Swans Commentary » swans.com December 2, 2013  



France Travelogue VI: 1789 And All That


by Jonah Raskin


Travelogue (Continued)



Read Next Stop: France, by Jonah Raskin (the beginning of his Travelogue to France).
Also Paris I: Memories & Laughter
Then Paris II: A Night In The 19th District
And On the Road In Rural France
Keep going to Cold In Colmar — And Mythic, Too


(Swans - December 2, 2013)   After a week in France I've finally figured out several ways to keep warm. One way is to stand near the radiator in my room. That helps immensely. However, it doesn't work at bedtime when I want to sleep. I haven't yet figured out how to sleep standing up. Another way to stay warm is to think warm thoughts and to imagine waves of heat coming from inside and moving through the body to my arms and legs, and, most importantly, to my head, which I keep covered with a new cap I've bought for the express purpose of keeping my head warm. Layers are also excellent for warmth. I have four layers on now, including leggings and two pairs of socks. But maybe everyone dresses this way in a cold climate.

My body is also finally adjusting to the chill and the wind. It is really cold! I don't exaggerate. France at the end of November feels like New York at the end of November, perhaps even colder. And there's also the French cultural climate to adjust to. When I lived in Belgium it was just as cold.

Traveling thousands of miles in a matter of hours and then waking up jet-lagged in another country was a shock to body and mind.

It helps now to be inside a French house with a French family that I have known for seven years. This minute we're listening to the Beach Boys on record; their music evokes image of beaches and waves and the sun and seems to raise the temperature in the room.

I've been here in this house several times before. This is the last time, but not because I won't come back to France. I won't be in this particular house again because my friends are moving to another, larger, older house that dates from 1789 that I've seen from the outside. "We liked the house very much when we first saw it, but when we heard the year it was built, we knew we had to have it," my friend says. It looks as though it was built to withstand earthquakes, fires, and mobs in the street ready to destroy private property.

The house has large windows on the second floor along with four large bedrooms, which means that the next time I visit I won't have to displace one of the boys to have a room to myself. I haven't actually seen the inside of the house, but my friend has described it to me and I already like the idea of staying inside a house built in 1789.

When I came to France the first time in 1961, I never saw the inside of a French house, but a lot of hotel rooms and restaurants. I spoke college French and knew some of the French history from the nineteenth century that I romanticized without end, and with help from the romantics who preceded me, including the painter, David, whose epic canvases made me want to join joyous crowds in Paris following La Liberty herself. Later, Dickens and Hugo helped to feed the fires of my romanticism and then there was George Rude, a British historian who wrote a classic of the French Revolution entitled The Crowd in History. And Rude wasn't trying to romanticize.

France still seems romantic to me. The house in which I'm staying now is a renovated nineteenth-century factory with high ceilings, wood floors, exposed beams, and a fireplace with a fire in it right now. There's a downstairs, too, and a yard, and a large tile patio. The warmest room in the house has to be the kitchen, where all the cooking and much of the eating occurs. Sometimes my friends turn the oven on and leave the door open just to heat the place, and the windows steam up.

A pot of vegetable soup made from a recipe in a Lebanese cookbook simmers on the stove and helps to heat the walls and the floors. We'll be eating soon; I'm looking forward to it. I haven't had a meal alone in the last 14 days, though I often eat by myself at home. At times, I wouldn't mind breakfast in my own kitchen with my own tea, teapot, and teacup. But I like being around the French at meal times and I enjoy eating with them, though I don't get every conversation. Tonight is no different. We huddle together at a round table, warming ourselves with hot food and with stories about a summer vacation we took together in Spain and about Albert Camus, whose books have been republished to observe the one hundredth anniversary of his death at the age of 46, as tragic and as unromantic an event, I think, as any in all of French literary history.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art19/raskin35.html
Published December 2, 2013