Sloughing~ Day Five

25 03 2007

We are awakened, way too early the morning after Marcel’s welcome party, by loud bangs, scraping noises, and someone repeatedly whispering “shush!” It is Celeste and Alfred, dragging trunks, boxes, stacks of books, rugs into our gorgeous room here at the Ritz…surely this cannot be Marcel’s luggage? “Celeste! Tell me this is not Marcel’s luggage?!” “Non, Madame, it is Marcel’s sloughing.” She is, of course, speaking French and I do not know this word. I tell her so. She replies, “Ah, Madame, he says he must shed these things, like a snake. Only he says sloughing. And that he cannot go on this Tour unless he casts off these things, and that neither can anyone else.” “And what, exactly, am I supposed to do with all this stuff?”, I inquire. “Monsieur says he has heard that there are people who live under bridges who have no homes and one can leave things for them there. Alfred is to do that once you have gone through all your things too, Monsieur says.” “My things!? Just where is Monsieur anyhow, Celeste? And what is this about how none of us can go unless we do this sloughing?”Celeste begins speaking in rapid French, punctuating the tale with hand-wringing, head-shaking and much arm-waving. With Alfred’s help (he speaks a little English, so much for his skills as dragoman), after an hour or so the story emerges. Marcel was too nervous after the party to sleep. He asked Celeste to put on his Magic Lantern and bring him his asthma powders. When she returned, Marcel appeared to be asleep, but when she tried to turn off the Lantern, Marcel sprang up in bed and cried out for her to stop. “Do you not see, Celeste, the Lantern has brought us a message!” Celeste replied that she saw no message, only the usual scenes from Marcel’s glass slides. “Ah, Celeste, we must not go on this journey carrying all our old baggage! We must go as if new born, we must cast off things that we no longer need, so that new ideas, patterns, beliefs, can be born!” Celeste asks Marcel, if we are to cast off old immaterial things like beliefs and habits, why do we also need to throw away our material items as well? Marcel replies that surely she knows, surely she has heard him tell of it, that our past is held captive in inanimate objects, such as a vase, a chair, even a little madeleine? She stops him before he can relate the story of eating the little madeleine again, because yes, she has surely heard it before, many times, in fact. Marcel slumps back in bed, he is exhausted, please give his regard and his excuses to Madame et Monsieur (that’s us) but “Celeste! Be sure they understand they must slough everything that is not absolutely necessary. It is critical to the success of our journey!”

So, that explains the boxes and trunks and etc. But why did they bring them up here to our room? Why didn’t Alfred just take them to the people who live under bridges who have no homes? Celeste says, “Ah, I was nearly forgetting that part, Madame. Monsieur says after you have performed your sloughing, you are to go through his things and yours and choose an item for each person in our group to leave in the mines. The rest will go to the people who live under…” “Stop, Celeste! What mines?? “The old limestone mines under the streets of Paris, where they keep all the old bones, I do not know the word in English…” “Catacombs? We’re to go into the catacombs?” “Non, Madame, not we, only you. With the items you choose. Monsieur says this is the message from the Magic Lantern.”


Alfred the Dragoman~ Day Four

15 03 2007


Paris! We’re in Paris…City of Lights, City of Love, City of…..Marcel Proust. When we arrive at the Ritz, jet-lagged, hungry, and dragging our luggage (which despite our best efforts has ended up being an extravagant amount), we find that Marcel is throwing us a welcome party and has invited all the haute monde of Paris. Merci, Marcel. Fortunately this is the Hotel Ritz, and immediately a cadre of servants rush to take us and our luggage to our room and then scurry around drawing us baths, pouring glasses of champagne and discretely holding out their palms. I’m sure a lot of this forelock-tugging is because of Marcel, who booked us this room (and is paying for it- merci again!) and who is treated here as royalty. He entertains and eats here so much it’s as if he’s in his own dining room. To which we now go, having refreshed ourselves and dressed in our finest, which is not very fine but will have to do.Entering the Ritz dining room is like entering fairy-land: the chandeliers glitter with thousands of little lights, the glasses and silverware twinkle like stars, the white linens on the tables are like fields of snow. Marcel, wearing his lavender gloves, introduces us to the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, the Marquis and Marquise de Cambremer, the Baron de Charlus and a whole bevy of other royal personages whose titles and names we promptly forget. Also in attendance are M. and Mme. Swann and their lovely young daughter Gilberte (whom I believe Marcel had a crush on in his youth), Marcel’s military friend, Robert de Saint-Loup (whom I believe he has a crush on now), and the great French actress, Berma. A group of musician’s play a sonata by Vinteuil, who has a flair for little phrases of music that seem to linger in one’s mind. Waiters mingle among the guests bearing flutes of champagne, small glasses of kir and trays of canapés. We try to converse with the guests in our limited French; they speak to us in much better English. The strain of this and trying to juggle glasses and little plates begins to tell on us, and we are relieved when finally we are seated to dinner.

And what a dinner! There are, of course, multiple courses: we begin with hors-d’oeuvres, a delicious pate de foie gras, olives, and canapés. Next is the soup course, which appears to be some type of bouillabaisse, followed by lobster “American style”; in our honor, we are told. After this we are at the halfway point in the meal, and so we take a short break which the French call the trou normand, in which we attempt to digest what we’ve eaten so far and drink a glass of Calvados to help with the digestion. All too soon we are presented with the meat course: Medaillons de veau “Bergerette”, little patties of veal that are served flambéed with potatoes and asparagus. Next a salad composed of Jerusalem artichokes and mussels, called a Japanese salad. And last, the cheese platter: Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne, Brie de Meaux…all of which smell like the inside of a tennis shoe and taste like Heaven. Every course comes complete with it’s own chosen wines and liqueurs. And did I say the cheese platter was last? Mais non, now comes the dessert course: fresh fruits, mousse au chocolat, tarte fine aux pommes along with sweet white wine, cognac, brandy and coffee.

Over the brandy, I see a small table in the corner that I hadn’t noticed before. Sitting at it are two people who don’t quite seem to fit in- they’re not dressed as splendidly as everyone else and they look ill-at-ease. They look like us, in other words. I ask Marcel who they are, he blushes and says, “Mon petite cheri, the woman is Celeste Albaret, my housekeeper and companion, surely I’ve mentioned her to you?” Yes, I say, you have. And the man? Marcel’s blush deepens. “Ah, cheri, that is Alfred, my chauffeur. And you will never guess! He has agreed to come along with us as our dragoman!” Ah, indeed. “He has agreed to go? Or you have told him he must come with you?” “Ah, non, he wants to go! He begged me to let him go!” I am skeptical. “And he can speak the languages and knows the customs and can do everything we need a dragoman to do?” “Oui, cheri, he is from Monaco and speaks fluent Italian!” I start to tell Marcel that we are going a lot farther than Italy and will encounter many more different languages, but I can see he’s beginning to pout and so I let it go. We have a dragoman. His name is Alfred. C’est fin.

Itinerary- Day Three

12 03 2007


There are very few things, if you ask me, that are as exciting as planning a trip. Well, maybe going on the trip is as exciting, but…I love to peruse maps, read books, make notes, research on my computer- so many possibilities to explore, so many adventures to anticipate. At the same time, we don’t like to over-plan; in other words, to attempt to micro-manage every last detail like booking our hotels in advance and reducing the trip to a grocery list of places to go and things to see that one can check off like, well, like a grocery list. We like to leave room for the pleasant surprise, the serendipitous, the unexpected. So, with these thoughts in mind, here then is our itinerary:

First stop: Paris, to meet Marcel and arrange for our transportation on the first leg of the Grand Tour. We will, bien sur, meet him at the Ritz (GPS coordinates:N48.52.0625 E002.19.7538). Next, we’ll take the old Roman road to Arles, France, to check up on Vincent and bring him some much needed painting supplies from Pere Tanguey in Paris. We’ll stay with him in the yellow house for a few days, depending on what kind of mood he’s in. Then we’ll proceed to Siena, Italy (GPS coordinates N38.01.37 E12.43.05), a town that’s said to remain closest to it’s Medieval origins and is therefore of interest to Marcel for it’s architecture and to me for it’s pottery and ceramics. Next stop will be Delphi, Greece, for reasons which will become clear later. Onward through Konya, Turkey, home of the Sufi mystic and poet Jalal al Din Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, and Catal Hoyuk, to participate in the dig there. In Syria, we’ll visit the ancient city of Mari on the banks of the Euphrates and Aram, the oldest inhabited city in the world. Down through the Levant to the Alexandrian Mouseion in Egypt (GPS coordinates N29.97.7712 E31.13.2604) to learn what we can from the scholars. From Alexandria we’ll take a newly established train line all the way across the top of the African continent to Morocco. In Morocco I hope to learn the art of making tangines and the foods one can make inside them. On to Spain, to visit the Alhambra and take the St. James of Campostela pilgrimage in reverse, then back to Paris. We plan to follow the dictates of previous Grand Tourists, who would “…return with crates of art books, pictures, sculptures, etc..” and the dictates of our hearts, meaning we plan to buy things that will have an essence of the place in them that speaks to us. Some items will be for inclusion in the Riversleigh Mouseion, some will be for gifts, some Marcel will keep, and some will reside with us.

The day for departure nears, the pile of luggage grows, the goodbyes are being said. Be with us on our journey, and we’ll share as much as is possible of what we learn and experience. Bon voyage!

Companions and Tutors

9 03 2007

Marcel Proust

Unbelievably, Marcel Proust has agreed to be our companion and tutor on our Grand Tour.  Why unbelievably?  Because, as everyone knows, Marcel is a sickly hypochondriac who rarely leaves his room except to eat at the Ritz or swan his way through a glittering social gathering.  Also, he claims to be writing the greatest novel of his time, but we all know how unlikely that is~ judging by the treacly pastiches he’s written for the local papers.  Be that as it may, he claims that only he, with his wide knowledge of art, architecture and aesthetics, can teach us what we need to know and show us the grandeur of the countries we will be visiting.  Of course this means that our luggage will increase exponentially, as Marcel brings nearly everything he owns on every trip he makes, plus he “cannot possibly” travel without his servant and companion, Celeste Albaret.  As you can see by the picture above, he will be wearing his military uniform; he says this will smooth our way through foreign countries whose inhabitants are in love with uniforms (i.e. Italy).  Personally, I believe what Marcel really means is “in love with men wearing uniforms”.  C’est la vie.  Next stop: Paris.

Packing for the Grand Tour

8 03 2007

What I learned from our three-week trip to Europe two years ago: Pack Light. My sister said to me, before we left, “Why are you packing clothes? You’re going to Paris! Buy them!!” It was good advice that we did not heed, and ended up dragging a monster suitcase plus other assorted bags all around Europe. We actually mailed some of stuff home (postage: 50 euros). So, having learned our lesson, we are packing light for the Grand Tour. In keeping with the raison d’être of the Grand Tourist (“…studious observer traveling through foreign lands reporting their findings on human nature for those less fortunate who stayed at home…”), our main items will be instruments of reportage: a solar-powered laptop, multiple digital cameras and video camera, film cameras, journals with blank pages to fill, pens, pencils, brushes, watercolors and drawing pads. Our solar-powered GPS system that links to the laptop, for showing (and knowing) exactly where we are. One of those tiny tape recorders and the little cassettes that go with them. Converters, adapters and battery chargers. A corkscrew. Swiss Army knife. Tins of smoked oysters and clams. Change of shoes. Soap.