This morning I ‘time’ traveled to France in the year 1914. Yes, that is the marvel of a vivid imagination and the ability to travel in your mind – no steamer trunks or wardrobe decisions, no prolonged airport waits or security checks. I browsed through a little, long-ago Christmas gift from our daughter and off I went.
The gift? An ancient Chemin de Fer du Nord train schedule from “Ete 1914” offering “6 Services Rapides entre Paris et Londres”. What a lovely little jewel, complete with train schedules and ticket prices, maps and advertising for everything from banks and crêperies to hotels and sea-bathing resorts.
Just imagine this era, later coined “La Belle Epoque”, when France reveled in cultural and scientific vitality, when soldiers in handsome red trousers stepped through clean, tree-lined streets, and the magnificent Galeries Lafayette opened its flagship department store on Boulevard Haussmann.
Cars were in abundance in motoring Paris, from the dominant Peugeot and Renault to the elitist Delaunay-Belleville (provider of limousines for Tsar Nicholas of Russia). France also excelled in aviation, with Bleriot and Roland Garros who crossed the English Channel and the Mediterranean.
Indeed, the machine was transforming the world, and art and culture were mirroring this modern world from the likes of cubist Pablo Picasso and the commercial poster artist and typeface designer Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, decidedly influenced by Surrealism and Cubism.
Which, of course, brings us back to the railroad and The Compagnie de Chemin de fer du Nord, originally an industrialist transportation venture under the leadership of Baron James de Rothschild. In addition to the charming and informative little schedule/guide I have in hand, the Compangnie promoted itself with now renowned tourist posters touting the travel ease and destinations of the Chemin de Fer du Nord. Some of these magnificent images now grace the halls of MOMA and The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Despite all of the good times, grandeur and dynamic progress of the time; a huge shadow was looming and one that was not lost on those who enjoyed these days. The very summer for which my booklet was produced saw the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the onset of the first Great War.
Interesting that just one day prior to the day Paris was liberated (August 25), I finished reading The Cost of Courage, the recently-published book about the prolonged involvement of a bourgeois Catholic family in the French Resistance during World War II. In the book, history abounds, and the author tells the true story that weaves one family’s ordeal with the day-to-day trials of a populace forced to live under Nazi rule for over four years. As much as anything else, I appreciate closing the cover with even a small understanding of the challenges, decisions and complexities of this time in France, in Europe and in the rest of the world.
And so tomorrow, the French, and Parisians in particular, remember the blessings of liberation by the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. As an incessantly impatient person (and that quality, they say, is one that can’t be remedied), I absolutely cannot imagine the lengthy occupation, the fear, deprivation, loss and self-doubt. In America, through all of our wars, sacrifices and horrible losses; “we the people” have not had to face the occupation of our land by foreign powers.
Tomorrow, I plan imaginary walks through my favorite places in Paris – through the Latin Quarter and along the quais of the Seine. Up to the lawns of Sacre Cœur that overlook this gorgeous city. To the Champ de Mars and the Tuileries, where I can see the everyday life of children and boule players and elder couples walking arm in arm.
I am grateful for the armies that liberated Paris and for the wisdom of German General Dietrich von Choltitz, who did not want to be known as the man who had destroyed the “City of Light”. A sweeping tip of the hat to all of our French friends, as they celebrate the joy of freedom and remember the losses of the Second Great War.
We’d love to hear from you!
During a nomadic summer in France, we stopped for the night in Cagnes-sur-Mer along the tantalizing Côte d’Azur. We enjoyed a perfectly fine evening in a 3-star hotel with a sprawling balcony that overlooked the sea and discovered a cozy trattoria for a lovely evening meal. And the next morning, off we went to follow the coastline and roam up and down the hills of southern France.
Fine, but now we need to return. We now know. Informed through time and research, we know about the old Haut-de-Cagnes village that rises above the vibrant beach bustle of the town below. We know about the ‘psst-follow-me ‘ narrow lanes and cobbled passageways, the little ateliers and café terraces teeming with floral vines.
We know about Renoir’s lovely museum and olive-grove setting and the quiet splendor of this entire hillside setting. Devil-may-care travel delivers a multitude of discoveries … like that wonderful little picnic in a rocky beach cove shared by only a handful of other visitors. Like that little inn in the village, where all the locals seemed to gather for their lovely noon meal.
But, a little advance research would have convinced us to stay a while, to find a place in the medieval village at the top of the castle hill, to enjoy quiet star-filled nights and intimate little cafés. And a visit to Renoir’s creative domain surely would have been a highlight of our stay.
Now we know, and it certainly isn’t too late to add this idyllic stopover to our bucket list of future travels. Perhaps, we will splurge and reserve our aerie at the 4-star “Sun of Provence” – the Château Le Cagnard. The 13th-century dwelling offers an intimate setting with only 28 beautifully-decorated suites and rooms and a renowned restaurant with spectacular cuisine and an unparalleled, retractable ceiling. With this central location, we will be able to wander to our heart’s content.
Sometimes I wonder what quirk of fate or happenstance of birth failed to set me in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where the likes of Renoir and the brilliant creator of Jules Maigret – George Simenon – tapped their inner genius. A river of creativity surges through me….non-stop….and it’s not even a choice but a ceaseless urge that finds me painting with watercolors or working on a novel, re-arranging furniture or setting an appealing table.
Bien sur! Poised above the Mediterranean within groves of olive and citrus, Renoir and Simenon wielded the paintbrush and pen. Imagine how prolific I would be in such a setting!
Those life circles continue, of course, to whirl about us. Three years ago I wrote this tribute to Nina Simone and also included the piece in my recently-published book – Fired Up for France: The Promise of Paris. And now for those fortunate folks who will be in Paris in early September, the annual Jazz à la Villette Festival will pay homage to this iconic jazz and blues musician.
France has long embraced American music and musicians, particularly African American performers. Following both World Wars, many black musicians moved to France to enjoy life as a “privileged minority”; where they were encouraged by the opportunities to work, the relative lack of racism and the embrace of their talent by French audiences. One notable musician to make France her home was Nina Simone.
Please bear with me, as I trace an unusual story about the way strands of life interconnect. Though years and miles apart, the pieces of this story form a circle that is both intriguing and astonishing; a story in which music, North Carolina and France come together to create a fascinating vignette.
Let’s begin with a visit to Tryon, North Carolina, “The Friendliest Town in the South.” I lived in Tryon during my early school years amongst a visual feast of dogwood trees, rolling hills and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. It wasn’t until I was doing research for a novel, that I discovered that this little resort town of 1,500 was the birthplace of the brilliant jazz singer, Nina Simone, and a frequent haven for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Small world indeed!
Fast forward to Florida, when I was a teenager enthralled with some of the great music my parents always had around us. Before I moved on to embrace jazz and blues, pop and rock ‘n roll; I enjoyed a steady diet of Porter and Gershwin, Sinatra and Judy Garland. One recording in particular grasped my heart and imagination – Nina Simone’s original “I Loves You Porgy”.
Perhaps a bit of her background will help unveil the pure, plaintive talent she radiates in that original recording, her first Top Ten classic hit in 1959. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon in 1933, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a father who was a handyman and preacher himself. She played the piano by ear from the age of three, later displaying her talent in her mother’s church. She was able to study classical music with a local Englishwoman and came to develop a love of Bach, Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven.
After taking her senior year at Julliard in New York City, she began to play clubs and added singing to her repertoire. She also coined her performing name – “Nina” (little one in Spanish) and “Simone” for the French actress.
It was from that strong foundation and from a life marked with considerable ups and downs that she would become an iconic American musician, the “High Priestess of Soul”. The French word “griot” – West African storyteller – captures her style of musical perfection, pure emotion and improvisation. She would weave together the delicate notes of her piano, the soul-felt lyrics and ‘on the fly’ intros and ad lib lyrics that somehow perfected the scene. The results are extraordinary, heartbreaking, seductive and exhilarating. She simply takes you exactly where you need to be to feel the story she tells.
Nina spent much of 70’s and 80’s in North Africa and Europe, living for a while in Paris in 1978, and settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She died there in April of 2003. In a 1969 interview, Nina Simone said:
“There’s no other purpose, so far as I’m concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we’re able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can’t say….and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we’re dead, we also live on.”
This talented songbird left quite a legacy, composing over 500 songs and recording nearly 60 albums. Her spirit surely lives on, as present in the cool air over the Blue Ridge Mountains as in her adopted home in Provence.