Today’s Quote

January 20, 2016

PX*13515163“Sometimes laughter hurts, but humor and mockery are our only weapons.”

Jean Cabu, 1938-2015

Cartoonist and co-founder of Charlie Hebdo

 (Click image for larger view.)

Today’s Quote

November 23, 2015

images-5“God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.”

Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great (New York: Twelve, 2007), 8)


Lunch In Lyon

March 11, 2009

By Shirley Lupton

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My son, Robert, and I were having an argument on the train platform in Avignon. He wanted to stop in Lyon to have a look around and have lunch and I wanted to go straight back to Paris where we had rented an apartment for a few weeks. Robert is a travel writer and I do not see him much except the rare times we can travel together. “Mom,” he said, Lyon is the food capital of France. I guarantee that after two hours in Lyon you will not want to leave.” “You win,” I told him but I held in my head the impression that Lyon would be a city of damp unadorned buildings with menus that featured Lyonnaise potatoes.

So, after the warm October sun and the infinite yellows of southern France we stepped into a chilly plaza coated with light rain. As we walked along its streets even he agreed that Lyon’s buildings were stolid and Germanic. It will be better by the river, Robert said, and so it was. The River Saone flowed with a grand sweep under stone arched bridges and a seducing sun came out as we walked along. img_0284_3He was eying a white cathedral high on a hill on the opposite bank. I could imagine the thousand steps up to it and suggested it was time for lunch. Because part of Robert’s job is eating he has acquired a sixth sense about restaurants. He needs only to walk by the entrance, and sniff the air. “This is it, Mom.” His choice, Le Bistrot de Lyon, was no different from dozens of others along the cobblestones of Rue Merciere, which, with its beat and bustle, seemed to be the food heart of Lyon. It felt right to me too.

Le Bistrot opened itself to us. The maitre de was brisk but welcoming in that nuanced way the French have to be OK with Americans. We were seated at a small table with a white tablecloth and a pot of fresh flowers in the non-smoking section where smoking was still done without guilt or irony. Nearby a table of businessmen, six or eight of them in dark suits, were finishing up a platter of pork roast and sausages. A waiter poured from several bottles of wine set about and discussed their desserts. Good humor flowed between the waiter and the men in their rumble of conversation.

The décor was all polished brass and Persian carpets of faded reds, oranges and blues, The sconces on the walls were converted gaslights. In the mirror behind the men I could see our heads; Robert’s curling black hair, and mine, graying, had developed that “certain age” sway. Had I worn a cloche it could have been 1944. The waiter turned from the men and at once became our waiter as he placed a basket of bread on the table. When Robert spoke to him in fluent French his surprise showed in two dots of red on his cheeks. He wore a white shirt and a bold cerise tie and an apron with a casual hitch up the front. We ordered the specials and a half carafe of local red wine. The bread had deep crust and yielded dough that was thick and nutty, the color of caramel. Two small salads arrived –arugula with herbs and a garlic mustard dressing. The wine, hearty and fruity, tasted of grapes laced with primroses or cherries. And then the entrée, mine a slice of medium rare beef lightly covered with a sauce of orange cognac and butter and potatoes cut with edges crisped by caramelized onions. Another waiter joined up with ours, a dark skinned younger man, an apprentice perhaps. He observed our pleasure in the food and gave us two desserts instead of the one with the special. A small cheese plate, and an apple crisp that was so good I wanted to stand and scream. It crunched with the light, buttery shell and sugar and the freshness of the apples.

The check was modest and correct for such a simple lunch. But the confluence of care in the cooking, the colors, the way it was served by waiters who enjoyed the work, their reserved humanity and the happy hum of the businessmen, all this did something to us. It opened our feelings, which is a rare thing for a restaurant to do. In the past Robert and I had wounded each other after the divorce from his father. That day my faith in his judgment, his willingness to take me in hand and the mysterious magic of the Bistrot softened some of what had been hardened from all that. Outside the streets of Lyon looked entirely different. img_0283_2Robert went on to the white Cathedral and I walked about the shops and plazas in a daze. Later, on the train Robert wrote the following in his Journal.

The city had seemed sober and northern and monochromatic –completely without spark—when we arrived, hungry, into a gray noon, with apparently a fine mist between us and any color the city might have had. By the time we headed back to the train station at 4 PM, the invisible mist had lifted, my belly had been satisfied, I had sweated my way up to the city’s heights, my intellect, or rather my vision, had been braced by an extra post lunch coffee, the sun had grown stronger behind the clouds. So that now the martial rows of houses along the river revealed previously unseen blues, pinks, and yellows–still all very restrained. Gradually too, more direct rays had penetrated the weather and produced their shadows, and with them the facades and the very bend in the River Soane with its curving heights were revealing the nuance of a third dimension.

In Paris we had many fine meals but never one like the lunch in Lyon.

Copyright © 2009 Shirley Lupton.

I met Shirley Lupton in a writing class and was impressed by her cool, sardonic (is “sardonic” a combination of “sarcastic” and “ironic?”) Dorothy Parker-ish take on life, at least as expressed in her manuscripts. The first story by Shirley I read had the wonderful title “Nicole Kidman’s Bathrobe,” and was every bit as funny as the title suggests, but it also contained some very interesting insights into human relationships. Later, as I got to know her as a friend, I concluded that my initial impression held up. Shirley proved to be as witty and as insightful in real life as she was on the page.


Rue Mouffetard: A Romance

October 15, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

Urban street markets seem much the same the world over. There’s a festive feeling naturally generated by such familiar activity, which explains why I felt at home the instant I stepped onto the cobbled Rue Mouffetard pavement in Paris. Emotionally, I might just as well have been in Cross Street Market in 1950s Baltimore, a boy of eleven or twelve, enthralled by the block party atmosphere of people going about their daily routine of buying, selling, socializing and just hanging out.

Rue Mouffetard is a remnant of an old Roman road. Some buildings there date from the 12th century, and in a sense the street represents the history of the city. Crowds of shoppers fill its lower half every morning, and its vitality is reminiscent of a scene from the Middle Ages. On my first morning in Paris, in August, 1973, my new girlfriend and I were still getting re-acquainted after my flight from Baltimore the previous afternoon. She had been living for a month with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a one room apartment. I had known her only two months when she left to begin her annual summer teaching break tour of Europe, so we were still passionate strangers. She had found a private space for us in a small, inexpensive “mom and pop” hotel near the market. Our shy reunion, at first a bit awkward, had gone pretty well—but now we were both happy to be out and about, beginning our mutual Paris experience.

And the first order of business was lunch. In the early 1970s few Americans knew much about France, and fewer still knew anything about French food. Growing up, my midday meals had been pallid sandwiches of ham and American cheese, slathered with mayo and stuck between slices of soft white bread. Part of my new girlfriend’s plan, she later told me, was to introduce more sophisticated foods into my diet. My first lesson came that morning as we shopped in Rue Mouffetard. My girlfriend, using her ragged high school French, bought bottled water, a round of soft cheese, and a loaf of naked bread (no wrapper, no bag). She selected fruit for dessert from her favorite stand, which was manned by a handsome young Frenchman. We ate while seated on a bench in a nearby park, a spot which became our personal picnic area on most of the twelve days we toured Paris. The following excerpt from a “Hemingway-esque” short story I later wrote sums up the routine during our stay in the city.

“They took a room in a small hotel in Rue Pascal and settled in to stay until fall. Mornings, they strolled the Latin Quarter, bought food at the market in Rue Moufftard, and lunched on a bench or under a tree in the Jardin des Plants. Afternoons were reserved for making love and a nap in their tiny room. Evenings, they dined with friends near the Sorbonne; then, most nights, they would take the Metro to the Champs-Elysées and either walk the boulevard, people-watch from a sidewalk cafe, or attend an American movie. Or perhaps all three. It was wonderfully romantic, they thought, as if they were living in a Hemingway novel.”

The guy in my unpublished short story is a moody character, not unlike me at that stage of my life. But the present day me, older and somewhat wiser, will always remember those Paris experiences—even the negative parts—fondly. After all, that is where I had my first crunchy bite of crusty French bread, fresh from the bakery and topped with delightfully pungent cheese. It was love at first bite—a life changing episode—and in that instant I realized I could never again be satisfied with tasteless yellow cheese on Wonder Bread.

The relationship between me and my new girlfriend did not always go well—either in Paris or later, when we returned home. In fact, the affair was completely over after only a few years. Without going into the sad details, I can say that the problems we had were mostly my fault. In those days I was neurotic, still depressed about the failure of my marriage, feeling great guilt about leaving my young family, personally insecure, and extremely jealous of my beautiful new girlfriend. (The fact that she was twelve years younger and eager—at the prodding of her mother—to start a family, didn’t help.) Two examples of my jealousy will suffice. I was convinced that she was attracted to that handsome and bearded blond produce clerk in Rue Mouffetard, and that she shopped with him each morning not just because his goods were fresher and more reasonably priced. I never saw them exchange a smile or a nod (I watched closely, pretending to be interested only in my photography), but they appeared to ignore each other completely, which somehow make me even more suspicious. (Obsessive jealousy requires no proof.) And there was another young man at a sidewalk café who lit her cigarette. All very innocent in retrospect, I know, but at the time I berated her for allowing him to do so. (Jealousy makes no rational sense.) Meanwhile, I was photographing every beautiful woman I saw, and secretly falling in love with each one. But in my warped view at the time that was perfectly okay. (Jealousy isn’t fair.) For instance, I justified the images of the young woman pictured here sniffing melons in Rue Mouffetard as a “visual narrative;” and that by moving closer with each click of the camera I was only following a “golden rule” of photography which goes: “If your images are not good, you’re not close enough.”

Here’s another excerpt from my short story, which I think captures my own rueful mood soon after we finally broke up. The scene is in a bar where the two fictional characters have met for a drink, the man still harboring a small hope that they might reunite.

“‘I haven’t forgotten,’ the man said. The woman was very tan, she had been beautifully pale in Paris. ‘A dry Rob Roy, correct?’ She nodded and he ordered. ‘It’s funny,’ he went on, ‘I thought now—after all this time—seeing you would be different, but it’s not. When you walked in that door I felt a tingle like the old days. That sort of thing must die hard.’

‘Maybe it never dies,’ she said.

‘Three years ago, in Paris,’ he said. ‘I never want to forget how that felt.’ She smiled, her eyes downcast, saying nothing. She remembered how happy she had been with him in France—despite their troubles—how well-matched they seemed to be, how much in love she thought they were. The man continued. ‘But when I think about those days I get a little sad, a little afraid. The fear comes when I realize that it may never happen again for me.’

Oh, it will,’ the woman said. ‘It just takes time.’ She was looking at him now. ‘Anyway, you’re forgetting the bad stuff—all the arguments we had driving to and from Lyon.’

‘You must mean, Ms. Navigator, the times you got us lost,’ he said, and forced a smile.

‘You blamed me for it, yes.’

‘Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction—right?’

Again the woman did not reply. She had come to realize that the miscues between them in France amounted to an early warning system, one that she had willfully ignored. He had been unfair, blaming her for all that went wrong—on the road, at hotels and restaurants—and at the time she had begun to hate him for it. But even so, she had convinced herself that it was normal for two people in the early stages of a love affair to experience problems that could be worked out over time. For his part, the man remembered the anger he felt then, the frustrations about where to eat, which way to turn at a crossroads, where to stop for the night; how he had to depend on her to read menus and tell him where the bathrooms were. Being in love and in a foreign country was overwhelming. He felt helpless and—fair or not—he had resented her for it.”

Well, that’s the end of this story, or at least all of it I can manage to tell in a short essay. The relationship ended badly, as I said—but I have no regrets. I’ll always have Paris, and Rue Mouffetard, where I fell in love with love over and over again; and—for the first time in my life—I also fell in love with soft cheese and fresh-baked baguettes.

“Rue Mouffetard: A Romance” is the second in a series of travel-photo essays which will post on this blog from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The E-Tower

September 24, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

One thing I packed for my first (and so far only) international trip was my new camera, a Minolta 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex). The whole business of doing photography with such a sophisticated instrument, rather than my old Kodak Instamatic, was so strange to me at the time I had to refer to the manual whenever I attempted to use it. So I was careful to bring along the little white instructional booklet, too.

It was August, 1973, and I was on my way to Paris to meet my new girlfriend, having been introduced to her at a party the previous May. She was a schoolteacher out of class for the summer and living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (an Italian waiter the sibling had met in Rome), in a one-room apartment on the Left Bank. It was all very romantic, and the sisters’ were old hands at international travel, having made the European scene for several summers running. My girlfriend, with her knowledge of the country and her high school French would be my guide, or so I assumed. The tip-off that perhaps she wasn’t “in the know” so much herself was the fact that August was the month when well-off Paris residents abandoned the hot city, leaving it to hordes of low-end tourists. Actually, August was the only time most schoolteachers could afford to vacation in Paris. That was my situation, too, being a low-grade (in every sense) Visual Information Specialist at the Social Security Administration, one with child support payments to make.

As I boarded the Paris flight I promised myself that at no time during the eighteen days in France would I make a single “touristy” photograph of a famous monument, such as, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. If I did choose to photograph a popular site, I would figure out how to do it in a fresh way—as an abstraction, perhaps, or from a great distance framed by trees, or with something completely unexpected in the foreground, something ugly, like a wall plastered with handbills. The goal was to produce what on the surface appeared to be “bad” snapshots, but which in fact had required a lot of thought and would provoke an unexpected response in the viewer, a response at once intellectual and emotional. It wasn’t that (in “postmodern” lingo) I wanted so much to “deconstruct” the tourist snapshot—I doubt I knew the term back then—but I was determined to avoid committing that photographic sin of sins, the visual cliché. Of course all this was a tall order for an amateur photographer. Looking back, I now realize that rather than being a photographic trail-blazer I was simply a visual snob.

I was very young, though, and in love with love and at the same time passionately trying to master a new craft while in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and was completely dependent on my new girlfriend for even the basics, like food and lodging and where to find a bathroom. And after little more than two weeks of walking the streets of Paris, motoring through town after small town in Southern France and “making images” not “taking pictures” of cathedrals, castles rooftops and markets, I was homesick and more than ready to board the flight back to the U. S. I was also mildly depressed, having convinced myself even before I saw the processed slides that I had failed in my quest for a series of perfect “anti-travel” images.

It’s appropriate that this tale of misguided youth (but not misspent, since in retrospect I loved the experience) ends in irony. When my girlfriend asked me to pose for one last snapshot, I agreed, and of course she wanted the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’m too ashamed to show the resulting image, but at least that’s one creative sin which will be forever on her head, not mine.

“The E-Tower” is the first in a series of short travel-photo essays which will post on this site from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.