Though I’m sad to be leaving California behind, I’m filled with gratitude that our long term French visas, good for one year, have come. Dual Austrian/American citizenship is still in process, but I’m optimistic about that too, especially as reading The Viennese – Splendor, Twilight, and Exile makes me feel so very Viennese.
Once, when I told our retired psychoanalyst friend, Joe Abrahams, that it was my mother, my very Viennese mother, who finally pulled me to the top in a long series of dreams about mountains, he responded without hesitation, yes, that’s your purpose, to fulfill your mother’s dreams.
I’m deeply thankful that my mother passed on her dream of living in the south of France to me, as well as for my rich life in the United States till now. THX MoM.
You know the sensation you get when you feel profoundly thankful – when the tests come back and you’re okay, when the car doesn’t hit the dog, when you realize what you’ve got, that tingle that spreads outward from the back of your head as the hypothalamus releases all those healing hormones? As the possibility of putting down roots in Cordes for a good while becomes more real, I feel deeply grateful more and more often. When I am there, I feel it every day as I open the shutters.
Such gratitude cannot be conjured, though it can be courted. Like meditation, it isn’t something you do; it’s something that comes. Practice readies the heart, the mind, and the body; but true meditation and deep gratitude are states that arrive only by grace.
The cycle of giving and receiving gratitude is at the heart of the Iroquois belief system – the prime responsibility of the people to keep the cycle turning.
The next few days will be our last in California for a while. I am grateful to so many of you for your love, laughter, and light during our years in San Luis: twenty years of learning, sharing, and growing.
As things seem pretty much in order for our departure, Tom and I plan to spend our two last afternoons in San Luis at Mama Ganache, where you are welcome to join us. One or the other, or maybe both of us, will be there between 2 and 5 on both Tuesday and Wednesday, January 8 and 9. Stop by.
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!
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.
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.
The Cérou in Les Cabannes
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.
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.
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.
There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:
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!
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.
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!
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.
We’re experimenting with what to take and what to leave behind, and piling up various configurations of it on the driveway. Pretty soon we’ll have a good enough idea of how and what will fit and the pile will move indoors.
Since my project is called Two Suitcases, I took the idea of moving to France with two suitcases pretty seriously. Well, with two suitcases apiece. Eventually it came to me that, though it would offer me to opportunity to partially replicate my parents’ arrival in the same part of the world in 1940, it was a thoroughly romantic – and therefore impractical – notion. We shifted our thinking to shipping one pallet of boxes.
Right now the boxes making the cut contain: the library I’ve collected to use as background material for Two Suitcases, a few boxes of my papers and other books, some of Tom’s papers and books, framed photos of the family, art, kitchen things, winter clothes, and some items to make our new home feel like our old one. Carpets, my computer, Tom’s keyboard, and more art will be shipped separately.
Most of my days are filled with sorting and packing. This box has our favorite mugs at the bottom, some delicate pieces of art and glass in the middle, and at the top, some of the birds that lived in our houseplants or flew around the ceilings in our home here.
At its center, packed very carefully, is the crystal bell my father bought my mother with his first paycheck in 1943, less than a year after they arrived in Philadelphia. He always said he bought it to remind her of what is important.
It’s five weeks until Tom’s and my exploratory trip to France following the final sale of Mama Ganache, and less than four months until our projected move to France.
This immense choice to change countries, and languages, and neighbors is largely driven by my current project, Two Suitcases, a series of historical fiction pieces based on my parents’ three escapes from Vienna, Paris, and the south of France. In order to do research in all three settings, we planned to move to Luçon, a city of 10,000 on the Atlantic coast, very near to Centre Tripura and dear friends.
It occurred to me to consider moving directly to the region of southern France where my parents were in hiding, rather than settling in Luçon immediately. Do the the research out of chronological order. Ease into our new life in a furnished apartment in a small city more like San Luis Obispo or Ithaca, walkable, culturally and historically rich, with no need for a car.
Our trip to France in May will now include a few days in Montauban , a city of 58,000, four hours southeast of Luçon. If the right furnished apartment in center of the city shows up, perhaps we’ll end up there for our first year of footlooseness.
An hour north of Toulouse, Montauban was my parents’ destination when they left Paris as part of the great exodus of June 1940. Under the combined auspices of the Austrian Social Democratic party and the French Resistance, they spent the next two years in hiding outside a small village about an hour from Montauban. As I was growing up, both of them – but especially my mother – spoke of retiring to Montauban.
So we will see where the shifting winds blow us. Stay tuned.