Jim's Musings from Paris December 2023
The holiday season has begun and Paris’s neighborhoods twinkle with decorative lights. Last year, the fear of energy shortages kept the light displays at a minimum in the city, but this year, the streets are aglow. Are we to understand that the energy crisis is finished? Prices have been raised, so I suppose the rich aren’t losing any money and the workers are footing the bill. We switched energy companies to keep our bill more or less the same as last year. However, it’s also been cold, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, many evenings. I wasn’t able to use our balcony for an extra refrigerator this year while preparing our Thanksgiving feast because everything would have frozen!
Yes, we organized a Thanksgiving feast. Last year, with my back problems, we skipped Thanksgiving for the first time in ages. But this year, I was determined to get back in the groove with a classic dinner for close family. We ended up with 14 guests. Akron was represented by the daughter of a UA colleague who is spending the year studying in Paris. All the traditional foods were featured: turkey, several stuffings, cranberries, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, pecan pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and a cranberry-apple tart.
We do a smaller turkey here (the oven is not as big), only about 5 kilos or 12 pounds. We ordered our “American style” turkey from a local butcher who was more than happy to help. These “big-breasted” birds exist in France, but they are only available around Thanksgiving for all of us ex-pats who crave white meat. Typical French turkeys are rather scrawny, with a small amount of breast meat, and a lot of juicy dark meat that the French adore. When the finished American bird comes out of the oven, I am always asked, “Isn’t the meat dry?” The answer is no. But that’s after brining, basting, and preparing the turkey with a rub of butter and herbs under the skin. It’s a lot of work. It seems successful, though, because we had very few leftovers. And that was with several vegetarians at the table!
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I ordered two turkeys this year so that I could freeze one to fix at Christmas. After a less than delicious experience our first Christmas with a French turkey and the next year with a frozen Picard capon, I decided to cut my losses and stick to what I know this holiday season. The price of the fresh, American-style turkey is actually less per kilo than the French turkeys and only slightly more expensive than the much bigger birds we would stand in line for each year at Difeo’s in Akron. I know I should begin to experiment with duck or goose, but it’s hard to give up a well-roasted, big-breasted turkey. I need more time.
December should be the month of birth and renewal. At the solstice, the days reach their shortest span and slowly begin the passage towards spring and summer. In Paris the winter days are shorter than anywhere else I have lived. I suppose, in some way, it’s only fitting then that in the days leading up to the turning point, one’s thoughts linger on endings, darkness, and death. Thus, the title of this month’s newsletter—Thanatos Season. Thanatos, the god of Death, and Ares, the god of War, work hand in hand and they have been very busy lately. With the steady stream of images coming from Gaza and elsewhere, one wonders about how the trauma imprinted on a generation of children will manifest itself in the future.
I think about our grandson Léo, who is almost seven years old, and how he still has not been touched by the reality of death. Recently, his mother began to read the Harry Potter books to him and he had a strong emotional reaction when he learned that Harry’s parents were killed by Voldemort. I am fascinated by what level of violence or loss, Léo is willing to accept. He keeps very careful track of his emotional engagement, often telling me to turn the TV off or walking out of the room, if something makes him uncomfortable. We watched The Wizard of Oz together and I was afraid we would have to fast forward through most of the film, but the only part he refused to watch was the first arrival of the Wicked Witch of the West. Otherwise, the flying monkeys, the witch’s melting, and everything else was acceptable. He processed it and has even asked to revisit certain parts.
When I was his age, I had already visited Plombon’s funeral home several times in the Wisconsin small town where I grew up. I saw my great grandmother and an uncle laid out in their open caskets. I visited the various cemeteries in the company of parents and grandparents and helped to put flowers on the graves of people I never knew. I sang the Requiem at strangers’ funeral Masses and watched every moment of the aftermath of a beloved President’s assassination, electrified. I witnessed cows shot and then butchered, beheaded chickens flapping helplessly around the yard, freshly caught fish gutted and fileted. I learned very quickly not to attach to pets, when our dog, Lady, died in my arms after getting hit by a car she was stupidly chasing. When Mama Cat delivered a new litter, hiding deep in the hayloft so my brother and I wouldn’t find them, I chose a cute little gray kitten as mine and called it Snoopy. Mama Cat came and tried to drag the kittens back to their nest when we would play with them. She was fiercely protective of her litter. But she couldn’t protect them when the whole litter fell asleep in a stanchion in the barn under Augie, one of the sweetest dairy cows. Augie laid down and that was the end of Snoopy and Mama Cat’s other offspring. She would go on to have other litters, but I never selected another kitten as mine.
The Story of Sparrow
One night my brother and I helped my Dad deliver a calf. We were there in the pen that night because this calf was going to be ours to raise. She had a very distinct mark on her forehead and we called her Sparrow. For the first few weeks everything was fine. We helped to feed Sparrow and watched her grow and develop. One day, however, Sparrow was not in her pen. When we asked my Dad where she was, he said he had to take her out to a far pasture with some of the other new calves. He said he would take us out to see her later in the month. Some time afterwards, we were playing ball in the orchard and the ball landed in the wagon of the manure spreader. When my brother climbed up to get the ball, he saw Sparrow lying in the shit, dead. We both became hysterical and accused my Dad of killing her. He tried to explain that she had caught pneumonia or something and just died. We couldn’t be comforted and blamed my Dad. I remember we were so cruel to him, as kids can be. We demanded that Sparrow be buried and not just thrown into a far pasture and we organized a proper funeral for her. The trust with my father took many years to rebuild. And I never had another pet.
I don’t know why the story of Sparrow has been haunting me these days. Perhaps because it was my Dad’s birthday a few weeks ago? In any case, I know that my boyhood barnyard traumas are nothing compared to the experiences of Jewish children being held hostage in tunnels under Gaza after seeing their families slaughtered or Palestinian children wandering from place to place after their home has been reduced to rubble. I mourn for these children and others in the world.
There is an excellent play, Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy, by Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic. I taught the play in my Contemporary Theatre Styles class, which eventually became Multi-Cultural Theatre. In this play, we see adult actors playing children who are playing house in a war zone. The play is more than twenty years old and is set in the outskirts of Belgrade during the civil war, but it seems to me reviving the play would be a good idea. It has a lot to say about what the world is experiencing right now.
Much more to say than some of the theatre we have recently seen here in Paris. We went to see a performance, Angela (a strange loop), by one of the featured directors of the Festival d’Automne, German artist Susanne Kennedy. She’s a European director who is getting a lot of hype right now and was featured at the Avignon Festival last summer. In fact, she’s even had the audacity (one might say) to attempt a re-staging of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ opera, Einstein on the Beach. I think my reaction to her work can best be summed up by the following episode: We saw the performance on a Friday night. The following Thursday, I was at rehearsal for the acapella chorus and one of my colleagues there said, “Oh, I saw you at the Odéon the other night. At the Susanne Kennedy play.” And, for a long moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. The play was so memorable, that I had forgotten it, totally, in less than a week.
On the other hand, we saw a solo performance at the Maison de la Culture du Japon: Mitsouko & Mitsuko featuring Michikazu Matsune. This piece reflects strong storytelling, personal investment, and a humble and charming relationship with the spectators. I enjoyed it very much. I also enjoyed Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher’s installation at the Centre Pompidou and the premiere of her latest film La Chimère featuring British actor Josh O’Connor. As a child, Alice participated in some work sessions at Cenci Casa-laborotorio where Jairo and I were also collaborating. It was interesting to reconnect with her and experience her vision of Italy, both in the film and in the installation.
The next few weeks are going to be extremely busy with rehearsals and concerts and more rehearsals. Mélo Men will be performing our Holiday Concert on December 9 and 10. We will also be singing for a reception at the British Embassy one evening. The acapella chorus doesn’t have its first public performance until February 1. Jairo and I have several guests coming this month from Akron and the Twin Cities. And family. Lots of family. I’m trying to plan a February get away to go to the Carnival in Nice. I think we will need it.
However, as I write this, Thanatos continues his spree with a deadly knife attack on one of Paris’ most iconic bridges, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
The season is not over yet.