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I thought the space was like those outdated men’s clubs in the States where guys gathered to wear helmets with horns and compare taxidermy.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