Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tennis, anyone?

Well, none of us is getting any younger. And the last time I was actually at the French Opens was... hmmm... about 25 years ago. Far enough in the past that Chris Evert was still playing Martina Navratalova, or maybe it was the other way around. But even if I didn’t "attend", I enjoyed watching the tournament and nothing much else used to get done during those two weeks. Just ask my kids. They’ll tell you that Mom sat in front of the TV and did her translations during those 90- second breaks between games.
     My partner in crime this time, and last, was Catherine, an ex-colleague and nonetheless excellent friend who has now retired and moved back to her native Basque country. When she called me out of the blue from Paris instead of Biarritz and asked what I was doing Wednesday and if I’d like to go to the French Opens, for which she had two free tickets, the obvious answer was "Et comment!" (Hell yes!)
     I met her at the Métro and we took two different subway lines to stop nearest to Roland-Garros Stadium. After that, it was easy to find our way because you could either just follow the crowds that looked pretty tennis-y or you could actually follow those little Roland-Garros tennis racket stickers that had been stuck all along the pavement, like Hansel and Gretel and their breadcrumbs. It was only one long city block away, under the trees to shield us from the hot French sun (everything’s relative) so we got there fast, but then the rat maze started. Since our last visit, terrorism has become part of everyday reality. Security was a new feature. All backpacks, etc. were looked through - rather superficially - and the tops of all water bottles were confiscated (???!!!) but not the bottles. Then you had to scan your ticket (which has an electronic circuit on the back!) and only then were you allowed inside the Stade Roland-Garros, named after a French aviator who was a World War I hero.
     The layout of this tennis complex has also changed since my last visit. Gone are the days when tennis was a gentlemen-only sport. The whole complex was updated and expanded last year. Where there once was just a restaurant and a few booths selling gourmet ice cream, now there are permanent stands all along the walkways, selling drinks (including beer) sandwiches (gasp!) and all varieties of tennis-related tchotchkes. Nonetheless, the place is still full of trees and landscaping between the three huge stadiums and 18 courts. Almost 32 acres. 273 million euros in the making.
So by the time we actually reached our seats - on the Court Central, the most prestigious court - it was pretty much the end of the day’s first match: Victoria Azarenka of Belarus vs. Dinah Pfizenmaier of Germany. But we probably didn’t miss much, based on the few final games we did see. Final score: Azarenka mopped the court with Pfizenmaier 6-1, 6-1.

After the requisite primping of the courts (leveling with that funny vegetable grater-like screen, sweeping of the lines and spraying down with hoses), next came what we presumed would be a wonderful game because it was Roger Federer - no longer Number 1 worldwide, now only Number 3, but still... On the other side of the net: Adrian Ungur of Romania, a lowly 92 in the ratings.

     As I was underwhelmed by the game, I’ll let Roger speak for himself, as he did in one of his three interviews - in French, in English and in German, Switzerland being a multilingual country. "When you’re the clear favorite, the hardest part may be the press conference afterwards. Because you have to comment on a match where there’s not much to say. (...) And if you’re unfortunate enough to drop a set, like I did today, it’s a big deal. (...) Some of the decisions I made weren’t great ones. But I had a wide margin and I didn’t lose my service, so I’m okay with it." [my translation]
     All in all, it was a ho-hum match. Final score 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (6/8), 6-3. And a record broken: t he number of Grand Slam wins, previously held by Jimmy Connors. Other factoids of the day: it was Federer’s 50th win at Roland-Garros and his 234th in a major tournament. Add to that the record of Grand Slam titles for which he has 16 trophies on his various shelves back home and you’ll see why the outcome was no surprise.
     One fun part of the whole experience was that the delightful couple next to us was from Geneva and the couple in front of us from Neuchâtel, plus another guy two rows up with his red Swiss-flag hoodie with SUISSE on the front. How did they know my grandfather was from Switzerland? And why were we all grouped together?

Next came a French home boy, Gilles Simon - ranked 12th worldwide. His opponent: Brian Baker from Nashville, Tennessee, classed a mere 141st. Expectations were that the Froggy would make mincemeat of the Yank, as Simon had done with another American, Ryan Harrisson, in the first round. And that’s what it looked like after the first two sets, which Simon won 6-4 and then an easy 6-1.
     And then something happened. Simon was ahead 5-3 in the third set, but somehow he came apart at the seams. Suddenly he found himself running back and forth, missing shots, hitting long or wide or long and wide. He rallied, but play went into a tie break which Baker won 7/5. Was it hubris that hit Simon? Did he underestimate his adversary, based on what he’d seen so far? Was it the problem the French players have long suffered from: la peur de conclure, the fear of winning?
     Whatever the cause, it sapped Simon of his mojo. The Yank went on to molest the Froggy in the fourth set, 6-1. And it started to look like Baker might just make it into the third round. But then the Yank checked out. "Baker has left the building." Simon swept the fifth set 6-0. A killer service helped, the fastest of the day at 204 km/hr (127 mph). It was the expected outcome but not the expected itinerary. Final score: 6-4, 6-1, (4) 6/7, 1-6, 6-0.
     And excuse me for saying this, but it was a much more interesting game than Federer’s. Especially given that Baker was sidelined for almost six years in 2007 by five surgeries: three on his hip, one on his elbow, and one sports hernia! He didn’t play on the tour again until last year but seems to be trying to make up for lost time. At age 27, he’s still young enough to create problems like this again.

Last on the dance card for the Court Central was Venus Williams. Her sister Serena had been drummed out of the roll call the day before by Virginie Razzano of France. Would Venus make it through where her younger sister hadn’t? With her 32nd birthday in June, I doubted it, but I was unfamiliar with her opponent: Agnieszka. Radwanska of Poland. Not a leading tennis country, Poland, but then again, America used to be the tops and look at it now. Venus looked plodding when she walked, zomby-esque when she stood but energetic when she moved. Unfortunately, she didn’t move fast or well enough. Radwanska was a discovery for me, which shows you how much I’ve been ignoring tennis lately, given that she’s ranked 3rd worldwide. She’s fast on her feet and plans out her shots but can take advantage of an opening when one comes her way.
     The dark clouds over Roland-Garros that had been threatening ever since the fifth set of the Simon-Baker game had grown ever more ominous. After four unimpressive sets for the American, we decided to leave. After buying an official T-shirt for my grandson on the way out, Catherine and I reached the Métro without a raindrop falling and settled in for the hour-long ride home. We talked about all we’d seen, and much more. When I came out of the subway at Abbesses, the rains that had held off over Roland-Garros had just broken, so I walked home in the rain. Unfortunately for Venus, the rain gods hadn’t been kind to her. She might have done better if rain had stopped her game, but it didn’t and she lost miserably in straight sets: 6-2, 6-3.

P.S. Like Venus, Agnieszka also has a younger sister who plays tennis: Urszula.

For those of you who are curious about the layout and size of Roland-Garros, here's a map:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Modern French Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, I had a career as a translator (and interpreter)
     I also gave English lessons to a boy who lived in the building across the street. One day his mother asked me if I’d help her cleaning lady.
     Or rather her cleaning lady showed up at my door because his mother had told her I was "a nice American lady". Not quite understanding what I could do for her, I asked her in and she told me her story.

Once Paris was liberated in World War II, some American troops were left behind while the others slogged on toward Berlin. One essential part of those troops was the motor pool, made up largely of what were then called Negroes. Their job was to keep the jeeps and trucks rolling.
     But when they weren’t tuning the engines and greasing up the axles, the motor pool guys liked to "step out". And they were good at it. These soldiers were enjoying to the fullest a freedom they couldn’t enjoy back home, and given the five years of deprivation and fear the French had just lived through, they welcomed anyone in an American uniform with open arms, especially if they came bearing nylons and chocolate.
     This woman, visibly of mixed race, told me that her mother was particularly welcoming of one fun-loving GI. He was a ray of sunshine after the darkness, a breath of fresh air. He brought her gifts and took her dancing, much to the chagrin of her own mother. He brought the family food from the PX and was very polite. That went on for several months.
     Then one morning he showed up at her doorstep to tell her that the motor pool was being transferred elsewhere. He said he’d miss her and promised he’d stay in touch. He left her his watch and a book of fairy tales - which shows he must have been a really good man in his heart - kissed her and waved as he disappeared around the corner.
     And he did stay in touch. For a while.

Some time later - obviously less than nine months - this woman seated across from me, twisting the life out of her handkerchief, was born. Her mother didn’t want a dark baby with frizzy hair and disappeared, leaving the infant in the reluctant care of its begrudging grandmother.
     All this woman knew about her father was his name, his rank, that he worked in the motor pool and that he was from a town in the south. That... and a watch and a book of fairy tales that her grandmother had taunted her with for her entire childhood. And one faded photo.
     It was her birthday and she was 40 years old and the anniversary of D-Day was coming up. She wanted to know if I could find him for her.
     This woman was very nice and polite, but didn’t seem too smart. Her education had ended as soon as her grandmother could pull her out of school and put her to work cleaning other people’s homes. But that was all right. That’s the way things are sometimes, she told me.
     Her grandmother had just died. She’d rarely seen her mother again and had no idea where she was. There was no one to stop her, no one to hurt.
     She gave me her phone number, thanked me, shook my hand powerfully, wiped her eyes and left. I just sat there.

After a somewhat sleepless night wondering how I could help this woman find a part of her life that had been stolen, I called the American Embassy. The switchboard transferred me to the Military Attaché’s office. They told me they might be able to help and took the information I had. Good bye, Madam. I was pretty sure that was it.
     A few weeks later, I got a call back. Through Veterans Affairs, they had found an address for someone of that name near the town I’d indicated. They would get a letter to him if I wanted. Just bring it in. And they hung up.
     I called the woman back. Did she want to send him a letter? When she was able to talk, she asked if she could come over the next day.
     When she knocked at my door again, she grabbed me, hugged me and handed me a box of chocolates that must have cost her most of her paycheck. She also handed me a letter that she’d written and asked me to translate it for her. The handwriting was shaky, as were the spelling and grammar. But the letter was simple. As I remember it now - 25 years later - it just told the old GI who she was, and said she’d always treasured the watch and book of fairy tales, plus the photo. She hoped he was well and would like to hear from him, if that was all right, if he had time, if it didn’t cause problems.
     I translated the letter, trying to capture her meekness and respectfulness. She signed it, wrote her return address, and entrusted it to me. She didn’t want to go to the embassy with me to hand it over. That would make it too real if he decided not to reply, she explained.

About three months later she showed up on my doorstep again. Speechless, she held out an envelope that fluttered in her hand.
     It was a letter from the son of the GI. His father had passed away peacefully two years ago. He never knew he had a daughter in France. He had married after his return to the States and had some children. He was a tough father, but fair. He wished her well. I don’t remember the letter saying any more. It was polite but curt.
     The woman seemed all right with that. Life hadn’t been kind to her, and if the old GI was dead... well then, that was the end of the road. She’d never have the money to go to the States anyway. And at least she knew a bit more about him. It was a miracle, she said, that I’d been able to find him - as if I’d done much - and now she could lay it to rest. One last time she took my hand... then decided to kiss me on both cheeks, as French people do. And she walked down the stairs and out of my life.

I tell you all this now because walking around Montmartre doing my errands today, I saw a face that looked half familiar. A pale woman of obvious mixed race with unruly hair. We passed each other and I tried to remember where I’d seen her before. Then my mind settled on the unruly hair.
     It was her. I suppose I could have turned and run after her, but she looked happy with her lot, healthy and well-fed. What could I have added to her existence? Still, I took some comfort in knowing that she’s still around, and as I think about this whole story in the quiet of my garden, I lift my glass to her and hope she’ll live happily ever after.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Richard Ryan
Years ago, when I was just starting to do tours of France, I heard from a friend’s brother-in-law that there was this "really neat little hotel" down in Provence, outside of a small-ish town with many Roman fountains. It was run by an old French couple and was very authentique. Genuine. I noted it down and when the following year I had a family to guide through the south of France, I sent the hotel an e-mail inquiry.
     I got a reply from a British man named Richard Ryan. He and a certain Peter Cuff had bought the hotel.
     There was - and still is - a lot of that going on. French hotels bought up by foreigners and becoming only marginally French. I clearly remember sending him what I hoped was a polite but firm reply stating something to the effect that my tourists came looking for France, not England. He, in turn, politely defined the changes: TVs in the rooms and those British plug-in tea kettles... but that both could be removed if I so desired.
What became known as Sandy's Room
     I went with my tourists anyway... and we all enjoyed the hell out of our stay. The rooms were small and simple but clean, tasteful and especially authentique. The TV and tea-kettle stayed.
     Over the years and the visits, I got to know Richard much better. And I can only cringe as I imagine the words that probably came out of his mouth as he read that polite-but-firm e-mail of mine.

Richard and Peter were a couple. They had run a hotel in southwest France before their Provence hotel. And before that, Richard was an accountant - or something of the sort, something... well, stuffy but successful. He became besotted with Peter, the artist, from the moment they met. Which was many years previously. It was Peter who dragged them off to France, and I’m sure Richard’s life was much more settled before they met. But he loved him.
Peter Cuff, officiating
      When you stayed at the hotel, you soon learned that Peter was the Good Cop to Richard’s Bad Cop. Peter was all smiles and gentle humor with only a drop of chiding from time to time. Whereas Richard was sarcasm and wrinkled lip, sighs of exasperation, impatient rolling of eyes. But I gave as good as I got, and I thought I noticed that he enjoyed that, in a very secretive way.
     One day I arrived and Peter was in a bad mood. Acting foul. Very out of character. I told him so. "I have to be the Bad Cop," he retorted. "Richard’s not around."
     Peter also collected dogs. At one point they had three, who more or less had the run of the restaurant but most especially of the terrace.

Toby, begging
     The duo ran the hotel like slightly quirky clockwork. Over the years, they improved little details, but kept it traditional French provençal. Authentique. Peter told me that the initial changes they had made were more in the line of replacing tattered lace curtains with new ones and the chipped china with plates that Peter himself decorated in different shades of provençal blue. I wanted one badly but they weren’t for sale.
     The restaurant was superb. To die for. And the setting was pure paradise.

Then in the summer of 2009, after maybe fifteen years, Peter decided to clean the pool after lunch. It was a quiet time. Guests were still out touring the wonders that are Provence. Lunch guests had headed off. Richard went to their home across the road to do some book-keeping. The staff drove off on their break before the dinner rush.
     And when the maid came back, she found Peter’s clothes folded neatly on a chaise-longue and Peter floating, face down, in the pool. No one knows how long he’d been there. His body too hot from working in the sun, he had died instantly of what the French call hydrocution upon diving into the pool to cool off.

Richard was never the same. I just happened to call shortly after the accident, to ask if there was room at the inn because I needed to get away from Paris. He said there was, and just before hanging up, told me that Peter had died. That’s all.
     When I arrived at the train station, Richard had arranged a taxi driver friend to pick me up. Wanting to know more so as not to put my foot in my mouth, I asked the driver what had happened and he filled me in. When I reached the hotel, it was nearing the end of the lunch service. Richard was still there, hovering around, not accomplishing much, thinner than ever. Instead of the usual greeting of "Oh God! It’s back!" he asked me if I’d eaten. Then told the staff to set us up two plates outside in the shade. From where we could see the pool.
     He proceeded to talk for two hours. And I listened. And we drank.

I still have the e-mail he sent me three months later. It ended, "Despite the fact that you and I have always had verbal jousting sessions, I must say that your visit came at the right time for me and helped me to unload a lot of my stress. Hope it wasn't too hard for you!!" Typical Richard. Very understated. Very guarded. Very cards-to-his-chest.
     From that point on, every time I came down, we’d have almost every meal together, the dogs (now only two left) lying under the table. He invited me to his home, although only briefly. We went on several food runs together. We exchanged Christmas cards. And every card, every e-mail, from that point on was signed Rxxxx. Kisses from Richard.
     This spring I told him I’d come down to see him in early June, to see how he was recovering from the scheduled removal of the kidney he had announced.

About a week ago I flew back to France. And before I could get down to see him again, I got an e-mail from someone I’d met down there, a fellow guest at the hotel. He was sorry to tell me that Richard had died.
     It took me a week to screw up my courage. I called the hotel. The kidney had been removed... but the surgery caused a double pulmonary embolism that got the better of my favorite old curmudgeon. In classic black humor, I remembered an old doctor’s joke about the operation having been a success but unfortunately the patient died. I’m sure Richard would have enjoyed that joke.
     I’m not a believer. Don’t know if God exists or if there’s a life after this one. But I’d like to think Richard has been reunited with his beloved Peter. And that Peter will be kinder to him this time around.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits - Jonas Netter collection

Many people have heard about Van Gogh’s relationship with the people who bought and sold his works, the chief of whom was his brother Théo. But not much is written about others.
     Marc Restellini, director of the upstart museum Pinacothèque de Paris, has now seen to that.
     Restellini’s new show - in the building kitty-corner to his other location, where Les masques de jade Mayas (see blog, Feb 19, 2012) is still showing until June 10th - is called La Collection Jonas Netter. It covers the adventure of Montparnasse, which started where the adventure of Montmartre left off. This was the period just after the Impressionists had become famous... and expensive. Which is why Jonas Netter sought out unknowns. In 1916, he fell under the spell of Modigliani, then Soutine and Utrillo.
Maurice Utrillo
Rue Muller à Montmartre
     Jonas Netter (1868-1946) was the elusive collector and broker of many artists, including those mentioned in the subtitle to this exhibit: Modigliani, Soutine et l’aventure de Montparnasse.
     Why elusive? Because only one photo of Netter has been found. There’s a portrait by Moïse Kisling that is said to be him - and it does bear a striking resemblance - but the canvas is just called Portrait d’homme. And Netter only ever gave one interview.
     He preferred to let the spotlight shine on his far more effervescent - and some would say unscrupulous - partner, Léopold Zborowski, or Zbo as he was called. And yet it was Netter who discovered the genius of Modigliani and Soutine... and probably Utrillo as well. Panels spaced throughout the exhibit literally gossip about Netter’s and Zbo’s relationship - to the artists and to each other.
     Overall Netter had the better eye for talent. Zborowski often had to be convinced.
Suzanne Valadon
Portrait de Maria Lani
     Zbo, the Polish immigrant, was a would-be poet striving to become Someone on the artistic scene of Paris. In an interview with the art review Connaissance des Arts, Marc Restellini described Netter’s partner: "A brilliant man, you could even say flamboyant, painfully talkative, a Catholic, he was only interested in Jewish artists of this school of Paris. Netter was just the opposite: A typical bourgeois, a Jew from Alsace, a tradesman (...) A silent, modest man who didn’t want to attract people’s attention (...) yet passionate about art... an exceptional musician and a prodigious pianist; he could have had a career giving concerts. But apparently he preferred the peace and quiet of his office."
     In that same interview, Restellini underlined Netter’s importance. "He bought the first of Modigliani’s canvases in 1915 and, from that moment on, he was passionate about his works, to the point of collecting up to forty-two, which is about 15% of the painter’s production (...) A true buyer’s frenzy, in a man of total discretion." Netter bought hundreds of canvases of his favorite artists, snapping them up almost compulsively. "But he didn’t want people to mention him. No matter. Zborowski made up for that in spades."
Amedeo Modigliani
Portrait de Zborowski
     Although things were supposed to be split 50-50 - sales and expenses alike - certain panels explain how Zborowski sometimes tried to get artists to bring him their works instead of taking them to Netter so that he could have first choice, and maybe even not mention certain canvases to his partner at all. Yet when artists were in distress, it was always Netter they turned to. When Utrillo was in an asylum to kick his addiction problems, it was Netter who paid for the furniture he broke in his rages. When Soutine wanted desperately to move back to Paris from "exile" in Céret, it was Netter who took his side and gave the order to send him a train ticket. Ten years after the death of Modigliani, it was Netter who worked tirelessly to preserve and promote the artist’s reputation, including well beyond the borders of France.
     A large part of the canvases that hang in this exhibit come from private collections and have never been seen in public before. Visitors progress from Utrillo, his mother Suzanne Valadon and Modigliani to Soutine and then on to smaller groups of works by André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Isaac Antcher, Pinchus Krémègne, Eugène Ebichre and Henri Hayden. One sees the slow shift from Impressionistic influences - one canvas almost pointillist - to hints of Cubism and beyond.
     All these works are assembled for the first time ever and will disappear back into their various homes and museums after September 9th. So strap on your skates and get over to the Pinacothèque.
     And if you go before June 10th, you can hop across the street and see the jade masks of the Mayas as well. So double your pleasure.

Chaïm Soutine
Autoportrait au rideau
La collection Jonas Netter:  Modigliani, Soutine et l'aventure de Montparnasse

Until Sept. 9, 2012

Pinacothèque de Paris
8 rue Vignon
75008 - Paris

Daily, 10:30-6:30
Wed. & Fri until 9 pm

Handicapped accessible
Wheelchairs available upon request

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Recipe of the Month: Asparagus with vinaigrette or mayonnaise

Green asparagus
 When I arrived in France, supposedly familiar things sometimes took on a decidedly unfamiliar look. Take, for example, asparagus.
     Everyone knows what asparagus looks like. It’s dark green and thin, with a tip that looks like a spear. (Which is why one of my children called it "speared grass".) So imagine my surprise when I ordered it for the first time and saw something entirely different arrive on the plate!
     In France, an asperge is white and ... well, stout. About the same size around as your thumb - and leggy, up to a good 10 inches long. It’s also a lot more tender.
     The reason for all that is that it’s grown underground and never sees sunlight, so it never makes the chlorophyll that would turn it green. It’s planted in mounds of earth that cover each shoot to the very tip and then picked before it sticks its head out. How the farmer knows when that magic moment is, I can’t tell you. But then I’m no farmer.
     Shortly before the turn of this century, American style asparagus began to appear in fancy restaurants in Paris. It was considered very exotic. Then the really fancy restaurants started serving wild asparagus, pencil thin and far less meaty with a tip that may be almost straw-like. Nowadays you can find green asparagus all over France (maybe because it’s simpler to grow, with no mounding required). As for white asperges, I even found some today at my local supermarket here in Ann Arbor (a foodie’s town par excellence).
     April is the month of asparagus, one of the first crops of spring. So try preparing some with either of these two typically French sauces.

Asperges blanches
How to cook asparagus:

Green and white asparagus are cooked the same way. And according to Julia Child, the best way is "the French way". She said she tried them all. This is her method:
- Use a paring knife to peel off the outer skin. Holding the spear with the tip toward you, use a paring knife to shave off the outer skin of the butt end so the green flesh is visible, then shave less deep as you work toward the tender part near the tip. Also shave off any scales that are below the tip. Wash in a basin of cold water and then drain.
- Line up the asparagus tips in bunches about 3½" in diameter and tie them together with cooking string a bit below the tips and again about 2/3 of the way down the stem. Cut off the butt ends to make the spears the same length.
- Bring salted water to a boil in a pot wide enough to hold the asparagus horizontally. After laying the bundles in the water, bring it back to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until you can easily stick a knife into the thick end (about 12-15 min). Lift the bundles out with 2 forks, one snagging each string. Hold them up to drain, then put them on a towel. Cut the string immediately and go on to the next bundle. Make sure the asparagus is not overcooked but is well-drained.
- Cooked asparagus will stay warm for 20 minutes if left covered with the towel. If you’ve made it ahead to be served cold, let it stand in one layer only.
Six fat spears are a good portion per person.


- Vinaigrette: Stir ½-1 t Dijon mustard into 2 T of vinegar until well blended. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Then slowly pour in 6 T of olive oil, stirring until entirely blended and somewhat thickened. The right proportion is 1 part vinegar to 3-4 parts oil. Makes about ½ c of vinaigrette. You can add some minced or dried herbs if you want: parsley, chives, tarragon, basil. You could also use lemon juice instead of vinegar.

- Mayonnaise: Homemade mayonnaise is so much better than store-bought! With a good food processor, it’s not hard, and any leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days. Put 1 egg and 2 egg yolks in the processor and beat for 1 minute. Without turning the machine off, add 1 T of wine vinegar or lemon juice, ½ t salt and 1/4 t of Dijon mustard and beat for another half minute. DO NOT STOP BEATING as you start pouring in 1 c of olive oil very slowly; the oil should be at room temperature. As soon as it starts to thicken, "the crisis is over" as Julia puts it. Then thin the mixture with another T of vinegar or lemon juice, and only then continue with the remaining 1 c of oil. Mix until it has thickened. Correct for consistency and seasoning.