Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Crossing The Street

There were several influences and inspiration to my writing the novel Jerusalem Maiden. Here I recount odd friendships that have haunted me over the years and which opened a window into the world of religious girls’ and their limited choices.
This story appeared in the
eZine 614 (May 2011).

* * *
            I had been playing hop-scotch for an hour with Deena, a sixteen-year-old Orthodox girl who lived across the street from my grandmother in central Tel-Aviv. The summer heat scorched the sidewalk and baked the asphalt in the street. Deena shook her calf-length skirt to cool her stockinged legs and tried in vain to blow into the top of her neck-to-wrist blouse. A year younger than she, I drank water from the faucet in the yard and splashed water on my prepubescent exposed midriff above my short shorts.
            My friend cupped water near her mouth, and asked, “Will you come to my wedding?”
            Even though I assumed she meant light years away, the notion of marriage had never crossed my mind. “You’re getting married? Seriously?”
            She shrugged, her eyes downcast. “Tuesday.”
            From the entrance to the wedding hall, I could see hundreds of bearded men in the Hassidi garb of black hats and long, belted coats. An usher blocked my way and directed me to the women’s hall, where the ceiling was lower and the harsh fluorescent lights made the panels on the wall look like Formica. Holding glasses of orange and grape juice, women in long modest dresses and head covers eyed my white-and-red mini suit with disapproval. I pushed my way through a cloud of fruity and sour smells and hordes of children running about until I reached a throne chair.
            There was Deena, crying.
            She didn’t just weep. She wailed aloud, her words garbled by the cotton handkerchiefs with which her mother and another woman dabbed her face. “Shhhhhh, Shhhhhh,” they repeated, but their tones suggested they were ready stuff a handkerchief into her mouth.
            I was about to approach her, when a woman yanked my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” She tossed a glance at my exposed legs. “Don’t contaminate the bride.”
            I gulped and took a step back. There was something else strange about Deena I couldn’t pinpoint from under the veil pulled back over her head, until it dawned on me: She was wearing a wig. Her a thick black braid had been cut, never again to present a temptation to men.
            I watched with horror as more women surrounded Deena, speaking to her in Yiddish, their tones ranging from comfort to indignation. Her hysterical crying continued unabated. Finally, they pulled her to her feet. From the main hall, the men’s singing crescendoed as if preparing for the messiah’s arrival. I could just decipher the line calling for the bride and the groom. “Yavo’u ha’chatan ve ha’kala.”
            Carried by the wave of women, I was herded through a narrow passage into the back of the main hall. Moments later, squeezed against a wall, I managed to climb a chair.
            The field of chanting and dancing black hats parted like the Red Sea.
            There walked a gangly, tall teenage boy, led by two men, all three dressed in satin black coats and hard-rimmed black hats. Unlike the men’s chest-length, untrimmed beards, the boy’s meager, curly facial hair had barely begun to sprout. His Adam’s apple bobbed behind a sheet of skin in his long neck, and his eyes were wide with fear.
            The men’s chanting was suddenly disrupted by Deena’s screams. “No! No! No! I don’t want to!”
            I turned to see her mother and another ample-bosomed woman, each twice Deena’s size, propping the veiled bride on both sides like bookends, forcing her down the aisle.
            Her crying continued throughout the ceremony. The rabbi stopped twice and ordered someone to give the bride red wine to calm her nerves.
            Horrified, I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
            A year before, when I had entered high school, I chose to commute to a French school instead of walking two blocks to the local high school.
            On the first day, I was surprised to see Leah at the bus stop. Tall, blue-eyed, with pretty strawberry-blonde hair, Leah was the daughter of a wealthy family that owned Israel’s largest sweets-and-chocolate company. They were modern Orthodox; Leah’s father and younger brother dressed in European clothes and only wore skullcaps. Although she lived just a block away from me, on the same double tree-lined boulevard, we had never talked. Leah attended an all-girls religious school and never mixed with our neighborhood youth. Whenever she left the house, her mother watched her from their second-floor balcony. Leah seemed to be surrounded as much by her religious upbringing as by her family’s money.
            Now, hidden from her mother’s view by the trees, Leah gushed as if she’d known me for years. “Are you too going to Alliance Française? I’m so happy! It will be wonderful to have a friend so close!”
            She did not stop chattering throughout the forty-five minute ride, during recess, and on the drive back. She was giddy with excitement at having convinced her parents to let her attend a secular school and anxious to befriend my secular girlfriends. Could I invite them over as soon as we returned from school this afternoon? Hanging out in my room, she asked me to teach her how to tease her hair and listened ceaselessly to “forbidden music”—the Top Ten recorded on my suitcase-size Grundig reel-to-reel player.
            On our fourth day of school, when I came by her house in the morning, her mother stood on the balcony. “Leah will be transferred back to her school,” she announced.
            Leah stood behind her, silent, her eyes swollen and her nose red.
            The following Saturday morning, I saw her in the boulevard with a group of religious girls after synagogue services. Dressed in their Shabbat best, they sat on a bench and kissed their prayer books. Leah did not return my wave.
            She rarely acknowledged me in the ensuing years, even as I traded my Alliance Française uniform for a military uniform. On Friday nights, when I teetered on high heels in a pencil dress next to my boyfriend on our way to a party, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her watching me from the lonely darkness of her balcony, unlit throughout the Shabbat. Her longing to join me was palpable through the less than thirty feet separating us.
            However, eventually she must have won another battle with her parents: a religious girl who was not obligated to serve in the army, at age eighteen she left for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to live away from home.
            The reason for their capitulation became apparent when I arrived at the university after serving two-year in Israel Defense Force. Beautiful Leah was beginning her third year. She had already dated the heir to the country’s largest hotel chain. When he broke the relationship, she dated another heir.
            Alas, by the end of her final year, she was not engaged to an heir. Then, within days of graduation, she married a particularly swarthy and hairy young man from a wealthy Jerusalemite Sepharadi family, a match I guessed her Ashkenazi family viewed as a compromise on the grandest scale. Still a student, I was dating a close friend of that Sepharadi family and attended a couple of their china-and-gold laden Shabbat dinners. Polite and demure, Leah never acknowledged our acquaintance. And when someone at the table made the connection, asking about our growing up on the same boulevard where both our parents still lived, she brushed it off. 
            Watching her, I recalled Deena at her wedding and wondered about the painful struggles Leah was covering behind her patrician demeanor. There was no sign of the animated girl who chattered on the bus to school, buoyant by the prospects of starting a new life. Her desire to break away from her parents’ control merely eight years before was still vivid in my mind, and I ached at the realization of how little freedom she had gained in the intervening years.
            Several years later, a mother of two boys, Leah walked into a hotel owned by her former boyfriend’s family. She paid for a room and locked the door.
            Her body was found the following day by the cleaning crew.

            These two friendships with religious girls pressed into a life with few choices framed my perception of my grandmother’s life ninety years ago. In her youth, the absence of electricity under the backward Ottoman rule meant that no news or outside influences reached the insular Jewish community, helping it to further isolate its girls. An elite society of scholars, the ultra-Orthodox community viewed the dancing and singing simpleton Hassids with derision. Instead, they prepared themselves for the messiah’s arrival through austerity, suffering and diligent studying, while assigning twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls the responsibility of supporting the Talmudic and biblical scholars through marriage. Teenage girls were thus burdened with the daunting task of saving the world’s Jewry.
            What if my feisty and artistically talented grandmother had bolted to follow her heart instead? What if Deena had run away, or Leah taken more time to find her way? While writing my grandmother’s fictional alternate life as a Jerusalem Maiden, I also commemorated later-day Deena and Leah who couldn’t or wouldn’t break away.            
                                                                            # # #
Author Talia Carner lives in New York. Her novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, about a young woman's struggle between her passion and faith, was published in June 2011 by HarperCollins. www.TaliaCarner.com

Saturday, October 26, 2013

No "Spring" for Saudi Women

This article appeared in the August 2011 of Digital Journal. Today, as Saudi women are claiming the roads in a pre-organized protest, here are my somber thoughts:

By Talia Carner

            Earlier this year, the world watched with bated breath as Egyptian women took to the streets alongside men to protest Mubarak’s rule and demand democracy. Cynically, men encouraged women’s participation—only to betray them once Mubarak was removed. Merely a few months later, Egypt—formerly the more modern among Muslim nations—has regressed into gender apartheid the like of which the country has not been seen in decades, and “modesty squads” roam neighborhoods in search of errant women whose appearance or behavior defy the Extreme Islam’s dictates. 
            Does anyone believe that Saudi women will fare better in their quest for the right to drive? In 2010, the Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity (down from spot #114 in 2006.) Islamic patriarchal system has kept Saudi women not just from driving, but from traveling, working and even signing medical forms without the permission of a male guardian—any male relative, even their own minor child.
            Gender apartheid is the basis for the entire Muslim social structure. The Arabic word “fitna” means both civil disorder and beautiful woman. In his 2004 article, “Female Desire and Islamic Trauma,” Islam scholar Daniel Pipes explains: 
            “The entire Muslim social structure… goes to great lengths to separate the sexes and reduce contact between them. This explains such customs as the covering of women's faces and the separation of women's residential quarters, or the harem. Many other institutions serve to reduce female power over men, such as her need for a male's permission to travel, work, marry, or divorce. Revealingly, a traditional Muslim wedding took place between two men – the groom and the bride's guardian.” The reason, Dr. Pipes explains, is rooted by the view that a woman’s sexual desire is so great, that believers are obsessed with the dangers posed by her presence. “So strong are her [sexual] needs …she represents the forces of unreason and disorder. …She must be contained, for her unbridled sexuality poses a direct danger to the social order.” 
            For that reason, in 2002, in Saudi Arabia, religious policemen prevented fourteen-year-old schoolgirls from leaving a burning school building because they were not wearing their headscarves and abayahs. Fifteen girls died. 
            The Quran was written long before automobiles were invented. Therefore, it did not specifically prohibit women from driving. It did not even forbid women from riding horses or camels.  And in a society obsessed with the modesty of women’s dress, cars actually hide women better than any other methods of transportation. Saudi Arabia’s leaders’ explanation that women driving is unsafe and leads to sexual impropriety is entirely false, as women are routinely pinched and groped through the chadors when walking in the streets, and are often sexually harassed by taxi drivers—or even raped by their own chauffeurs.
            On the other hand, driving women around has created a source of income for many Saudi men: there are hundreds of thousands of chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia. Removing the religious fatwa against women driving would deeply affect an entire profession.
            Phyllis Chesler has written extensively that subjugating women is behind the brutal misogynistic Islamic practices such as female genital mutilation, stoning and immolation of women, beatings, forced marriages, child marriages and polygamy.  Now that Muslim feminists are taking to the streets in protest for the right to drive, they are beaten by mobs, yet have no legal protection even in cases of barbaric assault or rape. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, commented at FoxNews.com  "… [Saudi] women's rights activists have very little [legal] protection for their physical well-being …This is the problem in a corrupt society…. Republics of fear oppress and repress their citizens by allowing criminals to do the dirty work of the government. It allows the government to keep [its] hands free."
            Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving. But viewing the protesting women in context of the men’s dread of female power to cause civil disorder, it is clear that breaking any taboo carries the unthinkable threat of women seeking rights for representation in government, in marriage and divorce, or in property ownership.
            In the midst of the Arab awakening, women fighting oppression—in Saudi or any other Muslim nation—is doomed to fade away into a dark night, because the power to relinquish control lies in the hands of their oppressors: men, government, and Islamic religious leadership.           

#  #  #
            Author Talia Carner’s novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, June 2011) deals with a woman’s struggle for individuality against her society’s strict religious dictates. www.TaliaCarner.com 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 2001

People escaping the hellish inferno of the building--by jumping to their deaths
In honor of the day, I am posting here an e-mail I wrote that evening, after the day that changed something in all of us:

Dear Everyone Who’s Written to Check On Me Today.
Thanks for your concern.
            We are in complete shock. That is, even those of us who had expected something horrible to happen, something that would be so devastating that it would reach a place beyond our imagination (*)
            At nine in the morning I left my beach house in the Hamptons toward my home in Port Washington--East Egg on your literary map--which is 20 miles outside NYC. My writing group was to meet  that night. I was listening to Books-On-Tape, when, forty-five minutes into my drive, I needed to change a cassette. That’s when I heard the news. Two planes, one after the other crashed into The World Trade Center. “Here we go again,” I thought. “Those small planes. I hate them. They are prone to accidents, flown by amateurs.” But two? The gears engaged in my brain. Sabotage. An act of terror.
            The feeling of deja vu--the events I've witnessed in Israel from close and far—settled on me with some strange remoteness. The wait was over. It had finally happened. I called my husband, Ron, whom I had left behind at the beach house, and told him to turn on the TV. There was an odd utterance of sounds coming out of him as he watched with disbelief.
            “Talk,” I implored.
            Finally he became more coherent and proceeded to describe what he was seeing.
            The a scream. “Oh, my God!”
            “What?” I asked. “What’s happening?”
            “Oh, my God! The Building is falling down.”
            “What do you mean ‘falling down?’ It’s just a small plane—”
            “It’s a jetliner!”
            I raised the sound on the radio. They reported about a fire ball thirty stories high.
            “This is the moment that would change my life, our life, the world’s life,” I thought. Yet I was too calm. Five of our kids work in Manhattan—two daughters and three sons-in-law. I should panic. Something was terribly wrong with me.
            On the cell phone, his voice shaking, Ron insisted I return to the beach house. “They’ll block all the roads in and out of the city,” he said. “You may not be able to return for a long time.”
            “This is the beginning of a war,” I said. I had been driving for an hour. The notion that the Long Island Expressway would be closed due to a terrorist attack was absurd. Yet, that was how things worked in Israel. Nothing was absurd anymore. Not if the World Trade Center tower fell down. Fell down? I still thought that only the top floors had collapsed, from the spot where the plane had hit and upward.
            I pulled onto the next exit, drove the bridge over the highway to the south service road, then stopped on the shoulder. My heart started to beat fast.  There was no one around, all was eerily quiet, the radio turned down again so I could gather myself. I examined the calm with which I handled the news and knew that, as in time of a crisis, the impact would hit me later with force that would leave me reeling for a long time.
            I engaged the gear and began driving back, calling the kids. They had to evacuate all the tall buildings. My youngest daughter was in the street when she answered her cell phone. Her office is located in a basement, and people in her company stayed put. But since her wall borders the 86th Street subway station, which is one of the largest subway intersections, I ordered her to leave. She wanted to go in to inform her staff.
            “Call on your cell phone,” I told her. “Just go home. We haven’t seen the last of the surprises.”
            She started walking. As did my other daughter. Soon after, most phone lines to the city were partly disconnected or overtaxed. Our son-in-law, who lives in Long Island, walked across the bridge to Brooklyn, where he hitchhiked home.
            Ron’s niece, a mother of three children, the youngest only six months old, works in the building across the street from the WTC. She managed to flee when her office was hit hard by debris. In the confusion and black cloud, she found herself on the Staten Island ferry, shoeless and bagless. Ron’s two cousins who work on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center happened to be out of the office. One was away on a business trip, the other took their father to the eye doctor today! The mother called us earlier: Her husband's progressive blindness had saved this son's life...
(*)        Now re my remarks about those who expected this disaster: Last year I attended a lecture by Richard Clark, US Counter-Terrorism Coordinator at the National Security Council.  He said that Osama Bin Laden, a Muslim billionaire hiding in Afghanistan, had trained hundreds of militants to attack the West. His operation was very professional. His plan was--still is--to take over the West, the infidels. (He's behind the U.S.S. Cole attack and others.)  Bin Laden had already planted many highly trained people in the US. Some of them were known to the security authorities, some not. The problem was with the INS. Our immigration laws are extremely lax. Coupled with a legal system that grants instant rights to people suspected of trying to penetrate the US for hostile purposes, these men had been allowed to enter and were then told to come back for a hearing "in 8 months." In the meantime they were let loose on the streets of the USA.
            Often, if the FBI or CIA can't show the INS enough evidence about the INTENT of these suspects--only claim that they know from secret sources that these people had been members of terrorist groups in Egypt or Syria or Algeria. Judges then demand TESTIMONIES from these sources (How is the CIA supposed to fly in the sources?) Needless to say, most of these terrorists simply enter the country because of our liberal legal protection. They come in illegally and are instantly being handed the Bill of Rights.
            Once they are here and are legally cleared from any wrong-doing, the law prohibits the FBI to just follow them or tap their phones... . The FBI must show the judge PROOF of these men's conspiracies.
            To our question why didn't the public know about it, Clark said that the media considered these reports to be unnecessary alarmist and simply buried them.
            So here we are. The day that would mark the start of World War III.

P.S. Two days later I got a call from a friend: Hundreds of cars at Long Island train stations had been left there, their owners—commuters to New York City--never returned to claim them.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Swans And Butterflies


             It is a late summer day. Outside my window, the wetland is dotted with blooming pink flowers as large as saucers and lush shrubs and low-growing trees that have adapted to the brackish water. Six-hundred feet away, under cloudless blue skies, the waters of Mecox Bay sparkle in azure. Three dozen swans glide over the mirror-like surface, carving gentle wakes. Half-way between the house and the bay, a fawn shows up on a deer path cut into the phragmites. It stands still, brown eyes filled with wonder, the white spots on its back like a sprinkle of freckles across a child’s nose. The fawn’s gaze follows two large Monarch butterflies flying over its head, their large orange-colored wings flapping in a balletic circle.

            This could be a scene from the Disney-animated movie Bambi, but it is real, and it is mine. I catch the sight through almost every window of my otherwise modest house.

            Our life changed when, in 1995 our four young-adult children ganged up on us and staged a coup d’état. They had called one another from their respective colleges and universities to gather in our Fire Island home, where we had been spending summer weekends for seventeen years.

            “Enough of Fire Island. Get a place in the Hamptons,” they announced.

            “The Hamptons?” My husband, Ron, vaulted over his ongoing tirade about getting dressed up Saturday night to wait for an hour at one of the Hamptons’ notoriously crowded and expensive restaurants—only to be denied a decent meal. “No way.”

            “But you love it here,” I reminded the children. They grew here, each held his or her first job here, sometimes returning to it the following summer. Each became a part of the fabric of life in Fire Island. We all enjoyed the ferry ride with groceries across the bay, the insulation from the world in the quiet, shaded lanes that only saw the wheels of wagons and bicycles.

            But after the coup d’état weekend ended, the warmth of our hours of laughter, shared cooking, and games lingered. I sat Ron down for a talk. “Look how the children make the effort to be together. It’s a gift that all four enjoy each other’s company. Let’s spend their inheritance now—on them.”

            He looked past the sparse row of summer cottages toward the stretch of white sand lining the ocean. “Only if we can stay close to the ocean.” 

            Summer weekends on Fire Island had been an oasis from my high-powered corporate career during an era when women broke the glass ceiling—and cracking our skulls in the process. However, I had just left that world to write fiction full time. I could settle anywhere. Yes, a view of the ocean would be lovely for my new occupation, I agreed, but since we had witnessed in Fire Island enough storms and houses tumbling into the water, we should buy not right on the ocean, but across the street from it.

            Finding such a place in the Hamptons turned out to be a daunting task. A home in walking distance to the beach? Brokers showed us houses a mile away. We distilled our request: “Barefoot walk to the beach.”

            But a home across the street from the ocean required an easement through ocean-front properties, all private, thus further narrowing our options. “How about near a public beach?” we asked.

            Driving around to look at available homes, I eyed Mecox Bay and became greedy. I  wanted water in the back, too.

            With this added requirement, the offerings of both front and back water views were almost nil, and the few houses we saw were suburban homes. We wanted a beach house; our sprawling residence in Nassau County with its professional landscape required maintenance. We envisioned raw dunes dotted with beach grass, reeds and wild roses—not another manicured lawn. We only wanted to upgrade the house our Fire Island’s beachy feeling, whose kitchen cabinets had been made of lumber the contractor had slapped together.

            Instead of a house, we found a land on Dune Road in Bridgehampton with a handkerchief-size footprint permitted to build on the wetland. Yet merely “a barefoot walk” from Cameron public beach, it faced the ocean from a safe distance in the front while hugging the bay in the back. Most enticing, the two bodies of water met right past us, creating yet another water front and giving the house-to-be stunning 330-degree water views.

            Building it took only a season. The first night we slept there, with the windows opened,  we listened to the concert produced by fowls and insects in the marshes. A surround sound symphony of cracks, tweets, buzzes, squeals and pitched cries filled the night, competing with the syncopated roar of breaking ocean waves. The music magnified and traveled over the still waters of Mecox Bay. Our bedroom felt like a boat moored in the middle of nature, unencumbered by human noise, amidst nothing but land, and sea, and undisturbed fauna and flora.

            What we had never considered when first giving in to our children’s request was that this weekend abode would soon become our main residence.

            It started two days after we had settled in. One morning, a couple knocked on our door and presented us with a pie! They introduced themselves as “neighbors” although they lived a mile away around the bend. By noon, the neighbors across the street invited us for lunch at their house. The following week, another couple down the street hosted a dinner in our honor and introduced us to their local friends. Another neighbor threw a lavish party and invited everyone on the street to celebrate summer.

            In our many years on Fire Island, our social life consisted entirely of our friends from the mainland taking the ferry over. Unlike some families that moved in full-time in summer and whose young children attended camp there, Ron and I worked at our respective jobs all week while our children—often the conduit to parents’ socializing with other parents—were at day camps on the mainland and later at sleep-away camps. In seventeen years, we’d never made new local friends.

            Yet here, in the first Hamptons summer, our circle of acquaintances and new friends expanded fast. After a lecture at Guild Hall, a woman turned to me and asked what I thought about the topic. As we walked up the aisle with our husbands in tow, we all decided to go out for coffee…. When I stumbled over a store’s threshold into the arms of a mother-daughter duo, they invited Ron and me for a party at their home. During the Film Festival, while buying an extra pair of tickets from a couple, we were literally “picked up,” when they asked us to join them for dinner.

            In subsequent years, at a phase when grown children drift away, our beach house became their weekend gathering place, keeping them in our life. We biked and kayaked and swam as a group. We cooked together one main meal each day, freeing us to make social plans for another meal—except that our children often chose one another. One by one, they married, yet their friendships deepened to include new spouses.

            A few times a year, a huge bulldozer dredges up sand to create a wide tunnel that drains the overflow of Mecox Bay into the ocean. Within days, natural pools are formed, warmed by the sun. After babies began to arrive in our family—and all too soon turned into toddlers and beyond—they loved to pull a wagon to “the cut,” splash in the shallow water, build sand castles, or catch crabs with a net at the end of a pole. Often, playmates’ parents now park their cars in our driveway to take advantage of our proximity to this children’s haven. Yet again, our beach house has extended our years with our family, keeping a second generation offspring close.

            As an antidote to the hectic weekends come the quieter midweek days. We had long sold our Nassau County home and bought an apartment in the city for winter. Now we move in to the beach from spring to fall, I with my computer, Ron with his golf clubs. I’ve signed up at two local gyms, procured a library card, joined a Mah-Jongg game, and opened an account at the Sag Harbor pharmacy. We now dance to the drummers at Sagg-Main beach and attend services at the Jewish center.

            As I watch the dawn activity on the sand bar in “the cut,” where flocks of birds of dozens of species vie for a footing and nesting, I observe a few SUVs pulling onto the beach, their drivers seeking what I am fortunate to wake up to. I take my coffee thermos, don a life vest, and hoist my kayak into Mecox Bay. As I paddle into the midst of nature, the pink in the east changes to gold, the crisp air welcomes me, as do the swans.

Good morning, Home.

# # #



Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Au Revoir, Paris

(This blog was written at the end of my sojourn, but the long hours in class and café conversations—and even longer walks—took their toll on my poor spine and kept me away from the computer. Now at home in NY, I am struggling to recover.)

             French uses three different words for “Goodbye.” Adieu, a strong, decisive finality of parting. Au revoir, as in “see you around,” or “see you again,” and À bientôt, indicating a tight time frame of “see you in a jiff,” or at least “later today.”
            I am sitting outside a patisserie on Rue des Écoles, so named for the various Sorbonne colleges that have made this street famous. In fact, the Latin Quarter was once the home of the language that dominated the world of science. 
            In some magical way, this intellectual history should seep into my brain, the way Parisian glamour must come to inhabit my skin. But the pigeons picking at my feet, the city-lending bicycles, the passing middle-aged couples—American retirees making Paris their home for a few months—offer no hint of such osmosis. Still…. The romance of Paris is forever present, pulsating in the sights of the brasserie across the street painted in red; in the ornate carvings on the building next door, with filigree faux balconies; and in the glimpse of a man who comes out of the patisserie carrying three unwrapped baguettes.
Rue Moufftard

            Through the door left ajar behind me whiffs the voice of the chatting proprietor. The tattooed, gray-haired pig-tailed, muscular man might have been one of the students who in 1968 rebelled right on this very street, flinging cobblestones at the police. His butter-filled, flaky croissant makes the transition to the world of working middle-class adults worthwhile. 
            Today is May Day, and several blocks away at l’Odeon, one of the parades fills the streets. The French take this labor day seriously. All shops and services are closed. People buy one another the flower that symbolizes the day, Lily of the Valley, muguet. A Frenchman asked me to compare Israel’s and France’s socialism. My response: “Israel started as a socialist country but has moved away from this ideology, while France is sinking deeper into socialism.”
            It is very cold, in the upper 40s, the kind of temperature I would certainly not tolerate in NY, sitting outside with my deca crème, (decaffeinated coffee,) not even under a space heater that dries my hair but leaves my toes to freeze. This afternoon I am signed up for a walk in the path of Ernest Hemingway, but the persisting cold spring is discouraging. The urge to grab more of every moment is strong, though. There is always another public art to look at, another alley to discover, another surprising storefront not to be missed. There are prints to be leafed through at art galleries, there are French words pouring around me to be caught and mulled over. There are events, and people and blooming flowers. Did I mention shopping?
Store window--of an exterminator....
            A major debate has been raging here about what we in the US call "Same-sex marriage," but they call "Mariage pour tous," (translated: Marriage for all.) Against demonstrations and heated TV discussions, the parliament has passed the law this week. In my French conversations I explained the nuanced difference in the name: While in USA "same-sex" marriage means that two people of the same sex can (or should be allowed) to marry, "marriage for all" includes plural marriage! This oversight might have serious implications given France's growing Muslim population. Some immigrant families arrive with multiple wives, but many such unions are formed within the community in France against the law. 
            Having multiple wives in the French socialist environment that provides generous benefits for children greatly profits the man. While wives number two, three or four  appear to the authorities as single mothers and therefore are entitled to a host of benefits, the reality is that in their strict, honor-bound society these women would have been killed for just speaking with a man, let alone for bearing children out of wedlock—unless their union is indeed recognized internally by their tradition. It is left to see when these marriages will be claimed legitimate under the new law of "marriage for all."
            In forty-eight hours I will be at the airport, about to board the plane that would deliver me back to my life in New York. I came here to immerse myself in French. I took dance classes and played Mah-Jongg in French, and had been quite certain that my former fluency would pop up, the way memories resurface. But through the long hours of classes and equally long hours of conversations I came to the disappointing realization that while my language skills have indeed improved, it must be all relearned, verb by conjugated verb. My facial muscles must be retrained. (Research shows that French have a particularly strong and animated upper lip.) Had I really known all these idioms and word turns? Had I once talked as fast as the locals? Had I understood French films? These past four weeks I’ve also learned to appreciate the contribution of the two subsequent generations that have since my youth enriched the language—or butchered it, as their critics claim.
            With holes in all my socks and debilitating back pain, but light in my heart, I return home. Au revoir, Paris, but not Adieu.
Harmonie, by Antoniucci Vitori
 (To read previous Paris posts, please click  )

Monday, April 29, 2013

Diet Aids and Pickpockets

Full moon over Pont Neuf as viewed at a"Full Moon" party
            What is French women’s secret to maintaining their svelte figures? It must be that potion whose magic of melting fat happens from just two sips, or that body-shaper that evaporates fat. Or could it be that pill or chocolate bar that make a whole female population lose four dress sizes in seconds? Illustrations and testimonies accompany these claims galore made on TV. The French don’t seem to have heard about “truth in advertising”—and for that matter, neither is tort law noticeable here, as witnessed by rickety staircases, broken sidewalks and teetering window planters. One windy morning, my friend was hit on the head by concrete debris that flew from the top of St. Sulpice church, restored a couple of years ago. The stone left a bump, but luckily did not knock her out….

            If high-end style has made French famous, the focus is not consumer oriented as we know it in the States. This shift in focus, this off-perspective that celebrates the decrepit and keeps the new off stage, is what makes Paris. Whole blocks around my apartment, which is adjacent to the Sorbonne, are overflowing with book stores. New books, literary works, used paperbacks, old manuscripts, science and liturgy tomes remind me that not only the literary world is alive and pulsating with accumulated and new knowledge, (albeit in elusive French,) but that the digital age has not swallowed it all up into its carnivorous belly—or onto its endless open clouds. My Metro station, which serves the Sorbonne, is decorated with mosaic signatures of writers, philosophers, poets and scientists.

            The patina of Paris is not wearing off. But life begins to bleed into the surface when charm becomes routine, when the paths I take each morning to class are not viewed with the newness of first blush. Like old love, it is there, always present, permitting me bit by bit to take some of it for granted. But then there is the surprise of discovery: Friday afternoon, instead of a classroom French lesson, the teacher—a lovely and smart young Frenchwoman—took us on a stroll of the Latin Quarter. And right there, merely a few blocks behind my apartment, I found an exotic neighborhood, hidden plazas, and charming alleys whose ancient walls buckled outward over cobblestoned pavement.

            Last Saturday morning, when Ron was here, we witnessed three separate events of potential pickpocketing, two of which were directed toward me. In one such incident on the Metro, a pretty young couple began to fight, she claiming he’d pushed her, he denied. The French student in me listened to the quick language, as I often do when trying to decipher the locals’ fast-tongue exchanges. The novelist in me heard a stilted dialogue that made me perplexed rather than suspicious that the incident was actually a planned distraction while someone tried to put his hand in my handbag. (It was zippered, but had an open side-pocket.) A passenger noticed, yelled, and the man ferreted away. In a second case, Ron was the one to notice a small man following me closely to peek into the same handbag. In a third case, we approached an ATM when we saw the customer at the machine being accosted by two clean-shaven travelers with backpacks, men I would not have suspected and might have been the one to get accosted (which is why I never use outside ATM machines in the USA.)

            Yet this past weekend, perhaps because of my being oblivious, still deliriously drunk on the notion of being in Paris, nothing like this has taken place. Starting at the Bastille, I walked along the gentrified canal St. Martin in the eastern part of Paris, a part of the 130 km waterway system. With trees shadowing the water, foot bridges, walkways and small parks, this was a fascinating place to stop for a Sunday brunch at the historical Hotel du Nord which is to Paris what the American Hotel is to Sag Harbor—except that here history is measured in centuries, not decades.

            In another memorable evening last week, I was invited to a “Full Moon” party, at the Pont des Arts. (That’s a pedestrian bridge where thousands of lovers have place locks on the chain-link railing and threw the keys into the water.) As the moon rose over Pont Neuf across from us, we drank wine, nibbled at the assorted covered dishes brought by the group members—mostly expats and their visiting friends—and listened to the many guitars and singers among the other groups spread all over the bridge.

            And I thought of Ernest Hemingway’s words that “Paris is a moveable feast.”



Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Licking the Windows"

             Lèche-vitrine is a French word for window shopping. Lick the window. How wonderfully these words embody the desire, the sense of the urge when it fills one's mouth. I prefer, though, the descriptive Hebrew expression, “rinse the eyes.” It offers the experience of enjoying the beauty without the overwhelming desire to own it, so clearly implied by the French word.
            But the stores are safe from me. In two weeks here, I haven’t had the time. Always running to classes, to French conversations held all over the city, and back home in between to catch some rest of which I don’t seem to get enough. When I finally had a free Sunday afternoon and set on the mission to check the better fashion stores, I discovered that they were closed on Sunday!
            The birds-and-flower market was more than a great compensation. So many chirping birds were ready to be adopted into families where they would welcome spring, and so many flower pots ready to be planted—the majority, it seems, are in window sills, which cannot be imagined in urban New York.  
           This week, the famous Hotel Carillon, shut down for major renovations, allowed the public a couple of days of viewing the contents to be auctioned. Rooms filled with antique furniture, art, concierge uniforms, Baccarat china, and wine and rare liqueurs displayed in their natural settings, in decorated suites with their sumptuous gilded ceilings. This is was a world where honored guests made history since the mid-1750. One bedroom showed a photo of young, beautiful Claudia Cardinale sitting on the same bed I was looking at. 
            On Friday, hubby Ron arrived for a few days—as did my cousin Michel and his wife Bernadette from Besançon (a town southwest of Paris,) and his sister Gaby and husband Hubert from Nice. While Ron’s visit takes me back to English, Bernadette and Hubert who speak only French provide me with long hours of French conversation that more than make up for the classes I miss. They’ve all commented on my French improvement, even though I feel that my vocabulary still needs a major pumping of new words. But I do chat along, catching up on our lives in as quick a French as I can muster.
 (Photo: Restaurant La Fermette Marbeuf)
            In what is either French tradition or this family’s practice, each couple has treated us to sumptuous dinners at magnificent restaurants. Walking around all day has not balanced the calories consumed at these Parisian establishments whose chefs are dedicated to preserving the reputation of French cuisine down to its rich sauces, which we in the States have long put behind.
            And then there are the potatoes. I am unable to order a salad anywhere without this staple. Yesterday, though, it was replaced with rice. Potatoes also appear routinely on the side of main dishes, and servers are surprised when I ask for a replacement. The standard café’s kitchen is too busy for adjustments.
            Spring has finally showed its warm face for a couple of days this past week, only to shy away and let the cold replace it this weekend. No matter. I am taking three days off from classes for sightseeing.
            Or to lick the windows still from distance, as once again, I have no time to savor the merchandize….


Saturday, April 13, 2013

“Paris is always a good idea.”

With Linda Rubin at The Editeurs cafe
You will be the same person in five years except for the books you’ve read, the places you’ve visited, and the people you’ve met.” – Peter Legge  (An unknown motivational speaker who reads books, visits places and meets people.)
            While I certainly don’t have time to read a book, my third full day in Paris already embodied the two parts about places and people one meets. I started my morning with my daily four hours of French classes, which wouldn’t be significant except for the make up of the students in class: they were all very young and came from all corners of the earth. My study partner that day was a Saudi woman wearing jihab, (Muslim women’s full head covering.) Our assignment was to analyze the writing voice and grammatical forms in newspaper articles. I was relieved that the publication was a Parisian Left Bank circular with local news that did not include international news…. After working together for a while, I relaxed.
            Later in the afternoon, I attended a mixed conversation group of French and English speakers (half the meeting people chatted in English, half in French, so each got to practice.) I met Brigitte, a former French teacher who wanted to practice her English, and after the formal meeting, the two of us continued at a café. We developed a rhythm in which I spoke French and she responded in English, and we corrected one another.  
            Other French conversations groups—of which there are quite a lot here—select different cafés around town, and each new destination makes that street or intersection my flitting home. One afternoon, I was enchanted by the fabulously designed Metro station of Arts et Métiers, its brass ceiling and the dramatization of machinery wheels peeking through celebrate the skills of mechanics and engineers that brought industrialization. Every day, my walk both ways to Alliance Francaise classes has taken me through the Jardins de Luxemburg. One late night, walking away from my second Toastmasters’ group I looked at the lit Louvre across the rue Rivoli. Glistening after the rain, the road reflected the many yellow lights, and had it not been for the late hour and the possibility of more rain, I would have crossed it and walked back home. Instead, I ambled on rue Rivoli under a portico housing art galleries. Devoid of tourists this late, it was my own yet again. 
            At an expats soirée, I met Linda, a retired veterinarian from Florida on the same one-month visit as I am, and whose joke-telling skills about the animals she’d treated would qualify her to become a stand-up comedienne. The next evening she invited me to dinner at her place and we’ve been sharing resources and fun places—last night as “Shabbat welcome” at the traditional French chansonniere Au Lapin Agile. Tonight, I was invited to dinner at friends of a friend of my late cousin Sharon. Talking about six-degrees of separation! I couldn’t have imagined a warmer welcome from this very lovely couple, with whom, it turned out, I had a lot in common.
            The point of reporting these new acquaintances is that in one week in Paris, I’ve never been alone or out of things to do. In fact I am exhausted…. But rest? Tomorrow there will be more conversation groups to attend and I will be a guest speaker at Patricia’s soirée.
            Also, finally today, with no French morning classes over the weekend, I carved a window of time to exercise. I located on the internet a Zumba studio nearby. However, when I arrived, it turns out that the website was not current, and the class scheduled was an advanced choreographed dance. Whatever we think of the French, the instructor was terrific in making sure that I became familiar with the steps. He did so in the fastest French possible, not realizing that I wasn’t a native. It felt great to know that I could already fake it. After class came a Parisian moment: The single dressing room had one shower. As I was gathering my stuff, the instructor came out of the shower in his turquoise-colored briefs and casually got dressed while chatting with the disrobed female students….
            As Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wiggling my toes


     Waking up my first morning, I wiggle my toes and examine my bedroom in the apartment I’ve rented for the month. The bold pink flowered print of the wallpaper repeats itself in the full curtains and in the chair’s upholstery. Yet with the antique dresses and armoire, the effect is warm, old-world French. Outside the window, in the small public garden facing the apartment, the trees and shrubs give no hint that spring has materialized overnight. Pedestrians are wearing heavy coats, hats and gloves. No matter. Paris is staring at me in that little garden. It is supposedly a city square, but it is in fact a triangle, and the name “city square” conjures an urban, asphalt-paved intersection, while this is a lovely oasis of  unpaved paths, groomed flower beds awaiting bloom, benches and an ancient fountain. Stylized stone buildings edging the garden, with very small cars parked in front of them. My corner apartment has many windows that let in light. To the far left is the Sorbonne university, to the far right the Museum of Middle Ages. Most importantly, yesterday, upon my arrival, I glimpsed the back of a garden next to the museum, and to my delighted surprise I realized that this is the herbal garden I so often like to visit when in Paris. 
            Jetlagged I’ve permitted myself to sleep late. I think it is 3 pm, but am surprised to discover that it is only 10:15.  Tomorrow I must leave 8:15 to start my first French classes. I turn on the TV. Since yesterday, as part of my language immersion, I’ve been keeping it on, half-listening—rather than watching—a fashion show, news of military upheaval in Central Africa, a Hawaiian dance lesson, and a documentary about elephants. Forgotten words return, contractions are broken down back to their original words to make them comprehensible.
            Tonight, I will meet a group of expats for dinner. Next Sunday, I will be their featured speaker. Having made my research and contacted groups of interest to me, my calendar is already filled with lessons, French conversations, lectures and programs—sometimes five a day. When I visit the gym around the corner to inquire about exercise classes, I realize that I won’t be able to participate in any.
            Later in the afternoon:
Taking a four-hour walk through the Latin Quarter, my temporary home, and into Le Marais, the area I researched a few years ago for my novel Jerusalem Maiden, I find it hard to avoid stepping back in time to 1924 into the days my protagonist, Esther, visited here. In my mind’s eye I strip off the dozens of souvenirs and T-shirt stores overflowing into the sidewalks in these tourist areas and I try to ignore the restaurants that are an insult to French cuisine. (I tried one last night for dinner and another today for lunch.) But then there are the patisseries, the French bakeries whose aroma of baking butter may cause one to cross the line into serious sinning, and the crêperies, with their carmelized sugar and hazlenut cream—all competing for my passion….
            Instead, I diverted my attention to the refurbished buildings with their ornamental metal works and roof-dormer windows. Gentrification has preserved whole city blocks that otherwise would have been grazed down, like Montparnasse, but the pricy boutiques have also stripped Le Marais from its Jewish character. Or perhaps, the Jewish refugees of WWI that crowded this neighborhood learned during WWII the hard lesson that they weren’t safe among their French neighbors. The memorial day for Ha'shoah, as the French call the Holocaust--adapted from Hebrew--will start tonight. One could not feel it in the Sunday bustling Le Marais, teeming with shoppers, long lines for the Falafel store, and street musicians. But then there was the Holocuast museum, guarded by security, a reminder that all is not behind us.
           As I light a candle for the victims of  the Holocuast, I turn my thoughts toward French Jews who were rounded up for deportation during the Vichy regime not by a single Nazi, but by French gendermes.
            My candle filickers. What is one candle when compared to the lives of six million Jews?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paris, here I come!

             In my four years at Alliance Française, a French-language high school in Tel-Aviv, we all became Francophiles. We belted out French songs, staged school plays in French—and cursed in French. A romantic teenager with three language at my disposal and a flare for writing, I penned poetry in French.
            The summer after our junior year, a selected group of students was sent to France on a month-long mission, which included almost three weeks in Paris. That memorable first trip turned up decades later as the seed of inspiration for my novel JERUSALEM MAIDEN.
            Somewhere along the journey into French language and culture, a dream sprouted: one day I would spend a semester at the famous Sorbonne university in Paris, where I would study Civilisation Française.
            Life, though, had its own agenda, and the dream never materialized. And while in the decades that followed I visited Paris numerous times, I put behind not only that youthful fantasy, but also the language I had once loved. In my twenties, I moved to New York, made English my daily language—and soon the language of my career, first in business, and then in the literary world. When my American husband and I traveled through France, I acted in restaurants and stores as an American tourist that did not even speak French. The Francophile part of my life was erased.
            And then, in 2005, while penning a novel set in Jerusalem, my protagonist surprised me and took off to Paris. Only after I packed my bags and chased her there did I realize that unbeknown to me, the author, her move had been motivated by my very first school trip in the 1960s. It was then that I had imagined my grandmother—the inspiration for JERUSALEM MAIDEN—as an artist there during the avant-garde era.
            What did I know about Paris at that historical time? In the two weeks prior to leaving home to follow my protagonist, I trained my oral muscles and grey cells with verb conjugations and nuanced pronunciation. My husband was amused when I walked around the house mouthing forgotten words and phrases. 
            In Paris, for the first time in decades, I spoke the language as I became a flaneuse, a wanderer, now exploring the city though the eyes of my protagonist in 1924, at a time when most houses had no running water, few had electricity or gas lines, and sanitation services were provided by the slop wagon into which residents emptied their chamber pots. I sat at dusty libraries and leafed through tomes of history—in French.
            In 2010, when JERUSALEM MAIDEN was preparing for publication by HarperCollins, I set out on another project, investigating the history of a painting that had been in my family. I grew up with this museum-size canvas and was so attached to it that after my sister inherited it I commissioned an artist to copy it. Now I contacted long lost cousins, a brother and a sister whom I had met only once forty years earlier, and whose grandparents had originally purchased this painting. Raised in Germany, the brother and sister—now with their respective spouses—lived in different parts of France. The first phone conversation with the sister turned into an almost two-hours long chat. A week later I spoke with her brother, and after forty delightful minutes, he put his French-speaking wife on the phone. Like the others, she was warm and delighted at the renewed contact.
            Three months later, my husband and I piggy-backed a trip to Europe with a get-together in Paris with these cousins. The three couples spent fabulous four days, where we bonded beautifully. Since both my cousins’ spouses spoke no English, I chatted in French from morning to night. My husband, who spoke only English showed the best of his bonhomie self. Although my grammar was far from perfect, it was clear that it was intuitively ingrained, as only someone who had once been fluent in the language could have mastered.
            A year ago, in the spring of 2012, Ron and I visited each of the cousins in their respective hometown, where again I spoke only French. Soon, I was flooded with memories of my high school years when the language and its cultural nuances had meant so much to me.
            This past Fall, at a conversation with a young man who was on remission from cancer, he brought up the question of a bucket list. “What would you do if you had only one year to live?” he asked.
            After some thought, I replied, “I’ll eat chocolate.”
            He burst out laughing. “That’s it? You’ve done and seen everything? I haven’t even been to California!”
            Later, I reflected on my pathetically short wish list. Had I really accomplished everything I could ever dream of? Or did I not dare dream outside the obvious, beyond what was available to me?
            My old desire to spend a semester in the Sorbonne popped in my head. At this time in my life, nothing held me back from making it happen: I had the financial means, my children were emancipated adults, my husband a busy independent man. Besides being French-challenged, he had always enjoyed Paris for just a few days at a time. On the other hand, he always supported my interests. With his unending encouragement, I had blossomed.
The first problem I encountered was that the student body at the Sorbonne that had once been so appealing, hadn't changed: they were still twenty year olds. And a semester was too long to tear myself from my life.  
I approached my husband with the request of a birthday gift of only one month in which I would tailor my own language and culture program. Sure enough, a quick Google search brought up language immersion classes for business executives, presumably in their 40s rather than in their 20s. I discovered groups of expat writers that conducted French conversations, and I signed up for lectures about art and theater along with architectural walks. I would take my exercise and dance classes in French and would even play Mah-Jongg in French.
There was a moment—turned into hours--in which I panicked.
In today’s world of Internet, I could view photographs of each furnished apartment from every possible angel. It would be my home for the month, a place to cocoon alone. But that’s when reality hit me. I had never been alone! Even in the solitude of writing, Ron had always been in the background. After thirty-five years together, I was accustomed to his ever-present care and friendship. Since he struggled with the same separation anxiety, I had to keep my bravado. I forged on with my plan--or my bucket list would once again be reduced to only one thing: chocolate….

I will be leaving for Paris in 8 days. Stay tuned.

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Novelist Talia Carner lives in New York. Her latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, 2011) deals with the struggle between freedom and faith. (www.TaliaCarner.com)