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Author Archive: "Evelyn McDonnell"

The Crisis

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, ...

Consider the Oyster Farm

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 from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy, but of thought, of behavior."

The Parisian Pulmonary Secret

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 ...

Digging, the Runaways

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.

Under Paris

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 ...

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