Two Suitcases – an update

It’s two years since I stopped writing the book I’d been weaving from strands of my parents’ story.

But I’m still working on it.

The project is called Two Suitcases after the two suitcases my parents took each time they escaped, first from Vienna, then Paris, and finally from southwest France, before settling in Philadelphia, where I was born.

Since life pitched me back into Mama Ganache in 2016, I haven’t written more than a few words of the book.

The project has a life of its own, however. The story often arrives when I’m in the middle of something else, teasing me with its possibilities. Perhaps it will be a trilogy: Vienna, Paris, the south of France. Or, there’s surely enough material for a series: maybe Vienna 1929-34, Vienna 1934-38, Paris 1938-40, The south of France 1940-42.

Now I’m setting long term plans aside and thinking, once I am settled in Cordes again, I’ll try to write vignettes, a series of short pieces revealing a bigger story.

Here’s an excerpt from some writing I did in 2015.

Inside, except for a few who stare glassy-eyed into the lighted station, the passengers in the railcar are reading quietly or asleep, some sprawled over two seats, more cramped into one seat with extra luggage under the feet. Trude and Fritz find their own seats and squeeze the two suitcases between others on the racks above. The car is cooling down quickly as it sits in the station, but Trude is wearing almost everything she owns and, snuggled against Fritz on the worn leather seat, she is comfortable enough. People are smoking cigarettes and someone is singing softly, perhaps to a child. She closes her eyes but cannot sleep, so she thinks of their geese, Babette, and especially of Ignatz, who has only a few weeks to live before he graces the Christmas table. At least she won’t be the one who has to pluck his feathers and roast him.

When she opens her eyes, the train is pulling out of the station, the city receding. Nazi flags are displayed in many windows. “What next?” Fritz asks quietly. Trude tries to smile encouragingly at him – she knows how fortunate they are to be on that train – but her whole being is weighed down by the news Henri shared in the car: the brutal camps in the north, the bombings, and the implementation of the Final Solution, the eradication of all Jews in Europe.

Swastikas in shop windows fly by as the train gathers speed.

Minutes later, the conductor comes through the car, punching holes in the tickets of the people who’ve just boarded. Trude’s emotions are so raw that she trembles with fear as he approaches, even though he isn’t asking to see papers or even speaking to the passengers. Her ticket and Fritz’s are punched without incident. She sighs deeply but cannot stop shaking.

Hendaye is nearly five hours away. She should sleep. Fritz is already snoring beside her. How can he sleep, she wonders, when things are so uncertain? The train might be stopped by the authorities anytime. Would their documents pass muster? She can’t set her fears aside – they are too real.

Moments after she drops into a light sleep, voices wake her. The nightmare begins: an officer in uniform is making his way down the aisle, checking passports.

The whole time I haven’t been writing, though, the story has been growing. Cooking. Filling out. Getting richer. Fermenting. Incubating. Gestating.

I haven’t stopped reading the literature of the time, both other writers’ takes on the times, of which it seems there are more daily, and the books my mother would have read at the time, like The Radetsky March. Currently, I’m reading Paul Hofmann’s social history, The Viennese – Splendor, Twilight, and Exile.

There is a great deal of tantalizing research to be done: for example, our house is Cordes is a twenty minute drive from the village of Verfeil-sur-Seye, where my parents were in hiding between 1940 and 1942. We’ve only visited once so far, but we’ve been told about a very lucid 102-year old who may remember the years when the refugees showed up in the village.

My quest for dual Austrian/American citizenship has been most fruitful in adding details to the story.

Since I began the application process, I’ve been sorting through the boxes of papers stored by my mother, moved from house to house, unopened for many years. I found the very useful folder of documents she and my father collected while applying to Austria for restitution in the 1960’s: birth certificates, school and employment records, old addresses in Vienna, and identification papers. There are visas, tickets, and bills of lading. My mother’s and aunt’s passports are there – Ida’s stamped with a big red J over the Third Reich symbol – though not my father’s. Such treasures.

French identification papers for travel, 1940

Tickets for the Serpa Pinto, the ship Fritz and Trudy took from Lisbon to Philadelphia in 1942

The criteria for qualifying for dual citizenship includes proving that my father never was a citizen of any country but Austria, and that he never fought in the army of another country. That opened whole new vistas in the story.

As part of the process of proving that Fritz didn’t volunteer to fight in the French army, I researched the French internment camp, Meslay du Maine, where he was held from September 1939 to June 1940. Eye-opening!

In order to explain why he was never naturalized in the US, I had the transcription of the 1953 court hearing in which he was denied American citizenship translated into German.

Stories upon stories.

But perhaps the greatest gift is the video of an interview one of our daughters did with my mother in 1996 as part of a school assignment about the war years. How extraordinary to see my mother alive, in her own kitchen, recalling the very years I’ve been thinking about so much!

So, stay tuned. This baby is going to be born.


Ninety Days outside the Schengen Area – Cordes and a California Christmas

After four weeks in Morocco, outside the Schengen area, Tom and I were home in Cordes-sur-Ciel for two delicious, story-filled weeks. How that place fills my heart!

window view Nov 2018
The view from our bedroom
le sentier bleue
Walking to the hardware store
reading corner
My reading place
Porte de la Jane
Full moon over Porte de la Jane
garden gate
A garden gate in Quartier du Bouisset, Cordes
A drive-through bakery in Albi.
Only in France.
Our first Thanksgiving in Cordes
The vibrant Christmas Market in Toulouse

We visited the market just before the yellow vest movement ruined it, disappointing holiday shoppers and devastating the vendors, many of whom depend on the holiday season to pay the whole year’s bills.

The yellow vests have legitimate complaints. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Surely change is needed – indeed it is upon us in full force – but I grew up in a mom and pop store, and I just spent several years pouring heart and soul into Mama Ganache. I feel for those vendors who just lost the years’ profits. A peaceful vigil would not have caught the attention of the world, but violence is not the answer.

Saying goodbye to Cordes. Mocha is staying with neighbors.

The next steps in our long term visa and my Austrian citizenship process required flying back to California, also outside the Schengen Area. We spent the holidays with beloved family and friends.

Pismo Pier
Visiting Eva and her new brother Noah
Decorating the Christmas tree in Berkeley
The beginning of a gingerbread Hogwarts
Fluffy sunning in Josephine and Frank’s garden
Santa Maria BBQ for lunch with Tom’s family
A Danish lunch in Solvang
Almost ready for Christmas dinner at Joanne’s
Christmas lobster!
Relaxing at our Airbnb.
At last!

Living in Cordes – Stone walls

Cordes-sur-Ciel was built as a safe haven for people who lost their homes in the nearby city of Saint Marcel, which was razed during the Albigensian Crusade. Said to be the first of the bastides, it has five walls built in concentric circles.

(More about the history of Cordes-sur-Ciel can be found here.)

A neighbor recently told us that the stone wall across from our home is the unfinished fifth wall. Indeed, our house is just below the Porte de l’Horloge, the eastern entrance to the medieval city, which is in the fourth wall, built between the 14th and 16th century. Our neighborhood, quartier du Barri, is a 17th century suburb of the medieval village.

Cordes sits on a rocky outcropping, and is entirely built of local stone: limestone, sandstone, and dolomite. The houses are stone and the streets in the medieval village are cobbled. Walls surround every garden and line every street.

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There are walls upon walls upon walls.

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Living without a car gives me plenty of time to appreciate stone walls all around. One of the most delightful things about Cordes is its authenticity: it looks like and is a place that has been continually inhabited since the 13th century. The walls reflect its history.

They bring me peace, connectedness, and a sense of stability. They are the keepers of the stories.

I never tire of their variety, their richness, their complexity.

In a village of art, the stone walls are perhaps the greatest art.

 

Living in Cordes – Mornings

Most mornings I wake up before sunrise, open the shutters, roll out my rug and light a candle, and then do some stretches, breathe, and meditate for a while. When I open my eyes, the sun is up – or on its way up – and the view is so lovely, I try to save it in a photo.

These are some of the morning pictures I’ve taken. They begin in early August. The last one was taken this morning, the first day of fall.

Living in Cordes – Cats

Although it is a dog, a wonderful dog, who came to us almost immediately upon our arrival in Cordes, the village is better known for its cats.

Almost everyone in Cordes-sur-Ciel has a cat. And, like a mini-Istanbul, Cordes is home to many feral cats.

In addition to doing their regular work with the rodent population, these wild cats drink water from bowls left out for them and eat kibble sprinkled on people’s doorsteps. (Mocha is also a big fan of the kibble, and has to be convinced daily that it’s not for her.)

IMG_2018IMG_4010There’s an organization, Le Chat D’Oc, that catches, spays and releases, finds homes for, or keeps as many of the feral cats as they can, and individuals do their part, but there are still plenty of cats.

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Mocha, at this point in her life, is a rabid cat-chaser. She’s not great with certain dogs either, but I haven’t seen a cat that doesn’t run from her yet. This one was coming up the Pater Noster stairway very confidently – until Mocha gave him the eye.

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The next moment, he was gone.

Most of them keep their distance.

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This guy, who lives along the footpath where we take our regular evening walk, has been getting braver daily.

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I’m working on Mocha.

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live here without a cat in the house.

Living in Cordes – Les Cabannes

Cordes-sur-Ciel, population roughly 1000, sits on a hill overlooking the valley of the Cérou, which flows into the Aveyron and then into the Tarn. Our house is on the south side of the hill; the Cérou is on the north. Just to the northwest of the village there is another even smaller village, Les Cabannes, though which the Cérou flows.

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The Cérou in Les Cabannes

La quincaillerie

Les Cabannes, a fifteen minute walk from our house, is the home of the local quincaillerie, hardware store, a very important place when one is just moving into a new house.

At the post office, there’s a community center where you can print a page for 15 centimes, which makes getting a printer seem wasteful.

 

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Tom enjoying a beer and the paper at the café in Les Cabannes

There’s also a bistro we like, Le Petit Café, with a dog called Luigi who’s in love with Mocha. This isn’t as endearing as one might think. Luigi is very passionate. He recently followed us to the post office with such enthusiasm that Mocha and I had to take refuge until the post mistress phoned the café to send someone to pick Luigi up. No one could come in or out of the post office until he was gone. Now one of us goes to the café in advance to ask them to hold onto Luigi while we’re there or when passing by.

About halfway between Les Cabannes and Cordes is our favorite grocery store, Prim’Frais,which specializes in local products. They have a nice selection of relatively exotic items, like fresh herbs, too.

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Vegetables at the Prim’Frais

Lately, we’ve been going to Les Cabannes almost every day.

In addition to the Prim’frais, there’s a gas station along the way. The mechanic has a junk yard for parts, and an eye for interesting stuff.

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There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:

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Here’s what it looks like inside:

There’s also a Renault that’s been there so long it’s getting covered in moss.

 

And, if you take Rue des Tanneries home, you might see a goat or two!

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Living in Cordes – Mocha

The evening Tom and I returned from Le Havre with our rented van full of the boxes we’d shipped from Los Angeles, our neighbors Ann and Leif greeted us in front of our house with sad news. Andreas, the other newcomer to our neighborhood, a Swiss artist who’d also moved to Cordes from California, had died suddenly.

His dog Mocha was staying with another neighbor, Dominique, who couldn’t keep her until Andreas’s relatives came, which could be several weeks. Not only did Pompom the cat object, but Mocha’s barking was bothering Dominique’s guests.

When we saw that the address on Mocha’s address was Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA, the solution was obvious. Mocha would come to stay with us until Andreas’s family decided where she would go.

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The next day, after we returned the van to Albi where we’d rented it, we picked Mocha up at Dominique’s house. Mocha was not happy. She didn’t want to stay with us. It was clear that she loved Andreas very much and was grieving deeply.

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So, when Tom opened the door take some empty boxes to the recycling, she was out like a flash.

Naturally, she headed back straight to Andreas’s place. Tom and I managed to corner her briefly, but when a car went by and we had to alter our very strategically chosen positions, she took off again, this time down the street toward the bistro where Andreas, like most Cordais, liked to sit.

We had pictures on my phone, and people knew Mocha, but no one had seen her. She was spotted near Andreas’s place several times. We left a note with Tom’s French phone number on his door; people called, but no one could catch her. Pretty soon half the village was involved.

At 10:30 that night we heard voices in front of our house and looked out the window to see Leif, who told us that Dominique found Mocha sleeping on Andreas’s step, scooped her up, and now had her in her car. She’d be right over.

So Mocha came home. She had chopped sausage and a little duck for dinner. And she went to sleep on our bed.

Day by day she is becoming more accustomed to her new home. She no longer pulls on the leash when we go near Andreas’s house. She enjoys hanging out at the bistro, where she’s very popular.

And she loves being groomed! (Not so much the bath.)

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But a long walk, table food, and sleeping on a good bed suits her very well!

Now we’ve heard from the family that we can keep her!

Thank you, Andreas, for this wonderful new family member.

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Living in Cordes – Beauty all around

Perhaps August is the most beautiful month of the year in this medieval village in southwest France, or maybe it only seems so because it’s the beginning of our new life here and we’re seeing everything with fresh eyes.

Either way, here’s a series of pictures from our first two weeks. A few, like the one above, were taken from our bedroom window first thing in the morning; the view is enchanting.

After dinner we usually climb the hill behind our house. This picture was taken about half way to the top.Our neighbor, Lilliane, who comes from Paris every summer, tells us the best restaurant in the village is at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes. Rochelle, Tom, and I sat on the patio there, shaded by a 300 year old wisteria, until a thunderstorm chased us inside. Even inside it was dramatic. As I took the last bite of my oeufs brouillé au truffes (the English menu called them “blurred eggs with truffles”) one of the tall casement windows blew open with a bang, startling everyone in the room.

Later we sheltered under the roof of Les Halles, the covered square at the top of the village, and watched as lightning lit up the sky above the museum of contemporary art, once one of the grand houses of the village.When taking the footpath from our house to the lower village, bring a bucket for all the wild fruit: blackberries, plums, quince, apples and grapes.

I think my favorite meal is soup, salad, and bread, with a Gaillac rosé.

One day we were greeted by traditional Occitan music and dancing when we got off the bus from Albi.

Another view from the window:

A doorway on our street:

After Rochelle left, Garrett, Chris, and Ed visited. Garrett cooked us a spectacular Sichuan Chinese meal.

A walk in the upper village:

And a visit to the Musèe Charles Portal, the history and archeology museum, which rises high above the western gate to the city, the Charles Portal.

Lace-making machinery from the early 20th century:

And more morning pictures:

Including some hot air balloons which floated gently over the village at daybreak.

Really, what more could anyone ask?

Living in Cordes – Tuesday in Albi

Tuesday was our fourth day as French homeowners and the first day all the shops are open after the weekend. It was also the last day we would have a rental car, so Tom and I went to Albi, a picturesque 20 minute drive from Cordes, to change the SIM card in his phone and set up French phone and Internet service. Coming from the US, we had the amusing idea that the task could be completed in one visit.

Turn out that in France, particularly in August, it’s more complicated than that.

For a start, to get a French phone number, you need a French bank account. Like many of the French cities we’ve visited, Albi’s central commercial district is largely closed off to cars and offers everything you could need, so we walked over to the Albi branch of the bank that also has a branch in Cordes.

In France, we discovered, an appointment is necessary to open a bank account. The Albi bank officer could make one for us in Cordes, but the next one available was on Thursday a week.

At the Albi branch, however, an appointment was available the following Tuesday. That seemed worth the bus trip, especially since we’d already found out that we’d have to return to the Apple store for a charger that’d had to be ordered. Tom said we’d take the Albi appointment.

The bank officer wrote down all the documents we’d need: passports, three months of bank statements from our California bank, proof of residency in France (which we already have – though how we got it so soon is another story), and several more documents that she kindly agreed to leave off the list, since we couldn’t possibly have them yet.

She’d also need our phone number, of course. It’s an American number, Tom said. But then the bank cannot call you to confirm! A French number is needed!

Catch 22.

However, having already set a precedent regarding the missing documents, Tom was able to convince the officer to confirm the appointment right then.

Lesson learned: even when the red tape seems endless, a little dialogue goes a long way.

Credit goes to Tom’s excellent French, pleasant personality, and the willingness of the French to keep the conversation going and to negotiate.

It’s true we still have to go back to Albi in a week with the rest of the papers, and that surely won’t be the end of the steps we’ll have to follow – we’re told it takes about three weeks to get local internet and phone service set up – but Albi is such a beautiful place and I’m sure there will be other things we need that aren’t available here in the village, that I won’t mind going back.

Arrived: Cordes-sur-Ciel

Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.

It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.

Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –

– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.

Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.

I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…

Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.

It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!

We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.

And now we are here!

We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.

Such a view! Come see us!