Comme un Livre Tant Aimé

Une visite en France et mon quotidien devient flou et compliqué, mais aussi familier et réconfortant.
Je suis arrivée depuis deux jours dans mon pays natal et si je me dis, “Seulement deux jours!” j’ai aussi l’impression d’être ici depuis toujours.
Quitte-t-on vraiment jamais la terre de son enfance?
Un autre pays peut-il jamais devenir cette terre empreinte de souvenirs qui envahissent la mémoire ?
Les sirènes de police cisaillent Paris et il me semble ne jamais avoir entendu d’autres sirènes.  
Le croissant de mon petit déjeuner laisse dans ma bouche un gout si familier qu’il me fait monter les larmes aux yeux. C’est le gout doré et chaud de mon enfance qui galope comme un fou dans ma poitrine.
Les pigeons s’envolent dans un bruissement d’ailes soyeuses.  Et je n’ai jamais entendu de son si  enchanteur.
Les géraniums explosent de couleur dans les jardinières accrochées aux balcons et leur arrogance rouge se rie de mes géraniums californiens.
La silhouette longue et élégante de la tour Eiffel est à portée de ma main depuis la petite terrasse de ma chambre d’hôtel et tout autre construction n’est qu’une pale imitation.
Montmartre se détache sur un ciel qui n’a pas encore décidé s’il restera paisible ou orageux et c’est Paris capricieux qui me séduit. 
Je suis à Paris et mon regard se perd au delà des chambres mansardées abritées par leurs toits gris ardoise. 

Serais-je capable de vivre ici de nouveau?
En 1981, lorsque j’ai quitté la Normandie pour Paris, j’ai pensé que jamais je ne pourrais m’habituer à la capitale et que je quitterais la ville sans jamais l’avoir connue.
Et pourtant, Paris est devenu ma maison.
Plus encore, je suis devenue parisienne.
Aujourd’hui, je sais que Paris restera la ville dont le seul nom fera battre mon cœur rien qu’à le prononcer.
Mais si Paris et sa géographie resteront dans ma mémoire, aussi indélébiles qu’un tatouage sur ma peau, serais-je de nouveau capable de me fondre dans les milliers de gens qui vivent ici?
Serais-je de nouveau capable d’être l’une d’entre eux?
Je n’en suis pas certaine et ce doute laisse sur mon cœur une infinie tristesse.
Comme un livre que l’on a tant aimé et dont on tourne la dernière page, se disant que c’est trop dommage d’être à la fin de l’histoire.
Paris est devenu ce livre que j’ai tant aimé.
J’ai tourné la dernière page il y a plus de vingt ans et je relis à chacun de mes voyages un chapitre particulièrement cher, sachant que ma vie ne sera pas assez longue pour tous les relire.  

Of Presidents and Strikes

“It’s like for you,” my mother-in-law tells me after dessert.
“You” is not really “Me”, but the USA.
“After a socialist president, you will maybe get a conservative one,” she says as a way of explanation.
Oh!I think, realizing that she’s talking about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
“Us,” she goes on. “We got a socialist after a conservative.”
“You know,” I venture. “Obama is more on the right than Sarkozy was.’
What I don’t tell my mother-in-law is that for many Americans who disapprove of Mr. Obama, he is indeed a socialist, and of course the new French president is a communist.
“But,” my mother-in-law adds.” People are already disappointed. Hollande has promised the moon, and of course he can’t fulfill all of his promises. We will probably have strikes a la rentrée.”
La rentrée is back to school and also back to work for many French including the politicians. Perfect timing for a good old French strike.
“By the way,” my mother-in-law says, making coffee. “Have you heard that Air France has planned to be on strike starting early July when everybody is ready for their vacation?”
Please, I beg in silence to whoever is listening to our conversation, make the big shots at Air France cancel the strike or postpone it to the rentrée. I want to go home! 

Writing for Free

This summer, my daughter, who will be attending college in the fall, is volunteering in two different programs. She had the option to spend the summer with her parents. Knowing that her younger brother would be in camp, I don’t blame her for preferring staying in town with her older sister and work.
When she got her interviews – yes, volunteers get screened and interviewed – she was thrilled to be hired and proud to enter the work force. It’s only when she started working that she realized that, unlike her sister who is also working, she wouldn’t be paid. Of course, she knew that being a volunteer means working for free.
“I think it would have great to get a paying job,” she told me.
I totally understood that. My first summer salary that I earned working at a cash register in a supermarket remains one of my most exhilarating memories.
“Some of my friends got real jobs,” she added with a pang of envy.
She has another valid point, I thought, you get paid for real jobs.
I thought of my own life, and how no salary can ever match the hours spent writing. I also thought of the thrill of the occasional check for a story or a winning contest entry.
She’s right, I agreed, money valid jobs and us as well.
Yesterday morning, I picked up the mail; and here was an acceptance from Valley Public Radio, a mix of National Public Radio and locally aired programs based in Central California. Late spring, I entered their annual writing competition called Valley Writers Read. The program is opened to the entire California Valley, which is one of the most populated areas of the state. The radio said yes to my fiction story for the upcoming 2013 season. This fall, I will record the story at the studio. 
The same thrill I remembered so vividly from my first summer salary traveled through my body.
And yet my story will air for free.
And I didn’t enter once, but twice already.
What’s up with writing that makes it so special that no money can buy?

Is it because all writers I’ve met – we all agree it’s hard work –never said it’s a job, even less a business?

Many locals listen faithfully to Valley Writers Read. Some have e-mailed me after hearing my story; some have complimented me, many have thanked me for writing it and reading it – not a small task for a non-native speaker. Many, I know, don’t read much and prefer listening to the radio on their long commute to and back from work. A woman told me that she would never miss Valley Writers Read and would sometimes hope for road delays so she could listen to the whole story. That’s so nice to hear. Especially when it’s one of your stories. 
My daughter, I’m sure, will also receive many grateful thank yous for her volunteering jobs. 
Now that I think about it, that’s what the thrill is about. 
Doing something, that someone, somewhere, will appreciate. 
So as long as my husband agrees to work for money to provide such a great life for all of us, I feel fortunate that, once a year, I can write a story for free. 

Maine the Way Life Should Be

Tonight, the sunset painted a beautiful pink, white and blue sky, and I told to myself that I was very lucky to be spending another summer in Maine.
My family discovered Maine while we lived near Boston; it instantly became home. 
Snuggled at the feet of a pond fed by the Kennebec River, the cabin we purchased begged for people to take care of it. We cleaned and stripped. We scrubbed and painted. We nailed and sawed. We worked like dogs, and by the way we aren’t finished yet. They say the journey is what matters, right?
But as we worked, we also discovered the fragile sun of Maine and the rocky shore of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The pine state became the place of memories, the place to return without homework and answering machine, the today place to be happy. 
Maine established my children’s roots in their parents’ adoptive country, and personified my first encounter with the American real estate dream.
‘Maine the way life should be’ is more than a tourist slogan. Mainers eat ice cream along the summer roads like there is no tomorrow. Since they don’t take the sun for granted, like we do in California, they overdose on the beach before winter closes on them.
And of course, when the French have the geese liver, the Mainers have the best the ocean can offer. If I had to choose between foie gras and lobsters, although I love France and foie gras, I already know that I would be a traitor to my native country. A lobster roll in Maine makes you believe in nothing, but the beauty of life.
The song says, “I left my heart in San Francisco.”
Moving away from Paris for the US broke my heart, but it’s in Maine that at the end of summer I leave it. 

And the Winners Are…

Two things become crucial when driving cross-country: rest areas and food.
In the rest areas department, some states deserve grateful and appreciative applause, while some should check their neighbors out to improve their status.
Starting from worse to best, I’m sorry to say that the west, which I love, sucks. California, I love you the most, but excuse my French if I say that you are in the toilets when it comes to public restrooms. Mr. Brown, I voted for you, but you should travel more often and see the sorry state of California’s rest areas along our bumpy and potholed highways.
Nevada isn’t better, but they have an excuse. Do they pay taxes?
Arizona has simply closed the rest areas even in the most touristic places, so the police, I suppose, have more funding to take care of the undocumented immigrants.
Oklahoma and Virginia are tied, with a slight advantage for Virginia, only because the rest areas are closer to each other. But I must say that one specific rest area before Oklahoma City was offering coffee. Yes, California, coffee!
Virginia’s rest areas from the Tennessee border to Charlottesville are the Ritz in the category. And for the cherry on top, they have shady grassy areas with tables and benches, pet runs, and spacious and pristine bathrooms.
Massachusetts and Maine, you are doing a great job. Your rest areas are plentiful, well paced, and your restrooms are spotless.
No question about it, the eastern part of the country is a winner for cross- country travelers when nature calls for a stop.
In the food department, I ate sandwiches and salads from gas stations’ deli markets or from Starbucks. No winner in this category.
But dinner is a reward after a long day. Three restaurants made my night.
The Mesquite Chops on Union Street in Memphis is worth the detour. The food is a great mix of traditional dishes with a twist. For example the blueberry crème brulee, which wasn’t overly sweet like some tend to be and also perfectly sized. The duck and the steak were so perfectly cooked that I wondered why they gave us sharp knives. The waitress was friendly yet professional. The entire staff actually acknowledged the customers with a nod. It’s a great downtown location when in Memphis. 
The Ivy Inn in Charlottesville, tucked only a couple of miles away from the University of Virginia, and yet secluded enough for a romantic dinner is a gem.
A brick paved path leads to the front door of the small restaurant, which is actually a former house. From the appetizer to the dessert, this place is a real feast for the senses. No specials since the menu changes everyday. The chef uses seasonal and organic product as much as possible. Local definitely. The snap peas were the best I had since a long time. The crab cake, the trout and pork chops we ordered were perfectly presented and cooked. The profiteroles with a cappuccino filling made me forget the French profiteroles.  Service was more professional than friendly, but the décor and food are hard to beat.

Alta on Church Street in Lenox is ranked as the best restaurant in town. Tanglewood festival hadn’t yet started; the small town was sleepy, but the porch and inside rooms were bursting with action.
This place has a plus. One of the owners is French. It’s always a pleasure to speak my native language with someone who has also left France for the American adventure.
Alta and the Ivy Inn share a common point. Both serve foie gras, which will be soon banned from California. No offense to the geese and the protectors of the geese, but a sliver of foie gras is hard to top. Unlike the Ivy Inn, Alta serves foie gras from the Périgord where most foie gras is made in France. “It’s shipped overnight,” said the French owner. 
I had the special, the cod fillet. The seasonal vegetables couldn’t compete with the Virginia’s snap peas.
The Grand Marnier flavored crème brulee was a good shot, but the blueberry from the Mesquite definitely better.
Our waitress was ebullient and efficient. It was a warm day for Lenox and I admire people who work in long sleeve and pants when it’s still in the eighties at 9:00 p.m.
Tonight I will be reaching my Maine cottage where I’ll prepare food again. After a week on the road, home food holds the promise of simplicity, and I’m looking forward to a break.
For a night, at least. 

Monticello in 2012

Throughout the state of Virginia, history is waiting to be told. Every city, town, and village murmur stories of the past. The majestic ancient trees whisper secrets they witnessed from a time where the greatest and most horrific moments mixed and blended together.
Perhaps, no other place exemplifies the complexity of history and of the people who make history better than Monticello.


Does anyone but Thomas Jefferson, the third American president, incarnate better the shocking contrast between greatness and disputable human choices and decisions?
Although I wanted to show Monticello to my son who will be studying American History next year, entering the magnificent property made me uneasy.
On one side of the portico stood Jefferson, the man behind the Declaration of Independence, a ferocious and discriminate reader. ” I cannot live without books,” he said.  He was a Francophile who was friend with Lafayette and brought French food and lifestyle to Monticello, a passionate and relentless advocate for education – the University of Virginia is his testimony – and a man in favor of political and religious freedom.
On the other side stood Jefferson, the President who died acknowledging the abomination of slavery but leaving to the next generation the duty to abolish it. Jefferson who had a child from one of his young slaves and was the master of a 5 000 acres plantation entirely run by tireless slaves.
Their quarters, including the kitchen, the laundry room, the stables, and many more working areas, carefully built so they would not obstruct or ruin the view from the mansion, stood on Mulberry Row.
As I left the slaves’ quarters I passed a group of young African-Americans and wished for a time warp.
What would Thomas Jefferson say to these young boys and girls?
As for me, I shifted my gaze to the path leading to the African cemetery, tucked in the woods, half a mile down from the splendid mansion.


Traverser les US en voiture, peu le font, et en tous cas rarement de deux points aussi éloignés que la Californie du Maine. Et définitivement moins souvent que ma famille ne le fait.

Voyager par avion depuis le 11 septembre 2001 a perdu beaucoup de ses attraits. L’attente avant un vol, la sécurité qui invente sans cesse de nouveaux moyens de fouille, et des vols bondés avec un service avoisinant le zéro, tout contribue à donner envie de se déplacer autrement.

Pour ma famille tout a commencé le 10 septembre 2001 quand mon mari a reporté au 12 son vol matinal du 11 en partance de Boston pour Los Angeles. Une invitation de dernière minute pour un diner le 11 septembre lui a sauvé la vie.

Coincé sans avion à Boston, il est rentré en voiture à la maison et s’il est arrivé, épuisé, sous le choc d’un évènement qu’aucun américain ne pouvait comprendre, ses yeux étaient pleins de paysages magnifiques, qu’il a eu envie de faire découvrir à sa famille.

Ironiquement la découverte en voiture de notre pays d’adoption est née de l’horreur du 11 septembre.

Depuis, chaque printemps nous préparons notre itinéraire et notre départ, essayant de mélanger les étapes pour satisfaire les gouts de chacun.

Cette année comme d’habitude il y a au moins une étape historique. Ce sera à Charlottesville en Virginie que nous passerons une après-midi et une nuit.

Charlottesville c’est Monticello, la résidence construite par Thomas Jefferson, le troisième président des Etats Unis.

Bâtie au sommet d’une petite colline, d’où son nom en italien, la résidence est entourée de montagnes bleues aux sommets arrondis et de jardins de fleurs et d’arbres superbes.

Jefferson a tout conçu ou presque à Monticello, et son exceptionnelle ingéniosité est visible dans cette maison superbe mais confortable.

La visite de Monticello est scindée en deux parties. La résidence n’est accessible que par une visite guidée de 40 minutes environ. Les jardins et les dépendances peuvent se découvrir seuls.

Jefferson c’est la déclaration de l’indépendance américaine, un homme farouchement libre, ouvert sur le monde, fervent défenseur de l’éducation, un amoureux de la France et de son peuple. C’est aussi un esclavagiste puisqu’à Monticello vivaient des dizaines d’esclaves dont une jeune femme avec laquelle il a eu un enfant.  La propriété somptueuse n’aurait jamais connu de telles heures de gloire sans ces esclaves qui assuraient l’intendance, du ménage à la cuisine en passant par l’entretien des écuries et des celliers, le soin des enfants ainsi que des jardins potagers et botaniques.

Jefferson qui ardemment défendait la séparation de l’église et de l’état, désirait plus que tout la liberté de pensée pour chaque être humain, et créa la première université en Virginie, ouvrant la porte à l’éducation pour tous, maintenait sous ses ordres et contre leur volonté des hommes, des femmes et des enfants à son service et au service de Monticello.

La ville de Charlottesville est aujourd’hui centrée autour de l’université de Virginie. Même au cœur de l’été des étudiants déambulent dans les rues, et les terrasses des cafés et restaurants sont animées de leurs conversations et rires. Ce sont des garçons et des filles de toutes origines ethniques et raciales.

A partir de Monticello on peut voir le dôme de l’université, fierté de Jefferson à la fin de sa vie, mais on oublie Monticello quand on est au cœur de la ville.

Comme si le fondateur de cette résidence hors du commun veillait encore sur son projet mais se retirait sur la pointe des pieds, laissant comme il l’avait annoncé le soin aux générations futures de s’occuper du sort de l’esclavage et par extension des relations entre noirs et blancs.

Relations qui demeurent hantées par un passé inoubliable.


From Graceland to Lorraine Motel

When I travel across the country, I often ask myself if I could live where I’m visiting.
Last night, I had a terrific dinner downtown Memphis at the Mesquite Chops on Union Street. The food was a great mix of traditional dishes with a twist. The blueberry crème brûlée and the spicy deviled eggs were especially intriguing and the duck perfectly cooked. 
Earlier, on Beale Street, two young African American brothers performed cartwheels and back flips, hosts and hostesses gave away fliers advertising drinks and food, and music blasted from doors opened on dark, steamy bars.
It was easy to envision Otis Reading, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash or Elvis walking on the street.


My husband, the Elvis Presley’s fan, had booked us rooms at the Heartbreak Hotel. If you are used to the comfort of the big hotel chains, the Heartbreak Hotel will disappoint you. But there is in the absence of Wi-Fi and HBO, something freeing and very kitsch, totally appropriate at Graceland.
The mansion is not a mansion in today’s standards, but when Elvis bought the property, he was only twenty-two years old, and Graceland became his beloved refuge where family and close friends gathered.
And did he need some privacy!
Even though I’m neither a huge fan of Elvis nor an expert on his musical career, I found the visit of Graceland, set in a woodsy natural-looking park, somehow moving.
Elvis Presley’s success still resonates today. His name is familiar to all of us. Most of his songs are hits and still played. That I knew.
But walking through his house and his gardens where he is buried alongside his stillborn twin brother, his parents and his grandmother brings another dimension to the man who shook the music scene in the 50’s.


Later a shuttle carried us to the shops, the automobile museum that harbors Elvis’s cars and motorcycles collection, his two private jets he used for concerts and personal pleasure, and the dinner that serves typical 1950’s food. 
My son and I craved a milkshake. We were up since 6:30 a.m. and it seemed just the right drink to enjoy before heading east to town to the Lorraine Motel.  
The motel sits on Mulberry Street and the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot is now decorated with a white, red, and blue wreath. Two replicas of the cars driven by the people who accompanied him to Memphis are parked right under the balcony. The National Civil Rights Museum is hosted in the motel. 


Across the street two African American women stood behind a small table, urging people to boycott the museum, which they insisted is an insult to Martin Luther King’s memory. They condemned the government for orchestrating the murder of the civil rights movement’s leader.


Two days ago Rodney King passed away. The words he said when Los Angeles exploded still express a palpable malaise in this country: “Can’t we get along?”
So now that I’ve left Memphis and am on the road again, I can say that it would be a cultural shock to live in Memphis, yet there is in the south a je ne sais quoi (the comfort food, the sweet tea, the gracious hospitality?) that begs for another visit. 

Oklahoma City

On April 22, 1885, over the course of a day called the Great Run Race, 10 000 people settled on unclaimed land, giving birth to Oklahoma City.
A little more than one hundred years later, on April 19, 1995, 168 men, women and children lost their lives in the same city in the horrifying bombing of one the federal buildings lining downtown.
Oklahoma City, symbol of the American pioneer days and of undeserved brutal violence. A city, where the past lingers in a downtown, which still reinvents itself through lively cafés and breweries, basketball games and street music, merely blocks away from the serene National Memorial built on the site of the destroyed federal building.
From Oklahoma City, highway 40 East cuts through the green lush hills of the eastern part of the state and then through Arkansas, over lakes, rivers and ponds. The air is losing the dryness of the west and is charged with more humidity, hinting of the east coast.
Driving through the United States gives me a sense of place, a better understanding of the geography that defines people’s everyday’s life, and connects me more intimately with my land of adoption.
Tonight we will be in Memphis. We are spending the night at the Heartbreak hotel, on the King’s territory and visiting Graceland tomorrow morning. This is Father’s Day after all, and I live with an Elvis’s fan. 

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis, Tennessee évoque deux noms qui ont marqué l’histoire américaine de deux façons très différentes.
Martin Luther King assassiné à bout portant au Lorraine Motel sur Mulberry Street, au cœur de la ville, alors qu’il se tenait sur le balcon de sa chambre.
Aujourd’hui, une couronne aux couleurs de l’Amérique honore sa mémoire à l’endroit exact il est tombé le 4 avril 1968.
Le motel abrite maintenant le National Civil Rights Museum.


La résidence d’Elvis Presley, quant à elle, est située à l’est de Memphis. Graceland c’est la vie privée d’Elvis et sa carrière exceptionnelle exposées à des milliers de visiteurs venus de partout. C’est après la Maison Blanche la résidence la plus visitée des USA.


A Graceland il est possible de visiter la maison et les jardins, les deux jets privés d’Elvis ainsi que son parc automobile qui comprend un assortiment de Mercedes, Cadillac et Harley Davidson à faire pâlir d’envie.
Ensuite il y a les boutiques baptisées après les titres des chansons d’Elvis. Livres, CD, DVD, tasses, verres, T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, bijoux…
La liste des souvenirs à ramener égale les disques d’or et distinctions reçues par Elvis Presley au cours de sa carrière.
Memphis c’est le blues et la soul musique, le Mississipi, la cuisine du sud, le thé sucré, et l’histoire du peuple noir américain. C’est aussi une ville avec des habitants courtois, discrets, mais aussi chaleureux et accueillants.  
Californienne presque jusqu’au bout des doigts, dans un état toujours à l’avant garde du monde, je me demande souvent quand je traverse un état que je découvre au travers d’une journée ou d’une soirée si je pourrais y vivre ?
Memphis ? Sans doute pas. Mais rester plus longtemps ? Définitivement. 
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