Friday, October 1, 2010


Le Moulin à Nef sits on the bank of a lazy, quiet river at the foot of Auvillar.

Next door, “Le Rendez-Vous des Chasseurs,” or Meeting Club for Hunters, sits in a squat brick building with broad wooden doors. The director pointed out the space when I first arrived.

“That’s where the hunters meet,” she said.

I thought the space was like those outdated men’s clubs in the States where guys gathered to wear helmets with horns and compare taxidermy.

On Sunday, I found out that the translation was literal.

Walking back from the town market and feeling energized by the combination of the trek up the steep hill to town and the friendly exchanges with the farmers who filled the Halle, formerly a grain exchange, with tables of fresh vegetables, I spotted from up the street the mass of men in camouflage and army green. Some wore bright patches of orange and tall green boots.

I’d heard them early that morning corraling their dogs into trucks. The dogs wore loud clanging bells around their necks and when I looked out the window I thought I would find goats or cows. Instead, frisky hunting dogs were hopping from side to side in the backs of the trucks. The men milled around, faces red and ruddy from a combination of sun and too much drinking.

Now they’d returned from the hunt and as I approached, they watched me with growing amusement. I ignored them and beelined for the Maison V. They continued to watch me, rumbling to each other in some Iron John dialect of French that I didn’t understand.

As I pivoted towards the Maison, four dead boars came into view, the bodies laid out on the sidewalk between the hunting trucks. Blood was smeared on the sides of their bristly bodies. I instinctively recoiled and the men broke out into belly laughs.

That was how I met my neighbors.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Une Chambre à Soi

Cheryl gave me a set of keys when I arrived at “Le Moulin à Nef.”

I feel like a medieval prison matron carrying around these heavy antique keys.

The large ones lock my bedroom and the back doors of the Maison V. The smaller ones are contemporary keys for the front doors to the studio building and the Maison.

These keys come with a leash—a long blue VCCA lanyard—so they won’t get lost.

The door to my studio is more complicated. The entry has a little padlock to lock when I’m outside. From the inside, there’s a trendy orange belt keeping me safe.

It’s not exactly a fort, but it is a space of my own, or, as in the French translation of the Virginia Woolf essay, “Une Chambre à Soi.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blue Suitcase Full of Books

Months later and settled in New York City again with a home full of books and two furry four-legged alarm clocks/cats, I had no interest in going further than Stogo ice cream in the East Village…

…when I got the news from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts that they wanted to offer me a spot in their outpost in Auvillar, France…

But in my fuzzy socks and slippers, the thought of trekking across the globe again was less appealing.

Plus, fall in New York was one of my favorite seasons on the planet: the crisp leaves, relief from the hot breath of the summer subways, and that back-to-school feeling all over the city. Sharpened pencils, brand-new notebooks. Weather just right for long walks and adventuring around the city—not too cold, not too hot.

But then, there was France.

In the end, France won and I set off again for another spot on the globe. This time, I knew the language (mostly) and would be settled in one place for long enough to know it inside-out.

So I set off with a blue suitcase, some writing supplies, and a stack of books (heavier than a Kindle, but necessary traveling companions).

Here is a list of the books I packed (as essential as my bag of 100 ml liquids):

“Dreaming in Cuban” by Christina Garcia
“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
“Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy
“Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler
“Kafka on the Shore” by Murakami
“Educating Alice” by Alice Steinbach
“Je Veux Que Quelqu’un M’attend Quelque Part” by Anna Gavalda

…and a few more (I can’t believe how many books I packed!!—not exactly traveling light).

What I forget while packing for a residency or trip is that I discover more books en route and the ones that seemed so necessary at the start of my trip turn into dead weight as I continue on. In this amnesia, I carted a section of my library with me to France.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kafka and the Hot Air Balloon

Cindy and I had seen the balloon bobbing over the Charles Bridge and wondered what lunatics thought that being suspended over the Vltava was a good idea. And then, after a long wander through the Prague castle, trying to avoid swarms of tourists, we decided to take a ride. Maybe just to be able to see Prague for once without having to look over the shoulder of some beer-guzzling Brit or American:

To kill time while we waited for our turn, we went to the Kafka museum, an over-the-top festival of alienation and despair made up of giant file cabinets and dark echo-y sounds.

The high school photo of Kafka looked like an ex-boyfriend, a staunch atheist and mathematician with Eastern European features, though his family was Italian, he would be right at home in Prague and now I had proof. Young Kafka was his mini-doppelganger.

The room with the file cabinets reminded me of a safety video I had to watch when I worked at the Yale Law School in the Library. In the film, there is a dramatic reenactment of someone tripping over an open file cabinet to show the dangers of leaving file cabinet drawers open in an office. In these rooms, there were drawers permanently stuck open with glass on top and letters or photographs underneath. Some of the letters complained about working in an office. Others talked about his life as an artist. I never knew that Kafka drew. Here are his views on art school:

“I was, in another time, a great sketch artist, but I learned to draw in a scholastic system, under the direction of a mediocre woman painter, causing the loss of all my talent.”

Here is the blurb that the museum wrote about Kafka’s drawings. It gives you the sense of how understated the museum descriptions were:

“It is a tribute to the daily descent of Kafka’s soul into the abyss of the blank page.”

One room showed a black and white film of a shadowy figure cast onto the white walls as a depiction of Kafka’s The Castle, a novel about a man who arrives in a village to take up a job for which he is no longer needed.

My favorite Kafka quote was from a letter to Felice on his readings of Chinese art and philosophy:

“Deep down I am Chinese,” he wrote, “and I am going home.”

The Kafka museum ended up being a good primer for our ride in the hot air balloon. The balloon operator strapped us into sling-like seats that attached to the giant white balloon. It was more like bungee jumping than a real hot air balloon since we were suspended by wires instead of riding in a basket. He showed us the little radio walky-talky and the button we could press if we wanted to come down early.

Once we rose to the farthest point from the ground, the wind picked up and swayed us back and forth between the Charles Bridge,

and the buildings on the shore where I could see the giant K from the Kafka Museum:

At times it seemed like we would sweep so far over the buildings our feet might touch the roofs. When we swayed back over the Vltava, I clenched the wire grips.

Cindy and I agreed that we’d had enough so we pressed the button but got no response. A few minutes later a scratchy voice came over the speaker babbling in Czech.

I tried the button again. Nothing. By now, mildly petrified, Cindy and I tried to distract ourselves by snapping more photos. This worked, and reduced the Kafka-esque sense of impending doom.

After we gave up and resigned ourselves to a night suspended by wire over the Vltava, we noticed that we were closer to the buildings than before. The giant “K” outside the Kafka museum was getting bigger. Slowly, the man at the other end of the wire had started to lower the balloon.

A wave of relief filled me. As soon as we reached the ground, we forgot our white-knuckle Kafka experience of being tossed around by the wind and remembered only the exhileration of being lifted off the ground.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A town stuck in a fairy tale

Halfway to Český Krumlov, it looked like the bus driver was having a beer. He tipped the silver can back, and from my angle it looked like a Czech beer brand’s logo.

This was the least of our worries.

Our animated self-proclaimed celebrity tour guide Milosz had gotten carried away in České Budějovice and our detour there ran an hour longer than expected. Our destination was Český Krumlov, a UNESCO Heritage Site and town near the Austrian border, and with the driver going along at the rate of a golf cart, we would barely have time to glimpse the town before our night at the opera.

Through the bus window, I saw a giant nest with storks. The spindly-legged creatures looked more ragged and brown-tinged than cartoon storks. One poked its head out of the nest, then thought better of it and tucked back into hiding. We passed rows of farmland. I saw a little girl rubbing her eyes and crying on a porch with her mother next to a massive field of wheat.

The forests thickened as we neared Český Krumlov. We parked in a lot outside of town as the cobblestoned streets are too narrow for buses.

We climbed out of the bus and into a fairy tale town. Narrow winding streets, wooden bridges, a sprawling castle, and stone buildings stacked close together under stormy skies.

Milosz led a tour through town punctuated with his usual gory details. He liked to add things about notable historical figures such as “and then he died of syphilis so he had to be cremated.”

In the middle of the tour, it started to rain. We were crossing a narrow bridge, staying close to the side so cars could pass. First a few drops and then the circling clouds gathered over the town center and the showers started. Did I mention that the opera we were headed to was outside?

We took cover under an arch with two tourist shops. Robin Hemley, the only faculty member on the trip, talked about how he was looking for a fanny pack. Who in their right mind would wear a fanny pack? I wondered if I should stage an intervention. Tell him that fanny packs went out of style with jams and parachute pants in 1991. Actually, they may never have been in style. Only grandparents wore fanny packs or people with pocket protectors. People who wore sensible orthopedic shoes.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stage an intervention as it turned out he was seeking the most offensive tourist garb on purpose as part of a new non-fiction project on pickpockets. Phew!

As soon as the rain lightened, Milosz ushered us back to the hotel to change for the opera. What do you wear to an opera when it’s pouring rain? I thought of Hana at the New York Metropolitan Opera surrounded by surly Americans in dripping raincoats.

Milosz had a bee in his bonnet about getting to the opera on time. He perched at the head of the bus practically tapping his foot until we arrived at the parking lot.

The rain came back again, following us like the rain cloud over Linus. At the gates to the opera, staff handed out blankets and ponchos. There we were: surly Americans in dripping raincoats at the opera.

When the show began, all the rain and misery disappeared. The scenes were set in the woods and grassland around the audience, and the audience, like a giant amusement park ride, swiveled 360 degrees in the course of the show. The show was Dvorak’s Rusalka. The woman playing Rusalka put the D in Diva. Here she is, hugging a tree:

Mostly the opera consisted of the Diva sashayed across a black plastic faux-lake pining after the unappealing steroid-popping alto who wore a puffy blouse. Luckily, Dvorak had added elements of the Little Mermaid tale to give a context to this spectacle.

The setting and effects worked like magic. Instead of black plastic, I saw a lake, and instead of women in floaty dresses, I saw sea nymphs. I didn’t want the seats to stop moving. Very late, when the rain had stopped and the Diva bowed at least twenty times, we were set loose back into the fairy tale of Český Krumlov.

Back at the hotel, we changed into warmer clothes (in other words, I put on every item of clothing I’d brought), and headed out in search of Český Krumlov night life. This consisted of one bar with a rotating multi-colored disco light playing bad music while no one danced. Everyone clung to the bar, including one man who was slumped over the bar, possibly dead, though no one seemed to notice or care. We found a wooden table and ordered “betons” until the music drove us out.

The next morning, I visited Egon Schiele’s regular hangout

…and ate buckwheat cereal with honey at a restaurant that served traditional medieval fare.

I also spotted Mao’s twin lounging by the river, though he was decidedly more sedate.

On the way back to the hotel, I saw people getting ready to go kayaking, dwarfed by the town buildings:

Milosz again was in a hurry to sweep us off to the next syphilis-riddled hotspot in Czech history so we piled back into the bus. I spotted another silver can in the bus driver’s hand, but I was too full of the land of Rusalka, honey mead, Egon Schiele and thatched roofs to care.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wegetarian Food

I’m not a vegetarian, but I might be a wegetarian:

“V” becomes “w” on some tongues and the linguistic twist makes new words.

In Prague, Wegetarians beeline for Lekha Hlava, or Clear Head, the mecca of wegetables and wegan delights.

Clear Head Restaurant

There is no goulash in sight.

If you’re a spiritual leader, you eat for free. If not, the check is delivered in a neat wooden box at the end of the meal, like a gift.

When Premysl and I finally met for lunch, I suggested Clear Head as a possibility.

“I don’t eat vegetarian,” he said. He pronounced the “v” carefully in his precise English. An odd assertion, but I went along with it, and we ate in the decidedly anti-vegetarian duck restaurant behind Charles University.

Goulash was plentiful and the dumplings stay with you for hours afterwards, possibly decades. I punctuated my visits to Clear Head with stops at traditional Czech eateries so I wouldn’t forget where I was.

Friday, October 16, 2009

All the Czech I Need to Know I Learned at the Convenience Store

“Odpouštím ti.”

This was my new favorite phrase in Czech. It meant, “I forgive you.” I discovered this on the wall of the contemporary art museum. Also at the museum, I found, “Na zázraky,” which meant, “I believe in miracles.” I collected these phrases though I could barely pronounce them.

I still gravitated towards the English bookstores in town,

not quite ready to browse the Czech titles at the main bookstores.

Without the language in Prague, I lacked a bridge to understanding.

If I spoke Czech, I could ask why this statue had a strange plasticine head over a metal body…

Or why the streets often wandered in the wrong directions…

…so that I ended up lost and surrounded by strange people.

I’d gone to the first week of Survival Czech, and learned how to say “I don’t know how to speak Czech,” but mostly I picked up words from reading signs and labels, often at the nonstop convenience store near the Hotel Pyramida, where many items were kept behind the counter.

I knew that “white” was “bílý” because I saw the word on my yogurt. Also, neperlivá was “still” in reference to water—another word learned at the convenience store. Banán was another convenience store word.

Most of the Czech I learned was in reference to food. While I ate my way through Prague, I picked up a few Czech words too…between bites.