I’m busy getting ready for the first Chat Nomade, a pop-up cafe filled with cat art and objects. Nicole Barrière, Jude Brazendale, Marie-Josèphe Boyé and I are planning it for the first weekend of October, at Tom’s and my place. In November, it’ll be at someone else’s place.
At this point we’re working on the poster and making or collecting cat things.
Cordais friends, mark your calendars now and join us Saturday or Sunday afternoon between 2 and 5 the first weekend of the month for the Chat Nomade.
Je suis occupé à me préparer pour le premier Chat Nomade, un café éphémère rempli d’art et d’objets félins. Nicole Barrière, Jude Brazendale, et Josèpha Boyé et moi le prévoyons pour le premier week-end d’octobre, chez Tom et chez moi. En novembre, ce sera chez quelqu’un d’autre.
À ce stade, nous travaillons sur l’affiche et fabriquons ou collectons des objets “chat”.
Amis Cordais, à vos agendas dès maintenant et rejoignez-nous samedi ou dimanche après-midi entre 14h et 17h le premier week-end du mois pour Chat Nomade.
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.
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.
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!
What I am has nothing to do with the things and stories that surround me. It doesn’t need even one suitcase to contain it, much less two. When nostalgia for what I had begins to fill me, wherever I am, I can go to my heart and feel at home with who I am, and that is enough.
Ceiling tile for sale on a street in Morocco
It’s where I find hope, where I can recover that sense of eager anticipation the Hathors recommend in these times of failing expectations and beliefs, the loss of story, and crumbling perceptual boundaries.
One of the seminal books of my hippie years was a typewritten channeled teaching called Season of Changes. I’ve forgotten the details of the predictions, but I’m sure they’ve been borne out or will be soon enough. It was a dark view of the future, full of cataclysm and apocalypse. Written in question and answer format, the last responses concern how to respond to the changes. As I recall, the advice most forcefully given was to practice meditation.
It’s comforting to imagine that more people than ever are doing that, at least in my own bubble. It’s less comforting to remember how tiny a percentage of the world’s population my bubble contains.
But it’s sound advice. When the now threatening storm of storms is full upon us, when that moment of personal and collective apocalypse that we all feel coming finally arrives, it’s the meditators who will be able to hold the rudder.
Storm coming in at our house in Cordes
Meditation takes you to your center, to the center, the one we all have in common. It takes you out of the chaotic whirl of stories to the place of no story, where energy is conserved instead of fueling the miasma of outer experience.
It takes you beyond imagination, beyond the limits of space and time, and beyond the singular focus of our culture on the physical: on acquisition (growth vs. maintenance), on hierarchy (dominion vs. sharing), beyond your own little bit of the apocryphal elephant.
Letting go of the world as we know it, the world of perception, this particular consensus reality, is necessarily heart-breaking. It’s painful to separate from the things and people and stories we love, and love is, after all, what it’s all about.
The tricky part is to connect love to the universal rather than the particular.
After nearly three weeks in the big cities of Morocco, Tom and I headed to the mountains.
Atlas Mountains from the road from Marrakech to Ourika
Tom had visited the Ourika Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains before, so we booked a room at in Tnine, the village he’d visited with a souk where the Berbers came by donkey. We planned to see that on Monday, the day of the week it happens. We arrived on Friday.
Our hosts in Morocco have been very hospitable, but Abdurrahman at the Secret Atlas is by far the most generous and friendly of them all. Using a translator on his phone because he speaks only Arabic, he served us delicious thyme tea on our arrival, told us about his family, and shared beautiful passages from the Koran that explained his exceptional hospitality. For 11€/night, we have a spacious bedroom, living room and kitchen. The extraordinary breakfasts Abdurrahman cooks for us each morning are a few euros more.
Tiles on the wall and floor of the Atlas Secret
The apartment is elegantly spare and spotless, the bed excellent, and views spectacular.
View from the Atlas Secret
We were a little surprised, however, to find that the Secret Atlas is in apartment building on the relatively busy street that connects the two parts of the village. On Airbnb, it’s listed as a “farm stay.”
On our first afternoon in Tnine, we explored the part of the village near the river. It was hot, the pollution from all the cars and motorcycles hung low, and other than offering a window into the lives of ordinary residents of the valley, there wasn’t much to see there.
Street scene, Tnine, Ourika
The next morning, we discovered that other than a couple nice places for tea or a meal, the other end of the village had little to offer either.
We looked on the internet to see what else we could do. Everything looked like it would require another expensive taxi ride. The taxis to and from Marrakech are a bargain because they’re shared by up to seven people, but to call one to go from point A to point B requires paying the fee for the distance traveled to where you are and to where you’re going at the full rate.
But wait. It looked like at least one destination was close by, and it was something neither of us had ever seen: a saffron farm!
Le Jardin du Safran is an easy walk from the Secret Atlas. We’d passed by the dirt road that leads to it the day before.
What an enchanted place! We found the front gate open.
Entrance to Jardin du Safran
A sign told us we were free to wander around but not to pick the fruit or flowers. Pretty soon the farm manager found us and took us on a tour that lasted a couple hours.
Pathways, Le Jardin du Safran
Synchronistically, we’d arrived the day before the four best and busiest days of the year: the saffron harvest. Every year, from November 4 – 8, when the flowers of the crocus sativa bloom, dozens of local women are hired to do the delicate work of pulling the bright red pistils out of the flowers, nipping off the yellow end with their fingernails just so, to produce the tiny strands of highly aromatic spice so highly valued throughout the Mediterranean, and the world.
Crocus flowers harvested the morning of our visit
Instead of watching the women at work, we sat down on the stools around one of the round tables and learned how to pull the pistils out of the flowers ourselves! Then we saw the drying process and smelled the exquisitely freshly dried product.
Saffron before drying
The second part of the tour was a leisurely walk through the farm, where a wide array of other herbs are grown, and trees: olive, walnut, persimmon, pomegranate, date, apple, and argan for oil, all arranged around small square plots in which the crocus bulbs were planted. The day’s harvest was already picked, but a few flowers were left for the tourists.
Tom and our guide
Roses in November
There were also goats and donkeys.
Tomorrow we’ll visit another local farm, one that calls itself the bio-aromatique, organic-aromatic, farm. After today’s surprise, I can’t wait.
It was in the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts in Fès that the thought struck me. The chaos of the crumbling medina, the vibrancy of the souks, the noise, the pollution, the exploding energy of the colors, and the sheer quantity of stuff –
Souk, medina, Marrakech
– is beautifully balanced by prevalence of the purposeful geometry, sacred geometry, everywhere.
That’s why Morocco is so enchanting.
Souk, medina, Fès, Morocco
Doorway, Marrakech Musèe
Wall, Palais el Mokri
Islam takes the prohibition of worshipping graven images seriously, and discourages figurative art. Like all of life, art should be dedicated to God, and God is only describable as essence. Geometry is essence.
Fountain, Palais Glaoui, Fès
Who can resist being centered by such design?
All my years of studying sacred geometry, beginning even before my Ganesh Baba days, and then Dan Winter and most deeply with Alice O. Howell, peaked at that moment in the museum. I stood at the center of a ideally proportioned room surrounded by mandalas, exquisite symmetry, perfect curves, rhythmic repetition, and profoundly satisfying rectangles and squares.
I wanted to take dozens of pictures, but photography was not allowed, so I was forced to confront the serene beauty of that room face on. It was transformative.
Since then I’ve consciously attuned myself to noticing and letting the geometry take me in.
Palais el Mokri
Palais el Mokri, Fes
Pastry, souk, medina, Fès
Even contemporary Moroccan design uses the elements of sacred geometry to create beautiful calm spaces, as exemplified by our current Airbnb in the new part of Marrakech.
Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment
Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment
Dining room table and chairs
Gate to new apartment building
Light fixture in our Airbnb apartment in Tnine, Ourika
For several days, Tom and I stayed in the Bird’s Nest, an upper room in Palais el Mokri, which is truly a palace, on a hilltop above the medina in Fès.
The view from our “dining room”
It was a little like staying at Miss Haversham’s place. Built in 1906 for the Pasha of Casablanca, his descendants are now restoring their magnificent inheritance, an enormous project, and renting out rooms on Airbnb. They’ll also cook for you, and bring very decent meals to your rooms.
The place is magnificent. Dilapidated, but magnificent – and worth every penny of the $23/night we spent to stay there!
The windows in our bedroom
Coming up the stairs into the Bird’s Nest
Doors in the Bird’s Nest
Looking out over Fès from our room. See the grass on the roof tiles?
Palais el Mokri is about a ten minute walk from the souks, museums, and restaurants of the medina, or old city, of Fès.
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.
There are walls upon walls upon walls.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
We moved through the Finger Lakes from north to south, staying with dear friends all along the way. Echoing my own years of living there, we first stayed in Ovid, NY, about a mile from the beautiful Victorian house my first husband and I bought in 1976 for $22,000, and soon filled with our growing family plus a stream of housemates and guests, including Ganesh Baba and his followers: psychedelic seekers, scientists from Cornell, and hoards of hapless hippies -as he called us- from all over the world.
The Women’s Peace Encampment at Seneca Army Depot was born in that house in 1980 when the young neighbor who babysat for us mentioned that her father dismantled outdated nuclear weapons for a living. As proof she brought over the safety manual given to employees at the local army depot. We were already active in the anti-nuke movement so, through connections with the Syracuse Peace Movement, our friend Fred Wilcox brought a reporter from New York Times to see the manual. The cat was out of the bag.
Our stay in the area this time was less momentous but considerably more heartwarming. From Roxanne Gupta’s beautiful house in Sheldrake, and Durga Bor’s in Trumansburg, and Kip Wilcox’s in Ithaca, it included a week’s worth of wonderful meals with dear old friends, tasting cider at the Finger Lakes Cider House and cheese at the Muranda Cheese Company, a visit to the Ithaca Farmers Market, a picnic on Cayuga Lake, wine on a friend’s dock, and more at a blueberry farm, a morning at PRI’s Museum of the Earth, and lots of glorious rain. It was especially good to spend time with our old friends’ grown children and their children.
Of course, we went to see Taughannock Falls, site of Tom’s and my first date, and many, many hikes over the years, as often as we could fit it in.
It was hard to leave. So many memories, so many good times, so many dear, dear friends.