Da Capo published Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, my biography of the all-female 1970s band, two weeks into my stay. I'm trying to think of it as an embarrassment of riches, not screwy timing: I can toast my accumulation of five-star reviews on Amazon with French champagne at Le Septime (if I can get a table at this fashionable eatery)! I can blog about my glamorous expat life for Powell's Books! Movable feast indeed.
Paris, Paris, Paris... what can possibly be said about this city that hasn't been said a thousand times before, by the best writers living and dead? Many of the clichés are true: it's beautiful, romantic, proud, crowded. Two Gipsy girls actually tried to pickpocket me. (I'm a seasoned urbanite and traveler; I don't keep anything in my back pocket.)
And then some truisms are not so true, or at least have not been for us: it has barely rained once since we've been here, and there's no precipitation in the forecast. The adorable chat-festooned umbrella I bought on sale hangs idle by the door.
Here's the thing I love most about Paris: those movable feasts. On almost every day of the week (don't put shopping off until Monday), you can find at least one if not several outdoor markets where stalls burst with wares — popup gourmet shops tempting you with their quantity and quality of fresh, artisanal yummies. Samosas, smoked mackerels, rabbits, crayfish, artichokes of multiple shapes and sizes, hummus, paella, honey, camembert, brie, tomme, baguettes, filet mignon, raspberries, strawberries, berries that I don't know the names of, thick rich yogurt with chunks of fruit in little glass jars, tiny little poultry, and big old ducks. And beautiful flowers, fresh cut, still crisp and dazzling with life, tulips and roses and delphinium and irises that will spread color and smell around your apartment all week, until you go to market again.
Here's what I like least about Paris: the crowds. Of course, it's not the residents' fault; tourists create lines at every landmark and cultural event. We waited almost three hours to get into the Catacombs, the centuries-old mineshafts that have been filled with six million skeletons from overburdened or defunct cemeteries, bones stacked and displayed six feet high down seemingly miles and miles of narrow tunnels. Let me tell you, people were dying to get into this place.
There's not enough room on top of the earth for all this city has to offer, so Paris packs it in underground too: the metro, some of whose stations offer art and historic exhibits; the Catacombs; subterranean garages, where the parking levels seem to be numbered after Dante's rings of hell; the sewer. You can tour that too — but if I have to wait in line to see where Parisians put their merde, I'm sorry Jonathan Richman, but I'm not giving Paris one more chance.
The tunnels, tombs, passageways, chambers, and pipes are the veins beneath the skin, pumping people and piss from destination to destination. At night, like an Indian scout pressing his ear to the ground to hear the pounding of distant hoofs in some old Western, I lie in bed and listen to the steady pulse of the city. When it stops, I sleep.
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