Imagine my idiot surprise

Indeed, imagine my idiot surprise that French people talking about Jack Kerouac in Paris would be talking about him in French! Imagine my idiot surprise that French is really such a completely different language from English that whatever they’re saying about Jack Kerouac is impossible to understand even with hand gestures and changes in posture and tone of voice! Imagine that the biggest idiot ever comes to Paris for Festival America and doesn’t really get it that these are French people sharing their interest in North American writing and culture (especially Native Americans and the West) in French!

Imagine. My French sucks. I had two years in college. I love the language but am kind enough not to speak it. Unlike some doofusses on stage who even though they can speak it hurt my ears and I’m not even a French speaking person. La meme chose indeed.

Imagine also that I am trembling in the bakery, frozen, paralyzed, sweating, about to turn and run down the street because each loaf has a  signpost stuck on it with “price per piece’ and “price per kilo” or something, I can’t even figure it out because my French-speaking wife is in Innsbruck visiting her aunt and I always just thought price per loaf.

But anyway. About that time it occurred to me that … have you ever read the book Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer? It’s all about him not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence? It occurred to me, as I was eating chocolate-covered butter cookies in room 303 of the Hotel Blason above the bar/cafe at Avenue de Paris and rue de Montreuil that I just might spend my whole three days of Festival America eating cookies in my room and wondering how much the bread costs.

But I got out. I went to the Kerouac worship service in the Auditorium Ernest Hemingway at Coeur de Ville in Vincennes. Took some notes in my notebook standing outside the door waiting for the service to begin. The previous service consisted of a movie. So we’re outside the door watching a video screen showing the movie being played inside; it’s not the movie; it’s a camera shot of the stage where the movie is playing, so in our version there are sofas and a coffee table below the movie; it’s like a cheap pirate video but there’s Lawrence Ferlenghetti talking about North Beach! and a photo of Kerouac with his hair all wet maybe from the ocean or maybe he just got out of the shower or he’s just really sweaty from having sex and my, what a head of hair, this was the early days and then a shot of the Pacific beach, a wave crashing, and my heart leaps: Here I am in Paris and they’re looking at a movie of my home town! Or the place I emigrated to on a Gray Rabbit bus from New York in 1976. This Pacific. These rocks. This is my California which Paris celebrates in a bright marble-floored heart with steel roof supports (I-beams bent like bird wings) and someone with a black T-shirt with all the names of the authors at Festival America materializes in front of me and she has a lanyard and je regrette! I could have applied as a blogger and been on the inside! But then I would have to write something and nah. Not going to write anything. And then there is beareded Ginsburg in white button-down shirt before a window and then the pudgy face of later Kerouac older scowling smoking with thinning hair, sitting by a trap set in an arm chair on black and white television his cheeks fat his neck bloated then saxophone music in After-Midnight-esque style, then some America-style poverty-porn “Salvage” wall urban poor romantic in black and white and it occurs to me that we are watching the film we are missing, which is some kind of metaphor. Jack K. shielding his eyes in spotlight at microphone with manuscript held before his face, then tubby in T-shirt sitting scowling again like he missed a bus, then him with his mom in St. Pete and yep, he probably did miss a bus! Then Ferlinghetti in denim shirt, crumpled hat/white beard before a bookcase …

The audience was 80 percent women. The presenters were 80 percent men. Nothing new there, just noticing.

So look. I love these guys. It’s what I came to SF for. It’s just odd to see it worshiped in Paris. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s odd.

Kerouac. Carver. Salinger. They’re the three great American authors being celebrated here. I can’t understand what they’re saying about them, of course, because my French is too terrible.

I meat Jesmyn Ward. She’s not crazy about her own mastery of the great French language either.

Having a great time, wish you were here, much more to come.–CT

Eating cookies in my underwear

There are many things to do in Paris. Many things people do in Paris not fully dressed. One of the best things to do in Paris is to eat cookies not fully dressed. These cookies have chocolate on the top but underneath are just butter. It’s butter and chocolate. Outside the sun is bright and cars are going by. There is much driving in Paris. If you attempt to drive a car into Paris and then return it to, say, an office of Europcar, you may find, first, that driving all the way out to the airport named for Charles de Gaulle might not be the best way. You might want to return it at the office of Europcar located at 60 rue Diderot right there in Paris not far from where you are planning to eat cookies in your underwear once all this is taken care of, the moving of the car, the surrendering of the car to its owners who you wish would just act a tad more grateful when they receive it for after all you have gone to the trouble of returning it. So you might find that the offices at 60 Diderot actually can’t take the car for reasons having to do with the fact that this is their last day of operation, ever. No problem. Standing at the desk, having already … well, never mind about that, never mind about how I almost saw a tear come to the eye of the sad receptionist who could not receive my car because an aura of office-death hung in the air (there must be a French phrase for that) but I have to tell you about the narrow crevice through which I squeezed the hybrid Yaris in order to go up three floors of a mysterious and quiet garage only to find that you can’t return the Yaris here, you have to go to 193 some other rue near the Gare de Lyon. Which it turns out having arrived at last night you could have just dropped the car off at the Europcar location last night and not driven it all around Paris all night before serendipitously finding a parking spot right outside your hotel except that you’re carrying your wife’s luggage too, so that wouldn’t have worked, actually, since she’s gone off to Innsbruck to see Aunt Marianna … (why the italics? Have you ever found that you start off with italics for some reason of emphasis you can’t even remember anymore and then just keep going like a terribly acute yawn or a fit of laughing and you just have to eventually stop the italics and go bold until even that get ridiculous and finally finally finally you’re back to roman? Ever happen to you? And furthermore where is that close parenthesis? Can I just close it here? I guess so))))) (more parens for emphasis!!!))) Anyway so the other place at 193 rue something-or-other near Gare de Lyon where the lady at 60 rue Diderot told me to return the car because, so sad, so very very sad! their office was closing forever tomorrow!!! just wasn’t at all visible from the street so I went in their parking garage and there was Avis and there was Budget and maybe one or two others but no Europcar. So then I couldn’t just drive out of their parking garage but had to pay for parking even though I didn’t park because it was a parking garage and the only way out was to exit as if you had parked there.

My wife, Norma, says I don’t lose my cool easily and I seem to accept the conditions of Parisian driving with preternatural calm. This is true. I am just an observer in these transactions. I myself observe myself observing how very calm I am when coming to understand that there is no place to put the car I am returning to Europcar. Then I get lost. I come out of the wrong garage at the wrong exit and am suddenly flying down some Parisian street in a squadron of motorcycles and scooters and that takes some time to find a place to pull over and I find somehow I’m way over by the Seine, which is a lovely river and no one should speak ill of it but it’s just not helping right now because the Yaris has to go back to its owner. So then I think OK let’s reroute with the help of the map person inside the iPhone and we make a new route which I am following until we turn down this street and there’s a garbage truck in the middle of the street collecting garbage. So that took about one inning. One of those innings where they have to dust the ball off a lot and lo0k at some replays. About that period of time basically. And then I come around again and sure enough I’m at 193 what’s-that-street-called and there’s no green Europcar sign. So then I realize that they’ve hidden it. Perhaps there is some shame involved, or just shyness. But shyness does not seem very French. Perhaps Europcar is not French. Perhaps it’s Belgian and has a complex. It is located like a cosmetics store might be located, up some stairs, down a concourse, or maybe like a toy store but not a place into which one must drive because the product of the place is a car which one must drive on streets and cannot bring into the building like a set of Legos or a compact. Anyway I think I get the picture. It’s like this for a reason. Oh, and by the way, before this happened I wandered into the Europcar location at the first place and found an office and there were like two people there, in offices, looking at spreadsheets. One of them spoke “a bit” of English. Merci.

Well, anyway, then I thought, having found the second Euopcar office at 193 what’s-its-street/rue/bd I realized I really shouldn’t leave the car with its flashers going right out on the street there in a not-parking place. So I drove it into the parking garage to park it while I transact my simple but urgent business upstairs. And what do I find in this parking garage? It’s the Europcar place. They keep that a secret but if you go and park your car, not looking for the rental return, you will find the Europcar rental return. You have to just not be looking for it. You have to be already so driven to distraction that you’re willing to park it in a garage and pay good euros for the privilege and basically have reached such a state of sublime gallic shrugnicity that you really don’t even care if it … which if you are paying attention is exactly the shape that enlightenment takes, i.e. reaching a point of such frustration that you really don’t give a shit and then Buddha appears and offers you some nice chocolate cookies and doesn’t even mention that you’re in your underwear.

And you’re not even having other coincidental thoughts such as …

did you remember to fill up the tank. Which you didn’t because in deciding not to drive all the way out to CDG you were so filled with a sense of wonder  at the possibility of delivering the car right in Paris, just a few blocks away!!! that all sense went out of you.

So the car is delivered. And then riding the 1 Metro from Gare de Lyon to the Chateau Vincennes was a cinch. Except for just a couple of things right in the station related to buying the ticket. A lot of tourists must come straight to Paris from pig farms. They don’t know how to put coins in a machine to get a ticket for the Metro. But I have amazing patience and used the time to contemplate exactly how I would slide my coins in, and in what order.

So here is this thought I had:

I must not be a genius. That was my thought. Because if I were a genius I would think all these things through really quickly and I would use game theory and attack the problem from several angles simultaneously and I would draw on all the patterns of human thought and action I have observed over my many years and I would see very quickly, before we even drove to Paris, that if I really think hard about this, we will realize that Norma doesn’t have to take a train to Paris from Champtocé-sur-Loire because I’m driving to Paris anyway! Now, there was a lot of planning that went into this trip and circumstances changed and we just didn’t evaluate all the ways that the changing circumstances created new opportunities. That must be what generals and billionaires and despots do. They must be always always always thinking about every little changed circumstance and how it gives them an advantage. I just don’t pay that much attention. If I were a genius I’d probably never end up going Doh! and slapping my forehead when we do things like fail to realize until the last day of the retreat, until I’m practically ready to deliver Norma up to the train station at Angers, that she doesn’t need to take a train to Paris because I’m driving there anyway! (Originally I was going to stay in Champtocé-sur-Loire for a few days to write while she went to Innsbruck. And then I realized that Festival America was taking place in Paris and wouldn’t that be cool?)

So registering for that was a whole other thing involving my not being able to speak good French. They’re honoring American and Canadian authors and stuff, but I don’t think the main thing they’re interested in is the fact that they all wrote really good in English. It’s more all stuff read in translation. Maybe some of the translations are better in French. Anyway, I got the tickets after returning the rental car (only 15 euros for all three days!) and was walking back to my hotel room where the band downstairs in the bar was playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” last night which I enjoyed very much before lugging my two huge suitcases up three flights of stairs (room trois cent trois, and what, monsieur, is this thing you are calling an “elevator”?) … after which, all of that, today, a few moments ago, I luxuriated in a very powerful stream of hot shower water for more time in the shower than one would spend in San Francisco’s drought, and then I found the cookies. We had packed a bag with all the leftover food from the chateau and there in the bag were Sablés nappés; Chocolate noir. Pur beurre.

I just happened to be in my underwear.

That’s how travel happens.

I’ll let you know if any really bright authors say any really dumb things.

Time to ban “love locks” on Paris bridges

When I first saw “love locks” on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, they seemed like a charming folk expression. The metaphor of a lock on a bridge! Symbolizing lovers’ devotion! It spoke to the heart and the mind: transition, a liminal state, a gap between two certainties; a thing as ephemeral as love held firm in the cold steel of a lock. And an ordinary lock like from the hardware store. Lovers write their message of mutual devotion on the lock (initials, names, a pledge forever), attach the lock to the bridge, and throw the key in the water. Is that not beautiful?

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

This modest jumble of inscribed padlocks hung on an iron ring on the Ponte Vecchio in July 2014.

And what of bridges? Bridges span two states — as love does. Bridges enable transition. They  allow one to exist for a time apart, in that liminal zone, belonging to neither side. For certain types of people, or people in certain situations feeling hemmed in by society or by geography, being on a bridge can bring peace. It can be the only place one feels at home. Artists know this well. We gravitate toward the in-between. Lovers too.

A bridge isn’t a place but a movement between spaces, an occasion of strange freedom.

So I was moved by the sight of these emblems of devotion placed in such a charged space.

But then the practice of placing love locks on bridges went viral; vendors on Paris bridges began selling the locks; they proliferated like cancer cells; their sheer weight collapsed a railing on the Pont des Arts. The lovely virus, when it took physical form, became a cancer that destroys its host.

So let’s say goodbye to this charming practice for now.

We all want to visit beautiful places, and Paris is certainly beautiful, and we all want to leave something of ourselves behind, and we all want to inscribe on the world our fleeting love.

But let’s not destroy stuff in the process.

Much might be said about the tourist culture, another kind of metastisis that thinks everything in sight is something to be consumed or interacted with, that assumes everywhere is Disneyland, and all culture is for sale, and the culture of imitation and “trends” …

But let’s not start any fights.

I am in favor of a ban on placing love locks on urban bridges. Vendors can switch to sunglasses or T-shirts.

You can sign a petition here.

p.s. Join us at le Château du Pin in the Loire Valley in September for our week-long writing retreat.


Easy ways to get to Le Chateau du Pin

Would you like to come to the Chateau du Pin writing retreat with a well-planned route that is easy to follow? My wife Norma is a great planner, plus she reads French, German and Italian, so she has figured it all out for you.

First: Would you like to fly into Paris, or into Nantes? The advantage of flying into Paris is that it’s Paris. Paris is an amazing, life-changing city. Nothing can describe Paris. If you haven’t been there, you owe it to yourself to come a couple of days early and see Paris. The advantage of flying into Nantes is that it is easier to get to the chateau from Nantes than from Paris.


Charles de Gaulle airport

Getting to the Chateau du Pin from Paris

To get to the chateau from Paris, you will need to take the TGV from Gare Montparnasse to the city of Angers. To get to the Gare Montparnasse directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport, take the Les Cars Air France shuttle (16.60€) to Gare Montparnasse. (If you are spending a few days in Paris, take a taxi or other form of transport to Gare Montparnasse.) From Gare Montparnasse take the one-hour and forty-minute TGV ride to the city of Angers (book via $88 U.S. and up. Trains travel at speeds up to 200mph. They depart every one to two hours.) Then from the train station in Angers, take a fifteen-minute local train ride to the village of Champtocé-sur-Loire. Trains depart from Angers to Champtocé-sur-Loire at 12:30 pm arriving 12:45 pm; 3:37 pm arriving 4:00 pm; and 6:05 pm arriving 6:30 pm. Depending on which train you take, we can pick you up at the Champtocé-sur-Loire train station at 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm, or 6:30pm. If you arrive and have not made prior plans to be picked up, or you don’t see anyone there waiting for you, call or text Norma at 415 317-4460. We are here to help!

Nantes Atlantique

Nantes Atlantique airport, Hall 1

Getting to the Chateau du Pin from Nantes

It’s easier and quicker to get to the village of Champtocé-sur-Loire if you fly into Nantes, and the total prices are comparable, once you add up all the train travel. In Nantes Airport, Hall 1, buy a 7.00€ shuttle ticket  for Gare de Nantes. At Gare de Nantes, buy a ticket to Champtocé-sur-Loire, 17.00€. Take train from Nantes to Champtocé-sur-Loire (7:41 am arrive 8:30, 12:11 pm arrive 12:58 , and 5:35 pm arrive 6:30 pm).  (You can also buy this ticket in advance through RailEurope.) We can pick you up at the train station at Champtocé-sur-Loire at 8:45 am, 1:00 pm, or 6:30 pm. Or call or text Norma at 415 317-4460. If you have any questions please let us know–we are here to help!

Surely, true inspiration comes from within

But writing in a magnificent French château surrounded by 300 acres of topiary, formal gardens, parks, woodland trails and vineyards can’t hurt.

Maybe you’re perfectly content writing by yourself day after day in your kitchen on that old table, or at your cramped desk in the spare bedroom. Fine. À chacun son goût. You can find us this September at Le Château du Pin, a private French château in the Loire Valley which the French government has officially classified as a “Monument Historique.” We’ll be writing together in daily Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, using the power of the group to keep us from the many devilish maladies endemic to the literary calling.

Now look. I’m not a rich guy. I don’t come from money. I wouldn’t know how to get up on my high horse even if I could afford one. I’m as proletarian as the next lug.

But who doesn’t like a well-appointed Louis XIV drawing room?  I mean, even a person of modest means has choices. We could do our workshops in a nice Ramada Inn conference room in Fremont, or Watertown, or Atlanta. Or we could go to France. What’s it gonna be?


Maybe our writing will get an extra boost from Le Pin’s gardens and grounds, which the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication has designated “Des Jardins Remarquables.” Or maybe we’ll just enjoy that for its own sake and let our writing take care of itself. All I know is—and I’ve been  a professional writer for about 30 years—this stuff gets old. Writing, or trying to learn to write, or looking for inspiration in the same old postage stamp of land, well, it worked for William Faulkner, but he was an odd duck. He liked to get so drunk he couldn’t get out of bed and then write from there. So, like I said. À chacun son goût. Or, in English: What’s wrong with getting out of the house now and then? I like to at least put my slippers on. Anyway …

You have to hand it to my wife, Norma, she of the many languages spoken and the intrepid traveler’s spirit. She found this place. She did all the work. We’ll just go and sleep in big French beds and come down in the mornings and eat croissants and then languish in the glory of our own collective unconscious.

So here’s the program, basically the same as the program at the Marconi Conference Center, and at Guest House in Chester, Connecticut, and in Tuscany and Amsterdam:

Mornings and most afternoons will be devoted to writing workshops. Workshops at Le Château du Pin will take place in the Grand Salon on the ground floor. When workshops are not taking place, the entire ground floor, including the tower library, Grand Salon, Petit Salon, and dining room are at your disposal for reading, writing, dreaming, and relaxing throughout the day. Feel free to wander into a secluded nook in the gardens to write, walk the trails of Le Pin, relax by the pond in the formal garden, or venture into the charming small town of Champtocé-sur-Loire. Angers is the nearest major town (about 15 miles away) and is also a beautiful place to visit. Nantes is also in easy reach. Check out this page to get more information on getting to and from Château du Pin.

TopiaryPondPrices range from $1699 to $1999. Some of the rooms are small singles and others are large with king- or queen-sized beds. Bathrooms are shared with no more than one other person. If you choose one of the smaller rooms, rest assured that there is plenty of room in the château and on the property in which to escape for peace, relaxation, and a beautiful view. All workshops, breakfast, nightly family-style dinners, and a private conference with Cary are included in the price of registration. $975 saves any room. For more information about rooms and reservations check out our online store. If you have further questions or would like to talk to Cary about your writing goals, give him a call at 415.308.5685 or email us at Allez, on y va!